Values-Based Digital Discretion

Andy Crouch likes to say that if you want to have a healthy relationship with technology, you don’t have to become Amish, but you might have to come closer than you think.

He’s right.

Before I get to why I think we need to be more Amish when it comes to technology, it helps to dispel a common myth: The Amish are not anti-technology.

The Amish Aren’t Luddites

Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, summarizes Kevin Kelly’s experience with the Amish:

“The simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. ‘Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.’

Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the ‘smoking contraption.’ Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.

Almost no Amish communities allow automobile ownership, but it’s common for Amish to travel in cars driven by others.

Kelly reports that both solar panels and diesel electric generators are common, but it’s usually forbidden to connect to the larger municipal power grid.

In one memorable passage, Kelly talks about visiting a family that uses a $400,000 computer-controlled precision milling machine to produce pneumatic parts needed by the community. The machine is run by the family’s bonnet-wearing, 10-year old daughter. It’s housed behind their horse stable.”

It turns out the Amish only reject some — not all — technology. Newport calls them the “original digital minimalists.” Why? “They start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

Values-Based Digital Discretion

This is one of the big takeaways from Newport’s Digital Minimalism: that values are crucial for living a healthy digital life. In the various podcast interviews with Newport I’ve listened to (I’ve yet to read the book), he explains that we should let our values determine and guide our digital lives.

He’s not the only one to draw this conclusion. Jameson Wetmore is a social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society who has studied the Amish doggedly. As one Quartz article put it, Wetmore “suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology — one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives.”

In Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, one of the go-to scholars for everyone reading and writing about technology, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, we should determine our values first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.

Christian thinkers have reached the same conclusion and started to lay out what this values-based digital discretion might look like. Two books that come to mind are John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City and Networked Theology, an interesting book I’ve not seen many people cite.

From the Garden to the City

From the Garden to the City, as I’ve written before, is helpful for both understanding technology’s history and applications, as well as its interplay with theology. Unless a better book comes along, I would say that if a Christian could only read one book on theology and technology, this is it. John Dyer is employed by Dallas Theological Seminary but has degrees and a background in both computer science and theology. He has built useful tools for the Internet and thought deeply about how technology affects humans and society.

In his book, Dyer helps you understand technology along the spectrum of reflection (think “creation”), rebellion (think “the fall”), redemption, and restoration. This allows him to cover a range of biblical texts as he traces the theme of technology throughout Scripture and history. He summarizes thought leaders in the area of technology — Albert Borgmann, Jacques Ellul (whom Newport recommends reading) — while providing helpful analysis of their work. He then brings the truths of Scripture to bear on that analysis, helping you see past the limited views of the technological optimist or pessimist, as well as the shortsighted view of the instrumentalist, and gives a more nuanced approach of making decisions based on understanding your values and technology’s values.

After the closing section of the book, he suggests five steps for making these kinds of decisions:

  1. Valuation – Continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian identities and values
  2. Experimentation – Discerning the effects of technology through actual use
  3. Limitation – See what happens when boundaries are places on the technology you now understand
  4. Togetherness – Use the technology together with other believers as you discern the positive and negative contributions in community
  5. Cultivation – Participating in the creation and shaping of technology and its values.[1]

Like Newport et al, Dyer is telling us to begin with values so our devices don’t become the tail that wags the dog.

Networked Theology

Networked Theology, written by Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, comes from a mostly substantive (or technologically optimistic) point of view but tries to chart new territory in the theological discussion. More than any other books I’ve surveyed, this one cultivates a new paradigm from which to have a theological discussion.

Its title refers to a new approach to theology which understands persons and religions as forming their identities and values from networks. This understanding differs from historical ones that saw churches and people forming their identities based on familial, institutional, or other tightly controlled forces. Their work charts the way for a discussion of technology that’s not overly optimistic or pessimistic, yet also doesn’t fall into the trap of evaluating technology based solely on its uses (instrumentalism).

The authors do this by tracing the biblical theme of neighbor, and ask, in the digital age, “Who is my neighbor, where is my neighbor, and how should I treat my neighbor?” Through their answers, the authors lay a theological foundation for accepting both online and offline Christian community, but in ways that differ depending on the values of the individuals and the technological forms they seek to employ. This discussion leads to a four-stage framework for evaluating technology and deciding how to use it in one’s life:

  1. History – The history and tradition of the community that shapes who they are and what they stand for;
  2. Core Beliefs – Core beliefs of the group that relate to their general beliefs and choices related to media;
  3. Media Negotiation – The negotiation and decision-making processes they undergo, as it relates to a new technology grounded in the first two areas; and finally
  4. Community Discourse about Technology – The communal framing and discourses created by a group to justify their technology use in light of their values and identity.[2]

This model is very similar to the Amish one, where they carefully think through how each technological innovation will change their community if adopted. This is a strong decision-making framework, but it makes an assumption that may not be true of many. Campbell and Garner say their model “emphasizes the fact that, when deciding how they will engage technology, religious groups often prioritize communal and spiritual values above technological affordances or advantages.”[3]

While that would certainly be nice, I am not sure that is the case for many Christians, at least in America, though it does seem to be true of the Amish. Perhaps that’s why the Amish way of life has remained largely unchanged while American Christianity has eroded so precipitously.

LEDERs

My contribution to this discussion is what I call the LEDER framework, meaning that Christians consider the use of any technology, they should be LEDERs. They should:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

You can read more about the LEDER framework here.

Will We Become More Amish?

You need to become more Amish than you might think if you want to have a healthy relationship with your devices. That doesn’t mean you have to give up technology, just like the Amish haven’t abandoned it entirely. It means you’ll have to consider technology’s impact on your values, including your family and community.

What’s unclear is whether we will look up from our phones long enough to realize our values, then ask ourselves whether our technological tools are congruous with them.

Will we consider technology’s impact on our communities, or will we adopt them sight unseen? Will we become a little more Amish in our technological thinking, or will allow technological change to set the course?


[1] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 176 – 179.

[2] Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, 103 – 104.

[3] Ibid., 97.

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.