The question of whether cars are an “improvement” over horses and buggies depends upon what values are in place, which is true of all technology.
If we value mobility, speed, and comfort, cars are obviously superior to the horse. But if we value interaction with nature and patience, then the horse and buggy is clearly “better.” This means, however, that the high schoolers’ utilitarian approach to technology failed to recognize that some technologies are better suited for the reinforcing of some values than others. Technology is, in this crucial sense, not neutral.
Christians , then, must attempt to understand new media within the broader perspective of human goods. One obvious good of new technologies is that they force us to reevaluate our value structure as we seek to understand our new powers. While Facebook, for instance, allows us to see the events our friends self-report, its introduction can prompt us to reflect upon what is most important to us.
But such a reflective period will only last so long. For most high schoolers, it has already passed and these new technologies have been integrated into the fabric of their lives. Like the telephone or the lightbulb, new media will reach a point where their effects—both good and bad—will be hidden from view.
It is worth, then, sounding a cautionary note about the new technologies and media that are being widely distributed and adopted. But any such cautions necessarily suffer from two problems: First, as technology tends to exacerbate and reinforce existing human and cultural values, the problems that arise from technology are ultimately in our values, not in the technology itself. Our use of technology illuminates values already present within us. Second, the problems that technology poses to us often only arise when such technological developments are in their infancy. As the technologies mature, the problems associated with them are often remedied by new technologies or alterations.
For instance, the debate over whether scientists should use embryonic stem cells—which involves the destruction of human life—or adult stem cells took a turn when researchers discovered a third way: amniotic-fluid stem cells. According to Newsweek, such cells “rival embryonic stem cells in their ability to multiply and transform into many cell types,” which makes them extremely effective for researching diseases.* This new development was hailed as potentially providing the benefits of embryonic stem cell research without being morally questionable. The point illustrates the fact that those who lament technological developments for their undesirable consequences and applications must also work to discover new technologies that avoid such problematic uses.
In other words, technology critics must also be technology fans. What’s more, they must criticize the technological developments because they are fans of technology. People err both when they do not love technology enough, and when they love it too much. The trick is to understand both its prospects and its limitations, to see its benefits and its drawbacks. In a world where technological developments are transforming public discourse and interpersonal communication, ignorance and apathy are not viable options for Christians.
Here, however, it is my job to play the critic of the new media. I accept the role with some trepidation. Such criticism is easy to write off, as new media are so sprawling, so diverse and so new that it is extraordinarily difficult to attain a level of precision and universality so as to be helpful. Ironically, the very ubiquity of new media and the immense amount of information has made some critiques so prevalent as to render them uninteresting (for example, the lack of constraints and editing in blogging will result in terrible content). Yet such criticisms are still necessary to have a responsible and moderate view of the role of new media in our lives and communities. We should be wary of drinking too deeply at the well without at some point examining the water.
In what follows, then, I offer three critical explorations on the role of new media in our lives, explorations that are based on my own experience as both a consumer and creator of new media. I use “explorations” carefully, as the open nature of new media means that today’s vice may be overcome by tomorrow’s new development. The last word on this subject is a long way off, and it will doubtlessly be spoken by someone else.
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.