Unmixing Technology's Message

Telford Work, Religious Studies
Westmont College, May 16, 2006

The Storied Nature of Technology and Everything Else

  1. Narratives are traditions, mythologies, religions, worldviews.
  2. We don't choose traditions; traditions choose and shape us.
  3. When narratives conflict, fragmented lives, incoherence, and conversion result.
  4. This setting is an arena for the gospel story to unfold.

Government, Gimmicks, Geeks, Gnosticism, Greed: Recent Technological Narratives

  1. Dancing on ARPA's Grave: The Internet is a Cold War relic.
    1. The ARPANet is designed to survive a nuclear war.
    2. Eighties counternarrative: Teens hack NORAD and save the world (WarGames).
    3. Nineties counternarrative: The end of the Cold War beats swords into plowshares (well, stock shares).
    4. Millennial counternarrative: The Internet as the beast (Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, Y2K apocalyptic).
    5. 9/11 counternarrative: The Internet as terrorist playground (hidden Al-Qaida communiques).
    6. War on Terror reassertion: IT reinvents warfare by networking and empowering troops.
  2. e-democracy: The Internet is a democratic institution.
    1. ARPA turns computers from calculators into communicators.
    2. Al Gore's "information superhighway": Citizen contributions feed the needs of a democracy and a global village.
    3. Interest groups lobby on the net (Sierra Club, militias, etc.).
    4. Nineties left-wing counternarrative: The Internet creates an information elite and marginalizes the poor.
    5. Nineties right-wing counternarrative: The Internet is a tool of the people in black helicopters.
    6. Authoritarian counternarrative: High technology is a tool of imperialist, fascist, socialist, and corporatist tyranny.
    7. Libertarian/populist 9/11 counternarrative: Webloggers, warbloggers, and antiwarbloggers humble the information elite and renarrate the War on Terror.
  3. Technology for technology's sake: Computer programming is an end in itself.
    1. Legolanguage: Computers' unreal epistemology (Douglas Coupland's "Toys That Bind").
    2. The all-important "cool factor", the beauty of elegant code, and the quest for "killer applications" drive computer aesthetics.
    3. Computers' popularity gives new hope and hipness to social outcasts.
    4. Low-tech counternarrative: Computers inadvertently enslave the world (Terminator 2, The Matrix).
    5. 9/11 counternarratives: Technology against technology (box cutters),
      technology against technology-against-technology (daisy cutters).
  4. Social accelerator: High tech fast-forwards us into the future.
    1. Moderate: Technology as a labor-saving device (word processing, search engines, databases).
    2. Middle America throws computers into school systems so kids won't "fall behind".
    3. Moderate counternarrative: Why are we so busy? Technologies are labor creating devices.
    4. Radical: IT is a megatrend creating and reinforcing multiple generation gaps and initiating social revolutions (Visicalc, Tienanmen Square, Bill Gates' Business @ the Speed of Thought, Michael Lewis' The New New Thing).
    5. Radical counternarrative: Does it lead anywhere? (Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil).
    6. Eschatological: Technology is ushering in a new age (Kevin Kelly's Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization, Raymond Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology).
  5. Virtual world: The technology of disembodiment.
    1. Electronics lets us escape, assume, and discover identity (William Gibson's Neuromancer, You've Got Mail).
    2. Computer use is self-expression (web pages, applications, games, MySpace, Facebook)
    3. Voyeurs and exhibitionists take to the net (JenniCam, Madonna).
    4. Cybersex offers free love after STDs.
    5. Nowhere Do You Want to Go Today? Surfers travel the world without actually standing up.
    6. Chatrooms, listservs, user groups, webrings create virtual community — or no community at all.
    7. Christian counternarrative: Incarnational Christians reject Internet Gnosticism (Graham Ward and the Radical Orthodoxy project; Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons).
    8. New Age counternarrative: Is the real world virtual too? The Matrix critiques Internet Gnosticism (or does it?).
  6. Who wants to be a millionaire? The Internet's many economic subcultures.
    1. ".com" catches on in the mid-'90s.
    2. Big e-business: IBM is Big Brother (Apple's 1984 Super Bowl Macintosh ad), AT&T the "Death Star".
    3. Entrepreneurs become Internet millionaires by 30!
    4. Winners take all (Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Scott McNealy, Jim Clark; Pirates of Silicon Valley).
    5. Microserfs work for robber barons (Douglas Coupland's Microserfs).
    6. Microsoft millionaires, IPOs and venture capitalists, day traders ride the bubble.
    7. Blue-chip success: Traditional businesses streamline (GE's destroyourbusiness.com).
    8. Consumer counternarrative: If you can't own, then buy — or sell (amazon.com, eBay.com).
    9. Establishment counternarrative: U.S. v. Microsoft reasserts rules from the old economy.
    10. Labor counternarrative: Silicon Valley's vanishing working class, America's vanishing Main Streets, and global outsourcing are market failures; neo-agrarian localism is an opportunity.
    11. Hacker counternarrative: The open-source movement (Linux, Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar) gives developing countries cheap alternative technology.
    12. Millennial counternarrative: The bubble bursts ... then Google hits $475.

The Moral of the Story

  1. 'Technology' is both myth-making and myth-laden (meaning theory-laden, story-laden).
    1. Technology is not a "given" but emerges in specific communities and ways of life.
    2. Technology is never neutral but takes on the morality of its narrative.
    3. Technology is never a story in itself.
  2. Computer culture is just as fragmented, hotly contested, and ambiguous as all American culture.
    1. Computer cultures have absorbed, focused, and intensified America's competing narratives.
    2. The Gospel is marginal to contemporary high tech mythologies.
  3. So one does not simply say "yes" or "no" to high-tech.
    1. Nor is a dialectical ("yes and no") or via media approach meaningful without specific criteria for judgment.
    2. Rather than offering such criteria, conventional ethics' presentation of competing ethical theories tends to lay out contradictory options and introduce insoluble dilemmas, practically granting ultimate choice to the ethicist ('decisionism').
  4. The narrative cultural location of various practices and the narrative shape of Christian life and tradition recommends gospel-narrative analysis and transformation.

The Fruits Test: Making Sense of Our Practices

  1. Context: Both unreached and truly new cultures are missiological frontiers.
    1. The originally Palestinian Gospel still speaks into pagan Roman culture, and every other.
    2. The good news reveals the telos of cosmic, global, cultural, familial, and personal histories and judges departures from that goal as sin.
  2. Rule: "Nothing is unclean in itself" (Rom. 14:14; cf. Mark 7:1-23).
    1. The good news renarrates, condemns, affirms, redeems, and transforms cultural practices.
    2. Christianity's dominantly 'haggadic' (narrative) reasoning contrasts with the predominantly 'halakhic' character of Jewish and Muslim deliberation (Acts 15 in Acts).
    3. A case study from a Christian rabbi: sacrificed meat, yes; idols, no (Rom. 14:1-15:13).
  3. Resources: Providence equips us to live faithfully in our present circumstances with ...
    1. the Church — featuring others with spiritual gifts of discernment,
    2. living faith that sees circumstances realistically and hopefully, and
    3. Christian virtue that embodies wisdom.
    4. saints whose stories describe successful negotiations of ambiguous environments:
      1. Christians have tended to be early adopters (Koine Greek, Roman transport, the codex).
      2. Christians have steadfastly refused certain cultural practices but consistently (if not always immediately) embraced new technology.
      3. Wesleyans stand out among contemporary Christians for their technological adaptiveness ... and growth.
      4. The best responses to the culturally and technologically unfamiliar have been rooted in hope rather than pragmatism, utilitarianism, optimism, or pessimism.
  4. Test: Can you "happily" (J.L. Austin) describe a way of life in terms of these stories?
    1. The work and character of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
    2. The promises, Gospel, and law of God?
    3. The Kingdom and righteousness of God to which Jesus calls us?
    4. The "economy" (story) of God's old and new creation in Israel, Jesus, and Church?
  5. Criteria: Happy endings glorify God, edify the Church, and proclaim the Gospel.
  6. Confessions from my own career:
    1. pedagogy: personal and departmental websites, on-line syllabi, and listservs;
    2. entertainment: avoidance of computer games (and uneasiness about my kids' gaming);
    3. news: fondness for surfing weblogs and on-line journals (and sometimes wasting time);
    4. tentmaking: clinical software that keeps people healthy; and
    5. witness: starting a blog, then letting it sit.