Over the next two weeks, I will be posting my chapter for The New Media Frontier here at Mere-Orthodoxy in its entirety. I am grateful for Crossway for their kind permission to do so, and strongly recommend that you buy the book anyway.
It is rare that I find myself stuck in a discussion with high schoolers, so this was foreign territory. I was attempting to get a group of seventeen- and eighteen- year olds to reflect on the societal changes that recent technological developments (iPods, cell phones, MySpace, etc) have precipitated, and failing miserably. Rather than the enthusiastic, lively discussion I was expecting, I was greeted by skepticism and resistance.
Yet I found it an illuminating conversation all the same. As these Christian high school students talked, two themes emerged. First, the changes technology has wrought are mostly invisible to them. Just as most of us do not remember life before cars were ubiquitous, so these students could not conceive of a world without text messaging, cell phones, or iPods. Their cell phone, after all, has been affectionately stored in their purse since fifth grade. For them, the world was static—technology had no impact on their experience at all.
The second theme was closely related and far more prevalent: “It just depends on how you use it.” Technology, they claimed, is a tool and as such, its value is measured in strictly utilitarian terms. If MySpace helps them “stay in touch” with friends better, then no further questions are worth thinking about (such as what they mean by “stay in touch” and “friends”).
That young people would approach technology through strictly utilitarian categories is not surprising. But there was a corollary to this notion that was far more interesting: everyone in the room agreed that if you didn’t want the technology to affect you, it wouldn’t. “We can choose,” they fervently insisted, “whether we let ourselves be affected by technology. If we watch a movie and don’t want it to change us, it won’t.”
There is clearly an element of truth to this notion. Humans will always preserve the freedom to respond to the world intentionally. But it also demonstrates a crucial naïveté about the interaction between the world and us. While it is possible to live in a world without lightbulbs, their ubiquity makes it nearly unthinkable that anyone would, which consequently subtly moves the lightbulb into the “need” category for us. This shift in our attitude toward light bulbs is imperceptible, at least until the power goes out and our normal habits and routines are disrupted. When this happens, we quickly discover that the light bulb has shaped our experience of the world in ways far deeper than those of which we are aware.
In other words, we do not control how technology shapes our lives as much as we might think. The notion that technology is neutral is not quite accurate. It may open up new opportunities, but its development and implementation almost always comes with hidden costs. Technology, in other words, is a sword that cuts both ways. On the one hand, it can be used to help solve or reduce social problems. During the Virginia Tech massacre, students compensated for the slow official communication by searching for information online.*
On the other hand, the implementation of new technologies raises new challenges and problems (the solving of which often leads to newer technologies). As Leon Kass points out in Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, the introduction and widespread adoption of the automobile brought with it the need for roads, fuel, steel, factories, gas stations, garages, body shops, parking facilities, traffic laws, in addition to fumes, smog, auto graveyards, insurance industry, and medical personnel. The system of rules and services necessary for the production and operation of vehicles is extraordinary, and most of it wasn’t conceived of when automobiles were being invented.** The automobile changed the fabric of American life, as anyone who has lived in Los Angeles—a city built around its freeways—understands.
*Michelle Quinn and Alex Pham. “Students Trace a Tragedy Online.”
Los Angeles Times, April 17
th, 2007. Available in the LA Times.com archives.
**Leon Kass. Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge of Bioethics. (Encounter: San Francisco, 2002). 41.
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.