Don’t Know Much About Technology

Michael Metzger

These past two weeks, Twitter and Facebook have been hailed as advancing freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Does the euphoria indicate we don’t know much about technology?

“It started on Facebook,” said Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who is the face associated with the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Enthusiasts say social media is changing the equation for changing the world—it’s now bottom-up through widely available technologies.

This however overlooks what was once obvious. Technology cannot provide a telos, an end or purpose, for the wise use of such things as Twitter. Its telos used to be tethered to something beyond technology.

Technology comes from techne, meaning “skill or craft.” It’s similar to craftsmanship, which is avodah in the Bible and also rendered as work, worship, service, and ministry. Long ago, technology’s telos was an integral part of a moral universe. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, its purpose could only be understood inside creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

This linkage limited technology, and its derivative, technique. Technology only indicates what can be done. It cannot indicate whether something ought to be done. “While techne aims in a general way at the goal of efficiency,” writes Matthew Stewart, it requires a moral framework to measure effectiveness.1 This is why technology was once considered to be a branch of moral philosophy.

This linkage began to fray in the early 1800s when our elite educational institutions placed technology on its own footing. In 1825 Harvard voted to create stand-alone, autonomous academic departments. Business, technology, and religion were divided from one another. This “marked the moment when depth and specialized learning began to ascend over the breadth and the interconnection of knowledge,” writes former Harvard Dean Harry R. Lewis.2 The new mantra of technology was: if something can be done it should be done. The use of technology became its own telos.

This troubled some. In 1951, T.S. Eliot was invited to speak to the faculty of the University of Chicago on the subject of the purpose of education. He used technology as an analogy. “If we see a new and mysterious machine, I think that the first question is, ‘What is the machine for?’ and afterward we ask, ‘How does it do it?”3 In Eliot’s mind, purpose determines performance. Telos trumps technology.

In the 1960s, the French sociologist Jacques Ellul posed 76 “reasonable questions” that he thought we should ask about any new technology, including “What values does it foster?” and “What is lost by using it?” He wrote: “Everyone has been taught that technique is an application of science. This traditional view is radically false. It takes into account only a single category of science.”4 It is technology without telos.

If Eliot and Ellul were correct, what questions ought to be asked about social media? In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr makes a case that every information technology has an ethic—a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge.5 He claims the Internet assumes a telos of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption. Over time, this “shallows” our neural pathways, making us ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but losing the capacity for seeing larger patterns and making sense of them. If Carr is right, what are the consequences?

For example, what are we to make of the linking of education and technology, particularly distance learning? Mark Bauerlein of Emory University notes that college students increasingly demonstrate an inability to sort through the onslaught of information so easily accessed by web-based technologies. He says only 16 percent of today’s students read the text on a web page line by line, word for word, and can pull together a coherent summary of what the author intended to say. The other 84 percent can only pick out individual words and sentences, “processing them out of sequence,” Bauerlein concludes.6

Researchers call this “inattentional blindness”—surfing, twittering, and tweeting reducing the capacity to see patterns. In fact, many students as well as adults “no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture of reality,” writes literary critic Sven Birkerts.

What then are we not asking about the uprising in the Mideast? Here is a question worth considering. When Egyptians say “freedom can’t be stopped,” how is this different than what was declared during the overthrow of the U.S.S.R., when reformers claimed a new day had dawned, aided by the social media of the day, the fax machine? Democracy is not the freedom to do what we want. It is the freedom to do what we ought. Western civilization, freedom, and democracy are distinctive primarily because of their Judeo-Christian roots. These are ideas not generally shared by Islam.

The fact that these questions remain largely unaddressed indicated to media analyst Neil Postman that we are no longer in a technological age. He said we instead operate in a technopoly, when technology has a monopoly on thinking and becomes its own telos. We only ask whether a technology works—not if it is wise. If it can be done, it should be done. In a technopoly, Postman predicted a “thought-world that functions not only without a transcendent narrative to provide moral underpinnings but also without strong social institutions to control the flood of information produced by technology.”

This is the story of the Pill and the Sexual Revolution. Technologies uncoupled from telos typically confuse fulminations with human flourishing. Postman noted that new technologies only tell us what they promise to do. They render us “incapable of imagining what they will undo.”7 Without a telos, technologies only raise “diversionary” questions that “have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them.” Facebook for example has done a great deal in stirring demonstrations and undermining a regime. But how will social media contribute to establishing democracy? As we watch the Middle East roiling, are we witnessing advancement… or merely anarchy?

________________________
1 Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 132-33.
2 Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (Public Affairs, 2006), 31.
3 T. S. Eliot, “The Aims of Education,” To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 75.
4 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (Vintage, 1967), 7.
5 Nicholas Carr?, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains ?(W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)
6 Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Tarcher/Penguin, 2009), 143.
7 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Random House, 1993), 5.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Know Much About Technology”

  1. Well done. Answer? For now: advancement. These questions eventually come back to: “Show me the money!” Even Facebook is on-line because advertisers think they make money by advertising there. Wants and desires are being met: eureka, we have a market and every market has a marketplace. I’d say we need to chase the rabbit further and further down the rabbit hole: why don’t we have any known or believed telos for the internet? Nobody likes the telos police that have tried out for the job: we don’t like the government or the church or the people with the money, they’ve all proven to be incompetent guides to life. For better or worse, involving citizens of these countries in revolt in the markets will begin to bring them prosperity and we can hope a certain kind of freedom where they choose their own telos. But it will be retarded and distorted by the absence of Judeo-Christian foundations. It sounds too alarmist to say that the almighty dollar is becoming more and more the telos, but for better or worse (it’s better than sharia law, right?), if we get more and more tied together as a community, we have more and more of a chance to communicate Christ to others than ever before because of having more common ground. Unless we live deliberately by a sound telos (your 4th dimension of restoration?) with relation to money/affluence, nevermind anyone else paying attention.

  2. Mike,

    This is an excellent posting. Observing the way my children are taught in school, and my wife (back in college) observing most college students, the inability to see and critique patterns amidst an overload of information bytes is a major issue.

  3. An excellent example of Hunter’s quandry of faithful presence vs. being actually enabled to impact broader change.

    Like Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” the conclusions to be drawn seem personal and inadequate. Having been armed with the truth we can evaluate our own lives, and those of our immediate community, and seek to live out a faithful response. In this case we can evaluate the telos within which we execute technology and perhaps influence others to do the same.

    In the broader sense, however, Postman and Hunter alike remind us that changing the macro view is rarely a ground-up bit of work.

    Perhaps the networks of cyber-brokers like Google and Facebook, combined with the forces of capitalism and western freedom dogmas are a very clear example of how complex & entrenched ruling establishments can become. How many can truly affect change in the face of such momentum?

  4. I really enjoy reading your posts!

    Looking to do a little research on ‘authority’ (‘honoring authority’ in particular). I really like your perspective — I’m wondering if you have anything in your archives where you touch the subject. Anything helps. Thank you.

    Angel

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