How do we learn to ask good questions about technology, and about its power to change the world and to change us?
It’s easy to forget that technology is not synonymous with “new”. Technology is, in fact, ancient.
The word “technology” is derived from the Greek words “tekhne” — an art, a craft, or trade — and “ology” — the study of a subject. Technology is simply the study and application of techniques — in other words, skilled labour. Very old technologies include fire and the wheel; today, technology often, but not always, happens via digital machines.
It seems these days that there are two polarized views of technology: normalcy and nervousness. On one hand, we have a hard time remembering that ancient cultural systems like language are forms of technology; on the other hand, we often find ourselves a bit nervous about all new and emerging technologies. This follows that famous Douglas Adams quote:
“If something was invented before you were born, it’s a regular part of life and hardly worth thinking critically about; but if something was invented after your thirty-fifth birthday, it’s unnatural and to be regarded with suspicion.”
Both views are problematic. A more thoughtful, reflective approach rejects both and finds a middle way.
Technology by definition is not natural or normal, but a tool wrought by human ingenuity. Our tools shape us; even a very simple technology like a shovel leaves callouses on our hands, as John Dyer noted in From the Garden to the City. Technology has effects; callouses are good, but blisters and bleeding are not. We need to work to understand the effects of our technologies, and to then be thoughtful and reflective about best practices.
It’s easy to shift from the normalcy view all the way into a completely nervous view of technology. Much has been written on moral panics related to technology, and a lighthearted place to start is with a bit of historical perspective via the webcomic xkcd:
Tech nervousness is likely as old as technology itself; 2,500 years ago, the new technology of writing prompted stern warnings and dire predictions from none other than Socrates.
Clive Thompson started with Socrates and traced forward to understand why some technologies prompt moral panic while others do not. Danah Boyd, in her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, made a compelling argument that tech nervousness is a form of tech determinism — that technology affects all people in all contexts equally. Tech determinism is not true, and tech nervousness need not cause as much moral panic as we’ve allowed it.
Asking the right question
The middle way between tech normalcy and tech nervousness is to actually ask an entirely different question. The normalcy/nervousness debate is a response to the question, What is technology doing to us as people? While it is good and important to answer this question — starting with, “Technology is doing something to us, but it’s not going to be the end of the world” — it actually distracts from an even more important question:
What are we as people doing with technology, and what could we do?
The Christian scriptures are full of stories of how people use technology, in ways that are instructive for us today. These technology implementations fall into three categories.
1. Using technology to build upward
A major theme of God’s unfolding story has been to take care of people. Humans have often felt vulnerable, and technology has been a means of building upward to increase self-esteem, self-protection, and control.
Many early forms of technology were acts of mercy from God to people, helping them survive, make sense of the world around them, and relate to the divine: animal skins for clothing (Genesis 3:21–23) after the act of rebellion in the Garden of Eden, civilization in the form of cities, housing, musical instruments, and tools made of bronze and iron (Genesis 4:17–22), and plans for Noah to build the ark (Genesis 6).
But people were not content, trying to become equals to God by building a great tower (Genesis 11:1–9), trying to become political equals with their neighbours by establishing a king (1 Samuel 8), and trying to keep God still and tame by building a temple (1 Kings 6).
These stories are all about people using technology to build upward, to better establish themselves. God can work in these cases — and was often the initiator for these innovations — but as we’ve seen, it is often very difficult for people to remember and honor God when their focus is on building themselves up.
2. Using technology to build outward
A second major theme of God’s unfolding story has been to send people out to bless the nations, to heal the sick, and to share the good news of Jesus.
Technology has played a significant, foundational role in the good news going out. The Apostle Paul was able to travel extensively throughout the Mediterranean region because of the technology of roads, developed by the Romans, and the universal language of the empire, Greek. Paul could write and send letters because of the portable technology of papyrus, in addition to the technology of writing that so worried Socrates.
A millennium and a half later, the Protestant Reformation was possible because of the technology of the printing press, which Martin Luther described as “God’s highest and extremist act of grace, whereby the business of the gospel is driven forward” (as quoted in The Hyperlinked Life from the Barna Group). Some have gone so far as to call the printing press a social media platform, and of course this new technology of the printing press elicited moral panic concerns from respected scientists about information overload.
These stories are about people using technology to build outward, to carry good news around the world. By and large these have been positive stories. But when building outward becomes about broadcasting — a one-way flow of information — it can be very difficult for people to keep the needs of the audience in mind, instead holding onto their own sense of control.
3. Using technology to build inward
A third major theme of God’s unfolding story has been to love one’s neighbour. While using harvest technologies, the instruction was to leave the edges of the field undisturbed to provide food for the poor (Leviticus 23:22).
When encountering someone hurt along the road, the expectation was to go above and beyond to take care of that person using technologies of bandages, oil, wine, and money (Luke 10:25–37).
After Paul travelled out to establish churches, he was able to communicate a tremendous amount of care and affection (Philippians 1:1–11) via the technology of letters with the expectation that this communication was real and authentic (2 Corinthians 10:11).
These stories are about people using technology to build inward, to care deeply for whoever is encountered while going through life. These are inspiring stories, but very difficult to live out. People are hard to deal with — let alone love and care for — whether or not technology is in the mix.
How are you using technology?
These stories give a picture of how the people of God have used technology in the past, but what about today?
Caution is warranted when considering building upward and outward with technology. Many ministries have successfully gotten the message of good news out using radio, television, Facebook, Snapchat, Pokemon Go, and whatever the next technology might be.
But it is essential for even successful ministries to consider what is necessary to build inward with technology. Broadcast reach and impressions are fine, but where is there connection? How are we listening to and learning from our audiences?
Movements like D-Church are grappling with questions surrounding the future of the church in the digital age — especially around discipleship — through conversations in an ordinary listserv as well as panel discussions at Google headquarters.
World Vision is using virtual reality to help Americans experience and feel global poverty more deeply than just reading an article. Groundwire advertises on Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify not just to build outward but also inward, inviting people into a one-on-one conversation.
InterVarsity/USA’s Ministry in Digital Spaces team is engaging in ongoing conversations via social media, and building long-term relationships through gaming, and creating original content — including podcasts, blogs, vlogs, and video game live streaming — in order to gather communities into conversation. Read more of their ministry stories on their blog.
What about you? How are you using technology in this digital age? Do you tend to build upward, outward, or inward? How could you start using technology in a new way, particularly to build inward?
Consider starting with a digital prayer walk through the online spaces you regularly visit. Who do you encounter? What is their story? How might you engage with them?
About the author
Bret Staudt Willet is Director of Ministry in Digital Spaces with Intervarsity USA and a PhD student at Michigan State University, where he’s studying the Internet and human connection.
This article is part of a two-part series looking at how Christians interact with technology. Next month we will feature an article by Jessica Grant on the distraction technology can be, and when it might be good to disengage.