On Bytes and Data: The enchantment of technology

Picture of people operating laptops and smartphones
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Every society needs some form of technology. From customary farm tools, to the universal needle and thread, right down to the plethora of digital applications today, human society has had to invent and rely on some form of technology. And our use of technology cuts across different spheres and functions of life: agriculture, manufacturing, education, home management, business, and a host of others. While technology has grown sophisticated (and digital) over the past few decades, every variant still serves the same basic purpose: to use our current knowledge of the physical universe to help us get something done.

Today’s world is a lot different from 10 years ago all because of rapid changes in technology. New and faster ways of communicating, richer platforms for buying and selling, ever-engrossing options for amusing oneself, as well as a whole new galaxy of tools and apps, featuring  planets like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news sites, and a million other stars. For someone born merely three decades ago, the world has become so different.

Modern technology is a complex force with immense capacity to help humans flourish. But what happens when this force engulfs us? The proverbial adage of fire being a good servant but a bad master also applies to technology, especially its modern species. Electronic technologies possess such a power to so suck us into a digital realm where we become oblivious to the flesh and blood creatures sitting right next to us. We can get so absorbed in Facebook that we forget our neighbour’s name or become so engrossed in email that we neglect to pray.

How can we resist immersion in this virtual world where the only virtues are efficiency and speed? How can we adopt technology without becoming enslaved to it?

Recognize Technicism as a false gospel

One of the follies of our modern world is to assume technology can create a paradise on earth. Writing in their classic book The Transforming Vision, Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton identify ‘Technicism’ as one of the ‘idols’ of the modern secular world. And by this term they meant that reliance on technology to solve all human problems. It is the confidence that technology will make us ‘omnipotent’ (all-powerful), which also involves the notion that technological development will somehow usher us into a secular paradise. As I discussed earlier in an article, the blockbuster movie, Black Panther, is a  depiction of this hope.

The root problem of our world is the corruption of the human heart, a result of our rebellion against God’s rule and authority right after creation. We need God to renew our hearts through his Spirit. Technology cannot change human nature; it can only express it. So looking to technological innovation for renewal is a false imitation of the gospel.

Cultivate a deep walk with the triune God

Daily walk with God will keep us from enslavement to the false promises of technology. As we nurture a relationship of faith and love through Christ, we place our hearts right where it belongs: in the hands of God. Tools are just that – tools. They can only be used to the glory of the God who rules as king over everything. And when we seek God’s kingdom like Jesus asked us to (cf. Matthew 6:33), even digital technology is subjected to that divine administration.

A thriving relationship with God also enables us to preserve a God-orientation in the midst of our daily activities, which includes our use of technology. In this way, we can navigate the digital world without absorption in it. We can be conscious of the God who sits within yet transcends the soft and hard edges of our created universe. Reflecting on such a stance, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke observed:

Whether I sit in front of the set or behind the steering wheel, I am in the presence of God. He is not only in pulpits and on altars. His word is not just in sermons and hymns, but it is mixed into the most everyday things. He is at the movies and on the street, on assembly lines and beneath the neon lights. The presence of God is limitless. It is the heart of everything.

Use Technology, but wisely

Caution must not give way to fear. We are in the world, though not of it. And we need not disdain technology as Satan’s plaything. Digital tools can be embraced as products of God’s common grace.

However, it is wise to set barriers. These would vary from person to person, and might differ depending on what stage or circumstance of life you are in. My three-year old son loves using the smartphone, so my wife and I have had to take some precautions. We restrict the number of hours when he uses it and we disable the internet connection whenever he’s on it.

Go off social media (or particular apps), for instance, while studying for an exam. Turn to God first every morning rather than your Facebook timeline. You can keep off Instagram on Sundays (or for certain hours, so you can spend quality time with God and family). Does sleeping with your phone encourage an over-dependence on the device? Consider keeping it away while you sleep.

Perhaps we are even addicted to older technologies like our Plasma TVs or our SUVs. Could the mounted screen be keeping us from meaningful conversations with our spouses or children? Is the car-induced sedentary lifestyle we have adopted making us susceptible to a host of lifestyle ailments?

Conclusion

A life of consecration compels us to bring everything, including technology, to God’s altar. As Thielicke again reminds us about television:

Does my craving for it seduce me into giving myself without restraint to this wonder of technical ability? Is every thought, all peace of mind, every idea, thus to be sacrificed? Or do I maintain control over myself ? Even this quite everyday relationship to television has to do with my obedience to God. Do I utilize technology in his name or do I play fast and loose with his gifts?

The wise use of technology is not merely a matter of prudence or efficiency; it is about stewardship and worship. As stewards, we are accountable to God for our time, energy and money. And as worshippers, we owe our devotion and reverence not to the latest invention from Silicon Valley, but to Christ who is Lord of all.

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