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A useful tool but a dangerous master

Chris Parker examines the way technology is shaping our big picture view of life

Digital technologies have become part of the air we breathe. We are weaving these technologies into the very fabric of everyday living, communicating, thinking, feeling, and relating. These technologies will have a shaping effect on our big picture view of life. For example, some social researchers suggest that many teenagers are now discovering their feelings by texting them, and some neuroscience researchers suggest that the smart phone is becoming, measurably, an extension of our brain.

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There has been no other time in history where the next generation has so enthusiastically, and completely, embraced a technology so powerful in its shaping influence. This shaping can happen in many ways.

Fear of missing out
There was a time when the fastest way that information could be transmitted from one place to another was the fastest it could be transported by a person – horseback, steam train, etc. This changed with the invention of the telegraph. Suddenly, not only could information be transmitted as fast as it could be tapped out, but it could also go to multiple places at once.

Before the telegraph, people in one city in America didn’t know what crimes, for example, happened overnight in another city – but now the telegraph meant they could. This was the beginning of the notion, “If I can be informed, then I should be informed,” and, “If I am not being informed, then I am missing out”.

Are we recognising this shaping influence? At no other point in history have we had access to knowing – or such a high desire to know – what our friends (or those we follow) are having for lunch, who they are with, where they are, or what particular emotion they are currently feeling.

Not only are we immersed in a constant flow of information, we are being shaped to crave greater levels of being “informed.” We seek the sense of security and satisfaction it brings. This is not only because we feel informed and updated, but because there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from updating others about ourselves and what we are doing, thinking, and feeling (we will explore, in the next section, the narcissism that this may promote).

Don’t hear me wrong … I am not for a minute saying that there is anything wrong with information; it’s good to be informed. However, when any good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it may become an idol, and the resulting idolatry begins to shape our hearts and minds – it becomes the subject of our passion, adoration, and worship, and we become its slaves.

Happy bias
Everyone’s life on Facebook and Instagram seems so good, if not perfect, by comparison to yours. Actually, truth is, yours probably looks a little rosier to them too. We all have a bias to post/share the good things that are going on for us.

This happens for a number of reasons. One is that social networking technologies are designed in a way that promotes this practice. Another is that sharing the fluffy, fun things of life is what we do when we share with the people we don’t know deeply – we’re not going to share in a way that makes us vulnerable to a large group of people we don’t really know. So we stick to posting the things that portray us as having a fun life and that make us seem “cool.”

“How will this make my friends feel?” I don’t mean feel about you: I mean feel about themselves!

It probably shouldn’t come as too much surprise, then, that not only are psychologists increasingly speaking about the effects on people of having fewer close, rubber-hits-the-road relationships than they used to, but they are also reporting seeing increased general levels of anxiety. I suggest that the constant immersion in a social networking mosaic of other people’s fun, sexy, wealthy, happy, successful, beautiful, fit, “blessed” lives is not insignificant.

When you are about to post or share something online, do you ask the question, “How will this make my friends feel?” I don’t mean feel about you: I mean feel about themselves!

Some of you might be thinking, “But some people do post the sadness and frustration from time to time.” Maybe. But this sharing is usually not about things that resulted from their own personal failings and weakness (humanness) but a seeking of sympathy for things out of their control that have happened to them. This may be a rich way of seeking connection and solace when things are tough; however, it’s worth considering, whether a screen full of sympathetic frowning emojis, and a handful of consoling comments, is really going to bring the rich healing and support that face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) personal connection with dear friends and family brings?

Me, me, me
Prideful self-love is known as narcissism. We can’t say that digital culture gave birth to narcissism. The first lie whispered to Adam and Eve contained a narcissistic
 temptation, and it’s been an expression of
our human godlessness ever since. However,
 the temptation and tendency are now stronger than ever due to the technologies we are weaving into the fabric of our lives.
 These technologies are often self-focused 
by design, and the more we embrace them uncritically, the more narcissism begins to feel normal.

How normal has it become for you to be self-focused and self-promoting online? If you are honest, does it ever start to flow over into other contexts of life? I had a moment of awareness of this happening for me recently with my engagement with Instagram. I became not only aware of a “happy bias” I was presenting but also a shallow pride that had me constantly checking for “likes” and comments after posting an image.

Our social networking technologies create a narcissistic endless loop. Self-promoting behaviour tends to be rewarded with more “likes,” comments, and friend connections. The more we self-promote, the more connected we are to fellow self-promoters – and the loop continues. We then begin to understand our self-worth through this narcissistic loop and it can be hard to recognise that we have been looped in.

I became not only aware of a “happy bias” I was presenting but also a shallow pride that had me constantly checking for “likes” and comments after posting an image.

Maybe we don’t consciously think that the more likes we get for a
 post the more valuable we are as a person. But what about at the subconscious level? Have you ever checked on the responses to a post 
and either experienced a little injection of excitement, or a small churn
of disappointment, with the level of response? I suspect that I am not
 alone in this.

Digital technologies, like social networking, have flavoured the water of our world in a way that makes self-focused behaviour more normal and more acceptable. The first question for us to consider is, “How aware of this are we?”. The second is, “How much is my habit of cultural immersion hindering me being the person that I desire to be?”.

Techno go-between
Digital technologies are increasingly playing a go-between role in our lives. Have you ever sent a text message, for example, when you probably should have made a phone call? Texting can seem easier than a phone call as the technology plays a buffering role. It comes at less relational cost, and if it draws less from my emotional account, perhaps I can have many more of these types of communications and relationships. Social media allows me to flatten out all my many relationships into a patchwork of options from which I can choose. The go-between nature of these technologies helps me to “manage” my relationships and never allow any of them to demand too much from me.

The techno go-between phenomenon then results in a growing dependency on technologies: specifically, in the context of relationships. We are seeing a growing dependency on being highly connected but not necessarily on deep connection!

Imagine a situation where you find yourself without digital technology for a time – let’s say a two-week camp – where there is no signal, Wi-Fi, or charging facilities. Are you willing to admit to feeling a sense of anxiety when imagining this scenario? Along with the fear of boredom – of not having your brain-extension with you – and the disconnection from the flow of bite-sized updates of information, might you be willing to admit to a fear that you won’t have your techno go-between for relating to people? Sustained techno-free human connection can be confronting.

“We become what we behold,” says John Culkin (a professor of media studies). “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” How much are you being shaped by your digital tools?

View of technology shaped by the Bible
Not for a minute could we say that the view of the world given in the Bible is anti-technology. Quite the opposite, actually. The ability that God has given us to explore the technological potential woven into the good creation, and then to invent and to innovate and build cool tools, and helpful systems, is part of the rich blessing that it is to be human living in God’s world. He wants us to be technological; he has designed us, and the creation, to be this way.

However, technology, like all strands of creation, has been twisted and damaged when humans first rebelled against God. It is still in essence good, but we can acknowledge three ways in which its damaged nature draws us away from the rich and flourishing life God has designed for humans.

First, I’ll highlight the obvious one. Technology can be used in self-centred, self-serving, and power-grabbing ways that may not have been originally intended by the inventors. Email technology gets hijacked by spam marketing; 3D printers get used to produce hand guns that avoid detection by metal detectors; social networking facilitates trolls gathering in a virtual mob and dogpiling a person; nuclear technology, much to Einstein’s and Oppenheimer’s dismay, gets used to produce brutal, civilian-killing bombs. I know I can think of ways that I have used technology in self-serving, godless ways for which it wasn’t intended – what about you?

It’s not enough to simply say, “Technologies are not good or bad, it’s just how I use them that matters.”

Second, often our technologies are a product of the storyline of our world – the designers have been shaped by their culture, willingly or not, and have woven their view of life into the technology. Not just into the technology itself, but into the way that it is produced, the way that it is implemented, and the way that it is marketed and spoken about. The whole cultural package of digital technology will have a tendency to be either pulling people towards the flourishing life that God has designed for us, or pulling people away from the “good life” he offers.

This means that it’s not enough to simply say, “Technologies are not good or bad, it’s just how I use them that matters.” A view of the world grounded in the Bible suggests that we need to be discerning. We need to ask questions about how this technology is affected by our brokenness and how it might be drawing us into patterns of thinking and behaviour that are not God-honouring. It is one thing to say, “I will never look at pornography on the internet,” (a decision to be encouraged) but at the same time be so immersed in social networking that you become shaped by its narcissism and addicted to being connected rather than real connection with other people.

Third, we can begin to idolise technology. One of the storylines of our society is that humans have remarkable ability to discover, to understand, and to conquer – an ability to create the perfect world that we desire to live in. Science, and its resulting technologies, have an important place in this story. Technology then becomes something that we worship and idolise as a thing that can save us from all that is wrong and broken in the world. This view is subtle and requires us to be discerning. It is therefore worth asking ourselves, “How much have I been shaped by this cultural story?”, and “How much do I rely on technology to give me a sense of security, purpose, and hope?”.

Final thoughts
May you enjoy the rich blessing that all forms of technology can bring. Technology is good. However, like all strands of the good creation it has been tainted and twisted by our rebellion and we need to exercise discernment. This hasn’t been easy for me. I love my tech and my tools. My enjoyment, however, can easily become a subconscious worship where I seek (shallow) security from the promises that technology offers. What about you?

This is an edited extract from The Frog and the Fish: Reflections on Work, Sex, Technology, Stuff, Truth, and Happiness, available from Koorong.

 

 

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