Today change sweeps through our globally connected culture, but we continue to face a very old and very simple question: will technology turn us into bad people?
Some scholars think it’s inevitable. Plato thought writing would short-circuit our memory. Jacques Ellul thought images humiliated language. Neil Postman thought television turned everything into entertainment. Avoidance or abstention from technology, then, would be the only real way to avoid malformation.
Other scholars counter that bad people use technology to do bad things. Settlers in the New World used their technological superiority to subjugate Indigenous peoples. Nazis mobilized the logics of the factory system to exterminate millions of people.
Both of these perspectives on technology, however, fail to offer a robust account of how humans become good or bad. They both fail to offer a sufficient account of our formation.
Humans, James K. A. Smith argues, are not primarily thinking creatures. We are bodily creatures, who hunger and desire. We are creatures formed through practices, the mundane and ritualized activities we engage on a regular basis. We are also creatures who traffic in stories or visions of the good life. Desires, practices and vision — those are the ways humans become who they are.
Like those New World settlers we often enact our desire for control over nature and others with the practices of empire, motivated by visions of efficiency, cost-benefit analysis and wealth. These visions and desires animate the digital divide, drone warfare and automation. The gap in access to digital resources and their resulting wealth is tethered to a long history of economic, gender and geographic inequalities. Likewise, drone warfare is our era’s version of the practice of deploying technological superiority to gather intelligence and kill targets. Automation is a practice that may, in our near future, produce mass unemployment.
“Before we can begin to engage the brokenness of our world, we must be formed inside the crucible of lamentation.”
As image-bearers seeking justice in a world of rapid innovation, my “Being and Knowing in the Digital Age” class learns to recover lament. Before we can begin to engage the brokenness of our world, we must be formed inside the crucible of lamentation. Before we act, the prophets remind us, we must grieve.
We too find in the digital age the potential for detachment. Internet browsing has the potential to form us into the kind of people who skim, not just the Internet but everything in our lives: sermons, lectures, literature, the Bible, other people. We can become the kind of people who only engage in surfaces. And while social media has the potential to connect us to others, we can also use it as a shield to keep others from knowing our weaknesses. Against surfaces and shields, the Sabbath offers us the context in which intimacy and vulnerability can take place.
Digital technology, then, can turn us into bad people, but only if we let it. The practices of the Church curate our desire for justice and reshape our vision, but this resistance is found only through significant effort and only at great cost to what we think of as normal.