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Clarity and the Technological Society

April 5th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

There are no arguments against technology.  There are only worries, questions, and as Matt Milliner puts it, "reservations."

But while those who have those reservations are legion, clear statements of what the arguments are actually about are rare.  Most critics rely on vague intuitions that something has changed in our contemporary usage (I say this as a card-carrying member of the jargon-bearing, obscurely intuitive techno-critic club).

But there really are no arguments against technology.  None.  The best and most persuasive reflections focus on how we think about technology, rather than the tools themselves (or even their effects).  For it is that point, and not the tools themselves, that makes our era truly distinct.  But even as illuminating and interesting as Postman and Ellul are, they aren't exactly paragons of clarity.

Leave it to Oliver O'Donovan, then, to summarize their best insights in six sentences:

And here we must stress a point that is often made by those who have taught us how to think about our technological culture - we may mention George Grant's Technology and Empire and Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society--that what marks this culture out most importantly, is not anything that it does, but what it thinks. It is not 'technological' because its instruments of making are extraordinarily sophisticated (though that is evidently the case), but because it thinks of everything it does as a form of instrumental making. Politics (which should surely be the most non-instrumental of activities) is talked of as 'making a better world'; love is 'building a successful relationship'. There is no place for simply doing. The fate of a society which sees, wherever it looks, nothing but the products of the human will, is that it fails, when it does see some aspect of human activity which is not a matter of construction, to recognize the significance of what it sees and to think about it appropriately. This blindness in the realm of thought is the heart of what it is to be a technological culture.

I suspect that all contemporary anxieties--which is fundamentally what most critiques are--hang on that analysis.

And if you start there, the arguments change:  they cease to be about technology and its effects, but rather the anthropology that undergirds our technological development and whether, and how far, we ought to protect anything natural from our technocratic intrusions.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.