The Challenges of Technology: A New Series

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Critically reflecting and commenting upon the deleterious effects of television, computers, video games, smart phones, and all sorts of new smart gadgets is nothing new. Jeremiads are an incredibly popular genre. I myself am partial to them. I mean, who doesn’t love a good lament?!?

Jeremiads especially come to mind having just read “There are Spying Eyes Everywhere – And Now They Share a Brain.” We apparently now have the computing skills to be able to fuse all sorts of information feeds and technologies so as to have an all seeing eye of surveillance trained on anyone. The last sentences of this article are chilling.

“In modern life, we’re rarely not in the crosshairs of some spying device or other. We rush by a license plate reader on our way to work, a few blocks from a burglary that’s being patternized. As we walk from the parking lot to the gym, or the mosque, we’re picked up on a dozen CCTVs. We attend a protest under the watchful eye of a drone. Our smartphones log our every move, our every click, and our every like. But no single one of these machines, when used in isolation, is omniscient. The fact that intelligence can be difficult and tedious to correlate was perhaps the last natural rampart standing between us and total surveillance. The little privacy we have left exists in the spaces between each data point.

Fusion technology eviscerates those spaces. With the click of an “INVESTIGATE” button, our digital footprints, once scattered, become a single uninterrupted life history, leaving not only our enemies, but also our friends and our lovers, with nowhere to hide.”

This “fusion technology” is leading us to a state of total surveillance. In fact, as the article relates, the Chinese government is already using this kind of technology “against dissidents and minority citizens, particularly the Uighur Muslim group.” Closer to home we are all constantly reminded that there is someone “creeping” behind us as our advertisements continually reflect our online activity. This reality is pushing many organizations to push for a ban on “surveillance advertising.”

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I remember very distinctly the time I found Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community and being absolutely floored. It was essays like “Why I Am not Going to Buy a Computer” that really inducted me into the idea of technological skepticism. This skepticism seems very necessary because of all of the messianic qualities attributed to technology. Messianic technology manifests itself in the idea, or even fervent belief, that new technology is inherently better and a symbol of our progress to which one must conform or be consigned to the dustbin of history. In fact, the messianic belief in the utopian benefits of technology is what ultimately drives the transhumanist movement and continually plagues all discussions of the production of our food. Don’t you know that the traditional ways of farming are obsolete and that we should all hail the power of technology and scientific discovery to cover all of the mistakes we make along the way to insure our gigantic monoculture farming schemes? Aren’t you ready for when we can just upload ourselves into some computer mainframe and live forever? Don’t you believe in science and its ability to remedy the wounds we continually ravage upon ourselves and our world? Didn’t you believe that the internet was going to change everything by increasing democracy and facilitating opportunities for better communities for us all?

Technology is seen as the remedy of so many ills. Questions regarding limits and teleology are put aside because we so blindly believe that technology is always oriented towards progress which is another way of saying the perfecting and fulfilling of our human desires.

It seems like we all need to dedicate some kind of time to thinking very critically about how we use technology and how we as a community wish to see technology regulated.

Wendell Berry exemplifies a spirit of critical engagement with this spirit of technocracy and technological messianism and utopianism that I grew to love, even if I did not conform myself practically to the same practices. In fact, I have always struggled with the gap between what seem to be pretty radical convictions and the practical implementation of these convictions. In other words, I was, in my experience, a typical academic. I read, I thought, I discussed but it was not always clear as to how this was going to be implemented in my day to day existence.

This was an ok place to be for a while. Not that the gap was ok to be left just kind of fester, but that there didn’t seem to be anything pressing or requiring my practical change beyond a “lifestyle choice”. Some choose to use typewriters and others choose to use computers, these are all technologies and can be used accordingly and without detriment if used wisely. The key to engaging with technology is the development of an ethic or virtue in regards to the tech. Exemplary of this kind of approach is a work like Andy Crouch’s “The Tech-Wise Family”. There is an acknowledgement of the current battle with tech, specifically the smartphone, and that the answer is not a wholesale abandonment of these devices but rather the development and implementation of a way to wisely use them. But with the ubiquity of technology and its seemingly untrammeled progress where do we begin to tackle critically assessing our use of technology and then following that up with a plan of action? I am especially driven by these concerns as I am now over a decade into continual computer and cell phone usage. Everytime my attention is diverted from my children or life happening in front of me I am hit with just how seriously I need to not only think but discover a different way of life.

The challenge of technology hits on many practical challenges for us. This is especially relevant for us as followers of Jesus Christ. Besides the personal challenges, attention deficit and the rewiring of our brains, there are many broader social ramifications that constantly impinge upon our lives. We are so connected…and yet so distant. Will we stand by idly as we are reduced to numbers and algorithms?

Having been spurred into revisiting these issues on a regular basis, and also having a book on my shelf to review, I want to spend the next few posts here looking at various ways of thinking critically about technology and our life with technology. I will be hitting on various thinkers and philosophers, Martin Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, George Grant, Albert Borgmann, and many others. If there are some other salient documentaries, articles, or works of art that you think bear commentary, please do share them with me!

Up first, we will be reviewing the work of French Orthodox theologian, Jean-Claude Larchet, and his newly translated and published “The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul.

 

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