Is technology good or bad or neither?
If you search the internet or the religion shelves of online or onsite bookshops, you'll find plenty of people warning that we really need to be careful about technology and, particularly, artificial intelligence, often because it is taking over the place of human intelligence or even divine intelligence. There is quite a bit of fear lurking around saying that this thing that we don't really understand seems to be getting a bit dangerous.
Some of this anxiety is based around Jacques Ellul's teaching from the 1960s. Ellul was a radical Christian academic who believed that the synthesis between capitalism and machine-based progress was creating a totalitarian society - the two worked together to imprison human beings into a world where they had no choices. Such a process he called "technique". Many of the criticisms of contemporary technology are wedded to Ellul's view of a society which is now totally invested in and enthralled by technology.
Ellul is a technological determinist. While its not true that he thought technology was bad in its own way, he felt that the contemporary interaction between progress and machines was bad and could only head in one direction. As such, he talks about technology as determining the way that we go forward. Often, then, those following Ellul's reading of technological progress will talk of technology doing something, technology imprisoning humans in its web, technology replacing God, technology taking over the world - through an AI-based machine intelligence or through robots, as if technology IS a thing when actually Ellul was saying the driving force comes form the merging of technology and capitalism into this thing he called "technique". I am not so sure Ellul thought machines were active agents in themselves.
One of the scholars I talked about in last week's blogpost, Jason Thacker, discusses tools as amoral (neither good nor bad - it depends on the user) but also talks of technology as an active agent within a fallen creation - see his excellent book, The Age of AI. I think Jason's point is important because we all know that hammers generally cannot hit a nail into a piece of wood without a human picking it up and using it. But hammers are designed to maximise the energy transferred to it by a human which focusses the transferred force onto the head of the nail and so drives it into the wood. But the other point that Jason makes is that this has the potential to raise other uses for the hammer into our post-fall/broken-world brains. So, just as Gutenberg's press has been used to print so many bible and books to spread the Good News about Jesus across the world (and beyond), it has also lead to the development of lots of alternative understandings of the world, the printing and distribution of pornography, hate, and evil. The tool can be used for good or evil.
The tool is neutral but its use remains ambivalent in a fallen world.
Marshall McLuhan (again back in the second half of the 20th century) talked about technology as being an extension of a human ability. The bicycle helps us move faster, the phone helps us communicate longer distances, the hammer helps us focus our strength better, a calculator helps us do sums quicker. But he also argued that such technologies have other effects - extending and retrieving but also making the tech obsolete. Shane Hipps books about electronic culture and technology remind us of McLuhan's four effects or laws:
What does this technology RETRIEVE of earlier technologies or actions or services?
What potential has the new technology to REVERSE its intended effect?
What is pushed aside or OBSOLESCED by the new technology?
What does the technology ENHANCE.
Or as a diagram...
To some extent, McLuhan was also a technological determinist, as we see in his argument that the medium is the message, for example. It's an argument which as been used a lot during the recent COVID pandemic and the Church's adoption of online engagement. Some church leaders continue to talk about this as dehumanising, as gnostic, as artificial church. Their argument is that church has to be in-person and gathered because of the embodiment of humanity.
However, some of the leading digital religion scholars of our own times (Heidi Campbell, Stephen Garner, John Dyer) would point out that technology is shaped by human needs - that we construct technology to meet a specific need that has been identified within the community. So, online communion was developed to help those without access to an onsite celebration of communion (because of health, infirmity, distance, safety...) have a sacramental element to their discipleship. In such a development, much effort was made to recognise the body of Christ, to gather together online, to be present to one another as bona fide embodied human beings but shown on screens or at the end of a speaker. During the lockdown, we heard of the power of phone services drawing communities together to worship God. Such social construction of technology does not lead to the users being disembodied or overpowered by the technology. See my comments on online communion elsewhere in Premier's blogs or over at Bread and Wine Online
Indeed Heidi especially has talked about the social shaping of technology - the way that we take tech and make it better to fit in with our social use case. So, for example, the way that YouVersion has taken the ability to display the Bible on mobile phones verse by verse to create an indexed Bible which can be searched and read or listened to and then highlighted and shared. Such a use is shaping existing technology to provide a much-used discipleship tool and teaching people how to read the Bible devotionally and in community. The Church of England have done the same thing with the Common Worship and their Daily Prayer App. The Methodist Church have done the same thing with their Singing The Faith Plus hymn/worship tool.
In other words, there may be a different way to seeing how technology can be shaped by us as individuals and how we might create a kind of technological network based on these developments. We can use these tools (and we have!) to create a valid expression of the Church through COVID times. We have technological versions of worship services, praise services, funeral services, blessings of all kinds, charismatic services and social justice protests. We can pray at all moments of the day and meditate to our souls content through apps and facebook posts and so on.
Of course, this is just one part of the technological development of the church. Onsite church continues to develop its own technological variants - from Cathedrals to chapels, from monastic devotion to megachurch celebrations. Since our religion is about its very immersion of the transcedent within the everyday (embodiment, incarnation), it is also about engagement with technology and in adapting and transforming technology to fit secular tech into divine purposes. We do this constantly modelling what a recent sociologist Bruno Latour, has called an Actor Network - where we create networks of people engaged in technological society - some producing, some consuming, some a bit of both - all connected into the role of being part of a networked society. Lots of people are exploring Networked Society such as Manuel Castells. But there is also the new sociology of Couldry and Hepp which talk about the Mediated Construction of Reality.
Since our religion is about its very immersion of the transcedent within the everyday (embodiment, incarnation), it is also about engagement with technology and in adapting and transforming technology to fit secular tech into divine purposes
Because we live in a fallen world, everything can fall to pieces and be broken. But that probably means we need to be as careful about the technologists as we do about the technology. If tech is shaped by technologists, then we need to be aware of their morals. Or rather, we need to be aware that some technologists are not guided by Christian morality. Some are guided by their own morals about human advance, or scientific advance, or about creating wealth for themselves or for their shareholders. When capitalism and technologists come together, we do indeed create what Ellul talked about - a technique which seeks to imprison the world in exploitation. Technique is explored so brilliantly in this cartoon by Steve Cutts...the way that social media technologists have imprisoned the world:
But because we are called by God to be stewards of creation, because we are made in the image of God (the great creator, the first technologist), and filled with his Spirit, perhaps we need to be a bit more confident in our own use of technology to reshape the world, to refashion its brokenness and create new things to enable to the message of God's love to be shared across even this broken world. Personally, I'm happy to follow this route rather then get overly anxious about robots taking over the world. That's a problem i am not going to be able to solve. But I can encourage my local church to pick up their phones, load some apps, and do more bible reading, more prayer, more worship, more social action.
I still think that the world of tech can be a holy place. It depends who builds it. It depends who fashions it. It depends on the church having the guts to be involved and embedded in its creation.