“Technology,” said Alan Kay, “is anything that was invented after you were born.” Kay pioneered a tool that most of us use every day: a computer interface that uses panes, or windows, to display content. For him that’s a technology.
Alan Kay is also a classical organist; he plays music on an instrument invented long before he was born. Under his definition, an organ isn’t really technology. And that’s how we know that his definition needs improvement. It’s more cute than useful.
Kevin Kelly, an American author and thinker best known for co-founding Wired Magazine, has his own exotic definition. In his book, What Technology Wants Kelly makes the case for his conviction that technology is actually a seventh kingdom of life. Kelly claims that technology plays an integral role in the past and future evolution of life itself. Kelly claims that technology is a guiding forces in the universe, a contention that obviously conflicts with our biblical worldview but also rejects common secular consensus about the theory of evolution. If Kay’s definition is too cute, Kelly’s is far too far-reaching.
I’d like this project to be an opportunity to do some careful thinking, some detailed research, and even some philosophical musing about how we want to use technology to accomplish our goals.
My committee is meeting for the first time next week and so I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to proceed with the careful thinking, detailed research, and philosophical musing that I promised we’d do. I realized that we need to define “technology” before we can really dive into the topic. We need a definition of technology that reflects the nature of technology, handles its philosophical impact on society, and also fits well into an spiritually enlightened system of thought. In other words, we need a definition of technology that is both empirical and theological. This is more than just finding a “Christian way” to think about iPhones and iPads, this is deciding to have a well-informed conversation about the proper role of technology in our lives.
So here’s a definition that I think works very well: technology is the collection of tools and media that people use to extend their own senses, bodies, and abilities. This is technology in a broad sense, not the more narrow, specific usage we’re accustomed to. The devices and tools that used to whizz and whirr and bleep and bloop but now fit in our pockets and connect to wireless networks are technology, yes, but they are from a very specific family of technology called “digital technology.” Other inventions like cars, corkscrews, and calendars are also technology, although each of a different family.
This nuanced understanding means that the average liturgical service is brimming with technology. Audio systems (technology) amplify the pastor’s voice while electric bulbs (technology) help worshipers see the book (technology) in their hands as they sit on pews or in chairs (both technology). The paraments on the altar were crafted using thread, needles, and powered machines. A carpenter once used woodworking technology to convert raw materials into an altar, pulpit, and font. People even travel thousands of miles to admire European church technologies like the flying buttress and tracker action pipe organ.
In its broad sense, technology is the art, skill, and craft of human minds. Scripture teaches that God serves the world through individual vocations. “We are God’s masks,” says the Lutheran theologian. Indeed, our entire body and life are meant to be a dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Art, skill, and craft—technology, that is—are extensions of ourselves for they are expressions of our own soul.
Technologies enable us to carry out our vocations with greater range and impact. Who could count how many encouraging words have been exchanged between Christians over the telephone? How many hours have been recovered for ministry thanks to automobile? How many minds have been enlightened because we have the ability to reproduce printed materials on a massive scale?
Of course, in a fallen world any art, skill, or craft can be put to bad use. Even our own tongues—which are God’s creation and not ours—frequently spew forth evil. Like all things, our technologies must be redeemed, and that really starts with us. Christ has redeemed us by his blood; he has given us a new self that is willing and able to put art, skill, and craft into the Lord’s service.
There will be plenty of time to discuss the negative effects of a wide variety of technologies. Today’s world is in a period of turmoil and transition as two major eras of technology converge. Like cold air and hot air, the centuries-old world of print is mixing with the decades-old system of electronic media and the results have been stormy. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
With a useful definition of technology the worshiping Christian can approach this topic with a level head. Understanding that technology is more pervasive than we might think gives us perspective. Realizing that technologies are an extension of human art, craft, and skill unlocks a redemptive, vocational approach to technology.
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