Losers Talk about Winners and Losers in Technology

At the beginning of this clip is a humorously botched illustration about trade-offs with technology. (Disclaimer: Jake and Amir is like a funnier, much more crass version of Jim and Dwight on the The Office. Watch at your own discretion).

It goes something like this:

Imagine aliens came and offered to give us a technology that could teleport you from point A to point B. The catch was that the aliens would kill 50,000 people at random each year. Would you take the technology?

The punchline is that this describes the statistics on automobiles pretty accurately (Amir confuses cars with gangs). Cars let us “teleport” around with ease and yet many people die because of them. When someone uses the illustration, usually someone else counters with something like the number the people saved by ambulances, but the point that cars bring a positive and a negative is pretty clear.

What about the Church?

When we talk about implementing technologies like social networking, mobile phones, video projectors, and so on in our churches, what if the questions were posed this way?

Imagine someone came and offered to give your church a technology that would allow you to reach out to millions of people. The only catch was that 50,000 people a year became less able to concentrate and another 50,000 became extremely lonely. Would you accept it?

Or this way:

Ways of Thinking About Technology

image Two recent blog posts, one from Paul and Timothy Bible Conference the other from Justin Buzzard’s Buzzard Blog
offer some helpful thoughts about social networking. The conclusions
and recommendations are excellent, and I think there is room for developing a model for getting to these kinds of conclusions.

(Similarly, there has been a recent discussion of the pros and cons of Twitter at Christ and Pop Culture and a response by Owen Strachan.)

“This Can Be Used for…” Thinking

main idea in both articles is that “Facebook can be bad but, if used
properly, Facebook can also be a force for good.” Both authors offer
helpful lists of possible good and bad uses of Facebook. Buzzard’s is
very practical while P&T seems to be more high level. I think these
are the kinds of excellent conclusions and recommendations that we need to be
talking about in the church.

However, somtimes this kind of discussion can be a bit misleading. It has the possibility of making someone assume that because something “can be used for good” it automatically should. That can leave a reader or listener to think that we should primarly evaluate
technology on the basis of morality and usefulness. Buzzard writes,

(most, not all) is neutral and can be used for good or ill… Internet …
Dispense truth or porn… Approach technology with this lens: neutral,
good or ill.

Here, he means that technology is morally neutral. Buzzard's full presentation goes beyond this idea though to say that facebook itself is not really neutral and that it can have some effects on us just by using it.

Facebook and online life can make you more distracted, changes how you think/attention span (Buzzard)

Buzzard recognizes that Facebook itself – not just how it is used, but that it is used – tends toward distraction. This means that while Facebook may be morally neutral, it is not inherently neutral. This is an excellent way of thinking about a technology like facebook, and I think Buzzard has made some major strides in that direction.

“How Will this Technology Change Me?” Thinking

of limiting our thinking about technology to the possible moral ends,
we need to think of technology in terms of what it
demands of us and how it will influence us whether it is used for good
or bad ends.

In other words, when we evaluate a technology we need to begin, not on moral grounds or with possible good or bad ends, but with its inherent effects on us. Then we need to compare those influences to our theology of Christian Spirituality and Mission.

A Model for Theological Reflection on Technology

  1. Nature of the Technology
    – Start by asking questions like, What does this technology inherently
    demand of me? What influence will it have on me? How does it affect my
    thinking, my relating, my day-to-day actions?
  2. Theological Grounding
    Ensure that you your theology is robust and well thought out in the
    following areas: What is a human? What is a human relationship? What is
    way of being and doing for which God has made us?
  3. Theological/Technological

The Newest “Digital Native”

Here is my awesome new son (Benjamin) on his second day in the hospital.


This picture is significant, first because my son is awesome, and second because he will grow up in a world where things like iPhones are commonplace. For me, the internet came into full swing in high school. For him, the formation of the internet will be something about which he'll learn as history. He will never know the world without it.

My parents grew up in a largely static technological environment
with no major technological shifts from the 40s through 60s. I am
maturing in an ever changing technological environment, accreting new
technologies each year. My little son will grow up with all of these technologies already in place – a world very
different mine or his grandparents.

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

To describe this phenomenon, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” in a magazine called Educational Leadership. He used to term to describe the current generation of children whose lives started after the internet age began. They are natives in the digital world, whereas we who entered the digital world later in life are “digital immigrants.” Prensky summarized what this means,

Our students are no longer “little versions of us,” as they may have been in the past. In fact, they are so different from us that we can no longer use either our 20th century knowledge or our training as a guide to what is best for them educationally.

Certainly, this is an interesting subject for general educators, but for today’s theological educators it is more than interesting – it must be an essential part of our concepts of humanity, the body of Christ, and the transmission of the Gospel.

Two Theological Issues

As I see, it there are (at least) two major issues related to the digital native vs. digital immigrant divide.

  1. Theology of the Word – The term the “word of God” is used throughout Scripture, but it tends refers mainly to the person of Christ and God’s communication to us (ironically, the biblical authors do not use the term “word of God” to refer to Scripture). Since the digital age modifies how we understand communication, the idea of “word” will need to be reexamined by both natives and immigrants.
  2. Theology of Relationality – The “image of God” means, at least in part, that humans are relational beings. In the digital age, many relationships are mediated by some form of technology, meaning that digital natives will understand “it is not good for humankind to be alone” differently than digital immigrants. For our churches to function as the “Body of Christ” we will need to be aware of how technology may separate the right hand from the left.