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September 27, 2023 Imperialism in Your Pocket

Written by Danny Beech

In October of 1935 Benito Musssolini commanded his Italian forces to invade and annex the African country of Ethiopia, following the model of Axis imperialism that led to World War II. Over 200,000 Italian troops attacked from their colonial footholds in the south and in the east of Ethiopia. Anticipating the invasion, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie called every able-bodied man who could carry a spear to report for battle. The Ethiopian army showed up with spears, shields, and a few old rifles. They had four tanks and no radios, only foot messengers. Needless to say, the hundreds of tanks, robust air force, and modern weapons of the Italian invaders consumed the vulnerable country. For Italy, Ethiopia was a mere step towards their Axis agenda of conquering the world.

Such a show of imperialist domination is repulsive and today is widely considered morally reprehensible. Just look at the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While this and other examples of imperialism are clear and well documented, it can seem like an archaic example covered in AP history. What if imperialistic strategies and agendas were alive and well today? Could you recognize them?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica imperialism is at work if three elements are present.

  1. A policy, strategy, or goal to expand power and influence
  2. A desire to gain territorial, political, and/or economic control
  3. Accomplished through forceful means

Tanks rolling over the shrubs on my suburban property line might be a bit obvious. What may be less obvious, yet strikingly similar to an imperialist agenda, are the often undetected strategies and goals of the smartphone I voluntarily keep within arms reach 98% of my day–often so close it is touching my body.

Is there an imperialist agenda in my pocket? Is that a problem? I would argue yes, so let’s consider the similarities.

Three questions to determine if your smartphone is imperialistic:

Question 1:
Does your smartphone have a plan, strategy, and goal of extending its power and influence over you?

Answer 1:
Yes. Countless billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man hours are strategically invested in how to effectively capture its users' time, attention, and spending power. The combined revenue of Google, Amazon, and Meta is nearly $1Trillion in those three companies alone.

Question 2:
Is your smartphone seeking to gain territorial, political, and economic control over you?

Answer 2: Yes. In several ways:

  1. Physical territory? Yes. It is in your pocket, strapped to your wrist, connected in your car, physically present in front of you at work and home by syncing with your laptop and TV.
  2. Mental territory? Yes, if your mind goes automatically to scrolling and content consumption, then the smartphone is winning the battle of your habits.
  3. Your physical time? Yes. In 2017 Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO said, “there are only a certain amount of hours which humans can tend to activities, and Netflix’s goal is to occupy those moments”. Whether it’s your time between work and sleep or merely the in-between moments of life waiting in line, your time can be commandeered.
  4. Political Influence? Yes. It is crafting a particular message in front of its users with a clear agenda of advancing its goals. Even creating polarization can be advantageous to imperialism. Evangelical theologian Dr. Al Mohler has said he reads the news on paper publications because a human editor has actually had to make a decision on what stories are important enough to be placed “above the fold.” He does not want a news feed that has been curated by an algorithm based on what will merely keep his attention. Dr. Mohler's observation is profound, especially when considering the preponderance of “fake news” surrounding the election cycle and the online vitriol that accompanies it.
  5. Economic Influence? Yes. In the second quarter of 2023 Facebook generated over $53 per user in the US and Canada, bringing in over $14 Billion in three months from that region alone. Facebook is only one piranha in the pond that is chasing your wallet.

Question 3:
Is your smartphone forcing an agenda of influence over you?

Answer 3:
Yes. Though no dictator is directing an army at you, there is another posturing of force at play. The nearly unbeatable power of convenience and instant gratification can make virtually every human concede and rationalize away any ill effect. When a face-to-face conversation is interrupted because you just remembered to order AA batteries on Amazon and if you don’t do it now, you’ll forget… imperialism is working. As the saying goes, “Mussolini made the trains run on time.”

The Christ-follower’s response

Vigilant awareness, while remembering the prize
In 1935, the Etheopians were unprepared and ill equipped. Today, in this technological moment, Christians are called to be aware and to heed the call in Ephesians 6 to to armor up! Standing up (v11) and keeping alert (v18) to the schemes (think policies, strategies, goals to expand power and influence) of the devil presupposes a growing awareness of the roaming lion that is hell bent on devouring us. We must be a people who are increasingly aware and informed on how technology is influencing us, our families, and our society.

But awareness is not enough. The Ethiopians were aware of the enemy, but hope is slippery when you’re holding a leather shield and the enemy has a tank. Praise the Lord that is not the situation for believers. We have a spiritual armor, bestowed on us through the finished work of Christ, that can defend and defeat the mightiest cosmic forces (v12). The battle is real, the war is won, and the prize of eternity with Christ is coming.

The Devil must not have a seat at the table. Rather, seek counsel from the One who gives far more than we can hope or imagine.
A distracted mind, an absence of stillness, and a tricky allure to the frivolous can unintentionally accumulate into a shouting voice of influence in your decision-making. Believers are called to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5); to make the best use of the time, and to not overindulge (think aimless scrolling) in a way that impairs your judgment. Rather, we are to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:16-17) in our inner being so that Christ may dwell in our hearts …so that you may have strength to comprehend and contemplate the depth of God’s love for you and to seek the infallible counsel of Christ who is able to give us far more than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:16-20).

Instant gratification and convenience are not virtuous. Patience and hard work are.
Quick results and convenience are not sinful. But, they are not righteous either. The human condition longs for the path of least resistance, the wide and easy road. A life ruled by instant gratification and convenience is a fast track to overindulgence, laziness, and actions guided by ease rather than faithfulness. For example, the alarm clock on my smartphone is so convenient. By using it, my phone becomes the first thing my hand touches and the first thing my eyes see each morning, resulting in a subsequent check for messages and viewing some other app content, which will typically eat into my morning Bible reading.

It would serve believers well to consider how eliminating some minor conveniences can add a major element of control over the influence of smartphones over us. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. I can work to rebuild the memory muscles and wait until after the conversation before I add that item to my Amazon list. I can spend $10 on a travel alarm clock to help me not fall into scrolling or working before I brush my teeth in the morning. What comes to mind for you when you think of minor conveniences that may have a major cost?

To be an Ethiopian in 1935, under the oppressive regime of Italian imperialism, was a hopeless and scary plight. And though (in the west) we are not faced with that flavor of evil, the devil is crafty and always adapting his schemes, often disguising himself as something good (2 Cor. 11:14). Smartphone technology is not neutral. By itself, it can lead to a spiritually-depleted life. But, with Christ-honoring discipline, pursuit of the Fruits of the Spirit, and eyes set on the fullness of Christ, believers can live faithfully in sync with technology.


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