A Christian Definition of Technology

In my reading, I have not come across many attempts to define technology from a distinctly Christian perspective. Recently however, I found a definition that seems rather useful which comes from a 1986 publication called Responsible Technology from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College:

We can define technology as a distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends and purposes. (Monsma, Stephen V. (ed.) Responsible Technology, 1986, p. 19)

According to the authors, there are five parts of the definition:

  • A distinct human cultural activity in which human – technology is not just the physical objects (tools and gadgets) nor is it merely technical know-how; it is a part of human culture making.
  • exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God – use of technology is always accountable to God and in relationship to him and his creation.
  • by forming and transforming the natural creation – this distinguishes technology from other cultural activities such as marriage, singing songs, or creating art.
  • with the aid of tools and procedures – while technology is not just tools, it certainly does not exist without tools, and those tools have a set of procedures that defines their proper use.
  • for practical ends and purposes – there is always a goal in our use of technology and therefore in technology itself and each individual tool.

The one facet that I would like to add to this definition is the place of communication media. The mediums we use to communication (e.g. books and mobile phones) do not necessarily “form and transform the natural creation,” but they do fit the other four elements of the definition.

Any additions or subtractions you would make? Have you come across better/worse definitions of technology?

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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/.

17 thoughts on “A Christian Definition of Technology”

  1. Doesn’t Ellul write about technology in terms of “technique”? Also, electronic media indeed transforms the natural creation – not just in the materials used to make the gadgets, but also the radio waves, electrons, and whatnot used for transmitting data.

    1. Mike,
      The author contends that Ellul defines technology in purely sociological terms, and the author wants to avoid that limitation and include anthropological and epistemological aspects of technology.

  2. I think media technologies could fall under the current definition, depending on what “natural creation” means.

    When you quote “forming . . . natural creation” I’m assuming “natural creation” means physical objects. I think this is how you understand it, since you distinguish it from relationships like “marriage.”

    However, “natural creation” could refer a bit more broadly to include relationships, in which case communications media could be seen as “forming and transforming” it, since something like the telephone would shape the nature of relationships between people (by enabling distance, or by maintaining contact over distance).

    Perhaps it could go farther than this even, to say that communications media may enable geographic changes over time (telecommuiting and suburban sprawl, for example). But that seems a bit of a stretch, and communications technology is certainly not exclusively the cause. Still, I think they could fall under the current definition, depending on what “natural creation” means.

    1. I think you’re correct, but the author qualifies his understanding of natural creation with, “Technology deals with the natural creation, not primarily with the worlds of ideas, thoughts, or symbols. Doing technology is thereby distinguished from such cultural activities as developing language, telling stories, and writing laws … Ideas, religious beliefs, and other nonphysical realities deeply influence and guide the doing of technology, of course, but technology itself is limited to the natural creation” (p. 20)

      I understand his desire to separate from other cultural activities and to ground technology in physical reality, but I didn’t see any acknowledgment that this breaks down with communication media.

  3. Found this book a few years ago and thought it very helpful as an engineer.

    I would say communication media certainly fall under this. The natural creation (raw materials) are transformed into the copper wire, fiber optics, radio towers (which further shape the natural phenomena of radio waves), and iPads. To go older, we transform raw materials from nature into paper and ink to make books.

    The act of writing a novel includes technological means, but is not in and of itself a technological work.

    1. Lee,
      So good to hear from a fellow engineer. Some of the commenters below have done a good job of further distingushing the author’s concepts of “technology,” “technological objects,” “technological tools,” and “technological products”

  4. “While technology is not just tools, it certainly does not exist without tools, and those tools have a set of procedures that defines their proper use.”

    Postman argues that technology itself forms culture and that, at times, when we release a new technology into culture, we are not always fully aware of how it will end up forming and shaping us. This definition seems to restrict technology to that for which it was designed, but that seems artificially limiting and fails to acknowledge technology’s ability to take on a life of its own.

    1. Dustin, you’re right that the definition doesn’t directly address the “unintended consequences” (as Postman would put it) of using technology. But I think the authors meant the language of “forming and transforming the natural creation” to include both intentional formation and unintentional formation.

  5. Responsible Technology is on my list of books to read but I haven’t read it yet. Thanks for that brief glimpse into it.

    I like that definition. I would expand your extra category of communication media to include all information technology and software. It doesn’t really “form and transform the natural creation” (though the building of the machines that run our software and display our information does). But it is technology nontheless. While perhaps the “ideas, thoughts, [and] symbols” that make up the design of software and through which users interact with it are merely adjuncts to technology as Monsma, et al., define it, a vast domain of what we know of as technology would be exempt from our responsibility to God as its stewards if we didn’t include software in the definition.

  6. This is a great discussion. I appreciate the definition as given. It allows us to embrace technology, and not to recoil from it. Think of the ways God has allowed human technology to bless his creation. From potable water, and waste treatment, to power, agriculture, medicine, travel, and communication, technology has saved lives and sustained us.

    My concern is this: when technological problems occur, the popular solution is to berate the technology. Let’s solve the problem and continue to progress.

    1. Bob,
      Great points. I think the authors might caution us to be careful that we don’t fall into what they call “technicism” where we continually attempt to create new tools which solve the problems created by the previous generation of tools. I know you’re not saying this, but if problem solving always involves adding another technology, we get caught in an infinite loop.

  7. John,

    Note that the book defines technology not as objects but as an activity. Reading a book or tweeting are not technological activities even though one uses technological artifacts when doing these things. Similarly, writing a letter isn’t a technological activity even though I utilize technologies (paper and pen) to do so.

    The acts of making and forming books and mobile phones certainly fits under the definition. But the acts of reading books and talking on phones aren’t technological acts, so definitions of technology should exclude those. Hammering, however, would be a technological activity. (See the authors’ note about the difference between technological tool and technological product on p. 17).

    1. John,

      I was just re-reading this book a bit and I noticed on p. 18 that the authors seem to think that communication media is included in their definition. Or, at least, it was in their minds as they were coming up with a definition. They talk about “material artifacts” in the broad sense, which includes not only physical objects but also things like energy processes and “information processing technologies such as those used by the mass media to collect and transfer data to various audiences.”

      1. Eric,
        Thanks for checking into the book’s language. It certainly highlights how hard it is to define these things.

        I’m not sure that I find it helpful to define reading a book or talking on the phone as non-technological activities. I want to be able to say that those are different from talking in person and they are different because of the technology involved.

        Again, your comments are super helpful!

        1. I don’t think we have to define those things as technological activities in order to say they are different from talking in person. Talking on the phone and talking in person are both social activities, but the former is mediated by a technological object. Similarly, painting with a brush or painting with your fingers are both artistic activities, but the former is mediated by a technological object. Even talking in person is mediated by the clothing we wear. (At least, I know I would communicate differently with and without clothes!)

          1. To put what Eric is saying a little differently, may I suggest that their definition is helpful for making distinctions but not extractions/separations? Talking on the phone has a…”social” component (for lack of a more precise term) and a technological component that are distinct, but it is one experience – it doesn’t seem like two separate acts or experiences.

            So, we can distinguish the technological component, recognizing it interacts with others (artistic, etc.).

            Thanks for this thought provoking discussion.

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