What is technology? It is one of those fundamental questions that is really easy to pass over. We usually don’t spend time asking what air is, and how it sustains our human bodies–although it is pretty amazing if you do start to think about it—normally, we just get on and breathe. It is easy to take the same approach with technology. We get on and use it. Or perhaps you don’t just use technology, you work in the tech industry, you create it.
This week at the Kingdom Code gathering we asked the question. The consensus seemed to be that technology is whatever we use to extend our ability to explore and develop the world. It might be old, it might be new, it might be really simple or astoundingly complex, but the heart of technology is the fact it allows us to do things that we couldn’t otherwise do. Technology is what we use to shape the world. This view of technology as a tool that extends our human ability in some way is pretty standard. But is it deep enough?
We need to ask some more questions: If tech is what we use to shape the world, whose world is it? And who is doing the shaping? Are we shaping our world through technology or do you sometimes get the feeling that technology is shaping us? Maybe it’s both?
Martin Heidegger was a famous German philosopher in the twentieth century who thought deeply about technology. He was convinced that technology was not a neutral tool and to back up his point he used an illustration about mining (his name sounds like ‘digger’ so it’s memorable).
Heidegger’s point was that once we have the technology of mining, we view every field in a different way. We start to ask, is this a possible mine? What resources might be buried underneath it? Could we mine it? How much would we make if we did? Would it be better to mine it or leave it as field?
It seems counter-intuitive, but, according to Heidegger, the essence of technology is, in fact, not anything technological. In a deep sense, technology is not simply about microchips and fibre-optics and lines of computer code. Technology is like a frame through which we see the world. It causes us to see the world in certain ways. In fact, the frame ultimately becomes the world we live within.
See how technology functions like a frame in the ad? The smartphone is framing life in the picture but if you think about it the frame is not just the phone. The physical frame brings with it the story of life that Samsung are eager to sell. What’s the story? It’s about connecting with nature and freedom and joy and flourishing.
Our lives are framed by the technologies with which we engage the world. And the products come with stories attached. It is really the story that gives the product its power—a phone is not just a phone, it is a gateway to ‘infinite possibilities’and life.
On the surface each advert and each new technology of the digital age has its own story. Under the surface, the stories have a unity in the story of freedom that belongs to the late-modern world. The message is that whoever you are, wherever you come from, you alone define yourself, you alone write the script that you will follow through life. You are free to ‘write the future’ (as the Nike slogan goes). Steve Jobs summed it up in his speech to the graduating class at Stanford in 2005:
‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’
This is the appeal of the digital world: there is no story pre-written, with the power of technology we can all code our own. The thing is, the ‘life is a blank page’ story is itself a story. We could call it the ‘no-story story’. It doesn’t sound too interesting at first. But it is amazing how it has captured our cultural imagination! Everyone can publish, and broadcast, and create. You just need to follow your heart.
So, what do you think of the story? Is it true? Is it a good story to inhabit as the frame for your life? Look again at the Samsung ad. How does the story of the ad compare with the experience of life that it is offering?
The story of life through technology is incredibly attractive and it is close to the truth—which is what makes it so believable. But, if the numerous films about technology causing armageddon are to be judged by, there is more than a sneaking suspicion that it is not the full story. The problem is it never really deals with the reality of life that has a dark side. And as we all know through some of the less savoury stories of technology, this dark side is not just something ‘out there’but it has very human origins. Our capacity to create beauty and wonder is matched by our capacity to destroy and harm.
That is why to know true freedom, we need a better frame: a story of freedom that is also a story of redemption. Jesus tells us that freedom and flourishing are found truly in Him. ‘If you abide in my word (perhaps we might say, ‘if you live within the frame of my story’) you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’(John 8:32). It is as we come to Jesus Christ that life, and with it technology, is transformed in a world that joins our good to God’s glory. This is the life of freedom and flourishing—the truly human life that God made us to live.
Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas (minister of Inspire Church, London) are joint authors of Virtually Human: Flourishing in our Digital World.