After 34 years of high tech work in Silicon Valley, I have found myself drawn into more than a few discussions with people of faith about technology. How we think about technology matters, and I’d like to make some suggestions for these kinds of conversations.
First, let’s define what we mean by technology. Dictionary.com (an online definition seems appropriate) defines it as “the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.” In short, technology is about tools.
All tools—from the first stick Adam used to soften the dirt to the latest wireless LAN software I had to reinstall to transmit this article to the editors of Comment—share the same character: they enable humankind to enhance the execution of human ability. Tools allow people to do the kinds of things they can already do, but do them bigger, faster, cheaper or better than they can without the tool.
Technology is just a tool, so our thinking about it needs to be grounded in a thoughtful perspective on tools—dare I say, a thoughtful theology of tools and technology. The definition of technology which I cited contains three key elements: creation, use and interrelationship. With these defining elements in mind, let’s look at two ideas related to technology that I think warrant more thoughtful attention: newness and availability.
Newness: Technology, especially within modern society’s understanding of technology, is focused on the new thing brought about by the latest science. Michael Lewis captured this perspective well in his book about legendary Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark, titled The New New Thing. Why are we so inexorably excited about and drawn to the new thing? I’ll argue because God made us that way, and it’s a good thing. We are made in God’s image; we bear the imago Dei.
One of the first things we learn about God is that he is creative, and in a dynamic way. God does not merely make stuff that lies there. God makes stuff that grows and lives and moves in time, space, history and the unfolding story of God and creation.
An astonishing hint to the nature of things is embedded in the fact that creation wasn’t finished all at once in a Big Bang. Why didn’t God bring the present world into being with just one quick flick of the divine wrist? He didn’t zap the cosmos into completion, but labored at it a while, revealing new wonders day by day. At each step along the way, God reflected on the latest thing and concluded it was good. God created the way he did out of love. The dynamic God conceived and made a dynamic universe, and in so doing, wired the continual refreshment of newness into the very heart of all reality.
I’m not saying all new is good, but good new is very good indeed. We are invited—commanded actually—to co-create with God in order to bring respectful and loving order to this world. We are to engage ourselves in the human endeavour of stewardship to care for all creation in order that all persons, and everything else too, may more and more live into what God has in mind for the world.
It’s an amazing adventure, and technology enables us to do that work. As anthropologists well know, toolmaking is an essential aspect of what makes us distinctly human, and as Christians we understand that it’s an essential aspect of what makes us God’s image-bearing children. It’s a triple win—we get to participate in the innovating of technology (creation) and the application of that technology (use) to do good in the world (interrelationship).
I believe the movement of newness God set in motion in creation and in each of us fuels our healthy attraction to the new that we so experience in our encounter with technology. We in fact worship the (capital G) God of (small t) technology.
Availability: Most of us want the latest available technology. Usually, available technology is the newest thing that works fairly reliably and is economically accessible. When will the next iPhone or cold fusion or a 100mpg car be available?
Those are good questions, but they fall short. The key is not just the technology’s availability, but how available it makes us. The purpose of technology is to buy us more time to be available to other things, or to makes us more effective in some endeavour (and so allow us a greater avail upon the world). Good technology is all about availability.
I may here sound as if I’m merely surfacing the age-old technological tension between good technology and good use of technology. While that’s a relevant issue, it’s not what I’m getting at here. I’m advocating for something less obvious and more profound: an availability consciousness that can transform our relationship with technology, both collectively and individually.
The Christian life is a particular way of life grounded in a continual awareness of God’s constant presence and active invitation. Jesus said that he could do only what the Father showed him (John 5:19). Jesus lived in constant availability to the Father, and so should we. That means that all our endeavours and all the tools and processes and techniques and collaborations and organizations that we use to live out our lives are to be engaged, while still retaining a sense of availability to what else is going on and what else God may be showing us. We need to learn a way of being that is contextualized in a larger frame than the current situation, seeing a picture that’s bigger than what meets the eye. By always being a little outside our situation, we are actually made more available to be present to the situation; this is an aspect of the freedom we gain by dying to self and becoming alive to God.
Such availability has a very real expression in our encounter with technology. Technology is attractive because of the God-given allure of the new new thing—but it’s also “sticky,” in that for many of us, it entraps our attention, making us so focused on it that we become less, not more, available. We may have technologically bought ourselves some time, but that time is only valuable (as opposed to merely accessible) if we can direct our use of it from a position of availability. Retaining access to this kind of awareness is what I mean by an availability consciousness. I’m not suggesting we reserve 6% of our brains to constantly chant, “What else is going on?” or “What’s God saying now?” The issue is more nuanced than that—it has to do with one’s point of view, one’s way of seeing and engaging at all times.
Let me give an example. I went to a baseball game with a friend last night and the guy sitting next to us was drunker than he realized. He was also yelling more loudly, crudely and disruptively than he realized. He did not have access to a sufficient degree of self-awareness or self-control to see the impact of his actions. He’s probably a pretty decent fellow with fewer beers in him, but neither he nor we could recognize it at the time. We all lost something in the process (he got thrown out, and we were distracted).
That’s the critical question—can you recognize your degree of availability? Given the immense power for good and the incredible attractiveness of today’s dazzling and elegant technologies, it’s easy to lose our availability without knowing it. Ever so subtly, technology becomes the object of our attention, rather than the tool of it. Developing an availability consciousness will help us guard against accidentally slipping into making a god of Technology, rather than responding to the God of technology.
We need to match technology’s advances with our own increasing maturity as technology creators, users and observers. Perhaps we can better respond to that challenge by reflecting on what newness and availability have to tell us about technology and its use.