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What Are We Asking of Technology?

Modern technologies, particularly screen-based media, are radically altering our lives.

This reality has become so commonplace as to be relatively unremarkable, and therefore uninteresting as a blog topic.

What is perhaps more noteworthy, however, and a much more blog-worthy subject, is the seeming disinterest many of us have when it comes to asking difficult questions about new technology in our lives. 

To be sure, the purported benefits of, say, a new phone, or voice-activated personal assistant in one’s home seem so self-evident that to ask questions about whether or not we should accept them seems like a bit of a churlish response to the benevolent gods of Silicon Valley.

But what if we did?

What if, following the latest product drop, our immediate questions were not, “When can I have it?” and “How much does it cost?”, but instead, “Is it good for me?” or “What does it really cost?”

What’s New? What’s Next?

How frequently do we pause and ask: “Should I adopt this new form of technology?”

Admittedly, we might ask this question, but once we see that the new phone has three cameras, the answer is obvious: Yes! Take my money! 

The basic driver of unqualified acceptance is not the fear that the gods will scorn us if we reject their gifts, but is instead a vague and naïve vision of progress. The technological leaps and bounds that we witness in our everyday lives become emblematic of our belief in a noble pursuit towards greater and greater degrees of freedom, self-actualization, and some ill-defined “golden age” of human flourishing. 

The technologies we adopt, simply by being “new,” must therefore be better because history is ineluctably moving towards the good, true, and beautiful. 

Yet, this just simply isn’t true; witness: your phone doesn’t need three cameras. Technically it doesn’t need any.

Just because we can accomplish something through technique does not therefore mean that we should, that we need to, or that it will necessarily advance our aims in life.

Sin, in a society that has placed its faith in technology, is to call into question a fundamental tenet of technological modernity: progress for the sake of progress. 

Nobody wants to be seen as a “Luddite” (however ill-conceived the byword is), or worse, as one who harbours animus towards our electronic impulses, potentially acting upon unreasonable, and maybe even violent, urges (see Ted Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber”).

So: the new tech arrives, we pinch our incense, and then proceed to scroll through the elysian fields of our social media paradise. 

What Do We Need to Know?

I’d like to suggest that this eschatological attitude towards technology (uncritical acceptance, “progress” to a “better” future, and the unbridled consumerism that this belief entails) is a fundamentally anti-Christian one. 

Such a pattern of behaviour represents an abdication of the Christian’s regal and priestly role within creation: to discern which tools we shall adopt that we might best cultivate our inheritance from the Lord, that we might offer it back to him, to whom the earth and the fullness thereof, belongs.

The discourse surrounding the development of new technologies is myopically optimistic—technological progress is an unquestioned good. It is therefore incumbent upon us to think carefully about the possible negative developments that will arise if we adopt a particular technology.

Too often, modern screen-based technologies simply serve to cultivate the world to our own ends. “How many likes have I received? What entertainment value am I deriving from this program? How are my desires and interests best served by adopting this technology?” 

Instead, the children of God are to “test everything and hold fast to what is good” (to appropriate St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 on, not uncoincidentally, prophecy).

But where shall we start? And what questions should we be asking?

Disciples of Christ in a technological age have much to learn from the perceptive and prescient critic of media and culture, Neil Postman (1931–2003). In his work, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, Postman proposed a number of questions we might ask of new technologies in order to evaluate their usefulness and propriety for the task(s) at hand.

Of course, Postman’s vision of the good has significant differences from the Christian vision, yet his critical approach is one that we would do well to emulate. Postman’s line of questioning is brief, yet provocative:

1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”

As Postman rather flatly states, “This question needs to be asked because there are technologies that are employed—indeed, invented—to solve problems that no normal person would regard as significant.”

To ask this question is to begin bringing critical clarity to the modern notion of progress. Is there really a need that must be addressed here? How pressing is this need, or is the technology we are considering here just fuelling an inordinate desire?

2. “Whose problem is it?”

Are the technologies that we are adopting solving an issue that legitimately belongs to us or to our neighbour, or does it concern the interests of a party further afield?

Postman calls to mind the example of the private jet. To be sure, this solves a “problem” (expedient travel over long distances) but this problem is easily solved by the commercial airliner. We might think of the “rich and famous,” or prominent televangelists, who have a problem with associating with the middle classes, and thereby require a more luxuriant mode of travel.

Or a more mundane example: smart technology in the home. Who really had a problem adjusting their thermostat and so required a “smart thermostat”? Or had difficulty opening their fridge, and so needed a “smart fridge”?

Perhaps the problem here belonged to tech companies that were struggling with how to market commodities to affluent consumers.

3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” 

Postman marshals evidence for the importance of this question by examining the Luddite movement in early 19th century England. The Luddites were a group of industrial textile workers who were concerned that their livelihood and craft were in the process of being destroyed by technological advances in the textile industry. The Luddites took to destroying machinery as one of their means of protest and were aggressively prosecuted by the British government for doing so.

As Christians, the injunction to love our neighbour as ourselves surely creates an appropriate theological foundation to ask this same question. Are the technologies that we are personally integrating into our own lives bringing harm to others? And if so, how so? 

A modern example of this could include the mining of metals required to construct our smart-phones, and the dangerous conditions and fiscal injustices that attend such resource acquisition. Or worse, the sex-trade that is fuelled by the demand for increasingly dangerous and degrading forms of online pornography.

These questions require disciplined, careful thinking, and maybe most challenging of all, an unwillingness to integrate new technologies into our lives until these questions have been satisfactorily addressed.

4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?”

Because technologies are always developed within a social ecosystem, it is inevitable that technological development will provoke unintended consequences. 

The discourse surrounding the development of new technologies is myopically optimistic—technological progress is an unquestioned good. It is therefore incumbent upon us to think carefully about the possible negative developments that will arise if we adopt a particular technology.

5. "What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?"

It seems that only now are we coming to the stark realization that, at least as far as social media is concerned, we are not the consumer; rather, we are the product. 

It can be easy to resign oneself to the idea that parting with our personal data in exchange for technological goods is simply a way of the modern world—yet here again, the clarion call of the Christian life is not resignation, but rather, to “be watchful” (1 Cor 16:13).

Whom exactly is benefiting from the technology you integrate into your life?

6. Finally, and perhaps most significantly for the life of the Church, “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?”

Postman asks his readers to consider the way the terms “community” and “conversation” have changed in the digital age. Today, the “community” we might find on the internet is a thin simulacrum of the "thick" community that can only come about through embodiment. (For more on this, read "Why We Need Church in the Digital Age.")

Postman succinctly notes, “to call messages that lack the presence of the human voice and human faces a ‘conversation’ seems odd to me.” Have we asked how our language is shaped by the technology we use—and in turn, is shaping our understanding of reality?

These questions are not for the disengaged, and by asking them, we will almost certainly make our lives more difficult.

These questions require disciplined, careful thinking, and maybe most challenging of all, an unwillingness to integrate new technologies into our lives until these questions have been satisfactorily addressed.

With the above “drawbacks,” we might reasonably ask why anyone would bother to ask these questions—again, isn’t it simplest to just be thankful for our technological wonderland and be done with it? 

Such a protest only serves to underscore how we found ourselves in the plight we are today viz a viz technology. With higher and higher reported experiences of anxiety, depression, fear-of-missing-out, and social isolation, isn’t it worth pausing, momentarily, to ask how it is we got here?

Furthermore, asking these questions does not negate the very real value and benefit that technology adds to our lives. In fact, they may well help us increase that value and benefit several times over, through the judicious application of technology in service to Christ and His Kingdom. 

So, ask the questions of the technology in your life. The answers may surprise you—but then, what?

Joel Houston

Joel Houston is Assistant Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary. Joel teaches in the areas of systematic and spiritual theology, as well as theology and interdisciplinary studies. An avid long-distance runner, father of four, and occasional musician, Joel is the author of Wesley, Whitefield, and the Free Grace Controversy: The Crucible of Methodism (Routledge, 2019).

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