In December 1996 Mark Helprin wrote “The Acceleration of Tranquility,” an essay for Forbes ASAP, in which he compared the imagined experiences of two men: one living 90 years in the past, in August 1906, and the other living in what was then the future, August 2016. Helprin deftly sketched how technology shaped both men’s experiences, relationships, and priorities.
Twenty years later, it’s remarkable to see what Helprin got right about what would be possible for someone living in the future: his man of 2016 works entirely remotely, selling his company’s wares instantly via digital download; he can have a conversation with anyone’s image at any time, as with Facetime or Skype; he can access anything ever written or said using his digital notebook that sounds eerily like an iPad; and he can interrupt his reading on that notebook at any moment to check a reference or look up a fact, because all information is constantly at his fingertips.
While convenient, these advancements aren’t without their disadvantages, which also sound eerily familiar. The man of 2016 feels a wistfulness about slower days, when messages were sent via fax. Sometimes he wishes he could take a breather from the relentless pace around him, but he feels what is now described as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out): “you can’t fall behind, you can’t pass up an opportunity, and if you don’t respond quickly at all times somebody else will beat you to it, even if you have no idea what it is.”
He tries to get away from it all on occasion by traveling halfway around the world for a screen-free vacation in a remote location, quite like the today’s resorts that banish Wi-Fi. On the whole, however, he believes his life is an improvement upon the ways his forebears lived. He loves the “pace, the giddy, continual acceleration” of his life, and he pities those who came before him for the ways in which they “bowed to necessity.”: “Though what is new may not be beautiful, it is marvelously compelling, and your life is lived with the kind of excitement that your forebears knew only in battle and with the ease of which they could only dream.”
I suspect many of us would say, even from a distance of 20 years, that Helprin captures the ambivalence we feel about technology. We love the ease and convenience technology gives us; we have grown so accustomed to it that we cannot imagine our lives without it. We also realize, however, that we have traded something precious in embracing the next iGadget.
In Helprin’s words, our current forms of technology “strain our humanity,” and there is ample evidence that we are now more exhausted, distracted, and anxious than ever. This recent damning article suggests that an entire generation of teenagers is growing up isolated, depressed, and more likely to commit suicide than any earlier generation.
From his vantage point in the 1990s, Helprin sent an SOS to us in 2017. He diagnosed our tech-induced malaise as stemming from our relentless push to defy our human limitations: “When expanding one’s powers, as we are in the midst of now doing by many orders of magnitude in the mastery of information, we must always be aware of our natural limitations, mortal requirements, and humane preferences.” We rarely show such awareness, choosing instead to ignore those natural limitations. Recent research has given us abundant evidence that humans can’t actually do the things that technology gives us the illusion we can do: We can’t really be with another person through a screen; we can’t really multitask, but can only do so many things at a time (hint: the answer is one); and we can’t handle relating to thousands of so-called friends (we can handle only about 150).
Articles to this effect appear regularly these days; and while we may pause and nod our heads in agreement, for the most part we carry on with our relationship to technology unchanged. We believe the promise that one day the necessity to which our forebears bowed will be eradicated. Rather than respecting our limitations, we ignore them “in favor of an evaporative tangle of abstractions.” We want to be abstracted from the confines of one body in one place at one time; we want to be limitless, placeless, and timeless, and technology serves as the handmaid of those desires.
From its very first pages, the Bible names this human urge to overcome our natural limitations. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God made humans in his image; while we have a unique relationship with our Creator as his image-bearers, we are distinct from God and not gods, and he says that is very good. We have physical, mental, and relational limitations that are not the result of the Fall, but simply part of our created nature.
For instance, there’s no sense in Genesis that before the Fall humans could know everything, or be in two places at once, or change the passing of time.
As the story of humanity unfolds, however, the desire to transcend our God-given limitations shows up pretty quickly. The very first temptation that the snake poses to Eve is to seek to be like God in his omniscience: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). The Bible takes our desire to transcend our limitations, whether through technology or other means, very seriously, because at its heart is a desire to become God: to be everywhere, to know everything, and to become all-powerful.
Helprin names these desires as an attempt to become like God; if, he says, we engage in “the imitation of time-and-space-flouting divinity, we will become a portion for foxes” (quoting from Ps. 63:10). Such projects are not only wrong-headed; eventually we will find our attempts to displace God thwarted, as in the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
The Bible calls us, in place of our prideful desire to become God, to meditate on and accept our human limitations. Isaiah’s poetic and beautiful words stop us dead in our tracks, reminding us of our mortality: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” Even in all our beauty, we are as small as the grass of the field, and in the great span of things, our existence is just as limited. In the gospels Jesus names how limited our control is over time and over our bodies: “Which of you by worrying can add a single moment to your day or single inch to your height?”
Jesus says this not to throw us into despair, but to invite us into the paradox of the gospel: that admitting our powerlessness before God does not limit us. It actually frees us to relinquish any illusions about our control and to start trusting God with our lives. Admitting our limitations is the first step in learning to pray along with the psalmist, “Teach us to number our days aright, so that we might gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
Helprin suggests that acknowledging our limitations is not an exercise in doom and gloom, but an occasion to rediscover the “presence of grace” in our lives, by which he means “that which is beautiful and balanced.” When we come to adopt a human-scaled life that doesn’t resist its natural limitations, life becomes orderly and more peaceful, like that of the other character, whom he imagines living in 1906.
In contrast to Helprin’s man of 2016, the man living in the early 20th century travels from England to Italy on vacation for the month of August and is entirely unreachable by his colleagues and friends except by letter. No one expects him to communicate more quickly than by post, giving him time to consider his words carefully when he replies to the letters that arrive. His distance from his home library requires that he rely on his memory to recall quotations, and he does so successfully, simply because he must.
Life moves at a slower pace, but he has learned “to enjoy the attribute of patience in itself, for it slows time, honors tranquility, and lets you savor a world in which you are clearly aware that your passage is but a brief candle.” Life lived in the slow lane doesn’t have to be tedious and dull; instead, it can take on a gracious and beautiful pace when we live with our limitations instead of trying constantly to transcend them. Helprin explicitly excludes the religious definition of grace from his usage of the word, but what he describes may not be so different from what it looks like to have God’s grace at work in our lives. After all, we are called to live with the humble recognition that we are not God; to place our trust in God and not in technology; and to live a quiet life and work with our hands (1 Thess. 4:11).
I recently did as the man of 1906 would do: I wrote a real, snail-mail letter to a friend. I did it out of what Helprin would call necessity; my friend had just joined a religious order, and it was my only means of communicating with her. The new sisters are allowed to write only two letters a month to non-family members, so I knew it would be awhile before I would receive a response. Because I was writing a real card, I really thought about what I wanted to say. I said things that were more meaningful and profound than I would have in a quick text message.
After dropping my letter in the mailbox, I was struck by how conditioned I now am to expect quick answers to my communications. Though I was born in 1981, I have had the letter-writing experience of the man living in 1906. At about the time that Helprin was writing his essay, I went on several long summer mission trips overseas, during which I could only communicate with my family and friends through airmail letters.
My parents had just added internet access at home, but I didn’t have access to it in far-flung countries like Nepal or the Philippines, and no one expected me to find an internet café and send email. Receiving mail from halfway around the world was exciting, and I cherished each letter. Yet now, only 20 years later, I find myself totally unused to the sort of delay in communication that would have been quite normal just a few decades ago. The world has changed very quickly, and it is no surprise that we have struggled with this new technology that has changed our pace of life so dramatically.
When I found a letter from my friend sitting in my mailbox a couple of weeks later, I must admit I felt a thrill that I never have from new email. Here was something to read, to cherish, and to read again. I was reminded that bowing to necessity is in fact not all drudgery and dullness; it fosters the virtues of patience, thoughtfulness, and gratitude. While I haven’t figured out how to keep technology at bay in a way that keeps my life human-scaled, beautiful, and balanced, I know that my life in 2017 needs more of those qualities. I haven’t yet worked up the courage to get rid of my smartphone, but I am becoming disturbed enough by the symptoms of its misuse in my life to think seriously about changing my habits.
Helprin suggests not that we become Luddites who shun all technology; the genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going anywhere. Rather, he says, what we need is “an ethos, a set of principles, and an etiquette specifically fashioned for the rest of this revolution that will (I predict) follow with stunning force the mere prologue through which we are now living.”
For the most part, we have mindlessly grasped the next shiny object, and now we are seeing the consequences of not taking the time to develop the ethos, etiquette, and principles that are now so desperately needed in our relationship to technology. As Christians, we are called to think this revolution carefully, keeping at the forefront a biblical anthropology of what God has made us for as humans, both in our capacities and in our limitations. May we find a way to do what Helprin advised 20 years ago: “You must fit this revolution to the needs and limitations of man, with his delicacy, dignity, and mortality always in mind. Having accelerated tranquility, you must now find a way to slow it down.”
 I would draw a distinction between these sorts of limitations and other phenomena we might call limitations such as sickness, which are not part of God’s original plan but are the result of sin and death entering the world.