Technology: Friend or Foe?
Technology is a word often synonymous in this day and age with progress, advancement, and innovation. For many in the previous century it became the symbol and beacon of hope through modernist philosophy, which emphasized progress through rationality and science as the ultimate goal and purpose of society. But in the postmodern era of today, which has become disillusioned with these ideals and emphasizes individual “truth”, should technology or can technology even be held in such high esteem? Can it actually deliver what it promises? Or, looking forward to an era of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, is it something to be feared? Through this article, I will attempt to show that a proper love of technology includes acknowledging its dangers and carefully considering what benefits and detrimental impacts technology can have, both in personal use and in technology creation. I present this argument in contrast to our current cultural infatuation with technology by focusing on providing a way of thinking about technology that can benefit us even in our daily lives.
As an aside, before attempting to answer these vital questions, I need to define what I mean by technology. Based on the Oxford dictionary, technology is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.”1 While this may be a beneficial definition, I want to focus more on the use than the origin of technology; thus, for the purposes of this discussion I put forward the following definition: technology is any device, method, or thought process created by humans to increase their capability. This definition helps to clarify both the use and goal of technology.
To begin exploring technology, I will examine current culture to see where it stands. It is not very difficult to find examples of infatuation in modern American culture. According to Verto analytics, the average American adult owns 5 devices and spends 74 hours a month on smartphones alone.2 According to Scientific American, the average American adult spends over 9 hours a day looking at various screens from televisions to phones to computers.3 On a more personal note, we experience this cultural infatuation on a daily basis as people use devices during meetings and interrupt conversations to keep up with the latest tidbits from social media. Technology is not only reflected in the way we communicate but also in what we eat, in how we work, and in how we take care of our health. These are just the symptoms of the status of culture, the accepted nature of infatuation with information and superficial understanding. Technology affects our actions, changes our methods, and alters even the way that we think. Take even the statistics I’ve used here: the proliferation of devices that gather large amounts of data enable us to rely on those as a way to state facts, and we begin to consider something more credible if it has strong statistical evidence. While this is not entirely faulty, we must critically examine our facts because it can be easy to hide the truth with statistics. As Neil Postman states in his book Technopoly, “We must keep in mind the story of the statistician who drowned while trying to wade across a river with an average depth of four feet.”4 So how can we understand technology's effect on us?
To answer these questions, people must first recognize the dual nature of each technology: a benefit it accrues and a danger it propagates. Technologies themselves enhance human capacity, but they include a cost in using them. To illustrate this, I’ll examine a portion of Plato’s work, Phaedrus, in which he chooses a simple but highly useful technology: writing. Plato relates a myth about ancient Egypt in which Theuth, the god of arithmetic, writing, and innovation, is promoting his invention of writing to the Pharaoh Thamus. Pharaoh Thamus, rather than being overly excited about this new technology, has reservations. He says,
“Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, producd by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”5
While we as a society see many benefits to writing and how powerful it really is, Thamus has a perspective that is rarely considered: writing might have a cost associated with it.
This cost is true for any form of technology because it alters our actions, our methods, and our thinking, which means that by choosing one technology over another, we begin to lose our previous methods and strategies. As a further example, my hometown recently had a fiber-optic cable that was severed, leading to the whole city losing internet. People did not know how to use their time, businesses had to close, and most stores could not sell products because their inventory systems were linked to the internet. While the technology of the internet was overall beneficial, my town lost the skills it had used to operate before internet reliance. In other words, we saw in a few hours how different we now handled information. As Neil Postman explains, “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.”6 Does this mean that technology is bad? Not at all. To draw an analogy, we don’t question taking a pill even though it will have side effects; however, we must be aware of those side effects before using the product. The same is true of technology: we ought to be aware of all its effects, yet be willing to use it if the benefits outweigh the costs. The awareness of cost is important when using technology for our own purposes, but it is even more important when creating new technologies. A failure to consider the cost is evidenced by several inventors of the past who came to regret the unintended results. A few examples include Robert Propst, the inventor of the cubicle, who regretted the isolation of workplaces created by his invention, and Dong Nguyen, developer of Flappy Bird, who regretted the productivity loss attributed to his game.7 The consideration of cost and what technology takes away is exactly what our culture lacks. As Wendell Berry states, “It is as if a whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract.”8
A second aspect of technology that we must consider is the inherent worldview that it possesses. Every technology has a value system that it promotes; it ranks one attribute as more important than another. As Neil Postman states, “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.”9 Perhaps an example will make this idea more concrete. You get home from work and head to the kitchen for dinner. No one can argue that a fresh dinner made on the stove is much better than a prepackaged meal, but instead you use this fast technology of the microwave to make yourself a meal in minutes and run out the door to do all those important things you want to get done. Why? The microwave itself has a worldview, a value proposition baked into it, and your decision to purchase and use the microwave aligned your values to that of the microwave maker. Speed is more valuable than the quality of homemade taste. Now, there is nothing wrong with this decision; the problem is when we remain blind to the fact that there is a decision being made and blindly agree to values we might otherwise not support. While a microwave might seem trivial, this principle holds for more significant technologies, like virtual reality, driverless cars, and others.
There are countless different worldviews held by people around that world, but I find that the Christian worldview most adequately and logically addresses humanity’s need to examine the lenses through which one views the world. Christianity’s support for the idea that technologies possess a worldview is rooted in the concept of a creator. Christians believe that God as Creator embedded His view of reality into our world and us, which allows us to think and function logically; God created this world logically, and He created us to reflect Him in our creations. As sub-creators we leave our mark on each thing we make because we cannot separate the thinking process we used to invent a technology from the final technological product. The Christian worldview also stresses the responsibility that comes with this ‘sub-creatorship’: in making decisions about technologies, we must consider what values are reinforced or hurt by our decisions, whether they be human life, well-being, relationships, or anything else.
Does this sufficiently explain the detrimental effects of technology? We’ve seen the immense power of technology: not only does it have an ideology inherent to it, but it can also become its own all-encompassing worldview. And therein lies the problem. We have idolized progress for a long time in America: social, economic, and political. While what some have called the emerging ‘postmodern’ age dampens this drive, technology continues to stand for relentless progress. It is as if society increasingly desires the technology itself, not just its benefits. This is what Neil Postman calls Technopoly. He poses, “Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.”10 Technology changes the way that we view the world and changes what is possible and what is impossible. As David Gill from Gordon Theological Seminary states, “Traditional gods may receive lip service in church or in private conversation but in practice, on Monday morning if not before, it is Technology which we serve. It is in Technology that we hope for our future and even for our present day salvation.“11
While this may be a bit excessive, it is still true that our culture is radically shaped by the “Technopoly” view. Even though we may not consciously assent to this elevated view of technology, by its conditioning on us we more easily lose sight of its original goal. This can be very ironic: social media allows us to join certain platforms in order to stay connected to others; however, we soon discover that its various gadgets and nifty uses breakdown the strong connections we long for. We post a story or tweet to all our friends while sitting across the table from someone we could be spending quality time with.
While the nature of culture’s interaction with technology may be disturbing, technology brings many benefits that we all enjoy and is not something to fear. But rather than running to the extremes of either becoming infatuated with the latest technological widget or becoming afraid of all technology, we should engage with technology in a way that is aware of its benefits and costs as well as the underlying value system it promotes. This Christian ‘creative’ perspective is appealing because it allows us to properly love technology without going to the extremes of fear or infatuation. It tells us that we have a commission from God to responsibly develop and invent and maintain the world, knowing that whatever may come from these creations can never be as life-giving as the very first Creator. And so the next time you choose to use some form of technology, I encourage you to consider just what that technology says about the world and how it can affect the very way you think and exist.
1. “Technology” (2017). In the Oxford Dictionary online. (n.p.). Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/technology
2. Hwong, C. (2017, January 5). Chart of the Week: CES 2017 Edition. Verto Analytics http://www.vertoanalytics.com/chart-week-ces-2017-edition/
3. Sheikh, K. (2017, March 1). Most Adults Spend More Time on Their Digital Devices Than They Think. Scientific American. (n.p.). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-adults-spend-more-time-on-their-digital-devices-than-they-think/
4. Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
5. Plato. (1925). Phaedrus. In Fowler, H (Ed.)., Plato in Twelve Volumes (Volume IX, p. 247-279). London: Harvard University Press.
6. Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
7. Kane, C. (2015, March 17). 10 inventors who apologized for their inventions. Fortune Magazine. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/03/17/10-inventors-who-apologized-for-their-inventions/
8. Wirzba, N. (2003). The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
9. Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
10. Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
11. Gill, D. W. (1998). Technology. In Banks, R. & Stevens, R. (Ed.)., The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (p. 1011-1019). Westmont: InterVarsity Press.
12. Pegors, N. Personal Communication (2017, June/5).