Technology Takes

Shabolovka MoscowMost Christians have at some point sung along to Matt Redman’s chorus “You give and take away,” ad nauseam, in a church service or coming from your first generation iPod. But forgetting that song, and holding onto the words of the refrain, I want to discuss a few of the ways in which technology has taken from us, impoverished our lives. In his must-read book on the topic, The Next Story, Tim Challies reminds us “that a technology tends to wear its benefits on its sleeve–while the drawbacks are buried deep within. The opportunities are obvious and apparent, while the risks are revealed only after close scrutiny and the slow march of time and experience.” Have you considered the consequences and impact of technology and the digital revolution? Most of us blindly and uncritically use whatever technology we can afford, so in this short post I want to address some of the areas of life where I believe technology is depriving us. Sure, technology gives, but it also takes.

Attention

The first point I want to highlight was prompted by reading Alan Jacob’s 79 Theses on Technology for Disputation. In his 5th and 6th disputations he speaks about attention as a resource, hence the term ‘pay attention.’ If this is true then we should view our attention as an economic exercise. Where we invest our attention, which Jacobs says is not an infinitely renewable resource, should therefore be carefully evaluated and planned; we should steward it wisely and not wastefully. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that much of our technology demands attention and also frequently disrupts it. Our attention is nearly always divided and we fail to discern where to primarily invest it. In our unyielding efforts to be connected at all times, our attention is scattered in so many directions that we are barely focused and fully present in any of them. As Jacobs suggests, quite strikingly, we must assess the investment of attention at least as carefully as we do our money.

Freedom

ambrojordiart@blogspot.comI admit this heading sounds dramatic, but I am firmly convinced that technology enslaves many people today, not in the same sense that AI sets out to subjugate humanity in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (or Skynet, from the Terminator franchise) but in a more beguiling way. Technology promises to improve our lives at almost every turn – helping us become more connected, efficient and productive – and we wholeheartedly believe it, entrusting ourselves to technology. In a previous post I wrote, “Many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology…we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.” Alan Jacobs puts it better in his 42nd disputation, “Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.” Devices and apps meant to serve us tend to take more than they can give, eventually controlling and in the worst cases enslaving us to their service. This process is both subtle and an undeniable threat, making our devices and technology much more dangerous than Asimov’s fictional U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.

Thoughtfulness

Finally, I fear that the superficiality of the digital age is diminishing our capacity and desire to examine life and the arts. When I reflect on my own conversations I regret how many of them revolve around the latest TV series and Hollywood blockbusters. I guess this would distress me less if those discussions dissected narratives, weighing character development and exploring themes (not that Hollywood really achieves this) but they are for the most part vapid or shallow. I think a reason for this is that, as C. S. Lewis said, we are obsessed with event – to the point that event has become synonymous with story – and have unwittingly surrendered the ability to wrestle with concepts, ideas, and meaning. We are tragically content to discuss what happened, the twists and turns of a series or the spectacular events in the latest Marvel film adaption but are uninterested in what might be taking place beneath the surface. Book critic David Ulin has written, “Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.” Sure we have lots to talk about, endless information and inane entertainment is never more than a glowing screen and mouse click away. But, at the risk of sounding portentous, I think we waste countless hours talking about nothing. I have written elsewhere about our fear of deep engagement, suggesting that we possess a consumerist preference for passive entertainment, such as film, but I am seeing more and more how the superficial nature of the digital age has impoverished our ability to critically engage. We strain our attention onto events not ideas, meaning the arts rarely pass our eyes and life is left unexamined.

Conclusion

TechnologyTony Reinke has given five foundational principles, taken from The Pastor as Public Theologian, concerning the use of technology, based on Genesis 1-11. I will conclude using his final point: “Technology is inherently dangerous because it is the product of purposive human activity, and we need help from God in limiting its use.” Reinke (like Challies) believes that we find this statement exceptionally hard to grasp, since we think all technology is progress. Yet, as I have tried to argue: technology often distracts us, slowly enslaves us, and can weaken critical engagement. So we should be slower to buy into technology, considerate of its impact on how we behave, and weary of its relentless march into all of life.

Technology: Saviour or Servant

Molech and RorshachSince first seeing the film in 2009 and subsequently as well as hurriedly reading the graphic novel, I have found The Watchmen fascinating. Few stories, in my opinion, so cleverly provide the backdrop for philosophical conversation, raise such interesting questions about morality, and underline the sense of hopelessness often experienced in our human condition. But my purpose in mentioning The Watchmen is not to unpack its many vivid themes; I simply want to point out one of its more poignant episodes to introduce this post. Following the death of the Comedian, Rorschach is bent on tracking down the “mask killer” and breaks into the home of the former arch-villain Molech, now Edgar Jacobi, an aged and dying man. After discovering illegal cancer medication Rorschach asks Jacobi what kind of cancer he is suffering from, and his response is almost heartbreaking: “Well, now, y’know that kind of cancer that you eventually get better from? Well, that ain’t the kind of cancer I got.”

Those words were in the back of my mind as I prepared a talk on technology for the teenagers at my church. I made the point that when it comes to cancer we have led to believe it is only a matter of time until we can cure all forms, for technology’s march is unrelenting. We might even think, If the fictional Jacobi lived in our 21st century then he most likely would not be living his long defeat. But let me state a highly unpopular possibility: we may never eradicate cancer. Unfortunately that is the reality facing all of us who inhabit a creation bound to decay, groaning for redemption. Please do not think I am for a second making light of cancer and the immense suffering it causes, for those with it along with those who stand by them and are often left behind. Let me also say that this is not a post about cancer. However, I think it is a presumptuous and proud view endemic to many of us, which is convinced it is only matter of time before cancer is conquered by medical research. Furthermore, I worry that many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology, that which we have made with our own hands; we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.

Essays on Anthropology As Elaine Graham says in her essay, The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, “For some commentators, the advent of new technologies will protect us against physical disease and vulnerability. Technologies, long the means of enabling humanity to compensate for physical limitations by providing instruments of comfort and utility, now offer the opportunities to overcome the limitations of the flesh entirely.” In the same paper Graham paraphrases the prominent atheist David Noble, doing his best parody of a preacher, exclaiming how new technologies are “instruments of deliverance…possessors of the power to transport us their users into a sacred realm of ‘transcendence,’ free from the encumbrances of the flesh.” She notes how the arrival at this new religious cult, which even reproaches “techno-pagans” (Erik Davis), is traceable to the Enlightenment mood, or secular humanism, “In its emphasis on personal liberty, free enquiry, and self-determination.” What we are seeing is, “A distortion of modernity’s faith in the benevolence of human reason, producing the hubristic belief that humanity alone is in control of history.” Technology, etymologically meaning “craft” or “skill”, has been transfigured from servant to Saviour; technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.

The great danger in this modern assumption of unassailability is not merely that it disappoints our faith in it, but that it subtly derails our faith in the Creator God. Paul to the Romans, which I have alluded to above, writes that our present sufferings are incomparable with the glory to be revealed, our hope of redemption that is now unseen. Technology might never eradicate cancer; it will never bring about redemption and glorification. And we must resign ourselves to that first clause, lest we fall into the trap of believing it might offer us the latter. Elaine Graham rightly asserts the distinguishing mark of humanity as a species is the imago Dei, “Understanding of human creativity as participation in divine creativity.” Technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. We are endowed with dreams that become designs and ultimately realities. Yet Graham concludes that we cannot forget that our creativity is framed within our creatureliness and interdependence, “This offers a necessary reminder that our technologies are ultimately not our own, that our inventions, like the whole of creation, make sense only when offered up as part of a larger, divine purpose.”

I have addressed two related idolatrous attitudes in this post, so I will conclude by trying to pull them apart. The first is the hubris of modern secularism, which tries to convince us that humanity controls history, as the masters of our fate and captains of our souls. This is closely tied to the second, more beguiling, attitude that is overawed by the apparently inevitable progress of technology. It is this second attitude that is incredulous at my statement: “We may never eradicate cancer.” And I think it is this attitude many Christians living in the 21st century undiscerningly adopt. We will do well to remember that we cannot set this groaning creation free from decay and futility, regardless of how far our technology takes us.

Doodle: Idolatry Of The Lesser Known

Movie: Nick And Norah “Do you think that they’re too cool now?
Being popular is lame.
You’re the one who made them popular,
all their songs are still the same.”

 I don’t know when it happened, but sometime over the last 15 years the less popular the music you listened to became directly proportionate to your image. ‘Alternative’ was born as the catchphrase for bands whose recordings were done in garages, hadn’t signed with major record companies, and were too diverse in genre for the uneducated to label. An identity was found under the umbrella of ‘alternative’ where anything contra the status quo was deemed cool. On the other hand, words like ‘mainstream’ and ‘pop’ were demonised and spoken with distaste by those who had liberated themselves from the consumerism of MTV and popular radio shows. I have heard of a tee-shirt with the print: I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet. And I think that cleverly captures the desperation many have to distance themselves from popular music.

I am writing about this because I notice this attitude amongst my friends, and often catch myself thinking along similar lines. Last year I confronted this sort of attitude visiting close friends in Durban. We were reminiscing about the 2012 London Olympics over a cup of tea, watching some of the ‘best moments’ flash on the TV as iTunes randomly worked through a playlist in the background. Then, a familiar song came on. I could not place the song or recall the band’s name so I asked about it. When my friend informed me of the band’s name I clicked, and went straight to the same band on my phone because, as it turned out, I already had the CD (free from NoiseTrade). But this realisation was met with dissatisfaction from my friend; when I announced I had that same CD on my phone his expression turned to disappointment. I only concluded later that this band was recently uncovered and that my knowledge reduced the pedigree of the band, as well as my friends’ music library.

The whole experience brought to mind some Five Iron Frenzy lyrics, “You found a way to draw a line / Between the world and you / Faking your identity it’s true / Did you think the word “alternative” / Was only meant for the likes of you?” These lyrics brilliantly capture how our contemporary culture thinks about music. Unlike other self-debasing lyrics – a hallmark of the punk genre – Five Iron Frenzy were not under the illusion of the ‘alternative revolution.’ The identity they offered is the one we find in Christ. They didn’t want to present a place where non-conformers could be in unanimity. Instead they bemoaned what the music industry had become, and how it was changing its consumers. They conclude the song with these words, “You sunk your worth in being different / Just to be like your own kind / You traded in objectiveness / For the underground you follow blindly.”

I guess my own conclusion is in order. For the Christian there is great danger in seeking recognition from the exclusivity of being ‘alternative.’ In closing I admit that I am perhaps writing this post to my teenage self and that it’s a few years late, but here goes: Music is a wonderful gift from God and therefore we should share it; on the other hand, keeping bands to yourself because they provide an identity is idolatry.

FIF