Stewardship, VI: Technology
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy —Isaiah 55:2
We use the word ‘technology’ in two overlapping but distinct ways. In the older, broader sense, technology is anything human beings invent to make their lives easier. In the newer, narrower sense, ‘technology’ refers to devices and social media. I want to talk about both this morning.
First the older, broader sense. Technology is the result of a crafty collaboration between God’s generosity and human ingenuity. Almost all technology is God’s gift to the human race. Without it, we die, quite literally, at the age of 30 for most human beings who have ever lived until about 200 years ago.
A book is technology. The wheel is technology. A plow, a hammer, a nail, and a fork are technologies. Fire is not technology, but a fireplace is. So is a campfire and your Sub-Zero gas range.
A Civil War soldier hit by enemy fire anywhere on his person more than superficially faced one of two dreadful outcomes—amputation or death—because of infection. Penicillin is one of the most life-saving technologies ever produced. So are the polio, smallpox, and measles vaccines.
If you have ever had a preemie baby, you LOVE technology. If you wear glasses, you love technology. People used to die from appendicitis, quite routinely.
Remember the film Castaway? Among all the vivid misadventures the Tom Hanks character suffers when he is marooned on a deserted island, the most harrowing has to be his toothache. Maybe that hit me so hard because I am married to a dental hygienist, but if you have ever had an abscessed tooth, you know what I am talking about; it is excruciating. Tom Hanks is so desperate he resorts to performing dental surgery on his own tooth with the only technology available to him—the blade of an ice-skate.
Most human technologies are gifts from God. Do you know where the word ‘technology’ comes from? It’s from the Greek, New Testament word tekton. In Greek, a tekton is an artisan or a craftsman.
In the Gospels, Joseph is a tekton, and so is his apprentice son Jesus. English Bibles call him a carpenter, but the Greek word is tekton, technician. A book is technology; so is a bookcase, which is what Joseph crafted.
Most human technology is a gift from God, but in the very near future, humanity will be facing many complex questions about new technologies. We will have to decide if the new technologies that are racing toward us from the future will continue to be gifts from God.
You want a designer baby? You can have a designer baby. We will be able to choose the precise characteristics of our children.
Want a blue-eyed baby with Scandinavian features, or an ebony baby with African features? You can have that.
Want an extroverted child who will be social magic someday? You can have that.
Want a child who will be tall and muscular, or have an IQ of 150, or an hourglass figure? You can have that.
We will be able to eliminate autism and dwarfism and Downs Syndrome. Should we?
Someone said that the only difference between science and science fiction is timing. That is to say, today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science.
Some of us have artificial knees or hips. Someday we could have bionic eyes or limbs or hearts. There will be many Six-Million-Dollar Men and Women. Oscar Pistorius is already here. There will be cyborgs among us, like the Borg Seven of Nine from Star Trek.
The only difference between science and science fiction is timing. At what point does a bionic woman stop being human and start being machine? Does it matter?
Philosophers and scientists are talking about the Transhuman. That is to say, who or what comes after us? Homo Sapiens is Trans-Neanderthal. What is Trans-Homo-Sapiens? A cybernetic being? Probably.
Someday we might create machines that are smarter than we are. The Terminator films might not be the most sophisticated in cinematic history, but they might be the most prescient.
Google just created a quantum computer which harnesses the bizarre behavior of tiny particles to encode vast amounts of information. This quantum computer takes three minutes to solve a problem which would take a classical computer 10,000 years to figure out. By the way, Google’s competition IBM said that it would take a classical computer only two-and-a-half days to solve that three-minute problem, but you see my point. We are already making machines that are almost too intelligent for us to keep up with.
Almost all human technology is a gift from God, but humanity must make thoughtful decisions about every new thing, and the Christian Church will be an integral referee in mediating these formidable controversies, when science fiction becomes science.
But now let’s narrow our focus and talk about technology in the more specific sense of our devices and social media. This new technology has changed everything—the way we learn, the way we communicate, the way we meet friends and lovers, even the way we think.
It has changed human consciousness itself: YouTube shortens the human attention span and Google shrinks the capacity of human memory. We used to memorize square roots and state capitals. Now if you want to know the square root of 144 or the capital of North Dakota, you look it up.
I’ll bet some of you guys don’t even know your wife’s cellphone number; you typed it in once five years ago and never again.
One sociologist calls the current generation the iGeneration: ‘I’ for selfies and for iPhones and iPads.
Igen is the generation that follows the millennials; the last millennial was born in 1996; the first member of iGen in 1995, which means that the oldest of them are 24 this year. They don’t remember a world without the Internet. The year they were born 95% of Americans didn’t own a cellphone; today, it’s exactly the opposite; 95% do.
This technology too is a gift from God. It has exponentially expanded our knowledge, our imagination, our commerce, and our universe of human connection.
You can reach out to a best friend you haven’t heard from since the third grade or the other one who moved to Dubai.
This technology has even expanded the aggregate store of global laughter. The standup comics on Netflix and YouTube are much funnier than my real friends.
Not all of this connection is good: 30% of Tinder users are married. But Steve Jobs created the iPhone and Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to reduce the distance between us, to shrink the globe, to improve our access to information and entertainment.
There are many good things about it. Our children in the iGeneration are much safer than prior generations. They drink less alcohol. They have fewer auto accidents, fewer dates, less sex, and fewer teen pregnancies, all this because they never go out. They connect with their friends virtually rather than face-to-face.
The iGeneration is physically safer but psychologically more vulnerable, right? That’s because social media is an unwinnable psychic arms race. We are always comparing our real, unavoidable, shabby, average selves to the false, shiny, exciting, perfect, public image our friends post on Instagram.
You never see my unshaven, uncoiffed, slovenly, Saturday, sermon-writing self unless you visit my house, which you never do. You only see me when I post an Instagram from St. Andrews Cathedral, which might make you think that I am always at stunning places like Scotland. I, on the other hand, am very well-acquainted with my private, Saturday self, and also your public posts from Kilimanjaro. So many of us are feeling left out. Instagram is a breeding ground for inferiority complexes.
Among teens, daily screen time and depression are directly proportional; daily screen time and suicide rates are directly proportional; daily screen time and happiness are inversely proportional. Daily screen time and family conversation are inversely proportional. To put it a different way, as daily screen time goes up, so do rates of depression and suicide; as daily screen time goes up, happiness and family conversation go down.
Our devices and our social media stop being gifts when we use them to escape the flesh-and-blood presence of someone we are physically present with. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle says, “We expect more from technology and less from each other. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other. We would rather text than talk.”
When you are texting or shopping during a meeting or dinner with family or friends, you are telling the people you are with that you would rather be somewhere else, or at least that you want to be in two places at once. Whatever is going on physically around you is too boring for your undivided attention. You are using technology to escape from the people God has given you to companion.
One Sunday afternoon I received an email from one of my Board Members complaining about a typo in the bulletin. I noticed the time signature on the message: 10:42 on Sunday morning. I know for a fact that I was preaching my sermon at 10:42 on Sunday morning, and I know for a fact that he was there, in church, in the back row, sending me an email while he was pretending to listen to the Gospel. Don’t do that, OK?
Our phone is an addiction, isn’t it? Depending on whom you consult, the average American looks at her phone 50–80 times a day, or about once every 12–18 minutes. We do this because it relieves both our boredom and our solitude. We do this because it gives us a hit of dopamine. Our phones light up the same pleasure centers in the brain that crack or tobacco or Juul give us.
We know better. Isaiah asks a plaintive question: “Why do you spend your money, or your attention, on that which is not bread? Why do you work for that which does not satisfy?” Why do you try to fill the empty place inside you, the lonely place inside you, with something that will never accomplish that purpose? Seek the Lord, while God may be found. Call upon God while God is near. Seek your neighbor, your friend, your lover, while she may be found.
After all, does a ‘Like’ on Facebook come anywhere close to what you feel when your partner or your child reaches for your hand?
Sarah Kaplan, “Google Scientists Say They’ve Achieved ‘Quantum Supremacy’ Breakthrough over Classical Computers,” The Washington Post, October 23, 2019.
Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September, 2017.
Steve Ely, “Get Your Head out of Your App, Part 2: Come back to the Table,” a sermon from sermoncentral.com, contributed August 24, 2019.
Based on surveys by Global Web Index, which reports that 42% of Tinder users have partners.
These statistics are from Twenge, op. cit.
Sherry Turkle, “Connected, but Alone?” Ted Talk from 2012, ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together?language=en