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.