A few months ago, in a post called From the Garden to the City, I briefly mentioned four aspects of technology that show up in the redemptive narrative of Scripture, and I’ve presented it at a few conferences. Drew Goodmanson recently asked if anyone had something like it, so I’m pulling a section from my book manuscript and putting it together as blog post.
McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media
After Marshall McLuhan died, his son Eric published Laws of Media: the New Science which contains what is now called the Tetrad of Media or the Four Laws of Media. McLuhan believed that when a new medium is introduced into an environment, it has four simultaneous effects: Enhancement, Obsolescence, Retrieval, and Reversal. We’ll use the mobile phone as an example:
- Enhancement: What natural function or older medium does the new medium amplify or intensify?
The mobile phone amplifies the human voice and our ability to communicate. It also extends the range of older land lines.
- Obsolescence: What natural function or older medium does the new medium drive out of prominence?The mobile phone makes land lines less important, but also other less instantaneous forms of communication like letter writing.
- Retrieval: What the older medium or practices are recovered by the new medium?
The mobile phone restores oral communication for those separated by physical distances who used to only be able to communicate via letters.
- Reversal: What happens when the medium is overused or pushed to its limits?
When overused, the mobile phone disconnects and isolates people. Users can also annoy those around them and no be truly present with those in their midst.
[Dyer’s] Tetrad of Technology in the Biblical Story
I would like to suggest a similar tetrad that addresses spiritual considerations with technology. It conveniently maps to the overarching biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Like a good DTS graduate, I’ve turned them into four ‘R’s.
- Reflection: (Creation) How does this technology display the imago dei (Gen 1:26-27)? How does it help accomplish the creation mandate (Gen 1:28; 2:15)?
When a person creates a new tool, the display of creativity and ingenuity glorifies God even if the inventor was not attempting to do so. Mobile phones draw on thousands of scientific discoveries all of which were enabled by the creativity God embedded in every person who bears and functions as his image. Mobile phones can enable us to work on huge projects some of which can fulfill the creation mandate to cultivate the earth.
- Rebellion: (Fall) How does this technology attempt to live apart from dependence on God (Gen 4:17)?
Just as Cain set up the first city as a kind of anti-Garden and a place to live apart from God, all technology has the potential to be used for sin. For all their usefulness, mobile phones can also be used for terrible things like sexting or the recent attempt to detonate a bomb in a downtown Dallas building. More subtly, mobile phones can prevent those in physical proximity from speaking to one another since someone “out there” is always available. The ability to find solitude and meditate on the Word of God can also be inhibited when we find it hard to put our phones away.
- Redemption: What effects of the Fall can this technology help overcome (Gen 3:7; 1 Tim 5:23)?
The first human invention in the Scripture (clothing) was a direct response to an effect of the Fall (nakedness and the elements), and to some degree all technology can be characterized as overcoming an effect of the Fall. Yet some technologies are more redemptively significant than others. Medicine and water filtration offer direct physically redemptive benefits allowing us to obey passages like Matt. 25:34-40. But technologies like mobile phones are more indirect in what they offer. In a few situations, like a stranded or wounded person calling for help, their use might be considered redemptive. However, in many cases mobile phones are used to solve problems that were originally created by technology such as the distance between families or the large size of today’s corporations. Seeing some technology as more significant than others may help us quell our idolatry of it. (on a related note: here is an example of a redemptive use of a beeper)
- Restoration: What unintended consequences or shortcomings does this technology bring? Do these make us long for Christ to return and restore all things?
I put here all of the non-moral, but undesired Neil Postman-type consequences that technology can bring such as how air conditioning tends to make people miss out on nature, remote-controlled garage door openers mean people see their neighbors less often, and cars mean families live further apart. I also put technological failure, such as dropped mobile phone calls, phones running out of batteries, and operating system lock ups and reboots.
When these devices fail, rather than causing us sadness and grief, they offer us a chance to reorient our hope away from our technology and toward Christ’s return. The biblical story ends not in a return to a pristine Garden, but with a new earth and a heavenly city full of human technology and culture (Amos 9:14; Rev. 21:21) somehow cleansed of evil and tradeoffs. It is fascinating to think that God cares to redeem not only human souls and human bodies, but also human creations. So when you get a blue screen of death or an iPhone lockup, rather than curse in disgust, it should be an opportunity to say, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!”
The following table summarizes these four aspects of technology:
(usefulness, God’s glory)
(morality, sinful uses)
(spiritual/physical help, albeit temporary)
(non moral trade-offs, failures)
A Good Start
There are of course limitations to this, but I think it offers a good start for plugging technology into the redemptive arc of Scripture and acknowledging both the benefits and possible shortcomings of technology. One important thing to keep in mind is that McLuhan emphasized that all four parts of the Tetrad happen at once and they are inseparable. I think we too should keep in mind that all of these aspects of technology are operating simultaneously.