Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Technology and the Christian Life

I have been contemplating and reading about technology a lot lately.  It's a quandary.  I'm not sure how to integrate and yet limit the hold of media and technology in my life and my home....

Quotes and ideas that stood out to me from the book:

From the Garden to the City
By John Dyer

P 33
The first story tells how humans shape the world using tools.  This larger story begins with the smaller stories we tell ourselves when we see a new tool.  As we imagine ourselves using it, we see in our mind’s eye all the great new things we can accomplish with the device.  Whether we come across a faster computer, an egg white separator, or a space shuttle, our minds attempt to understand the tool by imagining what it would be like to use it.

The mind of a child envisions a world of adventure and purpose while the mind of an adult longs for a world of comfort, ease and power.

P 36 We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

The moral purpose of digging does not change the way that the act of using a shovel transforms a person.

P 38
Those who have developed the ability to consume complex arguments in books tend to feel overwhelmed by the rush of data online, while those who do most of their reading online and on small mobile screens tend to lose concentration when they attempt to focus on a single idea for long periods of time.

The effect of technology on the brain and body happen irrespective of the content.  Of course, the content we consume is important, but often we focus so much on the content that we miss the importance of the medium through which we consume it.  In fact, sometimes the effects of a medium are more important than any content transmitted through that medium.

Just as a builder accesses dirt through the medium of the shovel, we access the minds of others through our various communication mediums.  Builders don’t have direct access to dirt, and you and I don’t have direct access to one another.

This means that our job, and the essence of what it is to be human, is to reflect God’s image to the rest of creation. 

First, humans display God’s ability to think rationally…Secondly, many thinkers have noticed the plural language referring to God (“let us”) and proposed that humans reflect God’s relationality…Thirdly, just as God is the ruler over the entire universe and all created things, his image-bearers are to rule over this tiny little planet. 

If the fish were programmed to swim and the birds were programmed to fly, then humans were programmed to cultivate the garden.

This tells us something important about both human nature and the garden.  It means that God designed the garden- even before the fall, sin and death- in such a way that it needed to be worked on.  It’s not that there was anything wrong with the garden, it’s just that God didn’t intend for it to stay the way that it was.  Instead, God wanted Adam to “cultivate” or “till” or “work” what he found in the garden and make something new out of it.  God created the garden not as an end point but as a starting point…In a sense, Adam was to take the “natural” world (what God made) and fashion it into something else- something not entirely “natural” – but sanctioned by God.

The final aspect of our role as God’s image-bearers, then, is our ability to create.  When we cultivate the garden, that is, when we make things from what God has made, we are reflecting the image of God.

In building his city, Cain was obviously doing technology.  He was using tools to transform God’s creation for practical ends, and like his parents, he fulfilled his role as an image-bearer while at the same time living in rebellion against God…When Jesus addressed people, he offered blessings to some and curses to others, but when he mentioned cities, it was always in the context of judgment.

This is in part because the city is humankind’s first idol, the first attempt to use our creative powers to dislodge God from his place of preeminence and his rightful status as a sustainer of life.  We use our idols fundamentally as a way of meeting our needs apart from God, and this is our greatest temptation with technology- to use it as a substitute for God.

The fifth-century theologian Augustine wrote that all sin is an “incurvature of the soul” or a turning inward toward the self.  Technology, for all its good, often amplifies and augments this inward turn…We also use our idols, especially our technological ones, as a means of distraction.  When we find something that offers us temporary relief from the curse of sin, instead of allowing its shortcomings to make us long for our Savior, we allow technology to distract us from our obvious need of a savior.

The result [of owning a mobile phone] is that as long as there are phones in our pockets, we are constantly connected to millions of other people who might call at any moment.  Whoever we might happen to be with at the moment is just one of billions of people to whom we could be talking.
We bought our phones because we valued solving one problem (safety) without realizing that the phone also brings with it the value of constant connection.  Then when we go for coffee with another person with our cell phone on, we are inadvertently agreeing to the value system issued by our cell; phones, and this includes a value statement about the person in front of us.  We are saying that we value not just his our her company but also the company of anyone else who might call.

Our task as believers is to work against the tendencies built into our devices, and to in effect because a predator of the media in the ecosystem of our lives.  Being a good predator means knowing one’s prey well, and the more powerful the prey, the more careful we must be with it…Christians who live God-honoring lives in the digital world are those who can discern the tendencies built into all technology and then decide when those tendencies are in line with godly values, and when those tendencies are damaging to the soul.  When we are aware of the tendencies and values inherent in our technology, we have the best chance of avoiding the negative trade-offs it brings and instead using the technology to serve God.

In general, more advanced communication technology requires fewer steps and, therefore, there are fewer social conventions required for its use.  When there are more built-in social conventions around using a medium, we tend to treat it more formally and what we communicate tends to be more significant (as in writing a letter).  Conversely, when a newer technology removes the need for these social conventions, it also removes the sense of formality (as in a text message)…Newer mediums remove formality and make things easier…

When we read a printed book, we often forget that we are spending a lot of our mental energy converting letters into words, and then forming these words into sentences, concepts and ideas.  This is a skill that we learn in school and perfect with years of practice.  But when we look at a picture, no translation is necessary.  We are born with all the tools we need to understand images…When we see words, they cause us to think; but when we see a picture, we react first and then think about our reaction afterward.

Throughout the epistles, Paul, Peter and John express their deep desire to be physically present with those to whom they wrote.  Often, the apostle writers connect “joy” and “fullness” to being physically present, and they report sadness and longing when they must resort to communication tools like writing.  And yet, as we see in John’s epistles, they still sued communication tools when embodied encounters were not possible and when the use of those tools could build up the body of Christ.  However, their intention was to honor the incarnation of Christ by always holding physical presence as the highest and best medium.

Though a mobile phone is not itself morally evil, it cannot be considered “neutral” either.  Instead, embedded in its design is a tendency of usage from which a set of values emerge.  Our flesh will often seize upon the power and value system of a tool and use it for evil.

Carefully considering the trade-offs and problems of technology should urge us to create and use tools that fit within God’s command to both “cultivate” and “keep” the garden.  And if we are not in a position of creating such tools, we need to spend time thinking about the value systems that emerge from using a tool; we must discern when those tools are in conflict with the value system of the kingdom of God.  Just as the promise of resurrection does not imply that we are free to neglect our souls and bodies, the promise to restore our tools does not give us license to create or use tools that abuse God’s creation and distort that kind of life he has commanded us to live.

Then, around the turn of the twentieth century, things started to shift in as unforeseen direction.  The factories were becoming so efficient at producing goods that they began making more goods than people previously needed.  Today, the idea that a factory might produce something no one wants to buy is rather ordinary, but in the history of humanity, this had never happened before….It’s that “feel happy” part that advertisers had to tap into to urge people to buy things that go above basic necessities.

This cycle of progressive improvement and altered expectations has led to what we now call consumerism and materialism.  Nothing is ever good enough, and we find ourselves continually distracted from our deeper spiritual needs that no tool can solve.

Our tools allow us to control nearly all of the natural cycles of life.

And yet, all this control hasn’t necessarily resulted in more happiness for those who wield it.

The device [air conditioner] had hidden the process of cooling that used to take place outside, and the result was that the space where people use to commune became obsolete.  Over time, people spent more time indoors, neighbors became strangers.

Again, the point is not that fast food is inherently bad (although that might be true); the point is that, in compressing these human practice down into a commodity available at the press of a button, the space for human connection and depth is often lost.  Imagine if the resurrected Jesus handed Peter a Big Mac and said, “You’re all good.  Get to it, buddy.”

Borgmann, though does not think the proper response to the device paradigm is to turn off our heaters or throw out our microwaves.  Instead, he recommends that we take time to intentionally establish that he called “focal things and practices.”  There are things that might normally be hidden or made unnecessary by a device, but that we choose to do anyway because of the kind of life we value.

Instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, Borgmann urges us to determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.

If the internet is a technology, then we should assume that it will present us with powerful new ways to shape the world, but that same power will also shape us and the way we see the world.  If used without reflection, that shaping will eventually make its way into our souls, influencing how we see ourselves and others and what we think is important.  Many of these effects will be rather innocuous, but we should never underestimate the capacity of our flesh to find ways to use technology for self-serving ends and as a means of distraction from our need for a savior and his Body, the Christian community.

A…downside to Internet information is that with equal access to all of the world’s information, we tend to cultivate the skill of searching for and accessing information rather than acquiring information, committing it to memory and allowing it to shape our minds and hearts. 

Moreover, when we spend all of our time scanning and accessing information, we often find ourselves suffering from “information overload.”  But this is not just a feeling we have about too much data.  Scientists at Temple University have shown that when we surround ourselves with many different pieces of information, our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that makes decisions) simply shuts off.  Information is often helpful in making good decisions, but “with too much information people’s decisions make less and less sense.” 

We seem to cultivate either the skill of deep reading or the skill of scanning.  It’s possible to do both, but it is difficult to maintain both abilities.

This brings us to the reasons why access, speed, and interruption are important for Christians.  A good portion of the Christian life requires the ability to concentrate and focus on ideas over long periods of time.  Spiritual depth requires the ability to pray for more than a few minutes, to read and memorize Scripture (not search for it online), and to love God with our hearts and our minds.  This means that we must be careful to cultivate and retain the skill of deeply reading and deeply contemplating the things of God, something the Internet and digital technologies do not value.  We cannot read deeply when we spend all of our time scanning or when we allow distraction to rule our minds.

The values of information access, speed and interruptions are not themselves morally wrong, but in a sinful world our tendency is toward complication, distraction, and chaos rather than simplicity, contemplation, and order.  We have to work against these tendencies in order to maintain balance between the natural and unnatural in our lives.

For those of us who want to cultivate a deep, spiritual life, we will have to be more selective in our information consumption and the media through which we consume it.

[Re: social media] In order to achieve ambient intimacy, friends need to continually post things about themselves- what they are thinking, feeling and doing-for their friends to read about.  To maintain this pattern, we have to regularly think about what we’re thinking, feeling and doing and then decide which of those things to communicate.  In other words, when we do community online, we have to think about ourselves much more than when we do community offline.

The great temptation of the digital generation is to inadvertently disagree with John [about using technology, in his case, writing] and assume that online presence offers the same kind of “complete joy” as offline presence.  Our problem is not that technologically mediated relationships are unreal, nor is the problem that all online communication is self-focused and narcissistic.  Rather, the danger is that just like the abundance of food causes us to mistake sweet food for nourishing food, and just like the abundance of information can drown out deep thinking, the abundance of virtual connection can drown out the kind of life-giving, table-oriented life that Jesus cultivated among his disciples.  Social media follows the device paradigm in that in masks the long, sometimes arduous process of friendship and makes it available at the press of a button.

A second great temptation for those of us who desire embodied life is that mobile technology allows us to coexist in both the online and offline worlds at the same time.  As we commune with friends and family and share meals together, the online world is always close at hand with statistics, numbers, and interaction.  The people in front of us might be sick, moody, unfriendly, or in need of a diaper change.  But there is no “unfriend” or “unparent” button for those difficult situations, and this makes it all the more tempting to sneak away to a world of constant interaction and adulation.  The people on our phones are beautiful and interesting, and we can ignore them when they are not.  However, the world in our pockets doesn’t give out rewards for faithfulness and long-suffering, only for the moment-by-moment interactions it requires, urging us to return and return again for a fleeting feeling of connection.

Technology…should all be directed toward enriching the few, precious face-to-face encounters we have in our busy world.

I don’t like the person I become when I spend all my time online any more than the person I become when I spend all of my time eating McDonald’s food.  Instead, I know that it is often the difficult things-eating healthy food and exercising, reading books for long periods, praying deeply, and spending quality time with my family and friends- that God uses to mold and shape us into the image of his Son.  Rather than be shaped by technology, I try to understand how each new technology can shape me and then decide if that coincides with that kind of person I think God would have me be.

Valuation- we must begin by continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian values and identity…After going through this evaluation process, we can ask where our Christian values and the values of technology might be in conflict, and what aspects of the tool our flesh will be tempted to use in ways that do not honor God.


Limitation- once we understand the patterns of usage of a technology, the next step is to see what happens when we put boundaries on it.  If we become convinced that spending too much time on social media sites invites narcissism and that reading online limits deep thinking, then a disciplined set of limits is necessary.  It is here that the desires of the flesh often emerge most strongly.  A person who checks his or her mobile phone regularly throughout the day may find it extremely difficult to curtail this pattern.  Because of this difficulty, incorporating a “technology fast” into one’s diet can be particularly helpful…choosing to abstain for several days from the tools that impact us most powerfully can help weaken their control…My goal is not simply to limit my technology usage but to open up space to live the kind of life that Christ modeled for us.  When I feel the urge to go outside of these boundaries, I have to ask myself if I’m doing so out of my Christian values and identity, or if I’m being pulled into the value of system of technology.