Steve Jobs and the Creep of Technology

Steve JobsThough originally said in dismissal of market research, Steve Jobs’ now famous words, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” teach us something about consumerism and technology. Who would have thought before 2007 that you needed a cell phone as powerful as a computer? And just three years later we were convinced that everyone needs an almost identical device, just with a larger screen. I am talking respectively about the iPhone and iPad, two pieces of technology I cannot imagine my life without. So perhaps Jobs was right. In fact he most certainly was. But notice that he refers to what people want, not what they need.

As I wrote in a previous post, the choice to live in the modern sea of technology is unavoidable. But the flood of devices, social media, and apps means we are in serious danger of drowning in it. Technology is not merely tailored to meet a need while remaining hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives. They almost always demand more space than we intend to give them. As James Sire puts it in The Discipleship of the Mind, technology imposes how it is used. When I finally got my hands on my iPhone 3G it was so that I could have a cell phone and music player in one device. But six years later my iPhone – no, not the same one – has crept into most areas of my life, shaping how I do things, and even my thought processes.

The word technology is derived from older ones meaning ‘craft’ or ‘skill.’ And many Christian authors trace it back to Genesis 1-2, understanding it as a part of God’s appointing mankind to subdue and cultivate the creation. With this perspective we can rightly view technology as a tool. Theologians have observed this as a distinguishing mark of our species and indicative of the image of God.  One of those authors, Elaine Graham, in her essay The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, says that technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. Technology, therefore, is God-given and we should ensure that our use of it is God-honouring. The question to ask then is: What does discerning use of technology look like?

The most obvious point to make is that in an age where early adoption is gospel, we should approach technology cautiously, gauging its usefulness and potential invasiveness. For companies and developers are certainly offering us what we want but not necessarily what we need. Technology is pushed onto us every day: friends, adverts, and recommendations suggest that every product is one you cannot live without. But I did live without it, for years. I managed to have meaningful relationships apart from Facebook and Whatsapp. I was productive before the rise of productivity tools. I found music that I liked without being told, ‘Those who bought this also bought…’ Those are trivial examples but the point remains: the Christian is called to be discerning and measured, perhaps especially with regards to technology.

Let me conclude with one last point. We have seen that technology is a useful gift and tool from our Creator God. Ultimately our technology should serve us and help us to serve God and love our neighbours. But the inherent danger of technology can be summarised under two paradoxical urges: control and idolatry. Firstly, technology promises power, sometimes even omnipotence, as it enables us to control everything around us. In a sense, the elevation and heightened expectations of technology deceives us about the human condition, and its limitations. We must remember that we are creatures, given tools with which we can serve God. Secondly, we must remember that those tools are not God. When we find they are beginning to control us, determining how we live and demanding our worship, we must turn again from idols to serve the living and true God.

This post originally appeared at LifeWay Media blog and is published here with minor changes. However, I have not been able to locate the original article.

Managing Technology

TechnologyIn Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis grumbled about how modern transport has annihilated space, “one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation than his grandfather got from travelling ten.” The point of this series of blog posts has not been to denounce technology, pine after a bygone era, or deny the many benefits of the digital age. Rather I have hoped to convince readers that we are often blind to what technology takes from us. If you are like me, then Lewis’ reflection is striking, since you never considered how modern transport might deprive travellers the joy of a journey. It is a silly example, but it reiterates how we have been trained to receive new technology with open hands and tightly shut eyes. In this final post I want to suggest a few ways we might better manage technology.

I will start with a point made in an older post on technology. Etymologically the word technology means ‘skill’ or ‘craft’, but – as I suggested in that post – humanity has a tendency to bow down to what it has made; “technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.” We cannot imagine life without our devices, we become despondent when we lose connectivity, and we check into on our digital worlds and profiles obsessively. So must ask to what extent we are in control? Does technology serve you, or is it slowly enslaving you? Let me state that technology is a wonderful gift, endowed by our Creator to further equip us for the task of subduing the created world. We should therefore receive technology gratefully and put it to work, assisting and serving us in most areas of life, but we must guard against being controlled by it. Each of us needs to carefully consider the status technology has earned in our own lives, for while its functions will vary, the human propensity to worship the created world rather than the Creator is always present.

I will now briefly comment on the remaining points raised in my posts, having dealt with freedom above:

Attention: adapting something Donald Whitney wrote, I think that if we spent money as readily as we do our attention people would call us reckless. Surely there are times when uninterrupted focus is necessary. Multi-tasking – which Michael Horton says is often just a euphemism for distraction – is not always the most productive or beneficial use of our time. I know these suggestions are unthinkable, but you can turn your devices onto ‘do not disturb’ and block your internet connection in order to give undivided attention and time where it is required, be that people or tasks.

TechnologyThoughtfulness and introspection: please forgive my use of this abused, potentially misattributed, dictum from Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. Regardless of who said it, the sentiment is an urgently true one today. We need to move away from consuming information to contemplating knowledge. We need to recognise that the first hit on a Google search is not necessarily the most accurate or formative article on a subject. We need to put effort into reading and reflecting on – even studying – ideas and concepts. We could all use more quiet time and solitude, away from the invasive presence of our devices and demanding digital platforms.

Memory: I have heard it said that our brains have many similarities to muscles; that is, when exercised they are healthy, but left unused they atrophy. The outsourcing of our memories and immediately accessible information means that while we have answers quickly we rarely have our own answers, nor do we see any need to furnish our minds. The result of this is weakening of our ability to retain information and ideas. I am not talking about what Mega Memory can offer you, as useful as being able to recall the order of two packs of playing cards might be, but rather a mind that is sharpened and in shape. The ways to achieve this are endless: learning a language; slowing down to consider a point in an article, book, or film; trying to remember a piece of information before Googling it; learning quotes and sayings off by heart; and so on.

TechnologyValues: this was the final point made in More Ways Technology Takes and, for lack of a better heading, I argued that today we are inundated with information and easy entertainment that warps our values and thrives off of undiscerning consumerism. This is well illustrated in an exchange between Hermoine Granger and Rita Skeeter, in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Hermoine is entreating Rita to write the truth about Harry and the return of You-Know-Who, but Rita tells her that the Daily Prophet cannot run stories that will unsettle the comfortable wizarding world. Then Hermoine scathingly asks, “So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” And Rita retorts, “The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl.” We need to be deliberate about the data and dramas we greedily ingest. Work hard in discerning what you read and view, its purpose and bias. Remember that just because something is being broadcast or receiving masses of media attention that does not necessarily mean it is significant. Lastly, it is undeniable that we are subtly shaped, even if only slightly, by what we consume.

Let me leave you with three concluding points for reflection: firstly, technology is a wonderful tool, given by God, but let us be wary of the human inclination to worship the creation; secondly, though technology is almost always morally neutral, our use of it is often not; thirdly, managing our technology means more than benefiting from its many positives, we must be alert to its many drawbacks.

More Ways Technology Takes

Two weeks back I posted on some of technology’s drawbacks. Reiterating a point made by Tim Challies, I started by arguing that our eyes are only open to the positive benefits of technology, meaning we blindly embrace the latest apps, devices, and digital advances without considering what their negative effects might be. After making that point I highlighted three areas where technology is adversely impacting human life: fragmented and interrupted attention, unhealthily increased dependence on tending towards enslavement to technologies, and the loss of critical engagement or thoughtfulness due to the superficial nature of technology. In this short post I want to point to three more ways I think that technology is having an adverse effect on human life.

Memory

Technology‘I know this…hang on…um…alright, Google it.’ How often is that the answer to a question, and if you are honest: your own answer. In his now famous article, Is Google making us stupid?, Nicholas Carr writes, “For all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” In the article Carr makes numerous prickly points, from the commodification of information to the way the web discourages contemplation in favour of amassing data, but central to his article is the observation that we are outsourcing our memory and mental capacity. Carr says, “The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.” Admitting that he might just be a “worrywart” or Luddite, Carr acknowledges that – in the same way the technology of bound books “would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)” – the internet may result in a “golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.” Yet he remains sceptical, as do I. The easy access to endless amounts of information means we retain less, find it hard to recall what we have read, and see no need for growing in knowledge. Surely, that is not progress. 

Introspection

In his lecture on private prayer, Charles Spurgeon lamented how an inward poverty means that many people find silence unbearable; the corollary of this is that we cannot stand undistracted solitude. When I was in high school, Shakespearian soliloquys struck me as highly odd and obviously theatrical, but today I think they are a haunting visage of something we are no longer capable of: internal dialogue and introspection. In the outstanding collection of essays Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, Jane Davis challenges our preference for the comfortable shallows of human life, and I firmly believe that much of our technology enables or even encourages such superficiality. Davis strongly posits, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics…Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable.” We use social media to express invented and pliable versions of who we want to be, yet hardly know ourselves. We impulsively comment on blogs remonstrating others, but find it impossible to internalise thoughts and ideas. We peruse infinitely scrolling feeds for hours on end – liking, retweeting, and pinning – only when we come away from them we are none the richer. Constant connectivity leaves little time for careful contemplation. As Malcom Gladwell has said, today we are experientially wealthy and theoretically impoverished.

Values

TelevisionIn my previous post I admitted the potential of being melodramatic, so I might as well run the risk of sounding like a crank. In Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Home, Old Boughton is discussing the news and asserts that, “In six months nobody will remember one thing about it,” for, “It’s television that makes things seem important whether they are or not.” What comes to us through our screens is very rarely weighed or thoughtfully evaluated. According to my news feeds and Facebook, the death of Cecil, a protected lion, is the most significant event from the last couple of weeks. Worse than that is the grossly unhealthy celebrity culture, which considers Kim Kardashian’s baby bump more newsworthy than a massacre in Kenya. As D. A. Carson notes, in Basics for Believers, TV is the dominant reference point or moral ‘bottom line,’ for many people, resulting in grossly warped values. Carson points out how parents are anxiously concerned that their children have the right kinds of friends and role models, for all of us learn by a kind of existential mimicry, only we naïvely overlook the vicarious friendship provided by TV. With the average person spending over 3 hours in front of one TV daily, the results are undeniable: “We no longer have authentic heroes. People are celebrated for extravagant behaviour or conspicuous consumption, not for their value to society. Wealth is preferred to worth, glamour to virtue. There are many ‘personalities’, but few show evidence of character” (Edward Donnelly). Not everything that appears on our screens is significant, but the TV industry, click bait, and social media sites thrive off of our woeful discernment, and from confusing our values. 

Conclusion

Living in the world of technology is unavoidable. But being aware of how technology shapes us is a crucial step away from being dominated by it. We have seen that outsourcing our memories incapacitates our minds, the digital world discourages introspection, and how confusing presentation of information on our screens erodes values. Since I have not read anything better on the impact technology has had than The Next Story I will let Tim Challies have the last word: “So here we sit today, surveying the landscape after the digital explosion. We live in the glare of screens; we outsource our memories to bits and bytes; we experience some of our deepest and most important relationships through the ethereal networks powered by electricity and computer hardware. We are a digital people-a digital generation, dependent on our devices.”

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.