Resisting the Rhetoric of Technological Inevitability

Articles about technology often come with a snappy, provocative question for a title. Take, for example, two of the most widely discussed tech articles in recent memory, both of which appeared in The Atlantic: Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Stephen Marche’s “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The titles are rhetorical, of course, and they tend to obscure the argument of the article in each case, but the interrogative form at least gestures toward something like a debate about the issue in question.

Every so often, though, you run into a piece that drops the pretense of reasoned debate altogether. Consider the title of Lisa Miller’s recent article in The Washington Post: “The religious authorities and pundits are wrong: Technology is good for religion.” Well, there you have it. What else is there to say?

One might have hoped that the title was a poor reflection of the content of Miller’s essay, but sadly this is not the case. Miller’s article is a textbook example of what I have elsewhere called a Borg Complex. Like the Borg of Star Trek fame, tech writers sometimes like to insist “resistance is futile” when it comes to technology; individuals and institutions must either assimilate or die.

So, for example, Miller claims, “When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.” “Groups that restrict and fear [technology],” she believes, “participate in their own demise.” Then she concludes, fatefully, “If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.”

Miller is certainly right to draw attention to the relationship between new technologies and religious communities. It is an important topic and it deserves serious and considered attention. Unfortunately, the tone of Miller’s article shuts the door on such discussions.

Writers who suffer from a Borg Complex usually work with certain unspoken assumptions. On the one hand, they tacitly endorse a view philosophers of technology call technological determinism. Technological determinists believe that technology autonomously drives history. Individuals and institutions are merely passive victims or beneficiaries of technical advance. But most scholars of technology would argue that technological determinism is not the best way of understanding the complex relationship between human beings and technology.

Throughout the course of invention, development, production, and adoption, the fate of new technologies hinges on countless human choices and social factors. At each level the evolution of any given technology could have been otherwise. We do have choices to make with regards to technology, and if we are to live faithfully and wisely we had better take responsibility for those choices.

The tacit endorsement of technological determinism is also often joined by certain unspoken assumptions about the character of the institution or individuals that are being urged to jump on the technological bandwagon de jour. In other words, some normative judgments are usually being smuggled into the conversation. Consider some of the normative assumptions Miller casually makes throughout the course of her article.

Speaking of a particular religious app, she writes, “It encourages among users a broad sense of community and mutual support, which is what good religion does.” One of the two scholars she cites is an economist who teaches a course on the Economics of Religion. Miller writes of the professor, “Understanding that religion is always about people making choices, he asks students to research the coolest religion apps.” The lesson Miller draws from the other scholar she cites, Heidi Cambell, is this: “religious authorities have long wanted the faithful to behave in ways that they do not behave.”

Clearly, there is a narrative about religion that informs these statements. “Good” religion is reduced to mutual support, religious affiliation is subject to the logic of the marketplace, and authority tends toward oppression. This narrative framing Miller’s thesis is in tension with the narrative that emerges from the biblical witness and the Christian tradition.

Regarding technology, media theorist Marshall McLuhan believed, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” It seems to be a corollary of this principle that those who have no willingness to contemplate will proclaim technology’s inevitability.

The Church is called to better things. With technology, as with all other facets of human endeavor, we are called to exercise discernment and wisdom. Insofar as technology comprises what the Apostle Paul calls “the pattern of this world,” we are to resist conformity. This is not to say that the position of the Church toward technology should always be one of resistance. It is only to say that it ought always to be one of thoughtfulness in the service of faithfulness.

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    It almost seems as if Miller is snubbing religion even as she writes about it.