Technology in the Cultural Mandate and the Coming Kingdom

Having discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of technology, now it’s time to consider what the Bible says on the topic.

Technology and the Cultural Mandate

The first biblical consideration is the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28, where God tells the newly created man and woman,

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Remarking on this passage, Nancy Pearcey writes,

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music.[1]

Genesis 2 expands that job description, stating, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).

So God created man and woman to “subdue” the earth and “to work it and keep it.” In other words, God created man and woman to make something of the earth.

God created something that was good (creation), then commissioned humans to make it better. To take what was given them and shape it into something better. Subduing the earth implies the use of tools (or technology), for without tools we would be incapable of subduing the wildness of all that God created. Technology is inevitable if humankind is going to rule over that creation like God intended.

Technology is implied in the cultural mandate and in the coming Kingdom.

Technology and the Coming Kingdom

If you fast-forward to the end of the Bible, you see the New Heavens and the New Earth coming together in its most potent form in the New Jerusalem. It’s hard to imagine the New Jerusalem being possible without technology. Consider this from Revelation 21:

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal

. . . . The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass (Rev 21:9–11, 18-21 ESV).

John, the author of these words, is struggling to make any connections to real-life materials in order to explain the visions he experienced. He’s seeing the New Jerusalem, the city where Jesus will reign for all of eternity, which is part of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The Bible describes the coming together of heaven and earth as a physical reality that resurrected sons and saughters of God will enjoy.

So what John is seeing is not some ethereal, spiritualized conception of reality—it is reality. And that reality would not be possible without some form of advanced technology.

From the Garden to the City

Civilization started in a garden, but it will end in a city. The New Jerusalem is what God intended for humans to accomplish from the beginning. When God put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to make something of it, surely this is what He had in mind.

The transformation from garden to city does not happen without technology, so the impetus for humans to create technology is inherent in our design. After all, humans are made in the image of a creator God.

John’s vision of the New Jerusalem goes beyond showing us that technology is part of God’s design, however. John Dyer writes,

“The promise of this new city tells us that God’s plan is not merely to regenerate human bodies and resurrect human souls but also to restore human creations to a world untainted by sin. . . . In the new city there will be no more sadness, pain, or death, only everlasting joy and glory to God.”[2]

What’s seen in Revelation is a vision of a redeemed technological city and people which bring glory to the God who created them and made everything possible.

Next, we’ll look at how the New Testament authors wrestled with the embodied technology of their day.


[1] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 47.

[2] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 138.

Technology is Not Neutral

Most people think technology is neutral and can good or bad, depending on how you use it.

That would be true if forms of technology were value-less, or didn’t come with their own inherent set of values.

But they do.

Technology is not neutral. I repeat, technology is NOT neutral.

Why Technology is Not Neutral

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, says in an interview[1] that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are, indeed, not neutral.

Many people assume these platforms are neutral and believe their experience is based on how they choose to use them. But that understanding misses the reality that each of these companies has thousands of “attention engineers” working to distract its users away from whatever they are doing, and then keep their attention as long as they can.

Harris explained that the theories behind how they engineer their products are coming from the casino industry — an industry notorious for its manipulation of consumers. His comments from one an essay are worth quoting at length:

If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?

How often do you check your email per day?

One major reason why is the number one psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.

… But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:

  • When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
  • When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
  • When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
  • When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
  • When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.

Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business.

Technology is not neutral; it’s designed to get your attention, whether intentionally or not. And that’s because technology has values.

Technology Has Values

Since 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.

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, 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, iTunes is certainly responsible for positive and negative changes in the world of music.[2]

Another example Dyer gives is cell phones. Originally, people began buying cell phones for safety reasons; they wanted to be able to call someone in need 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.”[3]

Because we didn’t recognize that 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 to give up the ability to be fully present.

Technology is not neutral because each form of technology comes with its own set of values — values you may or may not share.


[1] https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-technology-doing-to-us/

[2] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 88 –89.

[3] Ibid., 95.

The Bad of Technology

The church must start thinking seriously about technology, as I’ve written. My last post briefly covered some of the good of technology and explained that technology always comes with tradeoffs.

Now it’s time to examine some of those tradeoffs.

Ignoring the Immediate

The first negative effect of modern technology is that it nudges us to ignore who or what is right in front of us. Sherry Turkle, one of the foremost researchers in this area, writes,

These days, we want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to whatever else we want to be, because what we value most is control over where we put our attention.[1]

Devices and services today promise their users they will never be bored. There is always a social network to check, a video to watch, and news to catch up on, and all of it is designed specifically for us.

This is why we instinctively grab for our phones in the checkout line, at stoplights, at the dinner table, and, yes, even in the restroom.

When we’re all distracted by a universe of our own making, there is little time for engaging in risky, personal interactions with strangers or family members. After all, there is no certainty these interactions will bring happiness, so the urge to jump back into our personalized portal is all the stronger.

Citing Proverbs 27:17, Tony Reinke, author of Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, says,

The most shaping conversations we need are full of friction, and we simply cannot have them on our frictionless phones.[2]

For Christians, ignoring the people God has in front of us is especially problematic, as he often works through the people around us to conform us to his image and to show us tangible expressions of his love. C. S. Lewis said,

[God] works on us in all sorts of ways. . . . He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences. . . . But above all, He works on us through each other.[3]

When we’re lost in our phones, we may be missing what God wants to reveal to us through the people right in front of us.

Constant Distraction and Eroding Attention Spans

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the time we’re spending on our phones is eroding our attention spans. In a 2013 Microsoft study, humans living always-on, connected lives in Canada were found to have shorter attention spans than goldfish.[4]

While goldfish can hold their focus for an average of nine seconds, those surveyed in Microsoft’s study were only capable of focusing for an average of eight.

Regardless of the survey’s scientific merit, the study emphasizes something most people sense intuitively—that we are more distracted than ever, constantly feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of information that floods our eyes and ears.

To keep up with it all, the average adult checks their phone 150 times a day.[5] That means adults are spending an average of almost two hours a day on their phones. For most smartphone users, their phone is the first thing they see when they wake up, and the last thing they see before going to bed.

Even tech CEOs know there’s a problem. In an open memo to all Microsoft employees, Satya Nadella, the company’s CEO, said the world we live in is one where “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”[6]

An extreme example of how people are altering their behavior to cope with the constant distractions of modern life is “phubbing.” Sherry Turkle explains that the term “means maintaining eye contact while texting.” According to Turkle, phubbing is commonplace among her students, and they say they do it with relative ease.[7]

While the phenomenon of phubbing is concerning, so are the effects of distraction on literacy.

Literacy

Here again, the words of another powerful person inside one of the tech giants are illuminating.

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google and now the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), said,

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information—and especially of stressful information—is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.[8]

Schmidt is highlighting the deepening worry that many have about the digital world’s effect on literacy.

It’s not that words on a screen are inherently less readable, but that people don’t read text on a screen the same way they read text on the page. Tony Reinke writes,

With digital text on our phones, we are conditioned to skim quickly. With a printed book in hand, we naturally read more slowly, at a pace realistic for retention. . . . But we have been trained not to linger over digital texts.[9]

David Brooks likens the problem of comprehension in the digital age to that of a trying to read at an endless cocktail party. At cocktail parties, there are multiple side conversations going on as guests mingle with one another and work their way around the room.

Cocktail parties are great for entertainment, but not so great for concentration.

Brooks argues that the endless stream of social media and news forms the same background chatter as an endless cocktail party. Trying to read in that environment is simply too distracting, and it prevents one from forming what he calls “crystallized intelligence”—

the ability to use experience, knowledge, and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory. It is the ability to make analogies and comparisons about things you have studied before. Crystallized intelligence accumulates wisdom over the years and leads ultimately to understanding and wisdom.[10]

Brook’s term “crystallized intelligence” captures the heart of the concern over literacy—that people are reading as much or more than ever, but are comprehending less and less, and therefore not accumulating wisdom.

Loneliness

The most significant negative effect of modern technology is loneliness, which I wrote about in detail here. I won’t re-hash that same material here except to say that loneliness is an epidemic in our culture and is wreaking havoc on our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I’m excited to turn from the good and the bad of technology to what the Bible says about it, but before I do, I have to take the time to explain why technology is not neutral. That’ll be the theme of my next post.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 19.

[2] Tony Reinke, Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 125.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2009), 163.

[4] Timothy Egan, “The Eight Second Attention Span,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html (accessed July 15, 2017).

[5] Kenneth Burke, “Here’s How Often the Average American Checks Their Phone Every Day,” TextRequest.com, https://www.textrequest.com/blog/americans-check-their-cell-phones-150-times-a-day/ (accessed June 29, 2017).

[6] Alyson Gausby, “Attention Spans: Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada,” https://graysonpope.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf (accessed June 27, 2017).

[7] Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, 4.

[8] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 164–165.

[9] Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 84.

[10] David Brooks, “Building Attention Span,” The New York Times, July 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/opinion/david-brooks-building-attention-span.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

The Good of Technology

In my last post, I said the church must start thinking deeply about technology. To help move our thinking in that direction, it’s helpful to understand the good and the bad of technology.

Let’s start with the good.

The Benefits of Technology

The benefits of technology are almost too numerous to list. Here are some things that come to mind:

  • We can easily share and access the most impressive library of knowledge ever assembled.
  • We can reach loved ones via phone call, text messaging, or video calling almost anywhere in the world.
  • We can keep up with more people than ever before and have more diverse social networks than ever before.
  • We can attend college classes without having to stop our lives and live on campus.
  • People like me can work from home and live wherever they want if they have Internet.
  • We no longer have to stop for directions of pull over to read a map because of navigation apps like Google or Apple Maps.
  • We can edit documents in real-time instead of re-typing entire pages or using whiteout to cover up mistakes made on a typewriter.
  • We can take and save unlimited pictures and easily share them with friends and family, or the world, if we wish to.
  • Non-verbal children and adults with autism or people who have lost parts of their mouth or face to cancer can now speak through a computer.
  • Some deaf children and adults are able to hear through implants made possible by technology.

I think you get the picture.

Examples like these should be no surprise because God intended for us to develop technology to make something of the world he created and gave us dominion over.

God made Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden, then told them to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it (see Genesis 1:28).

If you fast-forward to the end of the Bible, you see the New Heavens and the New Earth coming together in its most potent form in the New Jerusalem, which appears to be some sort of technologically sophisticated city of the future.

As many have noted, mankind’s story starts in a garden and ends in a city. But you don’t get from the garden to the city without technology.

Technology has made our lives easier and better in so many ways, but it never does so without tradeoffs.

Technology Comes with Tradeoffs

Rod Dreher sums up the tradeoffs of technology (and in particular, the Internet) well in The Benedict Option,

I work as an online journalist and spend most of my weekdays [dipping in and out of social media and skittering from site to site.]

And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does everyday.

But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes from us is our sense of agency.

… There’s a scientific explanation for that. At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of our brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty.

… The result of this is the gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply. Study after study has confirmed the common experience many have reported in the Internet age: that using the Web makes it infinitely easier to find information but much harder to devote the kind of sustained focus it takes to know things.

You may have never thought about the tradeoffs he mentioned because the further along a society is in the adoption of a technology, the harder it is to see these tradeoffs.

My next post will survey some of the tradeoffs of modern, digital technology.

Why the Church Must Think Deeply About Technology

The year 2007 is now thought to be one of the defining years in history. A moment where everything after was different.

Much like 1440, when Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world forever, 2007 left the world a different place because of the Internet.

The Internet wasn’t invented in 2007, but it was made highly accessible and personal on a mass scale through the release of Apple’s first iPhone and the rise of social media.

It seems difficult at times to remember the world before 2007. Think back to that time.

Before 2007

In 2006, there was no iPhone or Twitter. Facebook was in its infancy, confined to college campuses. Most people had what we now call dumbphones, meaning phones without full internet access.

Most of us were still texting on a number pad (remember T9?), though a few of us, mostly business professionals, had Blackberry’s with a full, physical keyboard.

We were just coming out of the dial-up Internet phase and had finally stopped receiving those AOL update CDs in the mail. The Internet was largely something you accessed at home or at work, not something that went with you when you left.

Can you believe that was just 12 years ago?

Rapid Change

The rate of technological change today makes it hard to keep up with all that’s happening, let alone reflect on how technology is shaping us. Change is nothing new, though. Even technological change. Since the beginning of time, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. But complexity requires wisdom.

Each societal, cultural, or technological change in our world requires wisdom to navigate the new, more complex world. We used to have decades or centuries to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply, but that world no longer exists.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon of rapid change “liquid modernity.” Bauman says we used to live in an age of “solid modernity”—a period of social change that was fairly predictable and manageable—but now we live in “liquid modernity”—in which change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.

Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, which David Brooks of the New York Times has called the most discussed and important religious book of the decade,

The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet. It is the ultimate facilitator of liquid modernity because it conditions the way we experience life and frames all our experiences.

Perhaps more dangerous than the speed of technological change is that we can become used to the rate of change and no longer wait to evaluate whether or not a new development actually delivers on its promises.

Andy Crouch writes in his book The Tech-Wise Family, “We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.”

After 2007

There is no doubting that technology has changed the world since 2007, particularly through the digital revolution, which includes things like the mass adoption of smartphones and social media, along with the almost ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi.

And there is no doubting that technology has made our lives far easier in many ways. At the same time, there are many who are concerned with the effects of our increased reliance on technology.

I don’t know a single parent who isn’t asking questions about screen time or when to allow kids to have a smartphone. We’ve all heard the reports about the negative effects of too much time spent on social media or seen entire families out to eat in total silence because they are all glued to their phones.

But we haven’t all heard the church talking about technology in terms of discipleship, or how it changes (for better or worse) spiritual formation.

Technology in the Bible?

Since technology is always new and changing, many in the church don’t think the Bible has direct wisdom to offer in this area, but that’s not true. The Bible has some very interesting things to say about technology, as I’ll explain in a future post.

This assumption that the Bible doesn’t address technological concerns might be why most of the Christians I talk to have spent very little, if any, time thinking deeply about technology through a theological framework.

But we must.

Outside of God himself, there is nothing shaping our world more than technology right now.

To help us think about technology through a theological framework, some future posts will cover things like:

  • The Good, the bad, and the ugly of technology
  • Biblical considerations of technology
  • What should we do? (where I’ll suggest a framework for thinking through decisions about technology)