Technological difficulties

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July 8, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

As we all know, technology has become increasingly common in our everyday lives: many of us spend many hours a day in front of a computer, or carry a phone or other device everywhere we go. We connect with each other over email, facebook, twitter, etc. Technology has even made its way into our churches, where visual projectors, blogs, or websites are part of the life of the community. The establishment of these blogs on the new Canadian Mennonite website is a symptom of the trend to use more technology within the church, and reveals that we seem to be embracing this trend wholeheartedly. But are we surrendering a bit too easily?
Most of what we hear about technology comes from advertisers, whose glittering promises rope us in. We’re told our relationships will flourish if we buy the latest cell phone, that we’ll amaze everyone at work or school if we have the most versatile presentation-creating program, that we’ll become exponentially more intelligent if we have an e-reader instead of dusty old books. But are these claims true? Are these devices actually improving our lives, or have our lives simply accelerated to a breathless, compulsive speed? My choice to opt out of certain aspects of the technology race (I don’t own a cell phone, for example) is fairly straightforward: I can’t afford to buy new gadgets every five minutes (or however often they upgrade them), and face-to-face socializing feels more profound to me than texting, to name just two. So I ask: have we thoroughly considered the social, economic, environmental, and theological significance of our newfound hunger for (or is it obsession with?) the very latest technologies?
Will Braun wrote an excellent article on this topic last year in the Canadian Mennonite (“The gospel according to Google”, Oct. 4, 2010), but I think it’s worth raising again. Since the enthusiasm to adopt new forms of technology is often rationalized as a way of connecting with our age group, it seems appropriate for us to discuss where we stand on the issue, including from an explicitly theological perspective. A friend of mine, Kevin Guenther Trautwein, is a student at Conrad Grebel University College, and he happens to be writing his master’s thesis on theology and technology. Here’s what he had to say in answer to a few of my questions:

Can you briefly explain some of the major theological issues raised by technology, as you see it?
Technology raises some interesting theological questions, such as, “How do humans relate to God as they seek to control their environment?” Two key theological concepts are kenosis, or the self-emptying of God, and the imago Dei, the notion that humanity is created in the image of God. The negative statement in kenosis is that God, being all-powerful, has limited God’s power (particularly in Jesus Christ) to make room for human freedom. Positively, this means that humans are given some degree of freedom and control. The imago Dei, drawn from Genesis 1:26-27, describes humanity as God’s representative in the Garden as a sort of viceroy. Together, these concepts have been used to support an attitude of domination through technological mastery of the natural world.
I take issue with this way of thinking about the image of God. I would draw attention to the original use of kenosis in the famous passage from Philippians 2, which begins: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself...” Similarly in Genesis, what makes humans into the imago Dei is God's indwelling breath (Hebrew: ruach, or spirit). When humans later seek to become like God through technical mastery at Babel, this is portrayed as rebellion against God, rather than a legitimate result of God's image in humanity.

Many churches have begun using technology as part of worship. How do you interpret this trend theologically?
I often wonder about the motivation to use multimedia technology in worship. On the one hand, all buildings use technology of some sort, and churches have long taken issues of acoustics and visual aesthetics into account in their design. On the other hand, the design of sacred space always makes a theological statement, whether designers are aware of it or not. For example, church spaces that are highly utilitarian (a warehouse or a school gym, for example) imply that what is important is the gathering of people, the proclamation of the gospel, “saving souls,” or something similar. Spaces that are highly ornamental, like a cathedral, speak about the majesty and transcendence of God.
When it comes to technology like visual projectors and sophisticated sound systems, I wonder what message we are sending. On the one hand, these technologies attempt to communicate the accessibility of our communities, and ultimately, of God. On the other hand, the reality they portray is ultimately illusory. The image itself must be constantly changing, the devices must be upgraded, and eventually the medium itself becomes unfashionable – to be replaced by smart screens and perhaps by 3D or holograms. In an age when everything is illusory and everything can be adapted to fit the individual consumer’s desires, I believe that people are looking for something real, something that requires effort from them and lets them know that their existence matters. I believe that the church gives up a great opportunity to convey that message when it uses illusory and transitory mediums in its worship.

Church groups have also begun using “social media” in order to build community and connectedness. Where do you stand on this issue?
In a nutshell: I’m not on Facebook. The recent obsession with communications technology and social networking is, I believe, a symptom of a deep spiritual starvation. But it’s like trying to fill up on popcorn. Sure, it might keep you alive for a little while in the desert, but it’s a cruel substitute for a real meal. I think that the appeal of these technologies is freedom and control. They allow the user to engage in communications and community on their own terms, when it suits them. Through status updates on Facebook or Twitter, people are not actually engaging in communication, which involves dialogue, but in broadcasting, which is one-dimensional. In the virtual world, nothing from outside of me can communicate with me if I do not first “allow” it or turn my attention to it.
Of course, it’s common in movies and T.V. shows to comment on the person who is constantly on their phone – who appears to have no boundaries, no control of the relationship. But this is still a choice – a choice not to control, and ultimately to be consumed. It does not change the essence of the medium, which is broadcasting rather than dialogue. The fact that someone has made the choice to be always connected is not the problem, it is merely a symptom of the deep spiritual hunger for community. This is an exhausting way of being, and I believe that with some imagination the church could be a place of salvation, or at least provide some rest.

Often the move to incorporate more technology into various aspects of church life is seen as a way of reaching youth and young adults. How do you, as a young adult, respond to that argument?
As a young adult, I’m wary of gimmicks. Many of us who’ve grown up in a culture of marketing have become cynical of products that try too hard. When the church tries to compete with these products, it becomes liable to the same cynicism. If a church is doing real community, people will find out – and likely they’ll flock to it. If a church is not doing real community, technology may distract people for a while, but it won’t last. I have never known someone who left a church that they felt cared about them because it didn’t have lights and sound, but I’ve known people who’ve left churches with big lights and sound because they didn’t feel that it cared about them. If the young people in a church are asking for more current media, that might be because that’s the only world they know. It could be an excellent opportunity to have an open conversation about what they’re looking for, why, and in what way those desires can be realized or transformed by the gospel.

Do some of these issues apply to the use of technology outside of church, in our “everyday” lives?
I think that the key issues with technology in all its forms are those of freedom and control. The way I see it, there are two sorts of freedom: a negative “freedom from,” and a positive “freedom to.” The benefits of technology are often described in terms of negative freedom: freedom from tedious work, from barriers, or even from social obligations. We pay less attention to positive freedom – what does technology free us to do? In some cases the positive freedom of technology can be truly good – for example, the freedom to spend more time with family. But more often the positive freedom of modern technology is simply the freedom to be entertained. Whatever the situation, I think that it’s important to always ask both questions.
As a personal example, I’m a student living in Ontario while my family is in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The ease of travel has enabled me to live far from those I’m closest to without feeling the burden of separation. I’m free to go to school, but I’m also free from the obligations that come from being rooted in a particular social situation, say, looking after my brother’s dog while he’s away. Is this a burden that I want to be freed from, or would it be a legitimate burden that gives meaning to my life and depth to my relationships?
Aside from our own personal interactions with technology, I think that it’s important to evaluate our use of devices from the perspective of social justice. It’s hard for me to remember this, because I grew up in the age of Ikea, but furniture didn’t used to be disposable. A good chair was one that you could pass on to your grandchildren, not one that will last you just 15 or 20 years (if that). The problems of disposability are even more pronounced for electronics. Coltan, a key component in the circuitry of cell-phones and computers, is a semi-rare mineral which funds war in the Congo, similar to the better known problem of “conflict diamonds.” Then, at the end of a computer processor’s life, there are even more problems. The rise of e-waste has been one of the great hidden crimes of the last decade. The recovery of key minerals from discarded electronics is hazardous, but not yet profitable enough for North Americans to do the work. Recently, some very disturbing news about how, when we recycle our electronics, places like Ghana and China end up with mountains of trash, while the poorest of the poor contaminate their own drinking water with the chemicals needed to break down a computer. In this light, the use of a cell-phone, not to mention replacing it every three years (if it lasts that long), is probably the most preventable – and therefore obscene – form of selfish disregard for others that exists today. Maybe second is that massive island of floating plastic in the Pacific.
The technologically inspired vision of a life without limits has led to these problems and others we all know about. It’s no use saying that technology will also solve them for us without our having to accept some limits. I believe that the traditional Christian virtue of self-control, or perhaps even the Anabaptist virtue of gelassenheit [yieldedness or humility], worked out in our entire lives, is the only hope we really have of solving these problems. Of course, this is just another way of saying I believe that we need to become disciples of Jesus Christ, who didn’t think that becoming technological gods was something worth gaining.

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