By Chad Ragsdale
I’ve heard someone observe that we are all cyborgs now—witness our desktops littered with computers, smartphones, and tablets. Technology is, of course, not new. The creation and use of tools to enhance our power and improve our lives is uniquely human. What is new, I think, is the level of intimacy our technology now enjoys in each one of our lives. Our technology has become an inseparable part of us, and we notice it more for its absence than its presence.
Recently I went 10 days without a cell phone. This wasn’t some grand experiment in minimalist living. Basically, I’m a cheapskate who didn’t want to pay to replace a broken phone. It wasn’t many years ago that I lived every day without a cell phone, but to do so now left me feeling incredibly naked—like I’d walked out the door without an essential piece of clothing.
We use technology to reshape our worlds, but technology also reshapes what it means to be human. The age of the computer, airplane, television, and a host of other inventions has redefined what it means to be a human in the world today. Technology is not merely an accessory to our lives. It has become the very fabric of our lives. Because of this, it is necessary for us to pause and reflect upon what our theology—our most deeply held beliefs—would say to our relationship with technology.
Technology at its very best is a celebration of the imago Dei. We are created in the image of the Creator God, and as such, we are created to be creators. When we invent, discover, and solve problems, it brings glory to the God who gave us such capabilities and called them “good.” Technology at its very best serves to amplify the creative potential of human beings, draw us together, and even advance the kingdom. After all, Paul had his “Roman roads.” Luther had his printing press. And now we have Skype making our world a very small place.
Of course technology isn’t always at its very best. As the creation of fallen human beings, it not only amplifies our creative potential, it amplifies our brokenness. We have the frustrating tendency to turn the work of our hands into the means of our own salvation.
One of the first mentions of technology in Scripture is the building of the ark, but close behind it is the Tower of Babel. Both were efforts to bring about salvation—the first sanctioned by God and the second initiated by the insecurities of men. There is a seed of idolatry in all technology. Like the craftsmen of Isaiah 44, we have foolishly attempted to shape our own gods.
Technology gives many people exactly the type of god they think they want. It is a god that doesn’t judge, command, or even think. (In fact, one of our biggest cultural fears is that the things we create learn how to think on their own and then destroy us.) Technology is a god who serves us and meets our every desire. It is a god who doesn’t offer forgiveness but does offer escape. And if the technology doesn’t yet exist, we wait in hopeful expectation that someone will eventually “figure it out.”
All our idolatries end in alienation. The prophet warned us, “All who make idols are nothing” (Isaiah 44:9). Just because our idols have an electronic heartbeat doesn’t mean they are alive. If you give yourself over to an empty thing, you will become empty yourself, which is a functional definition of what it means to be “lost.”
The technology that promises to slow down, simplify, and organize our lives has actually made us dizzy and sick from overstimulation. The technology that promises to connect us to the world and to each other can just as easily cut us off from those things. (TV trays used to be one of the biggest threats to family time at dinner; they offered a way to move the dinner table to the TV. But now we have moved the TV to the dinner table through the use of smartphones.) Rather than fully experience life in the real world, we are increasingly choosing an artificial, virtual world. We are choosing alienation.
The presence of technology in our lives is too powerful for us not to thoughtfully ask theological questions of it. How does this technology encourage human flourishing and ultimately glorify God? What is the seed of idolatry and alienation in this technology? How can this technology be leveraged for the kingdom? And is that always a good idea?
Chad Ragsdale serves as assistant academic dean with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.