How do we find the path to responsible creation and use?
Recently, Paul Graham, who is well-known in technology circles for his work with programming languages and his involvement in the tech incubator the Y-Combinator, wrote a piece that grappled with technological progress and its disadvantages. For Graham, the crux of the issue is that while technology often improves the quality of our lives, it also provides ample opportunities to reduce that quality. Addiction becomes a serious issue in the wake of technological progress, as we can be faced with more plentiful, less expensive things to which we enslave ourselves. Graham's example of addiction—the Internet—shows the best and the worst that a single technology offers to us. At its best, it provides a nearly limitless source of information, freeing what would be reams upon reams of written words and art which may be inaccessible to most people otherwise; yet at its worst, it is a place to waste time and a rather wide gateway to the underbelly of humanity.
Note, however, two things. First, Graham is hardly anti-technology. He is a well-respected programmer who made a small fortune by selling technology to Yahoo!. He funds technology start-ups through the Y-Combinator. Clearly, he does not wish technology to go away, but Graham does wish to put technology in its proper place. Technology should not be rejected outright, but it must be used in a responsible manner. His assessment of the addictive nature of technology is rather frank (calling the iPad a "hip flask" and equating Internet addiction with drunkenness), but often this is exactly what we need to shake us from our ignorance. What his assessment lacks, however, is a path forward—an ethics of responsibility toward technology.
Unsurprisingly, Graham is critical of mainstream evangelical Christianity's ability to be a solution to the addictive nature of technology. But this critique misses the rich tradition of Reformational theology and the signposts it provides. If Christ does indeed claim every square of inch of his creation as his own, then we have a clear framework in which to create and interact responsibly with technology, in a manner that glorifies God. When technology is examined under the glass of faith in Christ, we can hopefully discern how to use it in a way independent of short-sighted materialism.
So we can ask the question: How do we find the path to responsibly creating and using technology?
First we must understand the material costs of technology. We are called to be stewards of creation, and so we must realize that we cannot build without causing some change to creation. God gives us the ability to incur this change and use the resources provided to us, but we must do this in a manner that preserves creation. It is not easy to draw this fine line. We who use technology must be responsible consumers who consider the ecological impact of our technological choices. Additionally, we must consider the cultural costs of technology—and it is here I believe that Christians can find some common group with Graham and other friendly critics of technology.
The Internet—particularly social networking—has changed the way we relate to one another. We have friends and acquaintances that we have never met in person. We fire salvos on message boards, sometimes writing things in anonymity that we would never say to another person's face. This hardly stands up to Christ's call to love our neighbours, and, more importantly, our enemies.
We also need to understand that technology will never be a silver bullet for any problem. Technology will not end poverty, feed the world, or bring world peace. A technocratic view toward public policy will not achieve those goals, either. This is not to say that technology cannot ease the suffering brought about by sin, but it will never end that suffering. Only Christ can do that. Can we, as Christians, have hope in technology? Certainly. But it must be a guarded hope, knowing that sin threatens to ensnare even the best of intentions. And we must consider that technology will always extract a toll on creation. Often these tolls are hidden from view (at least for most us), but the energy and materials that power our world are not free.
Despite our religious differences, I agree with Graham's assessment of the culture cost of technology. I believe Graham would agree about the larger costs as well. We need not dismiss technology as Christians. God has given us abilities as creators, and it is possible to glorify Him through what we build.
But we must be wary of technology. We have to understand its costs, and we have to be willing to put it aside, even temporarily, if becomes a plank in our eyes. But what should we be wary of? The target of Graham's critique is a good place to start. Technology scale is truly amazing—we carry pocket-sized computers that put a wealth of information at our fingertips. While this access can often be incredibly useful, it is also a distraction, particularly in our personal relationships. Is God glorified when we cannot put down our iPhones to play with our kids?
And, of course, it is not always entertainment that gets in the way. I enjoy great freedom in where I work, and this has been an enormous blessing. But it can also make it difficult to separate work from the rest of my life, and this, too, puts pressure on relationships.
We also need to be aware of the costs of new technology, particularly with the ever-growing selection of gadgets at our disposal. New technology is indeed wonderful, but we must consider if we always need to be on the bleeding edge of that technology. Smart phones are a particularly problematic technology—new iterations are released at a rapid pace, and we find ourselves with drawers full of tech that won't be used again. Computers, too, often have a short life cycle. With the lure of slick advertising, it's easy to become a slave to the Next Big Thing.
We believers in Christ don't have an explicit road map for proper technology use. But we do have a roadmap that shows us how to relate to God, his creation, and our brothers and sisters. Discernment and prayer help provide a path forward. God has given us skills as creators, and technology will always progress, for good or bad. We are called to be thoughtful about what we build and how we interact with it.