Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fear of Technology

Every so often I bump up against fear of technology.

Not just ANY technology-- this fear will inevitably be of new/recent technology, and the verdict rendered by the fearful soul often will be either flippant dismissal ("These eBook readers will never approach the experience of a good old printed book!"), over-generalized accusation ("Now you've sold out to the gods of Apple and Microsoft!"), or naïve misunderstanding ("Is this going to destroy my vision and suck out my soul?").

Now, I'll admit that technology can be a little frightening at times. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke observed in his now semi-famous comment:
"Any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic."
("Profiles of the Future," 1961)

But I want to challenge my tens of readers to a more tempered, logical view of technology-- first, with a declaration, then with three urgent approaches.

As I see it, most of us think of "technology" as that which has been developed in the memory of our lifetime. This is why some incredibly advanced technologies are embraced by those who quickly eschew others: think of the senior citizen whose grandchildren are unable to get him to use the computer they gave him for Christmas, and who is also fearful of the day when his children will try to take away his car keys. Never mind that the car he loves employs more diverse types of technologies (including several computers!) than the desktop computer he hates. The technology of computers is new, while he's been driving cars all of his life.

This also explains why some technological advances are more widely-embraced than others. Specifically, those that are more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary." Consider, for example, how easily many have adapted to mobile phones (a simple evolution of the telephone, which went from being a relatively huge, heavy appliance supplied by the phone company to smaller, sleeker models, then to wireless in-home phones, then fully mobile). Smartphones, on the other hand, do not see the same widespread embrace (they represent revolution, not merely evolution, in some senses).

In light of this idea, I would urge three approaches to technology:
  • Consistency: think about how your view of technology might be mitigated with a more consistent view of "technology." Some folks balk at the idea of using a video projector in worship, for example, because they don't want "technology" shaping their worship-- but they don't mind using electric lights, HVAC systems, or even sound amplification! Others are lamenting the "death of the book" because of the rise in eReaders and digital technology; don't you think similar questions and hyperboles were uttered at the invention of the Gutenberg press? Before scoffing at the guy two pews in front of you who is reading his Bible on his iPhone, consider how much technology went into producing your sewn (or glued), bound, printed copy of the Bible.
  • Discernment: the fearful are at least partly-right-- we DO need to be discerning about our use of technology. Most fears are grounded in some measure of truth, and this is no different. Certainly, it is possible for technology to be used inappropriately and even harmfully. On a TV show that Marcie and I enjoy, one member of the cast comments, "my generation really got gypped when it came to technology; where are our flying cars and jet packs?" His (younger) companion asks, "how about the personal computer and the internet?" "Oh-- a more efficient vehicle for junk mail and pornography? No thank you." And the point is clear. But the same technology CAN be used in a helpful way, and IS every day. So let's be discerning about the introduction of technology, recognizing that it might be a real tool and asset when used in the right way-- or it could be destructive and harmful. We must safeguard against the one while not eliminating the other. Abusus non tollem usit-- "abuse does not negate proper use;" or as someone else put it, "Light sabers don't kill Jedi-- Jedi kill Jedi."
  • Moderation: A corollary to discernment is also approaching technology with moderation. Just because we CAN develop a new technology doesn't mean we SHOULD do so. This is, of course, the foundational debate beneath the stem-cell research question that has been batted about over the last 10 years, but it is fundamental to many other technological advances, too. And, of course, it is possible to hold up technology as the solution to every problem and the answer to every question. We cannot overcome sin with technology! We need to exercise moderation in our very approach to technology, as well as in our embrace and use of it.

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