How do we see through the veil and allure of technology to the underbelly of the digital age? How do we identify the good it can do for us, while also pinpointing the bad it’s doing to us?
There are many answers to those questions, but the first thing we need to do is step back and try to understand our complex, long-term relationship with technology (not to mention what technology even is). We didn’t just all of the sudden wake up in the last decade or two and face these complex challenges. They’ve been building for a lot longer than that.
It may be tempting to think of technology simply as computer innovations or electronic gadgets, but the truth is that technology has been around since the very beginning of time, and it has always shaped how we view the world. Technology is anything humanity creates to aid us or augment our work. For example, a shovel or hammer is a piece of technology in a similar way to the printing press and even our smartphones. While each are unique in some sense, they are all examples of technology. Technologies like these have, for a long time now, extended our abilities, caused us to ask different questions, and pushed us toward new frontiers in God’s creation.
Problem is, when we think about or engage the modern complex ethical questions of technology, we naturally seek out new ways of engaging these tools because we falsely believe that older generations don’t really understand the problems of today or address these modern issues we have about technology. We often fall prey to what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery,” which is the tendency to look down on figures and ideas from the past as if we have outgrown their advice and wisdom given our modern understandings of how the world works.
Looking to the past
But when it comes to how technology shapes us and alters how we view the world around us, some of the most helpful voices come from the past, as these thinkers were able to see the things that we often miss, given how all-encompassing technology has become in our lives. We can’t see out of our own moment. They often can, simply because they aren’t in it. Not to mention, as it is with a boxing match, watching someone else grapple with a hard subject before you jump in to wrestle it down yourself proves not only instructive, but far less painful.
One such helpful voice from the past is a French sociologist and theologian named Jacques Ellul. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, Ellul has become a profoundly influential thinker for me when it comes to bridging the gap between the nature of technology and the world around us. To my own surprise and hopefully to yours, I have found that he knows more about our struggles with technology today than many may think.
Ellul opens his widely influential work, The Technological Society, by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood.” These words frame this work that he penned in the 1950s, well before the advent of our current-day innovations. This speaks directly to the contemporary debates over technology and its proper role in our lives, as well as how it is radically altering how we perceive the world around us. Throughout this work and his other writings, Ellul helps us to see past simplistic understandings of technology and see how far-reaching its influence goes in our lives.
Examining the role of technology
Today, technology is assumed and assimilated rather than examined or questioned about its nature and proper role in our society. In other words, we don’t routinely look behind the curtain. Instead, we just take these tools at face value. We regularly reach for a technical solution to the problems we face because we have been trained to believe that technology can help solve whatever problem is before us. Think of how it was ingrained in us as smartphones were just becoming popular that “there is an app for that.” Need to lose weight and eat better? There is an app for that. Need to be more disciplined in your prayer life or Bible reading? There is an app for that too. Need a break from some rambunctious kids? There are plenty of apps for that.
The truth is that we often adopt these innovations without any real thought to “should we,” simply because we’re more focused on “can we.” We pursue innovation for innovation’s sake rather than examining the ethical challenges it may bring with it. This “should we” is the question of ethics or morality. It’s the point in the process where we slow down and ask is this even good, what does it do to me, and what are the long-term side effects on both me and my society?
Technologist John Dyer says it this way, “When technology has distracted us to the point that we no longer examine it, it gains the greatest opportunity to enslave us.” An essential first step to following Jesus in a digital age is to slow down and examine the proper role of technology in our lives. Because it is through this intentionality that the Lord can open our eyes to see clearly how technology shapes us, as well as begin to see how to pursue wisdom as we seek to tackle some of the biggest technology-related problems.
Pushing for efficiency
Jacques Ellul wrote his classic work on technology in the midst of his era’s explosion of modern technologies, such as the spread of television to most homes, the rise of many automated systems in homes and factories, and even the earliest beginnings of artificial intelligence in the West. He prophetically warned of the countless ways that technology was negatively affecting humanity in the pursuit of efficiency and progress, often without any real moral clarity or ethical response especially from the church.
One of Ellul’s greatest insights was how technique pushes everything in our lives toward greater efficiency. But what does this mean? It means that the goal of technology is to streamline everything by removing the obstacles or hindrances in our pursuit of more information or information processing. Ellul rightly believed that technology was not merely an isolated tool or instrument that we simply use as commonly understood in past generations, but it represented a more totalizing force in our modern life that shapes everything about us and our society. He understood technology not as a neutral tool simply used for good or evil but recognized that it has a dominating and reorienting effect on every aspect of human life toward efficiency.
Opening our eyes
Efficiency. Isn’t this the real “why” behind most of the technologies you’ve adopted in your life? Isn’t this in some sense one of the reasons we keep our devices at arm’s length? I know the answer for me is yes. Why do I use a digital, satellite-powered map on my phone to get me back home after a long work trip instead of a physical map? Because think of the time I save! Why do I use the same mapping app even when I drive home from the office? Well it shows me the traffic and helps me to get home faster! When the technology of “maps on your phone” came out, I admitted its entrance into my daily life immediately. Now I can go anywhere without having to know road names, landmarks, or even what state I’m in. I just have to follow the little blue line, and I’m there.
Speaking of how quickly we incorporate technology into our lives, media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman describes a similar idea to Ellul by saying that, “once a technology is admitted (in our lives), it plays out its hand; it does what is it designed to do,” and then he goes on to say that “our task is to understand what that design is—that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.”
Following Jesus in a digital age requires just that: having our eyes wide open and seeing how technology is subtly shaping us in ways often contrary to our faith. We need to learn how to ask the right questions about our relationship with technology, examining it with clear eyes grounded in the Word of God. This clarity can pierce through the mysteries of technology and help us to faithfully apply God’s word to these pressing challenges of the day.
Excerpted with permission from Following Jesus in a Digital Age by Jason Thacker. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.