The Instrumental Value of Technology

Christian 'Values'

Previous Chapter: Jesus’ Teachings on Value



Having outlined a set of value standards, we are now in a position to make judgements about technology. I concur with the commonly voiced opinion that technology is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. I do not agree, however, that the matter can rest there. Rather, technology is instrumentally good to the extent that technological objects facilitate the realization of the good and it is instrumentally bad to the extent that technological objects facilitate the realization of the bad. And good and bad must be defined in terms of Jesus’ teachings on value.

  Technology’s Positive Value

  with respect to the creation …

Technological objects do in fact help us realize the good, as defined by Jesus. First, they help us realize the good of the non-human creation. For example, energy-saving technologies (improved insulation, compact fluorescent light bulbs, energy-efficient appliances, and cogeneration) reduce environmental damage resulting from energy production and distribution. Municipal solid waste composting systems help restore depleted soils. Recycling technologies reduce the demand for minerals. And micro-irrigation technology reduces irrigation water consumption (Raven et al, 1993).

people …

Second, technology helps us realize the good related to people. Medical technology helps us live longer, healthier lives. Agricultural technology provides us with food and clothing. We enjoy the shelter of houses, apartments, and other structures through construction technology. We use household appliances and other electrical technology to provide for our families’ needs. Communication technology facilitates the creation and maintenance of personal relationships on which friendship and community are built. Most of what we know (beyond limited personal experience) comes to us directly or indirectly through information technology. Virtually all technologies are used in the pursuit (if not the realization) of happiness. Energy technology powers the technological objects that make these things possible. Computer technology processes the information necessary to develop and use other technological objects. Manufacturing technology produces technological objects for and transportation technology carries them to the people who need or want them.


And third, technology is useful in realizing the good related to God. For example, transportation technology carries missionaries to every part of the world. Printing and publishing technologies are used to print Bibles and other Christian literature. Other forms of communication technology (radio, TV, the Internet) bring the gospel to those who cannot or choose not to be reached in person. Computer technology facilitates the business of the church in many ways. With regard to the good related to God, I must point out that though technological objects can facilitate knowing about God, they are in no direct way instrumental in knowing God. Jesus claimed sole mediatorship.

Technology’s Negative Value

  with respect to the creation …

But technology is also instrumental in realizing the bad, whether intended or not. First, we are all aware that technological objects and the technological process can be quite harmful to the natural environment. For example, so-called ‘high-input' agriculture leads to soil pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, and salinization of irrigated soils. Industrial systems, municipalities, and shipping produce water pollution of many types. Air pollution of many kinds from motor vehicles and factories harms plants and animals directly and may have long term climatic effects through global warming.

people …

Second, technology is harmful to people. For example, medical technology has been used to kill more than 35 million unborn children in this country since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Agricultural technology produced the fertilizer used to create the explosives that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996, killing 168 people. At least 3,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 people were killed and more than 200,000 were injured in a chemical manufacturing plant accident in Bhopal, India in 1984 (Shrivastava, 1987). Research suggests that prolonged television viewing significantly impairs brain deveopment in children (Healy, 1990). Information technology is used to disseminate erroneous and harmful information. Scientific instruments made possible the development of the atomic bomb that killed more that 100,000 people in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. In 1986 a nuclear power reactor in Chernobyl (located in the former Soviet Union) exploded (Merkel, 1996). Twenty-eight people died outright from radiation and other injuries and the death toll due to excess cancers caused by the release of radiation is expected to ultimately reach about 6,600. Automation technology made possible by computers is creating un- and underemployment. In 1994 transportation accidents in the US killed more than 41,000 people and injured more than 3,000,000 (US DOT, 1995).


And the same technologies that are instrumental in realizing the highest good play equivalent roles in realizing the greatest evil: separation from God. Transportation, communication, and computer technologies (to name but a few) are instrumental in promoting faiths and philosophies that deny God or declare Him irrelevant: atheism, humanism, and even those branches of 'Christianity' that trivialize and distort the gospel and deny the authority of the scriptures and the church.

Technology’s Net Effect

  So, as so many have pointed out before and as we all can attest from personal experience, technological objects have both good and ill effects or, to put it in axiological terms, technological objects are instrumental in realizing both good and bad. And to make evaluative matters more difficult, it is impossible to make any final judgments on their net value. Even if there were a common metric for objectively measuring the positive and negative effects of technological objects, there is no calculus for combining the benefits and the costs and concluding that, overall, technology is good or bad.

Next Chapter: Technological Distraction

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