Book Preview: Calling out the Good in Technology

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At some level we fear technology and its power over us. But the church can’t be content to merely offer warnings—we also need to call out the good in technology… we need to remember that technology, in the sense of it being something useful created through the application of science, has been part of humankind for quite a while. It finds its way into the Scripture early when Tubal-Cain “forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22) and continues throughout its pages. In fact, the church and technology have enjoyed a long and often positive history…

It’s time for me to describe a moment of repentance, a true U-turn in my own perspective on technology. I was embracing a “say yes to no” approach to tech (around the publication of my book of the same name) when I addressed a group of graduate students from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters of Stanford and Berkeley. My task was to inspire them to engage culture, particularly as informed by science, as bright, energetic, promising young Christians. These people could change the world. That sounds like a cliche, but the more I came to know these students, the more I believed it to be true.

I began my talks on Christian spirituality in today’s world [by warning] the grad students about stealth baptisms of science. “We in the church often baptize science with our faith when scientists aren’t looking. Let’s not do that,” I admonished. In later talks, I took a critical look at the problems of tech and offered reasons to resist it (it breaks down real community, overuse of screens makes us anxious and depressed, and so on). But when we gathered for ultimate Frisbee on a field nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains and during our meals together, some of the students quietly and thoughtfully resisted. Many, in fact, were involved in social entrepreneurship at Stanford or the Center for Social Sector Leadership at UC Berkeley. Or they were just making the world a better place without an official program.

“Did you know that cell phones can help farmers find the best price— so they can survive—in poor African countries? Let me tell you about it.”

“Have you heard about using solar power to help with hospitals in rural Nigeria?”

“I’m working on a project to bring training to the poorest one percent of the world through media players and I think Pico projectors can help stem the tide of pandemics.” (Actually, that’s my friend Matt York’s mission and what his organization One Media Player Per Teacher did to fight Ebola in 2014 and 2015. Except that he’s not in college, Matt could have been among the protestors.)

That retreat may have helped those InterVarsity grad students spiritually, but it was a game changer for me. I recognized that, though tech can often be a negative for rich countries like ours, it can also make the difference between life and death for the poor ones.

Let me bring in a few other voices.

First of these is Rosalind Picard, founder and director of the Affective Computing research group at the MIT Media Lab, codirector of the Things That Think consortium, and leader of the new and growing Autism and Communication Technology Initiative at MIT. Picard is doing powerful work in the use of computing to help us understand emotions, an area of research called “affective computing,” or “computing that relates to, arises from, or deliberately influences emotions.” MIT’s press release for her textbook states, “According to Rosalind Picard, if we want computers to be genuinely intelligent and to interact naturally with us, we must give computers the ability to recognize, understand, even to have and express emotions.” This can potentially help people with autism—those who don’t recognize emotions well—to become more conversant with emotions. This is computing in the service of making us more human.

Picard has clearly stated her confession of faith in Christ in her talk “Intellectual Assurance Christianity is Sound,” in which she describes her early years in the Bible Belt, subsequent rejection of Christian faith, and later coming back to faith as a young adult. Picard embodies coming to faith as an emerging adult and a rigorous love of science…

Nonetheless, I recognize technology’s power over me—a power that’s sometimes almost impossible to resist. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor of social studies of science and technology, tells us that on the average, Americans check their cell phone every six and a half minutes…Despite all the good things tech has wrought, the creation seems to be overwhelming the creators. Maybe there’s even an intimation of original sin and a lurking sense that we cannot not sin, that we cannot resist the temptation to misuse what is powerful and even, at some level, good. Because of this we can’t control, and we don’t know, ourselves. Paul’s tortured words echo throughout Christian experience: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15)…

I think we fear the future of technology because we’re not convinced we have the will to use its powers properly. As an epigraph for this chapter I used a paraphrase of Jesus in Mark 2: “Technology was made for us, not us for tech.” Now, of course, the actual biblical text is about the sabbath. But I’m not entirely joking when I quote it this way…Jesus’ words are surprisingly simple and freeing—God actually set up the sabbath for our lives to be better. Worshiping God returns us to who are created to be, and ultimately that means giving God glory. As Irenaeus commented, “The glory of God is shown in a human being fully alive”—we find our truest and deepest humanity in the sabbath.

What does this mean for our use of technology? It’s always been a gift from God, even the technology Adam needed to “till his field” in Genesis 2:15—that is, the Lord told Adam not simply to let things grow on their own but to cultivate them, to add human creativity and production to God’s good creation. And that’s the best use of technology, from the codex to Gutenberg’s Bible and even to the YouVersion app: to improve our lives, not to enslave them.

 

coverthumbnailTaken from Chapter 6, Calling out the Good in Technology, in Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adultsby Greg Cootsona. ©2018 by Greg Cootsona.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

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