What Scifi Can Teach Us about Technology and Humanity [VIDEO]

This week, I came across two videos that portray our technological future in pretty dark, but really interesting tones. Both play with the idea of “progress” and ask questions about what will happen if we go “forward” or “backward.”

Revolution: A New J.J. Abrams Show

I love just about everything J.J. Abrams does, so I’m excited to see him again playing with the themes of technology and humanity. This kind of retro-tech scenario has been done before in scifi, but it usually comes as a consequence of some other plot device (time travel, apocalypse, etc.) instead of being the focus of the show.

And how does J.J. Abrams propose we fight our anti-technology overlords?

With swords and DOS, obviously.

I’m so in.

Welcome to Life: the Singularity has Occurred

While Abrams sees negative consequences coming from going our inevitable slide backward with technology, this video humorously reminds us that even futuristic things we wish for (technology that can save us from death) can be ruined by our nacent humanity (or lawyers).

The Value of Scifi

Neither of these are terribly “hard” scifi, but they represent something that I appreciate about all scifi, and that is that it asks questions about what it means to be human in this age by looking at how people reaction to an altered set of circumstances.

Scifi seems to teach that whether technology goes “backward” (in J.J.’s vision) or “forward” (toward the singularity), our humanity is still essentially in tact retaining all its ugliness and all of its beauty.

From Gene Roddenberry to Kurt Vonnegut to Madeleine L’Engle to J.J. Abrams, no author seems able to escape the image of God or the stain of sin. If that tenant is correct – that humanity is essentially the same in every technological age – I think it means that a Christian conception of technology must talk as much about human nature as it does about our tools.

1. Asking Better Questions

Scifi teaches us that we shouldn’t simply ask, “What is this technology doing to us?” but also, “What is this technology drawing out of us?” Instead of blaming technology for creating something negative, we should think of technology in terms of what it highlights that is already there.

And this is where a distinctly Christian view of humanity and our tools should make a major difference. We have biblical terminology like spirit and flesh which, if used correctly, should be more helpful than what a purely secular view of ourselves can provide.

Roddenberry’s Star Trek wanted to be utopian, but couldn’t avoid conflict.  Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men wanted to be distopic, but can’t avoid beauty. Why is that? I think only a Christian conception of humanity can answer adequately.

2. Creating Our Own Fictions

I also think scifi shows the importance of changing things up in our own lives to help us see things to which we might be blind. This involves doing “technology experiments” like using a different technology to see how it works (I switched from PC to Mac last year to better understand both cultures), using an older technology in a radically different way (using a beeper for prayer), or even “fasting” from certain technology altogether (for short times or long periods).

Doing these kinds of experiments is to, in effect, create our own “fiction,” to rewrite the story that’s been handed to us, and then learn from it something we cannot know but by experience or stories.

As for me, I’m gonna go get my katana out.

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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/.

4 thoughts on “What Scifi Can Teach Us about Technology and Humanity [VIDEO]”

  1. Wow, that JJ Abrams show looks awesome! And I love this post–your reorientation of the question is fantastic, and I like how you are wrestling with what makes a Christian perspective on technology different from a secular one.

  2. Great post John. I was thinking along similar lines after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I, Robot in the same weekend.

  3. John,
    Thanks, as always for instructing me in things technological. The J. J. Abrams show looks very interesting.

    You said this: “If that tenant is correct – that humanity is essentially the same in every technological age . . .”

    Did you mean to use the word “tenet” instead of “tenant”?

  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for the post. I like your suggestion that we need to ask “What is this technology drawing out of us?”.

    I had some similar thoughts recently in terms of Jesus and his interaction with the Pharisees in Mark 7. Esp 7:15. I get a sense of Jesus challenging the hearers to see the external as an extension of the heart. That our response to the demands and natural tendencies of technology (whatever they might be) always starts with the orientation of our hearts.

    Perhaps our attitudes and interactions with technology provide an avenue for us to measure in the flesh what it might be that is capturing our hearts. Measuring our “technological week” is another experiment which provides a way to see the blind spots of what is capturing our time.

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