I read Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” while in seminary in the 1990s. His prescience blew my mind. First published in 1954, Ellul wrote things like, “Today the human being is dissociated from the essence of life; instead of living time, he is split up and parceled out by it.” He notes how “technique” has modified communities, creating a mass society in which individuals are swept up, often unconsciously.
Around 2012, I was introduced to Albert Borgmann. He writes about “postmodern realism” and our ability to control our environment through technology. He notes, “The telos of hyperreal logic would be a perfectly glamorous simulator.” In other words, why go to Paris when you can visit Disney’s version at Epcot? He contrasts virtual presence with real presence, noting what is lost when we fail to engage with the messy, but grace-filled, real. Both of these writers resonated with me, but their assessments of technology didn’t ring completely true.
I communicate with my hearing impaired brother through Facebook. My child with dyslexia has benefited immensely from developments like voice-to-text and spellcheck. I have an entire community of friends to whom I feel connected, even though I have not met them in person. I know people facing challenging illnesses who have virtual, and vital, support groups. Telemedicine has saved lives and the internet has given people access to information and resources heretofore unavailable to them. While those who are wary of technology garnered my “amen,” I also wanted to say, “Yes, but.” So, I kept reading, using that antiquated technology that was once cutting edge and world changing: books.
I read “Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google” thinking that libraries might have something to teach churches about being “hybrid” models. (They do.) I read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” (It has changed my email and social media habits.) I just finished David Sax’ book “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.” (Which gave me hope for the role of, among other things, magazines!) I read Jeffery Shaw’s “Illusions of Freedom: Thomas Merton and Jacques Ellul on Technology and the Human Condition.” (Check out Shaw’s article in this issue.) I am almost finished with “From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology” by John Dyer. (Dyer does a great job of viewing technology through the biblical narrative.) While each of these books has expanded my reading list exponentially, none of them gave me an easy way to navigate our current technology-saturated culture.
However, I am starting to yearn less for an answer – technology bad, technology good, technology inevitable so get over yourself – as much as I am seeking a means to struggle consciously with how faithfully to engage with technology. Part of the challenge is the speed at which technology changes (read about this in John Seely Brown’s “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change”). Another reason such engagement is difficult is that often we church people are in survival/scarcity mode, a way of being that inhibits creative thinking and tends to make us hunker down and hold on tight, rather than experiment, fail and try again. Further, communities of faith seem to land on one side of the technology spectrum or the other. They see themselves as institutions charged with curating tradition and therefore resistant to change, or they relentlessly seek relevance and jump on the latest development with more enthusiasm than thought. Such black-and-white approaches are easier, but I don’t think theologically sound.
Here is what I do think is theologically sound: faith seeking understanding, using treasures old and new to share the gospel, encouraging and building up the Body of Christ no matter what tools we employ, keeping God’s telos ever before us so that we will not mindlessly use whatever means are at our disposal to achieve our own ends. I am going to keep reading, thinking and asking questions. I intend to focus on content and community, digital and print, virtual and face to face, seeking (however poorly) what is pleasing in the sight of the Lord. I hope you will help hold me accountable (in person and online).
Grace and peace,