Inner Life

Technology not neutral and can be 'idolatrous and disenchanting'

By Stephen Cauchi

Technology such as smartphones and virtual reality can have an idolatrous and secularising impact on people’s thinking which Christians must resist, ISCAST’s 12th Conference on Science and Christianity, COSAC 2020, was told.

“Technology can deform our imagination; the Christian story must reform it,” said Brisbane Presbyterian pastor the Revd Nathan Campbell in his presentation, Rage Against the Machines: How Dreams of High-Tech Utopia Shape the Secular Imagination and Drive Us From Hope.

“Technology in its forming of us is not neutral,” he said. “It comes with a mythology – a vision of the human life of what a good life and good future looks like – and this formative impact is both idolatrous and disenchanting, or secularising.”

Mr Campbell said he was drawing on the work of the 20th century Canadian media academic Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. This was “the idea that we make our tools that we’re going to use to shape the world, and from then on, they shape us”.

Even apparently primitive technology such as the clock had this “shaping” effect, said Mr Campbell.

“The introduction of this piece of machinery made us operate like machines. The clock made us run like clockwork in a clock-like universe.”

Clocks and our ability to measure time were changing our relationship with the world: “Time is ever present and we have this obsession with the present, with life and the second hand.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was so convinced that this was leading to short-term thinking, and damaging our ability to do long-term planning, that he’s building a 10,000 year clock.

“This clock will chime every thousand years, and is a monument to long term thinking – an attempt to undo some of the work on our psyche that the clock is doing.”

However, the digital world – particularly virtual reality – had the potential to impact human thinking far more than the clock, he said.

Virtual reality in the future may be so common and realistic that people may have trouble distinguishing reality from a computer simulation, he said. Indeed, some believed we already are living in a computer simulation.

“We’ll be able to program a future that our brains believe is real … a soaring sensorium that will imitate, model and link to its mirror image, the human brain.

“We will become immortal there. It will enable us to combine work and play in a new way. Even the music will be better there. Cyberspace will be the new, clean, virtual Eden to which we will all emigrate when this physical world becomes an unliveable eco-disaster,” said Mr Campbell.

“Our technology, our smartphones, aren’t neutral; they shape us … away from God and towards a different eschatology to the one offered by the Bible.”

The Amazon Prime TV show Upload referred to this. “In Upload, a life well lived earns you a chance to digitise your brain … so that you can enjoy life in a digital heaven, where you can continue purchasing your way to happiness so long as you have credit.”

But technology not only offered a digital heaven, but a digital “present”. It promised a “magical” life like that promised by Telstra in an ad from a few years ago, which stated: “We live in a magical world. We never have to wake up from our dreams. Our restless minds now free to wonder at the wonder of technology; at the magic we’ve created.”

The myth that technology will produce a thriving, flourishing life – either now or in a digital heaven – was religious language, said Mr Campbell.

“When we buy into this mythology it forms us, but it also changes how we engage with religion and the supernatural,” he said.

“The computer in our pocket … like other technologies, has the capacity to be idolatrous; fitting in with a religious mythology and shaping us.”

The Old Testament made clear that idols were deceptive: “As the Psalmist says ‘those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them’.”

US technology entrepreneur David Rose said that smartphones “do not care about enchantment”, said Mr Campbell.

Mr Rose stated that “the smartphone does not have a predecessor in our folklore and fairy tales.

“There is no magic device I know of whose possessor stares zombielike into it, playing a meaningless game, or texting about nothing. It does not fulfil a deep fundamental human desire in an enchanting way.

“In my nightmare, the cold, black slab [the smartphone] has re-architected everything – our living and working spaces, our schools, airports, even bars and restaurants. We interact with screens 90 per cent of our waking hours. The result is a colder, more isolated, less humane world.”

Mr Campbell said he agreed with Mr Rose’s analysis, calling the world of the smartphone “disenchanting and dehumanising”.

“[It] leaves us in a machine like world without God in the picture … this is no hope at all.

“And if we Christians are meant to be people marked by and formed by our own hope, our own eschatology … anticipating life for eternity with the living God, then technology and its myths risk pushing us in the wrong direction.”

 

ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology) held the COSAC 2020 conference online on 10 to 12 July. All 56 talks from the conference are available to buy through the COSAC website where you will find details of the program, all the talks and the speakers: https://ISCASTCOSAC.org