In their 2019 book Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock released some data on the consumption of screen media in the lives of “digital natives,” individuals between the ages of 15-23. They found that the average digital native consumes 2,767 hours of screen media each year, the equivalent of 115 days of nonstop screen time. For those outside the survey group, it has been easy to sit in judgment over this up-and-coming generation and berate it for spending over a third of a year in front of screens rather than engaging with the world around it.
That lack of empathy, however, quickly disappeared in 2020.
With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world was forced to join the digital natives online, as work, school, social interactions, and other facets of life all had to take place in front of a screen. Without our permission, digital technology extended itself into every corner of our lives, and while the results have been mixed (who hasn’t experienced the joy of seeing family combined with the lingering exhaustion that is Zoom fatigue?), the question remains as to how we ought to relate to technology use as we emerge from global shutdown.
While the temptation to swing the pendulum to the other extreme and hop completely off the grid is certainly appealing, what I want to suggest is that before we make any drastic resolutions about our technology use, we take a step back and thoughtfully examine the origins of technology and the part it plays in God’s bigger story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, reflect on the temptations that technology creates, and chart a path forward to using technology in a redemptive way, a way good for our souls, good for our neighbors, and glorifying to God.
Where should we begin with talking about technology? Like everything else, we should start at the beginning. In Genesis 1, God brings the world into existence simply by speaking. He says “Mountain,” and the Rockies appear. He says “Zebra,” and they instantly begin running through the grasslands. But when God says “Human,” he changes his approach. In Genesis 2, God shapes man and woman like a potter making a pot, and then he breathes life into them. As they stand before him, God blesses them and then gives them this mandate in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This passage, referred to by theologians as the cultural mandate, locates the origins of technology. Far from being a consequence of humanity’s rebellion, God actually commissioned his image bearers with the task of cultivating the Garden of Eden into a paradise for future generations. For this garden to be adequately tended, tools needed to be made. Buildings needed to be constructed. Urban planning needed to take place. God wants the human race to create as he created. And while we are not able to create ex nihilo, we are able to take the raw materials of earth, forge and shape them, and use them in a way that brings out the best in the world and the best in us.
This creation ideal, however, would not last. Instead of exercising benevolent dominion over creation, Adam and Eve permitted creation to control them, leading them to disobey God’s command. After the rebellion of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, God cursed the ground, saying to Adam:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:17-19)
What exactly does this mean? Because of Adam’s rebellion, God said that the ground which he was to cultivate would now work at cross-purposes with him, yielding thorns along with its produce. By the sweat of his brow his family would be fed. The fall resulted in the fracturing of the world, and as innovations emerge to bend the world to our selfish wills, we find that not only is nature uncooperative in the end (think of natural disasters which we cannot prevent and that are exacerbated by our technological overreach), but also our own relationship to technology is warped. Two details in the primeval account in Genesis that reinforce this point: the descendants of Cain who are noted as being the sources of innovation in husbandry, music, and metallurgy (Gen. 4:20-22), and the tower of Babel, where humanity uses its sinful ingenuity to build a temple to ourselves (Gen. 11).
Although our warped use of technology is as old as humanity itself, God was not content to leave us to our own devices. At just the right time, God sent his Son into the world to redeem fallen humanity from sin and its effects. How does he accomplish this? He does so in the most unlikely of ways–by subverting the technology of execution and turning it into the tool of our salvation. Jesus took the wood and iron of the Roman cross and repurposed it for his mission to defeat sin, death, and the grave. What the world had meant for evil God used for good, and its effects still echo into our present moment.
The story of redemption in Christ is not just a story of humanity’s rescue from sin, but it is also an account of the redemption of the cultural mandate. Through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has liberated our wills so that we are no longer compelled to relate to our world in selfish and sinful ways. In fact, we are able to partner with Christ in his mission of loving people, places, and things into life by being agents of reconciliation. Moreover, Paul says that God has fashioned us to be his masterpiece (literally, his poema, from which we derive the word poem–a work of literature designed with great forethought and intention), fully equipped to accomplish those good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph. 2:10).
Nonetheless, Christians acknowledge that this world is not yet what it will be. While we strive to use technology redemptively until Christ returns, we groan with the creation still under sin’s effects (Rom. 8:19-24). That groaning will only finally give way to shouts of joy when Christ returns to make everything sad come untrue. And when Christ returns, he will bring a city with him, a celestial metropolis meticulously designed, itself a technological wonder. Read Revelation 21 and imagine what sort of civil engineering and artisanship must go into the New Jerusalem! Christ is bringing us a new world, a world where technology is used to its fullest potential–the glory of God.
Having located technology in God’s big story, now consider the particular dangers and temptations that technology presents as we await the appearance of Christ and the celestial city. Specifically, technology presents four temptations that, if left unnoticed, would subsume our humanity and distract us from what is truly important in life. Andy Crouch, in a talk called “A Theology of Cyborgs,” described three of these dangers, and I have added the fourth.
First, Crouch addresses the danger of disenchantment, or as he affectionally refers to it, “the Spirit Airlines problem.” The upside of technology is that it makes possible what previous generations have considered to be impossible. Spaceships and submarines have broadened the horizon of human exploration and discovery. GPS-enabled combines and harvesters have made food production consistent and efficient. But these benefits of technology have had a side effect–they have contributed to our collective loss (at least in the West) of the transcendent order behind the universe. As Charles Taylor and others have pointed out, the proliferation of technology has drastically narrowed our social imaginary of what is plausible in the world, including the idea of God. An article in The New Atlantis recently reported that 2/3 of Americans live in a place where we cannot see the stars at night because of the artificial light that is ubiquitous in our cities. Then is it a wonder that we as a society are unable to wonder like the psalmist, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have put in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:3-4) Technology has made us less enamored with the world and the Creator behind it.
This is where Spirit Airlines comes in – the ability to fly 30,000 feet above the earth in a metal tube and to contract the required time to travel great distances from days into hours – well it has come at a price: the cost of a plane ticket (with an upcharge if you want to fly in the plane) in an uncomfortable seat with negligent service and unsympathetic customer care. The wonder of flight now becomes very blasé, even an inconvenience! Technology quickly becomes taken for granted, and little by little, we lose our sense of awe at this unique, one-of-a-kind world.
Second, Crouch identifies what he called “The Da Vinci problem,” also known as the danger of disjunction. Crouch is not referring to the Renaissance figure but rather a medical device known as the Da Vinci surgical suite, a $2 million piece of equipment that enables surgeons to perform minimally invasive surgeries on patients. This amazing device augments the surgeon’s ability and makes surgery more consistent and efficient. Yet in a study published after ten years of the surgical suite’s existence, research found that a trained surgeon performed at the exact same level with or without the device, with roughly the same margin of error.
What does this mean? This is the problem of disjunction–it was once thought that the future of humanity is to be found in the merging of artificial systems and organic systems, the combination of man and machine (thus the pursuit of many transhumanist startups in Silicon Valley). But what has been discovered time and again is that while machines are skilled at certain things and humans at certain things, their combined output is actually minimally improved. It may be expedient to outsource our vacuuming to a Roomba, but we all know that if you want the job done right, you do it yourself. The allure of technology is for us to invest our time in forming machines to accomplish a task rather than forming people for the work–and so much more.
Third, Crouch notes the danger of diminishment, the “call your mother” problem. The temptation here is that with every enhancement that technology brings, it always carries with it a diminishment of the human person. We have off-loaded parts our cognition to machines, like the storing of telephone numbers. If a random stranger were to give you his or her cell phone, would you be able to call your mother? In Crouch’s experience, about one out of every three people would be completely unable to contact one of the most important people in his or her life! Rather than memorizing the information of those we love, we now rely on technology to do the remembering for us.
This third problem is a story as old as time. As early as the Greco-Roman period, people have drawn attention to the diminishment phenomenon. Early commentators on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, where we read of the story of Prometheus stealing fire (the first technological innovation) from the gods, have pointed out that Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus was not simply spite and vengeance, but also because Zeus knew that while fire would have many benefits for humanity, it would also wreak havoc and bring destruction. On a less gruesome note, in Phaedrus Plato recorded his teacher Socrates lamenting the ubiquity of writing, because once people are able to write down what they have heard, they would no longer be able to remember it. Or consider the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution in England. The Luddites were textile workers who revolted against mechanical looms on the grounds that mass-produced textiles would actually weaken the guild and produce a class of people who care not for the craft, but only for their wages. The Luddites believed that weavers were formed and not hired, and they resisted with all their might the temptation to amplify their work at the expense of their skill and vocation.
To the temptations of disenchantment, disjunction, and diminishment, I would add the danger of disorientation, or what I call “the narrative problem.” When writing about technology, and media technology in particular, it is inevitable that Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan enters into the conversation. In 1967, McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” What he meant has been interpreted in a number of ways, but the plain meaning of his statement is that the medium through which information or data is transmitted is just as formative as the information itself. In other words, media does not just inform, it forms. Technology has embedded within itself a narrative in which it wants us to participate and around which it wants us to order our lives.
It has often been said that technology is amoral, that it is morally neutral – neither good nor bad. That assumption is a myth. Because technology is derivative – coming from people who have our own minds, intentions, and wills – there is always a built-in narrative, one that beckons us to take part. If someone hands you a hammer, that hammer is telling you to view the world as a nail and to knock things into place. If someday lightsabers are invented and someone gives you one, you are not going to carve a turkey with it, but rather you are going to pursue the life of a Jedi knight! However, we must not let these simple examples cause us to ignore the more subtle and insidious narratives taking place under our noses. App developers know well the theories of gamification and intermittent rewards, and they use those principles to keep users tethered to our devices, “doom scrolling” and checking notifications for hours longer than we want. The longer we ignore the larger stories operating in the background of our technology, the harder it will be for us to extricate ourselves from its grip.
As alluring and subtle the dangers of disenchantment, disjunction, diminishment, and disorientation are, we are not consigned to fall prey to them. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, believers can engage with technology redemptively, in a way that promotes personal health, relational flourishing, and global benefit. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians have the opportunity to tell a different story with our technology use, a story that our world desperately needs to hear. As we emerge from our states of lockdown, let me suggest four opportunities to leverage our technology in redemptive and constructive ways.
Fist and most basically, we must view technology through the lens of love. When pressed by the religious leaders about which of God’s commands is greatest, Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). Similarly, when commending a more excellent way of life to the Corinthian church, Paul says, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
When we consider how to best steward our technology, love should be the primary filter. In an age where it is commonplace to use the Internet to channel and fuel our outrage, we have the opportunity to build bridges and bring people together rather than drive them apart. The first question to ask of our technology is, “Will this technology help me to love?” Will this tool enable me to better love my family, my workplace, my online following, my neighborhood? Above all, will this technology enable me to love God better? When we ask the love question, it will challenge what we post, how we enter into hot-button issues, and how we view other people, especially those with whom we disagree. When the world looks at our digital presence, can it see any difference between us and a nonbeliever, or are we just as inflammatory, distrusting, and uncharitable, or maybe even worse? Asking the love question will give us an opportunity to rebuild our witness in the world.
Second, we should emphasize communion over connection. Technology – particularly social media – has amplified our footprint in the world and has made it possible to connect with hundreds and thousands of people in ways previously inconceivable. This enhancement, however, has come at a cost. The diminishment of our ability to connect has been a well-documented pervasive sense of loneliness. How ironic that in an age of connection to more people than ever we are lonelier than we have ever been?
How do we curb the pandemic of loneliness? By prioritizing communion over connection. Communion means being in the same place with someone else, minimizing distractions, moving beyond the self we project online, and letting ourselves be seen by another as the person we truly are. Consider it this way: does this technology enable communion or connection? At the end of the day, some people in life are worth showing up for – physically. Or, as one of my mentors put it, “You can’t fake showing up.” There are some people in life who are worth our whole presence, not simply our digital one. For those few people, how can we use our technology – or, perhaps more importantly, say no to our technology – in order to truly and deeply commune with those we love? What does this look like? This may be saying no to reading the Bible on our devices and opting for the old-fashioned paper Bible so that we are not bombarded with notifications and distractions. This may be purchasing a plane ticket to attend a wedding or a funeral, refusing the temptation to tweet thoughts and prayers and choosing instead to be in the same room as those who rejoice or mourn. This may be coming back to church as soon as your health and the local situation make it possible to do so, resisting the convenience of online, on-demand worship and choosing to not neglect the habit of meeting together as the Day approaches (Heb. 4:24-25). You can’t fake showing up. We were made to do life together, and we should not settle for mere connection with those who deeply matter to us.
Third, we must think through the lens of time. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul exhorts us to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). Each day presents us with a fresh opportunity to put technology in its proper place, to not let it creep into every unscheduled moment. Technology acts like kudzu–it will grow and overtake every square inch if left unchecked and untended. Many of us resonate with this – how many of us have caught ourselves pulling out our phone on the elevator, at a stoplight, even the restroom? The senior tempter Screwtape had it right in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: we have become so uncomfortable with silence that we will seek out any form of noise to prevent us from truly connecting with God, with others, and with ourselves.
None of us will look back on our lives and lament that we wish we had spent more time on the Internet! If so, we should take care to ask ourselves how we are stewarding our time and technology use. Are we using this technology, or is our tech using us? In other words, are we setting the agenda for our technology, or are we allowing technology to overextend itself into every corner of our lives? For those who want to be more intentional about setting boundaries for their technology use, there are several great resources. In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch suggests that we impose the same boundaries on our phones that we do with young children – that they go to bed before we do and that we wake up before they do. Creating bedtimes for tech prevents its overreach, as does charging your devices in a separate room from where you sleep. Similarly, in The Common Rule Justin Whitmel Early contends for a simple principle: Scripture before phone. In Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that we minimize our technology use (specifically tasks like checking email and scrolling social media) during the most productive hours of our day. Others advocate for a technological sabbath, taking a day – or longer – to step away from our devices. There are many different options; take at least one and try to implement it for the next 30 days and see how much time you reclaim.
Finally, fourth, as we seek to use our time to love and commune with others, we should seek to do so standing on the foundation of wisdom. Thoughts about our relationship to technology can be initially overwhelming, but God has promised to give wisdom to anyone who would simply ask for it (Jas. 1:5). As we take stock of our current technology use and imagine how to use it in the future, ask:
- What narrative does this technology want me to participate in? How can I reorient it into God’s greater story?
- What diminishment does this technology introduce? Does it create a shortcut to a skill I really want to cultivate?
- Where can I infuse accountability into my technology use and consumption?
Each question reorients us. The narrative question helps us think critically about technology; it gives us the space to identify how God, the ultimate creator of any technology, wants us to relate to those around us. The diminishment question helps us weigh whether we want to “take the long way” to learning a skill that we really want to learn, such that we do not short circuit the formative process that comes with learning. Finally, the accountability question – both digital safeguards like screen time limits, and personal safeguards with people speaking into our technology use – helps ensure that technology does not run roughshod over our lives.
When we walk in wisdom, we find that we are the better for it.