Technology and the Stories We Tell

“Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

“This is still another way of defining Technopoly.  The term is aptly used for a culture whose available theories do not offer guidance about what is acceptable information in the moral domain”  (Neil Postman, Technopoly, 79).

We live in a world in which technology is generally viewed as unqualifiedly good.  There is no problem so great, we think, that if the right minds are applied to it, cannot be solved through innovation.  Life presented humanity with a problem: everybody keeps dying off.  “How can we keep that from happening?” we wondered.  So we put some folks on it who came back with all sorts of machines and medicines and therapies capable of substantially extending life.  As a result, now even if we can’t cheat death finally, we can at least hold out for awhile thanks to technology.  Only, what technology cannot provide is a coherent account as to why it is better for a person to live than to die.

Currently, we live in the “information age.”  The thing we have yet to come to terms with, though, is whether or not it is possible to have too much information or whether the information we have is of any value.  Technology may be able to solve the problem of building a better wicket, but it is incapable of telling us why our lives would be enriched (or devalued) by access to new and improved wickets.  Technology cannot tell us how our use of wickets will impact our children’s development as moral agents.  Technology cannot give us any help in determining whether these new wickets will make us better people or merely people more reliant on emerging wicket technology to make it through the day.

We’ve been seduced by the idea that technology is always our friend—which, since, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, ought to be problematic.  The assumption we cling to as a culture is one derived from a system of morality, however, which states that if we can do something, invent something, create something through technological means, we should.  What we often fail to take into consideration is that each new technology, each advance in existing technology comes to us with a price.  There is a cost that accompanies every benefit; and technology by itself is incapable of helping us to tell the difference.  In order to do that, you need a narrative that purports to tell you what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.

Paul writes to the folks in Thessolonica that the church relies on a greater story than the technological one to help people know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.  He tells them that they learn how to discern good from bad, right from wrong by learning a different account of reality, embodied in the lives of those who, through their proximity to Jesus Christ, know a little something about reality.  One cannot learn to be a good person apart from a story that claims to produce good people.  One cannot even learn what a good person is apart from a story that claims to know what one looks like.

Technology is just as likely to destroy the world as save it; and, in fact, it couldn’t tell you why one would be preferable to the other.  No.  If you want to be able to make moral decisions in this world, then you need a better story.

Christians, not coincidentally, tell a story about the destruction and salvation of the world, and it just happens to be embodied in a Jewish carpenter who was destroyed by the technology of his day as a way of saving the world.  If you learn “how you ought to live and to please God” from him, you won’t have many problems finding “acceptable information in the moral domain.”