"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Monday, April 9, 2012

Baby Steps Towards Christendom: Step #4: Question Technology

Previous posts in this series: Introduction, Step#1: Quit Pimpin'Homeschooling, Brewing Beer.

Hat tip to Kevin Ford at the Catholic Land Movement blog for inspiring this post.
(UPDATE: Kevin has another great post on this topic. He says what I wanted to say but better)

It is true that technology for it's own sake will usually have unintended, negative consequences. The Amish are right about engines in at least one undeniable respect: They change us. And I think they are right to wait to examine those effects before allowing things into their community. This wisdom is far and away above us modern technoslaves. I watched a documentary about the Amish recently and I admit that I chuckled when I saw an engine powered hay baler on a horse drawn wagon. "how silly!" I thought. "Just get a tractor if your going to use an engine!"

But the narrator, who seemingly could hear me, pointed out that the first priority for the Amish is to keep their lifestyle intact... families, communities... people. All other considerations are secondary. From that perspective, it is not so funny to see the engine being pulled by a horse. That Amishman has determined that that level of accommodation to modernity will not change his lifestyle negatively, and so he sees no contradiction in his choice. I think his priorities are right on! He (apparently) is not being ruled by the machine, but is the ruler of it by not allowing it to change things he does not want to change. That is wisdom.

We could learn from them.

I resisted getting a cell phone for years, and when I finally did it was when I had a pregnant wife at home so she could call me in an emergency. Good reason right? Right! It truly is a valid reason. but...

It totally changed everything to carry a phone on my person all the time. For the 1 emergency every year where I think to myself "Thank God for cell phones!" There are a hundred ways in which the cell phone is a hindrance. Increased cost, reduced attention span, increased phone usage, increased detachment from people etc.

It is not that the cell phone is evil, it is just that there is no stated purpose to it. By that I mean there is no teleology to the cell phone.

It was created simply because it could be created. But that is never a good enough reason to do something. We should not do things simply because we can. We should have purpose to our actions and look ahead at how our actions may affect our life in unforeseen ways. Just because someone CAN pull a phone out of their pocket in Korea right now and talk to someone driving on the freeway in Los Angeles does not mean that it is a good thing. At it's best it is a neutral thing. At it's worse it is a dehumanizing thing that makes men into objects. The content of what is communicated is what is important, yet the medium is truly the message also. We cant get around that fact. Perhaps a message carved in a stone tablet and sent by boat, received 6 months later is more profound than a throw away text message glanced at while driving down the freeway. Which message shows the dignity of humanity more? Do we lose anything by always having a phone in our pocket? Shouldn't we examine this question before we have a phone in our pocket?

This past weekend I got a new cell phone. My old one was almost 3 years old and was malfunctioning. When I took it to the store, the girl behind the counter commented on how old it was. When I looked at the available phones, I noticed that they were all bulky, expensive supercomputers. Again the questions hit me...

"WHY do we need supercomputers in our pocket? Has anyone questioned how this will affect us? Will having computers in our pockets change us for the worse or better? Has anyone even asked these questions!?"

I finally found a "flip phone" that didn't require me to pay for a data plan and didn't have all the extras. But it is getting harder and harder to do that. These new phones are being made for the new breed of humanity that feels the need to be "connected" 24/7. Why? They cant tell you. And that should scare you.

Personally I think the world would be a much better place without cell phones considering the negative effects they have had on human interaction. Have you talked to a teenager who uses Facebook recently? It is frightening how technology can be worse than hard drugs on some kids minds. Overall, I am convinced the cell phone has become a dehumanizing device. It doesn't HAVE to be that way, but as a result of our lack of vision it is. The cell phone is another "bridge to nowhere" modern man has built. He doesn't know why he did it, he doesn't know where he is going, but by golly, he sure is proud he built that big shiny bridge! He can call Korea from the freeway, but if he has nothing to say then who cares.
One final note about cell phones:
 I remember cell phones in the 80's. They were the size of  lunch box. As the 90's rolled around they got a lot smaller. In fact, they got about as small as they are today. But because we had no real teleology (purpose) in mind for them, we have just kept adding stuff to them until they are a supercomputer. When the question "why?" is asked, the answer is always "Why not!" In the 90's, I remember thinking that these phones would be the size of a credit card by the year 2010. But instead, the phones have ballooned into monstrosities with thousands of features ensuring you will never have to spend a minute away from digital oblivion. The only question we seem to be asking is if we can increase this or miniaturize that or speed this up or add feature X to it. What we need to ask is why we should do it. When that question is asked and properly answered, humanity can truly do some wonderful things.

Finally, I am struck with a question that I should have asked a decade ago when my wife was pregnant and I got a cell phone so she could get ahold of me from long distances. Perhaps I should have asked why I was so far away from my pregnant wife and my home to begin with? If I wasn't driving miles away to work in an office, I wouldn't need the phone for her to speak to me.

Update 4/10/12
My stunningly awesome wife critiqued my post and recommended I be a bit more clear on what positive steps I am suggesting people take. The baby step I am recommending here is to be deliberate. Do not simply use whatever technology our culture offers without a reason. THINK about any and all technology you are using or are thinking about using. THINK about the way in which you use it. Have a plan and stick to it. For example: As Marshall Mcluhan and Neal Postman have pointed out, television is for one thing and one thing only-- entertainment. It cannot be successfully used for anything else! So when we approach this piece of technology, we need to be deliberate about how we use it. We would never want to watch "news" on it for instance. Or if we did, we should at least be aware that we are watching news that is primarily meant to be entertainment, not informative. This is not to say the television is evil. I am simply saying that our culture is misusing it because of lack of vision. Entertainment does have a place, and I like to watch a good movie the same as the next guy. But when I look at a television screen, I am quite self consciously aware of it's purpose. It's purpose is to entertain. When I expect anything more of it, I am misusing it. The application to cell phones and the internet here is harder to pinpoint for me. Marshall Mcluhan never saw these things! The next time you see a customer in the check out line chatting on their cell phone and ignoring the clerk, take note of this obvious way in which cell phones have degraded human interaction. There are other ways as well, we just need to be vigilent in finding them.


  1. Not surprising, but I view any and all technology as an intrinsic good (not a neutral-at-best)... the difference is I believe it is the people (not the product or knowledge) that are corruptible.

    I can agree with your examples, and your rationale, but your premise is wrong.

    The Bible talks about being a good steward of our resources given us by God. Being a good steward means doing more with less. This can take many forms (saving, being less wasteful, being good to the environment) but it also includes using technology for the betterment of mankind.

    I lean towards pacifism, but I do not entirely regret the research into nuclear physics. Yes - it brings about nuclear weapons and empowers evil people, but it also bring about potentially unlimited energy... which translates into better stewardship.

    Robotics put people out of jobs (arguably bad), but they also allow for better prosthetic limbs.

    The world would be worse without cellphones. Instant world wide communication threatens those with power and helps keep them in check. Pick a despot dictator, and one thing they all have in common is the desire to clamp down on technology - especially involving communications. The Amish are living the life Kim Jong Ill wants for his whole country. The main difference is the Amish aren't being coerced into that life, and there are other options for the rest of us.

    Also, don't text while driving :) bad stewardship.

  2. "Robotics put people out of jobs (arguably bad), but they also allow for better prosthetic limbs."

    Here is what I am saying. Robotics are fine. Hip hip horay for robotics and beter prosthetic limbs. My complaint is the unquestioning way these technologies are accepted as being good for their own sake and then applied everywhere to every area of life without much question. The advent of radio is a good example of this. Radio=good. Radio telling someone in Texas that princess buttercup in England has the flu=BAD. So in this sense technology is not neutral: when it is likely to be used for a purpose that it is not suited for or which is evil. This DOES NOT mean it shouldnt be used at all, but that it needs to be deliberately used for the right purpose, and perhaps not used until the right purpose is found.

    I dont know if you have ever heard of the "singularity", but if not you should look it up. Scary stuff. There is a doc. on Netflix about Ray Kursweil I recommend. The main idea is a convergence of technology in the next generation or so which will culminate in artificial intelligence. What strikes me about the documentary is the cavalierness of people like Kurzweil. They want this to happen for it's own sake, and they do not seem to take into consideration the many potential problems. Perhaps there is a place for A.I. in the world, but it needs to be well thought out before these engineers unleash it.

    And yes, perhaps the effect robotics had on human jobs should have been considered as well. Perhaps the proper use of robotics is for just certain aplications like prosthetics, but not for gutting corn fed beef, etc. Some things are just better done by hand if we want good quality. A robot can't gut an animal without spilling offal all over the place, a human can. Examples abound.

    My point is that we need to be more deliberate in the USE of technology. YES, by itself nuclear power is morally neutral. But it aint by itself! It sprung into the world and immediatley was used for evil. God help the men who did that evil, and the men in white coats who naively made that power.

    Matt. 18:7
    “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!

    I highly recommend you read Marshal Mcluhan or Neil Postman on how comm. technology changes us. Mcluhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message" and he was right.

  3. I'm not trying to be facetious, but how far back can you apply this standard? Are wheels on chariots OK, but tie them to a stream to grind some flower (or pump some water) not OK?

    Technology is always good in that it frees up resources. The only evil is the people who are prone to laziness / gossip / other sins. You may need to be more deliberate in your use of technology as you work out your faith with fear and trembling, and that might include being a Luddite, but don't go blaming technology for human failures.

    I am very familiar with the 'singularity'. These are very exciting times to be living in... at the cusp of the exponential curve. Just as our world has changed more in our lifetimes than the previous 10,000 years, so too will our children's world change in comparison to ours. I don't normally relate the singularity to Artificial Intelligence, though the birth of A.I. will happen with that immense amount of computing power.

    "Perhaps there is a place for A.I. in the world, but it needs to be well thought out before these engineers unleash it."
    By who? Again, honest question. Who is the decider? Are you? (apparently not cause cell phones exist). Am I? Are governments? Should the Pope have a final ruling as to what and when technologies are released? Perhaps an 'inventors guild'?

    I can only imagine that inventors have the final say in what is invented, and that the market determines how an invention is used. Any other force would disrupt that balance, and ultimately use the invention for more evil.

    Lets take nuclear power. If the market had its way, then nuclear power would be cheep, abundant, and not be able to be weaponized (thorium molten salt reactor... look it up). The government co-opted the nuclear market, and now we have expensive, dangerous weapon-producing uranium based nuclear plants... and our power issues are still here.

    It isn't the technology that is the problem... it is the people.

  4. Bob,
    I guess I am unable to get my point across, as it seems we are just talking past each other. W.

  5. "The next time you see a customer in the check out line chatting on their cell phone and ignoring the clerk, take note of this obvious way in which cell phones have degraded human interaction."

    I'm not trying to talk past you - but I don't see a boarder around any of this that makes sense. Is talking on your cell in this scenario 'sinful'? I'm not prepared to make that claim. What about self-check out lanes?

    How about this handy medium of the internet? It has done more good in allowing communications, freedom, advancing of ideas than any other invention. You and I communicate on it, and (hopefully) are better off for it. However, it is also 95% garbage. Do you lament the internet - or condemn it in the same fashion as the cell phone? A few months ago you attempted an un-plug, so it seems as though you do.

    Are you more supportive of an Iranian or Chinese style internet? Block everything sensual or against the ruling people's interests. Yes, you can enforce behavior by curbing the use of technology, but what do you loose in the process?

    I'm trying to understand. You don't like how technology is used - it isn't deliberate enough. Is the solution an individual solution (change your own behavior) or are you arguing for enforced behavior from some outside group - government, church, guild?

    Perhaps this is one of those issues like 'hard currencies', where some people just won't get it. I feel like I'm asking a lot of questions but not getting many answers.

  6. I already said what I thought was happening in that scenario-- that "human interaction was being degraded". I did not put it in terms of "sinful" or not. It is an obvious example that we have all experienced in one way or another that shows the danger of using cell phones without thinking of HOW we are using them. We are using the technology in a way that shows rudeness to other people, and makes us look bad as well.

    Cell phones (and tech in general) are not evil. They are just tools. All I am saying is we, mainly as individuals, (as that is the only area of our lives we can really control) need to ensure technology does not change us in a negative way. Talking on a cell phone while in a check out line (with a human clerk obviously) is rude. If you dont think it is rude, then you are my exibit A.

    I mentioned NOTHING about a government involvement to "enforce behavior" or Chinese and Iranian internet being great, so please give me the benefit of the doubt that I am refering to a more "individual solution".

    And yes, there are big problems with the internet. With a new tool comes new things, good and bad. I believe we as Christians should be extremely cautious about the internet, especially with kids and our own purity in mind. Think about yourself as a 13 year old boy Bob. Do you think having a laptop with internet connection in your bedroom, with no DELIBERATE questions asked by a parent would be a good idea? MUCH MORE DAMAGE can be caused by the internet now in a very short period of time. I had to steal the Playboy magazine with Madonna in it when I was a kid. And even after all that trouble... it was just a Playboy. Fairly tame stuff by internet standards.

    ALL I am saying is that with all the new tools we have (such as internet and cellphones) we need to think carefully about the ways they can be (sometimes powefully) misused. And then we (yes, us individual families) need to guard against that misuse.


  7. ...cont...

    Here is an example for the internet scenario. As my kids grow, I plan to have internet access in my home only in the family room, with the screen facing the whole room. Any laptops with conectivity will have some seriously debilitating nanny software or perhaps no conectivity to internet. For men with a porn problem, this is also a good idea.

    But see how I had to THINK about that. How many of us just hand our 15 year old boy a laptop and pray for the best. Of course we cant protect kids (and ourselves) from everything. But we need to at least make an effort to protect them from things we can control.

    I have been talking about what we as individuals can choose to do to be more deliberate about tech. But yes, Bob, on a side note, I am 100% ok with government banning porn (for instance) from the internet. Just as I am fine with them banning psychoactive drugs for recreational use. Enforcement is another topic altogether. OF COURSE people will always find porn and do drugs. To me that is totally beside the point. Activities that destroy society should be banned. There is no legitimate use of pornography. Even as a libertarian (libertine from my perspective) you must conceed that government should ban at least child porn. I see no principled difference between that and banning adult porn. They both are destructive and evil, and both involve children. Every man that looks at porn has a nephew or neice or a neighbor kid that is affected by his poor choice. Again this is an aside and my opinion. The main post is about us as individuals guiding our own families, not about governments ruling.

    One final analogy if I may:

    Guns. Guns are tools. They are not "good" or "bad" in themselves. They are good when they help men do good, and they are bad when they help him do bad. -OR- we might say that they are neither good nor bad, but it is the people who are. Fine. Either way we choose to describe them, the point is that when guns are introduced into our homes, we need to be deliberate about how we view them and them. We store them in a certain place, we teach our children proper use and care. That is all I am saying about other technologies. Nothing more nothing less. Lets just be deliberate about how we use technology.

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  9. I think I can agree with just about everything you said in your last extended comment, except for your discussion on 'banning' things.

    "I am 100% ok with government banning porn (for instance) from the internet. Just as I am fine with them banning psychoactive drugs for recreational use. Enforcement is another topic altogether."

    Banning and enforcement go hand-in-hand. You can't have the a discussion about banning without consequences for disobeying the ban. Traveling faster than 65 through Wisconsin is banned... but if the penalty were lopping off fingers instead of a fine the ban would disappear (and people would revolt) because the harm from enforcing the ban is greater than the item (speed limit) being ignored.

    I am (no surprise) against banning things like porn or psychoactive substances. The harm from enforcing the ban is greater than the harm from the items themselves. In the case of psychoactive substances, the reason the ban hasn't been lifted is because the harm inflicted by enforcement is still at an 'acceptable' low level (as far as society is concerned). Societies opinion is changing (thankfully) - and hopefully enforcement penalties will decrease with that opinion.

    There are examples of this - prohibition is an obvious one. Things were much worse with the ban in place.

    "Activities that destroy society should be banned."
    Can we apply this statement to our law enforcement professionals? Over-enforcement (jail time for minor offenses, things of that nature) destroys society. Does the Church have a responsibility to ensure that the courts dole out punishments that fit the crime - for the sake of society?

    And how does this statement work itself out with treatment of heretics? One could argue that not being Roman Catholic (by its very nature) should be banned as an activity that destroys society.

    Again - not trying to talk past you, but explore the ramifications of the things you are saying.