Drawing Lines in the Sand

We are compelled to be engaged with technology. Where will we make our stands?

June 25 th 2010

We are surrounded by technology. Some may try to avoid particular facets of technology—cell phones, computers, televisions—but few can live almost unencumbered by technology in any shape or form. In such a situation, we cannot idly consume each new technology without at least attempting to understand the effects it has on ourselves and the culture around us. As Christians, we are further compelled to understand the place that technology has in God's creation, and how we must balance technology as stewards of that creation. We cannot mindlessly use technology and assume it is all part of God's plan. I am not suggesting that faith entails the denial of technology, but it does require a thoughtful approach to it and its effects on us. How, then, do we develop a worldview that is mindful of both the positive and negative effects of technology? There are several approaches.

Often, friendly critics of technology draw lines in sand, as it were, to determine what is and is not proper technology. Wendell Berry, he of the non-mechanized farm, lays out his stand on technology in his essay "Why I Am Not Going To Buy a Computer." Berry is mindful that he is is dependent on some form of technology, as most people are. (An important aside: the original Luddites were not anti-technology, as their work still required some degree of tools to complete, but instead were taking a stand against a technology that would possibly upset the balance of their lives. Today we give the appellation to someone who is fearful of technology.)

In light of his admission of dependence, Berry is able to define what he views as acceptable tools or technologies. Critical to Berry's guide is human-ness—the tool should not de-humanize the user or her community. We may properly call Berry a Luddite—he sees the ever-ongoing development of technology, particularly mechanized things, as a grave threat to his community. We may not draw our lines in the same places as Berry, but we should consider his words carefully.

Recently, Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft (The Penguin Press, 2009), also defines particular lines in the sand between acceptable and unacceptable technology. For Crawford, a motorcycle mechanic by trade, technology should not cloak its inner workings. Crawford uses the oil pump on a motorcycle as an example. He readily admits that an automated oil pump is better than a manual pump (or no pump at all). But as technology ever marches forward, it also obscures itself, constantly pushing itself into the domain of experts and out of the hands its users. (It is here that Crawford's perspective dovetails with Berry's—the tool should be easily understood and fixable by the average user.) The current crop of oil pumps obscure their inner workings from even competent mechanics, and only a specialist, often trained by the manufacturer, can repair the pump, or even understand how exactly it works. There is, again, a human factor to Crawford's perspective. Much like Berry, Crawford desires technology that is accessible. "Black boxes" ultimately limit our freedom because their use (and repair) often bind us to specialists rather than allow us tinker on our own.

Jacques Ellul, writing in the middle of the 20th century, took a different approach. In his critical book The Technological Society (Vintage Books, 1967), Ellul viewed technology as a force (Technique, as he called it) rather than a collection of artifacts or created things. Technique seeks to limit human freedom by binding our lives to it. "We are constrained," Ellul wrote, "to be 'engaged,' as the existentialists say, with Technique." (It is fascinating to me that Ellul wrote this in the late 1950s, yet it very much describes our culture's dependence on "information," particularly as it relates to the Internet.) The focus, then, is not particular artifacts (computers, tape recorders, cars), but on the effects that all technology has on humanity. Ellul's solution is not to necessarily to draw individual lines in the sand (that is, toasters are good but microwaves are not), but to understand that any piece of technology limits human freedom. Technique, according to Ellul, always seeks to extend its reach over humanity, maximizing its own power at the expense of our freedom.

Ultimately, I believe this means we must draw our own lines in the sand with all technology, understanding that even the most benevolent piece of technology can affect our lives in a negative way. We cannot draw these lines without reflection on how we, as individuals, consume technology—again, re-read Ellul's statement on being compelled to be engaged with technology. Does a seemingly benign piece of technology limit your freedom as an individual created by God, living in community with others? The answer may not always be clear, and may even be different for each of us (perhaps some of us can use Facebook without becoming bound to it). What is critical, however, is that we always ask the question.

(For those interested in Ellul's views on technology, I recommend this interview with Ellul, in which he provides a layman's overview of his book.)


Brian Janaszek lives in Morningside, Pittsburgh, PA with his wife Jenifer and their two sons. Currently, a local software company pays him to be a computer programmer despite his degrees in philosophy and creative writing. He is currently working out the implications of being an anarcho-communitarian Neocalvinist during his daily commutes to the office on his bicycle.