How to Become a “Technological Idiot” in One Easy Step: Think Like a Christian

The Right/Wrong Dichotomy

BucketsOne of Christianity’s greatest strengths is that it is deeply concerned with morality. However, when it comes to thinking about technology, this strength often turns into a major weakness.

It’s great for us to be thinking about how to please our Savior, redeem the world, and earn more crownage (2 Tim 4:8), but sometimes this leads us to putting everything we encounter into either a “right” bucket or “wrong” bucket. Then, when something comes along that’s neither clearly moral or immoral, the only “bucket” we have left is the amoral “how we use it” bucket.

If this is as far as we can go, then our moral thinking has put a major limitation on us.

All Hail McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan wrote,

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.  (Understanding Media, 17-18)

McLuhan is saying that we become “technological idiots” when we simply place all technology in the “how you use it” bucket without understanding that any use of technology – for immoral or moral ends – will have some effect on us. In other words, we need more buckets for thinking about technology. We need to be able to discuss cognitive, relational, and physical effects of technology without immediately reverting into “good,” “bad,” or “how you use it” categories.

Technological Idiocy in Action

To see this in action, check out this article in Relevant Magazine where the author brings up some recent research into the effect that the constant flow of quick information has on people. Sadly, many of the commenters blindly assume the stance of “the technological idiot” because the only buckets they have are “good,” “bad,” and “how you use it.” Notice how the word “used” shows up over and over:

  • Used properly, Twitter can be an amazing tool for …
  • When used in a self-centered fashion …
  • To me it seems like every good thing is only good when used within reason ...
  • every thing can be used for good and for bad, it totally depends on a person.
  • It is what you make it. You can choose to use it to ….

Of course, they are right to say one can use Twitter for good or bad, but they also believe that all mediums are exactly “like anything else” and have no effect on us:

  • Twitter is like any other personal communications medium …
  • Like everything, it will be used for good and abused by ego maniacs …
  • Like anything though, we can use twitter to …
  • Twitter is, like any development in technology, a tool. What is done with that tool is entirely up to the users …

They are simply unable to engage in a discussion of how various mediums uniquely shape us and our world.

Increasing Our Mental Bandwidth

Again, it’s important and right for us to think morally and attempt to use technology for morally good ends while also guarding against immorality like sexting. However, thinking Christians must resist the temptation to limit their thinking to only moral terms which so commonly leads to what McLuhan called “technological idiocy.”

Otherwise, it will only be those outside the faith community not limited in their categories doing all the hard, thoughtful work on technology and culture (see Nicholas Carr, Andrew Keen, Steven Johnson, and others). If we are truly concerned with “engaging culture,” we will have to remove the morality throttle on our mental bandwidth so we can discuss media and technology at a deeper, more thoughtful level.

Now go out and get yourself some more buckets.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

25 thoughts on “How to Become a “Technological Idiot” in One Easy Step: Think Like a Christian”

  1. You know, in the tradition I came from, we have this big “moral/amoral/immoral” discussion about music a lot. Is rock music immoral? Can you sing about the gospel using rock? Stuff like that.

    Though I’m glad to be out of that whole movement and conversation, I can’t help but wonder if this concept can relate to that discussion, as well. Maybe music is more than just moral/amoral/immoral. Maybe we should be talking about how it affects us cognitively, relationally, etc.

    1. too true. my college experience even drew down the number to two: Christian and secular. I stumbled across Franky Schaeffer’s _The Art of Mediocrity_ and it did wonders for my thinking.

      possibly, it may not even be “more than just moral/amoral/immoral” but rather music is MUSIC. and, it affects us. I was always amused that classical music was dubbed amoral b/c it didn’t have words…as if the pieces didn’t have meaning or message.

  2. I don’t get this post, please help! When did “technology” become a area of study in and of itself? Isn’t this more of a philosophical, ethical and or theological topic?

    And, why is it that everyone here has to agree on everything. I’m not in anyway meaning to be negative, but where is the real discussion and debate of the issues brought up? We spend years in schools learning detailed systems of inquiry with specific rules, whether for Biblical Study, math, biology, or whatever, shouldn’t we then use these systems in our discussions here? In other words, is there a systematic and scholastic way to analysis these topics?

    Just some thoughts. Like the website design John.

    1. I’m not sure I could give you an exact date, but many schools have courses on Philosophy of Technology (such as Dallas Baptist) and some schools have entire programs devoted to technology and society (such as MIT). They often begin with Plato/Socrates concerns about the technology of writing and how it would impact memory and wisdom, and then pick up somewhere around Adam Smith. In addition, there is an entire field usually called ‘media ecology’ that has sprung up over the last 50 years or so.

      1. Cool, I did not know that. There are so many fields out there that draw from other disciplines, like my own, Missiology. You should be doing some higher learnen in that field, then you could write books and make some money from your writing! Oh yeah, and minister to people of course.

        So then, what should be our rules for inquiry into the field of technology studies? Is there a set of theories to guide our hypothesis and research? How do we agree on the validity and reliability of our “research.” In essence, how do we guard against simply writing up our opinions or empirical experiences in lue of rigorous research studies? I’m worried that Christian’s “insight” into the social world (society or culture) has become little more than the aggregate of people’s opinions.

        1. Eric, those are great questions. I’m actually working through some of that now, and much of it appears to be determined by the vantage point from which you start. Philosophy, theology, history, sociology, and so on all seem to be interested in somewhat different questions…

  3. I must confess that either as a result of drinking the McLuhan kool-aid years ago OR from my perspective inside the media production industry for the last 30 years or so . . . I’m continually a bit perplexed by the “what???” tone that comes up so much when discussing this topic.

    Or is this a component of the religious educational/analysis industry being so far removed from (or behind) the secular industry? I’m knew to this end of the business and it’s not the first time that I’ve had to sit back and wonder if I’m experiencing some sort of Marty McFly moment?

    The first was when the discussion of diversity in the church was presented as something that must be addressed and I was sitting in meetings that covered topics that had been discussed, addressed and put to bed years ago in the secular world.

    My desire is to not come across as such a grumpy old fart (it’s comes to me with little effort so I apologize for it’s presence) but to speak to the bigger issue of new followers of Christ coming into the community and wondering if Peabody has set the wayback machine to the 70’s (or earlier).

    Still, to address the topic of John’s post . . . you’ve done a great job (again) of articulating a key component that all producers of content (in this case “Christian” content) must never forget. The media is the message FIRST and the content plays a far less significant role in comparison. That’s not to say that the content is not important. In fact, the content may be even more important than it’s ever been since there is so freakin’ much of it that passes before our eyes.

    There are a multitude of tools at our disposal. Much like a carpenter in a wood working shop, you must know how the tool will effect what you are working on before you put it through it’s paces. A belt sander and an orbital sander both effect the surface of the wood . . . but have much different results, especially so when used by a neophyte versus a seasoned craftsman.

    Media (AKA technology for much of this discussion) functions in much the same way. Not only does it behave in a different manner, how it manifests the product (content) is profoundly different from format to format.

    This discussion (and John’s blog in particular) help the carpenters (that would be you and me) manifest the media AND the message with more intention and with an understanding of how that manifestation occurs.

    The world outside the Christian educational/analysis/communication industry (I mean no insult using the term “industry” but let’s face it . . . it is that as much as it is anything else) is well versed in what John is presenting and it behooves those of us who are responsible for analysis, evaluation and deployment of media to be equally informed.

    May your tribe increase.

  4. Although I’ve not read him extensively, I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be “useful” to explore the writings of French sociologist Jacques Ellul concerning what he referred to as “technique”– which might be translated as “technology” in English, but seems to encompass more than that, including its effect on individuals and society as a whole. His explorations in this subject eventually led him to become something of a Christian anarchist, as I understand it, but I believed it also helped him to maintain some perspective rather than just blithely drinking the kool-aid along with the rest of the western world.

    Thanks for stirring up my own thinking on this subject. I think I’m going to begin my own further explorations on this with McLuhan.

  5. Thanks again for your depth of thinking and simplicity in expressing your thoughts. You push me beyond the surface level discussion that so many (eg Relevant Article) seem limited to engage in.

    Thanks.

  6. I’ve just come across your blog John – nice work. Thought provoking post.

    I have also noticed that as Christians we love to categorize, when categorizing just might not be that easy.

    Technology is making categorization a real challenge.

  7. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is valuable and everything.

    But just imagine if you added some great graphics or videos to give your posts more, “pop”!

    Your content is excellent but with images
    and videos, this website could definitely be one of
    the greatest in its niche. Great blog!

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