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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Confession of a Luddite Sympathist

It seems to me that if you are going to tell the world that modern technology and specifically social media type technology makes you uneasy, and you are going to say it on your blog, then you had better frame the statement as a confession. So here it is:

I confess - technological development makes me uneasy and I have a constant sort of background nervousness about what social media is doing to our ability to relate to one another in healthy ways.

And now for disclaimers: I do not actually disapprove of technology, I try hard to stay on top of technological development and I think that it offers great opportunities for good. My confession is one of inclination not of decision so while there is a little worried knot in my stomach every time some new device of website catches on, I go ahead and try to learn the tech and see what can be made of it.

Technology is essentially power. In fact it is an expression of power which is almost unique to humans (I think I remember that there are certain monkeys which do stuff with sticks and I heard somewhere that sea otters will hold on to especially useful "shellfish cracking" rocks). It is the manifestation of the power of thought, imagination and innovation and as such it really sort of deserves to be celebrated - all things are indeed glorious for being themselves.

I believe C.S. Lewis J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton each pointed out that the desire to develop technology is a manifestation of the same desire which leads people to try magic (Lewis has some really great things to say about this in The Abolition of Man). The technologist and the alchemist are the right and left hands of the same impetus. In fact when you get right down to brass tacks definitions it becomes surprisingly difficult to differentiate between the two. The major difference is that technology has worked while magic hasn't.

The problem is that technology is power - and exponentially increasing power at that - in the hands of a species with questionable moral character. Power only increases an individual's ability to do what they want to do, to "enacting their will on the world" as the philosopher would say. It is a good thing for a good person to enact their will on the world, but conversely it is a bad thing for a bad person to enact their will. And technology itself does not discriminate between good and bad, it simply amplifies. Technology makes bad people more able to do worse things and good people more able to do good things.

I think that Facebook gives a useful example. Facebook (together with other social media) has enable people to organize and topple repressive regimes. I take this to be a good thing, although I have not always been pleased with the "new boss", but that is another post. At the same time, I believe that Facebook (again together with other social media) has enabled people to create illusory relationships which save them from the difficulty and ultimate satisfaction of forging real relationships. It allows for someone to become increasingly antisocial without feeling as many of the negative effects of actually being alone.

All of this is because technology essentially amoral. It is not immoral, for then it could not serve and especially not amplify the good that it is so often used for. Neither is it moral, for then it could not be used in the service of harming people as it has so often been. Technology is a catalyst, an amplifier, to stake out yet another "mushy middle" position, it is what you make of it.

But maybe things are not quite so simple as that. As Spiderman is wont to remind us, "With great power comes great responsibility". We need to ask ourselves whether we are able to handle that sort of responsibility. After all, there was a time when the worst mankind could do with its power was to kill itself off. This would have been a bad enough thing and we managed to be responsible enough not to do it. But now, with much greater power, we carry much greater responsibilities. We now have the power to reduce our entire planet to a glowing slag heap, ending nearly all life; and we are responsible for how that power is going to be used.

So the question "is technological development a good thing?" turns out to be the question "is it a good idea for beings like us to be more powerful?" and our answer will have to depend on whether or not we think that human beings ought to be trusted with this much power. And this is a hard question to answer because in reality we all clearly observe that humans, both collectively and individually, are both incredibly evil and shockingly good. We are beings of unimaginable glory and holiness who have become corrupted and evil. We are just about as paradoxical a set of beings as can be imagines, veritable gods who have become demons and still aspire to godhood what the Greek Orthodox call Theosis. We are the only species that could have produced bothe Mother Teresa and Hitler and that species tension is at work in each of us. Indeed, to go back to C.S. Lewis, one of those two must be our ultimate destiny:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations." - The Weight of Glory

But then maybe a growth in human technological power is unavoidable, maybe whatever the answer to that question, we will still be faced with an inevitable increase in human power. So we might want to jump strait to another question: "how can we ensure that power is used responsibly? How can we keep from blowing up the world or turning the vast majority of the population into unthinking, consuming zombies?" After all, there are certainly people out there who project exponential and unavoidable technological growth over the next few years.

To my mind, the answer to these latter questions (I don't think that technological progress is something which can be effectively fought) is twofold: First we have to find a way to make people better - in spiritual terms we have to really focus on bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, we have to begin to really care about things like sanctification, maybe we need to go back and read James and Hebrews again. And secondly we need to never cease in doing good to the best of our own ability - and this must include the acquisition of the technological expertise which will enable us to become more effective peacemakers, more efficiently generous, more aware of the suffering that we are to be forever healing. After all, Spiderman works backwards as well: "With great responsibility comes the providence of great power" at least it must God was serious when He promised to provide everything necessary for the doing of His will.

1 comment:

  1. There are no answers, but you're asking the right questions. I have a love/hate relationship with technology, myself. It's rather promethean; like fire, it's a great gift, but ultimately I think we'll use it to destroy ourselves. How's that for thinking positively?