Hitting the Pause Button: Thinking Formatively About Technology
Hitting the Pause Button: Thinking Formatively About Technology
Creation, Culture, and Technology:
Asking the Right Questions
Often when a Christian organization says it is concerned with “science,” everyone immediately assumes that this means the organization is concerned with the science of origins—debates about evolution and creation and so forth. And in many cases, that hasty assumption would be true.
But it’s not true of The Colossian Forum. In fact, if you’ll look again at our name you’ll notice an important expansion: we exist to help Christians think carefully at the intersection of faith, science, and culture. Now we realize that this includes difficult issues about human origins and the age of the earth and much more. But we also appreciate that those sorts of question are only a small slice of what counts as “science.” And, truth be told, those are slices of science that don’t impact us every day. Nor do they exert all that much pressure on the actual practice of science in North America, though they might get disproportionate press.
And yet there are all kinds of issues related to science that do intersect with our daily practice. Perhaps first among these is a complex array of questions, challenges, and opportunities around technology.
Now “technology” is one of those humungous, expansive words—like “science,” in fact!—that is so encompassing it tells us almost nothing. And yet we know it when we see it. On the other hand, technology is so ubiquitous and mundane that we tend to not see it. Using it without thought, technology becomes sort of invisible. This also means that its affects can be all the more powerful precisely because they’re operative under the radar of our conscious reflection. When we take technology for granted as if it were just “natural,” we treat it as if it were just part of the environment and fail to appreciate how it shapes and frames our relationship to the world.
So might there be good reason to—ironically—“hit the pause button” in our uncritical employment of technology?
In raising that question, let me immediately head off a concern at the pass: to raise the question is not to have already decided that technology is bad; nor is the asking-of-the-question already a sign that one is a reactionary Luddite. Saying, “Hang on, let’s think about this for a minute” is not the equivalent of saying, “No!”
Indeed, I don’t think there is really any viable, consistent “anti-technology” stance, nor should there be. Imagine someone holed-up, off the grid, penning their manifesto to simplicity that is a screed against the evils and ills of “technology.” While that screed might not be tapped out on an iPad, it is either scribbled with a pencil or banged out on an ancient typewriter, written in his hermit-like shack that is heated by a woodstove—in which case the author has inevitably employed technology to denounce technology.
Technology is as old as humanity. Or, you might say that technology is as old as culture. While we tend to associate the word “technology” with lights or electricity or digital realities, in fact “technology” is most basically defined as the application of knowledge in order to get something done (which is why technology is often described as applied science). In this most basic sense, technology is as old as human making. If, as Andy Crouch summarizes, “culture is what we make of the world,” then technology is as old as the human propensity—and calling—to “make” the world. There is no human culture that is not always already technological.
If technology is an expression of our creaturely vocation to create, then the question isn’t whether to employ technology, but how and which. So we’re not hitting the pause button in order to ask whether we should use technology; we hit the pause button to slow down and ask much harder, more nuanced questions.
In fact, we would do well to ask the sorts of questions that Crouch—following Albert Borgmann—presses us to consider. In a lucid discussion of cultural artifacts, Crouch emphasizes that yes/no, good/bad questions are too clunky and ham-fisted. Instead we need to ask questions like the following (and we could simply insert “technology” where he says “cultural artifact”:
1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
2) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
3) What does this cultural artifact make possible?
4) What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
5) What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?
These questions enable us to evaluate technology—and our relation to it—in ways that are informed by a biblical vision for flourishing.
- What does Scripture say about the way the world is?
- In the Bible, what does God tell us about what he wants the world to be? How is this pictured and practiced in the rhythms of Christian worship?
- And so how does that inform our evaluation of various technologies? What do they make possible? Are these possibilities that resonate with what God desires for his creation? Or might some technologies functionally encourage disordered, sinful ways of being-in-the-world?
- What do such technologies make virtually impossible? So do such technologies shut down capacities for relating to God, our neighbor, and God’s creation? Do some technologies actually make it harder to be open to God’s call to love God and neighbor? Might other technologies actually make us more responsive to the Gospel?
As I hope you can see, these sorts of questions take time. The answer isn’t a simple monosyllabic “yes,” “no,” “good,” or “bad.” If the answers are going to be biblically responsible and theologically nuanced, they are always going to be some form of “It’s complicated.” This is why we need to hit the “pause” button in order to buy the time and space to have complex conversations. And it’s for just this purpose that The Colossian Forum exists.
Technology, Social Media, and Cultural Formation:
I have been encouraging us to appreciate that technology is synonymous with culture and human making. In a sense, wherever there is human community, there is technology. This is why simplistic yes/no, good/bad approaches to technology are unhelpful.
But of course, what we usually mean by “technology” is not the baseline artifacts that simply enable us to make our way in the world (though I think it’s important that we remember that doorknobs and toilets and pencils are also “technology”); rather, “technology” usually names the vanguard of our applied knowledge. This is why we often speak of “modern technology,” by which we mean contemporary technology, new technology, things we can do now that we couldn’t do 50 years ago—or even 5 months ago for that matter! The remarkable advances in scientific knowledge have spawned an exponential explosion of technological advancement. So while the hammer on your workbench or the rolling pin in your cupboard might be “technologies,” those aren’t what we worry about when we worry about “technology.”
On the other hand, if “technology” usually names au courant developments in applied science, let’s also be honest that many of us—including many churches—have been very enthusiastic early adopters of the “next best thing” in technological development. While many Christians are cautious and even suspicious of “science”—especially if said science tells us that humanity evolved from pre-human life or that the globe’s temperature is rising because of human activity—we are often uncritically enthusiastic about the “applied science” that we can use in technology. Indeed, Christians have often been some of the first to see the power of communication technologies—from radio in the early twentieth century to television later in the century to internet capabilities at the turn of the millennium.
But our enthusiasm sometimes runs ahead of us, and latching onto these technologies for their instrumental possibilities—we sense what we can do with them—our haste prevents us from seeing what they might do to us. We simplistically imagine these technologies are neutral tools that we can use for good or ill. But then we fail to recognize that technologies come pre-loaded with ways of seeing and construing and making the world. In Crouch’s terms, technologies sort of “carry” within them a particular take on the world and what the world should be. You might even say there are implicit normative visions that are pre-loaded into technologies, which is why they make some things possible and other things impossible. So it behooves the church to “read” these technologies, as it were, in order to discern the normative visions that are “carried” in the technologies and the practices that they encourage.
In other words, we need to realize that technologies are not just tools that we can put in our hands and thus are subject to us. Technologies generate forms of life and cultural practices to which we are subject. Technologies are not just instruments we work with; they becomes systems that work on us, surreptitiously forming our loves and longing and desires—indeed, shaping our character. This means that we can’t work with neat and tidy form/content distinctions when it comes to technology—as if the form is neutral and the technology becomes “good” if we insert good content. No, the very forms of technology are already loaded, Crouch would emphasize, with a view of the world and of how the world should be. So the question is whether that normative vision of and for the world accords with God’s desire for his creatures and creation.
This is why The Colossian Forum is interested in technology: not just because it is an instance of “applied” science, but because we are interested in the dynamics of formation. Followers of Jesus are not just informed by ideas, they are formed by practices and rituals that inscribe the story of the Gospel into the fabric of their character—weaving a biblical orientation into their loves and longings. That’s why we want to invite Christians to pause and consider the alternative stories and visions that can be implicitly carried in technology, particularly the rising tide of social media and social technologies that have quickly come to dominate how we relate to one another. We’re not raising the question because we’ve already decided these are bad and evil; we’re asking the church to slow down and consider what’s at stake in our overly-enthusiastic (and largely uncritical) adoption of these modes of relating to the world and one another.
So TCF celebrates recent Christian scholarship that raises these concerns without being merely reactionary. We would point, for example, to Brad Kallenberg’s wise, accessible book, God and Gadgets (you can read Norman Wirzba’s review of the book on The Colossian Forum website). In his forthcoming book, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture, and Computer Technology (InterVarsity Press, 2013) computer scientist Derek Schuurman looks at technology as created yet fallen, inviting us to nuanced, ad hoc analysis of possibilities and temptations. Considering the impact on our practices of Sabbath-keeping, Brent Laytham has recently considered how technology shapes our play, leisure, and rest in iPod, YouTube, WiiPlay: Theological Engagements with Entertainment (Cascade, 2012). These reflections are complimented by cautionary, but not dismissive, concerns expressed by Sherry Turkle, Jane McGonigal, and others, even if they might not be articulated from a Christian or theological perspective.
For a concrete example of hitting the pause button and raising important questions about technology and formation, consider Rick Ostrander’s recent TCF article, “Christian Learning in the Digital Age.” As you’ll see, Ostrander is neither dismissive nor reactive. But he does invite us to think about just how technology can serve the task of Christian education as formation—and to critically note the ways that it does not. In a way that echoes Crouch’s questions, Ostrander points out what technology can make possible in education—disseminating information, providing access to otherwise inaccessible resources, etc.—but also what it makes virtually impossible, or least very difficult: the creation of stable, durable friendships.
The Colossian Forum is interested in these questions for two reasons: on the one hand, we exist to help Christians think through those challenges that are at the intersection of faith, science, and culture. On the other hand, we are also an organization that wants to foster Christian formation and contribute to the education of disciples, which is why we are committed to embodied communication—that incarnational principle which, as Ostrander notes, is alarmingly dismissed by uncritical advocates of technological “progress” as a “corporeal fetish.”
Hitting the pause button is not meant to make things grind to a halt; nor is it a prelude to equally uncritical dismissal. Instead, the goal of hitting the pause button is to create the time and space to think well, to reflect theologically, to take an audit of our technological practices in light of God’s desires for his people and his world.
 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 25.
 Crouch, Culture Making, pp. 29-30. Crouch notes his debt to Albert Borgmann in particular (p. 273). See Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).
 This is even—some might say especially—true of forms of Pentecostal Christianity which, while maintaining the most “fantastic” aspects of first-century Christianity also enthusiastically employ technology in their ministries. For discussion, see Dennis Cheek, “Is There Room for the Spirit in a World Dominated by Technology? Pentecostals and the Technological World,” in Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences, eds. James K.A. Smith and Amos Yong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), pp. 192-208.
 In Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), pp. 137-150 I conduct a “liturgical” analysis of social technologies in this vein.
 Daniel Bell, following Michel Foucault, speaks of “technologies of the self” to describe these formative rituals and practices. See Bell, Liberation Theology and the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering (London: Routledge, 2001). See also more recently, Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World, Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), ch. 2.
 Brad J. Kallenberg, God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011).
 See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011) and Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York: Penguin, 2011).