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.”