Loving technology, loving God
A successful software engineer (turned Luddite, then back), Rosie Perera wonders if we've forgotten what the Apostle Paul might have said: "Technology is permissible—even good in many ways—but I will not be enslaved by it."
I admit it. I'm a technophile. I love technology. My computer counts as a "significant other"—I spend at least eight hours a day in front of it, and I truly love working and playing with it. I love well crafted, elegant computer code. And I love to see faces light up when people learn how to do something on the computer that previously was mystifying them or taking them hours to unravel.
But like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I run my life from the computer, so I can't live without it, but sometimes I wish I could. I get exhausted trying to keep up with the complexity of it all, and impatient with it when it doesn't work. I suffer from information overload, and I have too many "e-correspondents" to keep up meaningfully with all of them. I use my computer to procrastinate, and it sometimes borders on an addiction that leads to impoverished "real life" relationships with others in my community, and with God. I worry about our overdependence on technology and about how we're losing the ability to do things the "old fashioned" way when the technology fails. I am concerned about the widening gap between the technology "haves" and the "have nots" who are denied access to information, prosperity, and a global voice.
Among other things, the sense of a disconnect between my faith and my interaction with technology led me to leave a successful career as a software engineer and become something of a Luddite, resisting new tech toys and computer or software upgrades for years, in order to seek out spiritual growth, instead, as if this were an either-or proposition. This ultimately brought me full circle to examining the relationship between technology and Christian faith. The examination led me to consider the goodness of technology when it is used for good, and employed in a healthy way. Only over the past few years have I begun to integrate two formerly disparate parts of my life, and to find pleasure once again in being a "techno geek." I have come to the conclusion that our love for technology, if not derived from and subordinate to our love for God, can compete with our love for God. That danger is still a reality for me, and I am always looking for ways to keep my love of technology grounded in the deeper love of God. Here follow some thoughts on how to keep a proper balance.
Creation and the IMAGO DEI
Foundational to thinking about technology in light of a Christian worldview is that when God created the material world, He pronounced it good—indeed, "very good" (Genesis 1:31). In his "Worshipping God with technology," Denis Alexander says that God demonstrated Himself as "the arch-technophile and the ultimate enabler of human technology" when He shaped the materials of the universe into all the wonderful living and inert things that we see around us. Thus, God showed that the activity of creating new things out of the stuff of the earth is inherently good.
My experience of writing software is, I believe, the closest thing to creation ex nihilo that humankind is capable of (with the possible exception of writing poetry and fiction). Although the tools used in producing software and the media on which it is distributed are all material things, software itself is simply made up of ideas and instructions—nothing physical. Programmers put together bits of nothing, and out of their virtually limitless imaginations, they create software which actually does something. Pretty amazing! The line between science and art or craft when it comes to writing software is blurry. The Greek root of our word "technology" bears this out. The word technë suggests the arts of the mind as well as the fine arts and crafts.
An important related piece of biblical background to human technology is the imago Dei. We are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). That means, among other things, that we have in us a creative bent akin to God's. Leland Ryken writes, "the image of God in people . . . affirms human creativity as something good since it is an imitation of one of God's own acts and perfections." Our urge to invent things, to create technology, whether it be to solve problems or just for the fun of it, comes out of that God-imaging, creative impulse. Technological ingenuity is part of what it means to be human, and any good theology of technology will take that into account.
When we create technology, we are carrying out the creation mandate, to "subdue the earth." This does not give us license to subjugate the created order to feed our desires. No, we are expected to be good stewards of the God-created, natural world. I believe that we are also called to "steward" our technology, which includes caring for it well (protecting our computers from viruses, for example). But we must rein it in when it threatens to encroach on the created world, including ourselves. To paraphrase and expand on the Apostle Paul, "Technology is permissible—even good in many ways—but I will not be enslaved by it." We need not go as far as Neil Postman and Wendell Berry, who have a disdain for any unnecessary technology. Sometimes the sheer joy of creating and using technology is good enough reason to do it. But we need to maintain dominion over it. In doing so, we follow the middle way of realism between "techno-utopianism"—the belief that technology is the answer to all the world's problems—and "neo-luddism"—the fear that technology is causing more problems than it is solving and should, therefore, be shunned.
Focal things and practices
University of Montana professor Albert Borgmann is a philosopher who rejects the overly pessimistic view of Jacques Ellul and others which says that technology is an autonomous, pernicious force. Borgmann suggests, however, in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life that modern technology has disoriented us. In pre-technological society, one oriented oneself by reference to the sun. Today, we have nothing to orient ourselves around. We have lost what he calls focal things and practices. A focal practice is an activity which "can center and illuminate our lives . . . a regular and skillful engagement of body and mind." Playing a musical instrument is his example of a focal practice. A focal thing is something which is used in a focal practice—a violin, for example. Focal things are "matters of ultimate concern that are other and greater than ourselves." Borgmann describes how a regular reenactment of the founding, consecrating act of a divine ancestor functioned as a focal practice of religious communities in mythic times. For Christians, the Lord's Supper is a focal practice.
Borgmann believes that with care, we can ensure that focal things and practices thrive in a technological context. Citing Tracy Kidder's account in The Soul of a New Machine about the engaging work of a team that designed and constructed a computer, Borgmann still claims that work with computers is not and cannot be a focal practice because it necessarily alienates people from the outside world. I am not convinced that Borgmann has the final word here. Like most philosophers who try to resolve the problems of technology, Borgmann has come to his views from outside the world of the technologist. He overlooks that certain technologies enable physically disabled people to interact with the outside world in ways not otherwise possible. I am trying to grapple with Borgmann's ideas, and to find in software engineering "focal qualities" in our practice of it. Perhaps, a revival of software craftsmanship could be a step in the right direction. Regardless, I think Borgmann makes a point not easily shrugged off. If he's right, it is difficult to pinpoint why. Is it that interacting with a computer, or with various forms of technological entertainment, is an engagement of the disembodied mind, not mind and body?
Awareness and "releasement" towards technology
In his essay, "The Question Concerning Technology," Martin Heidegger sets about helping us develop a free relationship to technology. A relationship is "free" if it "opens our human existence to the essence of technology." He says we can be in bondage to technology whether we champion it or vehemently resist it. But we are most enslaved when we take the view that technology is simply a neutral tool and, thus, don't think about it at all.
Heidegger writes that humans, in fact, do not stand outside the essence of technology, able to observe it and relate to it objectively. They stand "within the essential realm of Enframing." "Enframing" is his word for what might be akin to the "Matrix" (in the film by that name). We are so immersed in technology that we are rarely even aware that we have a relationship to it that affects us.
The very essence of modern technology requires that it be used for approaching nature as an object of research, or a "standing reserve" to be exploited, instead of something which encompasses artistic creation and brings forth new life. According to Heidegger, the real threat to humanity does not come from "the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology," but from the Enframing that makes us unaware of it, and causes humans to themselves become "standing reserve." The key to freedom from Enframing is to think about the essence of technology and become aware of our relationship to it. Heidegger suggests that the best realm in which reflection on technology and confrontation with it can be pursued is a realm paradoxically like technology itself (they both are technë): art. I take it that through artistic expression, we can become appropriately aware of our relationship to technology, and critique it. Another way towards freedom from bondage to technology lies in what Heidegger calls releasement towards it, which is a way of saying at the same time both "yes" and "no" to its use—the freedom to take it or leave it.
Technology and sabbath
The Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák taught at Boston University while living in a rustic cabin in the backwoods of New Hampshire. He wrote in The Embers and the Stars that as he commuted back home nightly to the middle of nowhere, he experienced the transition from the electric lights of the city to the expanse of darkness between the glowing embers of his fireplace and the stars. Watching dusk gradually encroach on the natural world "beyond the power line" opened his eyes to things that are normally hidden in modern, day-to-day life. We have surrounded ourselves with technological artifacts that obscure the moral sense of our existence. We cannot see the starry sky which declares the glory of God because of the artificial light. In itself, technology is not bad. It has brought us much good, and is authentic to human existence. But in the midst of it, we have forgotten who we are.
Kohák invites us to "bracket" technology, to step away from it periodically so that we can recover the natural rhythms of life and discern the "moral sense of nature" and of the very technology we use. Since, in Kohák's words, humans are uniquely privileged to "dwell at the intersection of time and eternity," I suggest that taking time away from technology on a regular basis—a "technology sabbath"—can help transform the way we relate to it, and can bring eternity back into focus. It will help us become aware of the impact technology on our lives, the "Enframing" as Heidegger calls it, by which technology colors how we construe everything.
In Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel says that the sabbath is "a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization." The idea of a technology sabbath (whether one day a week or a longer period every so often) is slowly gaining in popularity. The first time I heard of it was in 2001 when students at Seattle Pacific University took a week off from using technology they'd taken for granted, and rediscovered themselves and the joy of being with friends. I have practiced the spiritual discipline of giving up non-essential use of the Internet during the period of Lent for the past three years, and it has profoundly affected my awareness of how deeply enmeshed I am in it. It has also renewed my appreciation for creation, and for being present in it. It has benefitted my relationship with God and with others. Taking a technology sabbath allows me to re-enter the world of technology with a newfound freedom from the compulsion of it. I have learned that Heidegger's "releasement towards technology" is a good thing. I am looking forward to Lent again this year! I need it.