I sit here in my office and poke around on a keyboard that is not even physically connected to my laptop and characters appear on a screen. I have a phone in my pocket through which I talk to someone around the world, send a text message, and to which I can ask questions and give commands. Usually, when all things are working as they should, the phone responds. At times it will even talk back to me asking me clarifying questions or telling me it doesn’t quite understand me.
I still marvel at this technology. As a child, I watched television shows such as Star Trek and dreamed of a time when those communicators would be real. Not only did they become real. The flip phone that they resemble is already technologically passé. One generation’s science fiction dream world is the next generation’s relative necessity.
These technological dreams and advances are an aspect of our being created in the image of a creative God. As such, they are not only good; they are also necessary. We are created to take dominion over the world, making it fruitful in every way. When God created Adam and told him to tend and guard the Garden, Adam had to figure out new and creative ways to plow the ground and, eventually, fight the thorns and thistles. He and his descendants created new and more effective and efficient ways to accomplish their tasks, making the world an ever-increasingly fruitful place.
Throughout history, man has continued to create new technologies for these purposes. From farm implements to the vast array of computer technologies, we have made our lives and the world flourish. But there is something interesting about the technologies that we create. As Sherry Turkle observes in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Others, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us.”a Our technology begins to drive and shape the culture.
This is not inherently bad. It is simply the statement of a fact. One generation invents the automobile. The culture of the next generation is driven (pardon the pun) by the automobile. Schedules, work, play, markets, and other cultural matters assume the use of the automobile. What was a luxury to the culture of one generation becomes the necessity of the culture in the next? Electricity, phones, and computers are now the staples of the culture. We have developed our technologies, and our technologies, in turn, have shaped the way we live our lives.
As a pastor, I have been especially intrigued by the world of “relational” or “social” technology; that is, technologies designed to keep us connected in some form of communication. How are these relational tools affecting our relationships? How do these technologies affect the expectations that people have when they come to be a part of a local church? Is there a dark side of these technologies that the gospel must address? As Christians, we are called to engage the culture. What kind of culture are we engaging? How much of that culture has affected (infected!) the church? How does the church counter those cultural trends?
It is becoming painfully evident that our social technology is being used in such a way to make us more lonely. We are connected more than ever by telephones and social media, yet we are more and more isolated from one another. This is not the conclusion of some Bible-thumping Luddite. Non-Christians are recognizing it. Ironically, I suppose, you can find articles online such as Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? , The Loneliness Epidemic: We’re More Connected Than Ever – But Are We Feeling More Alone? , and The Age Of Loneliness Is Killing Us. Here is a video that explains how our connectivity is isolating us. That video is based on a TED Talk delivered by Sherry Turkle summarizing her full-length treatment of the subject in her book Alone Together. None of these is an explicitly Christian evaluation of the situation, but they are all recognizing that our social technology is developing a culture that, while connected, is becoming disconnected from full human interaction.
This technology gives each of us the sense of control that we haven’t had in the past. We always have a measure of control to be sure, but today’s technologies give a perception that we are more in control than ever before. Looking at a sliver of the metanarrative of our culture, we can see huge cultural shifts and, consequently, how we have gained more and more control of our lives and interactions with others.
There was a time in our country when, by and large, to have a job, one had to go to a place of work, was forced to work with others he didn’t know and submit to “the man.” A man was “forced” to learn to interact with others in an amicable way and, generally, wanted to keep his job for forty years and retire with a gold watch. Though we still go to places of business, internet technology has changed our situations tremendously. Now we can be employed by a huge corporation and rarely go into “the office.” We connect online, control our schedules, and control our interactions with people.
This was brought home to me at a dinner with a young couple who were both urban professionals. We talked about their work. The lady to whom I spoke worked from her home and only chose to go to the coffee shop to work when she felt as if she needed to be around people. She was in control of her interactions. In the previous generation, unless you were a farmer, you weren’t able to isolate yourself to this degree. Now technology has allowed us to interact only as much as we feel comfortable doing so. (more…)
- Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Others (New York: Basic Books, 2011) 263. (back)