Reading

Go, Go, Gadget…No! – Is Technology Neutral?

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What started as simple curiosity about a book exploring a Christian worldview of technology ended up as a reading rabbit trail of perspectives about the intersection of technological development and our world. The rabbit trail went through four books: two non-fiction pieces—the original Christian worldview book and one from an evolutionary biology perspective—a science fiction book, and a pointed critique of television that extends to other mediums of technological engagement today.

Is Technology Neutral

The non-fiction books explored different definitions of technology. In fact, author Kevin Kelly of What Technology Wants, found all available words for the broadness of his definition insufficient. He created his own.

I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections.

Dyer accepts a simpler definition for his purposes. He defines technology as “the means by which we transform the world as it is into the world that we desire.” The sentences following Dyer’s definition become the focus of his book: “What we often fail to notice is that it is not only the world that gets transformed by technology. We, too, are transformed.”

Kelly doesn’t have objections to that assertion, and in fact, embraces it as a natural extension of evolutionary development. Kelly’s premise is figuring out what the objective is for the technium. Where is it leading? Or, as the title suggests, what does it want—implying ambition and intentionality?

Is technology neutral? No.

In Dyer’s argument, it shapes and changes what we value, how we perceive the world, and how we understand our relationship with the world – it “transforms” us. In Kelly’s case, the technium is both good and bad, but it is nonetheless a dynamic system with purpose. Neutral it is not.

Though written decades apart, what Aldous Huxley imagines in his book, Brave New World, Neil Postman sees evidenced through the impact of television on society. He charts this progress and its implications in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Television has achieved the status of ‘meta-medium’—an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.”

Dyer concurs:

…the effect of technology on the brain and body happen irrespective of the content. Of course, the content we consume is important, but often we focus so much on the content that we miss the importance of the medium through which we consume it. In fact, sometimes the effects of a medium are more important than any content transmitted through that medium.

And that is precisely why Postman does not condemn the entertainment aspect of television – sitcoms, cartoons, dramas, etc. It is not the content that concerns him, but the bias of the medium. A careful study of  the medium, television, reveals a grander agenda of making everything entertaining.  Postman outlines an alarming trend of entertainment dictating how and where and when and why we engage with politics, religion, and education.

But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience…The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

Postman goes on to write how and why everything being entertaining is a problem. Huxley imagined it a bit himself.

Huxley created a world with no human attachments, benign conflict, and no interest beyond self-gratification. No one challenges the status quo, everyone has a job, no one has mothers, and sexual promiscuity is encouraged, no one has ambition, and high art is substituted for ‘feelies’ that always have happy endings and sensory-stimulating content. If something becomes too difficult or negative, citizens of this futuristic London take a Soma pill for a little sleep into good dreams. Everything is focused toward keeping people content and unquestioning.

Postman clearly connects the premise of his book with Huxley’s imagined world in the Foreword of Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Postman further observes that the hardest part about acknowledging this view of technology is that “An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan.”

Is technology neutral? No.

So, then what?

What to Do

Kelly advises embracing the choices. His concluding thoughts include a paragraph that sum up the entire book:

I began this book with a quest for a method, an understanding at least, that would guide my choices in the technium. I needed a bigger view to enable me to choose technologies that would bless me with greater benefits and fewer demands. What I was really searching for was a way to reconcile the technium’s selfish nature, which wants more of itself, with its generous nature, which wants to help us to find more of ourselves…Yes, technology is acquiring its own autonomy and will increasingly maximize its own agenda, but this agenda includes—as its foremost consequence—maximizing possibilities for us.

With this optimistic outlook in mind, Kelly puts forth his own strategy for dealing with the ever-increasing choices that our stream of ideas, inventions, and plans put forth: “As a practical matter I’ve learned to seek the minimum amount of technology for myself that will create the maximum amount of choices for myself and others.” A succinct way to organize interaction with technology based on individual caution with the caveat of not restricting the technium’s ability to progress for others.

Dyer took a more cautious approach when he said, “But we must also be ardent in our insistence that the redemptive capacities of technology are limited and temporary.” Several of his suggestions reminded me distinctly of Kelly’s chapter about the Amish and their strategies for adopting technology. Experiment, limit when necessary, and focus on community.

One of the critiques of Postman’s seminal work is that it offers no solutions. However, his writing is lucid and approachable for providing ways to think about television—considerations that could easily be adapted for other mediums. Perhaps a starting point then could be to read his book. A clever marketing strategy if ever there was one. Nevertheless, Amusing Ourselves to Death is a useful primer and was for me the most readable and engaging book of this set.

Huxley’s advice might fall along similar lines: read and consider. While his book is a provocative starting point, it is not my favorite piece of fiction considering alternative worlds. The plot is predictable and character development is functional at best, completely absent at its worst. Perhaps this is intentional – after all, when identity is squelched by society there isn’t a lot to develop. It’s a good story and an easy read overall.

About the Books

From the Garden to the City by John Dyer is the only Christian book in this field that I’ve read – or seen. It was a basic introduction to the history of technology, marked distinctions in its course of progress , and the implications for our future. He places it squarely in the Christian narrative from fallen creation to redemption and that gives the topic an angle and perspective not found elsewhere. I’d recommend it generally for anyone interested in a quick introduction to the impact of technology (it’s 179 pages) and specifically for churches and church groups trying to figure out a framework for talking about our relationship with the tools we use to improve the world. From the Garden to the City starts the conversation, but it is not exhaustive. And nor is it exhausting, which could be a criticism of What Technology Wants.

What Technology Wants is not for the faint of heart. I rarely have to renew a library loan, but I did so three times for this one. Kelly felt it necessary to chart so many facets of evolutionary biology from beginning to end in order to make his points that I often got lost in trying to make connections because I had forgotten what point he was trying to make originally. It was too much (Yes, I see the irony in this as I type nearly 2000 words for these four books and my first ever “longreads.”). His theories are intriguing – and at times horrifying – but passionately written. Someone who is better versed in scientific theory and/or technological development may have an easier time reading this. The arguments are provocative, fascinating, and comprehensive.

And Now, Back to You

Obviously, there are more books than just these four. This is not even the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I just hit the end of my rabbit trail for now. If you have expertise or have done your own reading in the area of technology’s intersection with humanity, I would love to hear your recommendations.

My own thoughts have been deepened and challenged. Likely, these ideas will continue percolating. With new inventions, directions, ideas, and fads every day, it’s tempting to feel a push to “stay ‘on top’ of things.” Yet, while both Dyer and Kelly advocate for experimenting with new technologies, neither one suggests that they should automatically be adopted just because they are new. I have taken measures to limit and protect myself from gadgets and social media, I had not until this point given consideration to the broader bounds of technology.

The three non-fiction books emphasized the bias of technology – that it has an inherent direction in which it will push a user. We must be vigilant about knowing what those directions and intentions might be so we can use our power to choose well. I say what the intentions “might” be because we will never fully guess the angles and directions that one addition to our sphere of influence will produce, but as those become visible we can still retain our power to choose whether to follow.

How do you define technology? How does it impact your daily routine, faith, politics, relationships, etc.? How do you use or limit technology in your life? Do you agree that technology is more good than bad? Do you have an argument for technology being, in fact, neutral?

2 thoughts on “Go, Go, Gadget…No! – Is Technology Neutral?

  1. Technology is created by human beings. Humans are both virtuous and vicious. Technology gets you connected to other humans; their feelings, their celebrations, their identities, their dreams. This connection creates empathy, which is good. Yet, there is evil in the hearts of beings. Can we escape it? Or should we just believe; trusting everything God created?

    • Sorry for the delay – we were visiting family for the holidays and blogging took a back seat.

      It seems that being conscious of the risks and thoughtful about the benefits of technology is a good place to start. It also seems unlikely, depending on how one defines “technology,” that we’ll escape it. But nor do I think throwing our hands in the air to let God handle the details is a useful way to engage in belief. Somewhere in between, maybe?

      These reads were a good start, but they generated more questions than answers. I feel somewhat comfortable discerning use of technology on a one-to-one basis, but I still fall way short of a comprehensive strategy for engaging technology and it’s perks and pitfalls overall.

      Thanks for the comment – I appreciate the thoughtful response.

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