Four Critical Things We Need to Understand About Technology

In Technology and the Contemporary Life, philosopher Albert Borgmann suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, people should determine their values first and attempt to use their tools in service of those values. This should be what Christians are after.

Technology has changed and will continue to change the world at an increasingly rapid pace. As people living in this world—particularly as Christians living in this world—we have to understand how technology functions because it alters the ways in which we relate to the world and to one another.

Here are four critical things we need to understand about technology.

1. Understanding technology’s purpose

Understanding technology’s purpose means understanding what problem it seeks to solve. Technology is created to make complex things simple, so asking what complex task a form or application of technology tries to solve can help identify its purpose.

Google Maps, for example, exists to make simpler the complex problem of getting and following directions. Asking yourself the problem the technology in question seeks to make simpler allows you to better understand the intended use of the technology.

It can also be helpful to look up what the manufacturer explicitly states its purpose is. Sometimes this is not helpful, but other times it can be illuminating.

For instance, most people think Facebook is simply a way to stay connected with friends and family. However, Facebook’s website states that their mission is to, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Inherent within that statement is the value of democratization of power and organization. That means Facebook will design and build features around those inherent values (more on values in point three below).

2. Understanding technology’s use

Once you understand a technology’s purpose, you have a better sense of its intended use or uses. Knowing the intended use of a technological form or application is crucial to help you determine whether or not it is something you feel they can adopt, because a technology’s use may or may not be contrary to Christian values.

For instance, the Ashely Madison website, a form of social connection technology, openly sought to connect those looking to have an adulterous affair, which clearly does not align with Christian values and understandings of marriage.

Of course, technology often has unintended uses as well, and sometimes these are even more important to be aware of. The Internet simultaneously makes it possible to share pictures of one’s children with relatives around the world, while also making it possible for another person to produce or view pornography. The scientific community which created the Internet intended for it to be used as an information sharing platform, not a pornographic one.

Smartphone makers want to make devices that allow people to stay connected more easily and more often, which their products do. But they also allow terrorists to detonate bombs remotely, leading to the killing of innocent people.

Christians should understand better than anyone that technology makes more than good possible, and we can always count on sinful humans behaving sinfully. What technology makes possible we should see as probable.

3. Understanding technology’s values

Because most people today think technology is neutral and its moral value is found in its uses, they miss something crucial to understand about technology —it comes with its own values.

Technology is not built in a moral vacuum. A technology’s design imbues it with a set of morals which are then inherent to its use.

In his excellent book From the Garden to the City, John Dyer uses the example of iTunes and the music industry to illustrate how technology has inherent values. In previous decades, music was recorded on and sold by physical means—vinyl, cassettes, or CDs.

In the years since iTunes was released, the music industry has shifted almost entirely to a digital (non-physical) medium of distribution, giving birth to a world where small bands could be known around the world, where consumers buy less music, artists get paid less per song, and many brick-and-mortar stores and businesses have gone bankrupt.

These changes happened because iTunes values quick, easy, and cheap access to music. While these values may be neutral in and of themselves, the technology of iTunes is certainly responsible for positive and negative changes in the world of music.

The church is no exception to the changes in music. Before audio recording and amplification, people had to gather in a church on Sunday morning to experience worship music. Now people can access praise music and sermons anywhere they want for little or no cost. Large churches are partly a result of the technological innovations of the last few decades. Amplification and projection technologies have made it possible to reach and present information to a large number of people at once, something that was previously impossible.

Another helpful example Dyer gives is that of cell phones. We began buying cell phones for safety reasons; we wanted to be able to call someone in the event of an emergency. “We bought our phones,” says Dyer, “because we valued solving one problem (safety) without realizing that the phone also brings with it the value of constant connection.”

Because we did not recognize this value of constant connection we now live in a world where our phones beckon our attention away from whatever is in front of us around the clock. Yes, anything we could want to know is available all at once, but to have that possibility required us giving up the ability to be fully present, which leads to the next consideration.

4. Understanding technology’s tradeoffs

Technology always solves a problem, but it never does so without tradeoffs.

Furnaces and thermostats, for example, make it possible to regulate the temperature of a home with little to no variation. Furnaces were designed to take the place of the hearth—large fireplaces that served as centerpieces to homes historically.

Heating a home by fire is time-consuming and tedious—gathering and splitting wood, building the fire, starting the fire and keeping it going. But it turns out these processes also provided time for building strength, discipline, and relationships. Whereas a family used to split up the jobs required to keep a fire burning, now one of them simply presses a button. All the work is gone, but all the character-forming opportunities are gone too.

The same goes for air conditioning. Air conditioning units today keep us cool even in humid, North Carolina summers, which is an incredible feat of technology. But while the ability to stay cool year-round is certainly a positive, the tradeoff has been a lack of community and neighborly relationships.

Prior to air conditioning, we would have to go outside to cool off, hoping to sit on the porch and catch a breeze in the evening. Since everyone was involved in the same activity at the same time, it afforded opportunities for us to have a conversation. Now the porch is a ghost town at the same time of day, replaced instead with the blue glow of televisions and the low hum of A/C units.

It seems impossible that our heating and cooling systems could possibly have negative consequences, but such is the result of not considering the tradeoffs of technology. The further along we are in the adoption of a technology, the harder it is to see these tradeoffs. For that reason, understanding these trade-offs requires attention prior to adoption, or as soon as possible thereafter.

If we aren’t careful, technological tools and devices will shape our values. Instead, Christians should be using these tools in service of their values to love God and neighbor and make Jesus known among the nations. To do this well, we have to understand technology and its effects on humans made in the image of God.

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