Technology and Christian 'Values'
|Synopsis:||This website offers a Christian critique of technology.|
|Keywords:||technology, value, values, goodness, axiology|
|Author:||Ken Funk <firstname.lastname@example.org>|
|Last Update:||1 Sep 99. This is a work in progress.|
The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and are not an official position of Oregon State University.
|Thanks to modern technology
most of us live longer, healthier, cleaner, and more
comfortable lives than did our ancestors. Yet we are all
aware of some of technology's disadvantages, ranging from
the minor frustrations we have with technological gadgets
to the many thousands of lives that are lost each year in
On the whole, is technology good or bad? This essay addresses that question from a perspective of Christian beliefs and 'values' and, while that perspective may not be shared by all potential readers, it is my hope that anyone who believes that the highest good lies elsewhere than in mere material well-being will find useful insights in what I have to say.
|To understand and critique technology, we need a working definition of it. Consistent with contemporary discourse, I use the term in five different senses. First, technology is the rational process of creating means to order and transform matter, energy, and information to realize certain valued ends. Second, technology is the objects (devices, systems, and methods) resulting from that process. Third, technology is the knowledge that is created by and drives the technological process. Fourth, a technology is a subset of related technological objects and knowledge (for example, computer technology). Fifth, technology is all of the above (the technological process, all technological objects, technological knowledges, all technologies), plus the developers and users of technological objects and the worldview that has emerged from and drives the technological process. Generally, I will use the term in its last, most comprehensive sense, though context should make my meaning clear.||details|
|Many of the disadvantages of
technology (e.g., those mentioned above) are quite
obvious, but a few critics of modern technology have
probed deeper. Jacques Ellul, for example, claims that
technology always has bad as well as good
effects. More significantly, he asserts that technology
has developed a dynamic of its own and passed out of
human control. Neil Postman observes that technology has
displaced traditional culture, to our great harm. Most
warnings like these go unheeded by the average person,
and seem to have little dampening effect on the
Yet a few apologists have taken the time and effort to respond to these criticisms. Samuel Florman, for example, summarizes the arguments of the technological critics and attempts a point-by-point rebuttal, citing, for example, that since technology is a process carried out by humans, it is by definition under human control. Gregory Stock is the archetypical technological optimist, seeing in technology the promise of a utopia and the fulfillment of human destiny.
|But to put the dispute over
technology in proper perspective and to undertake an
effective critical examination of it, we must articulate
the basis of its criticism. All who make judgments of
technology (or anything, for that matter) do so based on
a set of value standards. All judgments are based on
So what is value? Although a fully satisfactory definition is elusive, a working definition is that value is goodness, desirability, or worth. As to the nature of value, some consider it to be absolute, to others, it seems relative. Some say value is objective or inherent in a thing. Others claim that all value judgments are subjective. Virtually all would agree, though, that there are things with intrinsic value and are good as ends, while other things have instrumental value and are good only as means. Most everyone, too, would admit to a hierarchy of value: some things are more valuable than others and there is a highest good (though there is great disagreement about just what it is).
But whatever one's theory about value, virtually every conscious decision one makes is based on his or her beliefs about the value of things, one's 'values'. To judge anything is to explicitly or implicitly apply a set of value standards. So to criticize technology, we need such a set of value standards.
|For this critique of
technology, I use Jesus' standards of values because they
are familiar to me and they will be at least somewhat
familiar to most readers, but mainly because they are the
right ones to use. So what are Jesus' standards of value?
What are the Christian 'values' that form the basis of a
Christian critique of technology? What did Jesus teach
about the good?
First, Jesus taught that the whole of creation is valuable. Second, he taught that people are more valuable than other created things. But the highest good is God and His Kingdom. From this hierarchy of value follows our moral obligations, to do what is right to realize the good. First, we are to be good stewards of the creation. Second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Most important, we are to love God with all our hearts and seek first His kingdom.
|From a Christian perspective, technology must be judged with respect to its instrumental value in realizing the good and fulfilling the moral obligations that Jesus taught.With respect to the non-human creation, many technological objects are valuable in managing and preserving natural systems, but others serve only to destroy or pollute them. With respect to people, technology is essential in providing food, clothing, and shelter. But technological objects and their products intentionally or unintentionally maim and kill, and the byproducts of their production and use often cause injury, illness, and death. With respect to God and His kingdom, technological objects play an important role in helping people know about Him. But the same technologies are used to mislead and draw people away from Him. On balance, it is difficult to judge the net value of technology -- technology is both good and bad. But the argument cannot stop there.||details|
|Technology has a more subtle
negative effect: to distract us from the highest good,
God and His kingdom. It does this by making us busy, then
by drawing our attention to activities related to the
Technological objects create many opportunities to realize good things, and therefore make possible many worthwhile activities to which to attend. Technology also is the source of derivative goods (among them, efficiency, productivity, and speed) whose pursuit occupies our time and attention. Furthermore, technological objects themselves necessitate activities to acquire, use, and maintain them.
So technology creates many activities to occupy our attention, far more than we can hope to pursue satisfactorily to completion, and though some of these activities may be directed to the realization of the highest good, most of them are directed to transient, material ends. Furthermore, the salience of technological objects and the urgency that they so often impart to our lives tend to draw our attention away from the highest good towards activities directed to things of lesser value. Perhaps the greatest danger of technology is its capacity to distract us from God and His kingdom. In its incredible capacity to realize the lower good of the human and non-human creation, technology can divert us from the highest good.
|The appropriate response to this is a more critical approach to the development and use of technological objects. The Amish offer a model for this in their practice of subordinating technology to the land, to community, and, above all, to God. It is not necessary or even desirable that all reflective producers and consumers of technological objects and their products adopt as radical an approach to technology as do the Amish. But we can learn from them to carefully examine a technology or a technolgical object before embracing it by asking probing questions about its ability to realize the bad as well as the good, about its capacity to distract us from the highest good, and about how it can be used (if at all) in a manner consistent with Jesus' hierarchy of value.||details|
|Technology is good and it is bad, but our judgment of it cannot stop there. We must examine the standards of value that we use in the judgment of technology and then evaluate technology with respect to its role in the realization of the good and the bad. Furthermore, we must look beyond the mere instrumental value of technology in realizing valued ends to examine its role in directing our thoughts and actions toward and away from the highest good. Regardless of all the good that technology makes possible, its greatest danger is not in the bad that it brings about, but in the good that it diverts us from.||details|
|For those readers interested in probing deeper into technology and value, I have prepared a short bibliography of sources used in the preparation of this essay.||details|