Staring at us.
Benedictine monks never imagined that their new technology, designed to help workers unwind, would eventually wrap workers around the axle. William Farish never imagined that his technological innovation would make his profession meaningless. New technologies are wonderful in what they promise to do, yet we are often “incapable of imagining what they will undo,” said the late Neil Postman.1 The iPhone has been described (by some) as the greatest technological innovation since the telegraph. What will it possibly undo? The answer is staring at us. Look carefully. It’s right there.
Benedictine monks invented the mechanical clock in the 12th century to remind workers to take periodic Sabbath breaks. They never imagined someone like Frederick Taylor, known as the Father of Scientific Management, would use the stopwatch (notice it’s called a stopwatch?) to start a movement to increase productivity. Today we “fight” the clock to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of every last second.
William Farish (a Cambridge University tutor) never imagined his idea of numerical grading – unheard of before his time – would eventually marginalize mentoring. Before 1792, students were evaluated through dialogue, not digits. This conversation required a counselor, a tutor. Numerical grading led to cavernous classrooms and computers.
Now consider the iPhone – a wonderful new technology promising us the world. It can do a lot. What might it undo? If we stare long enough at an iPhone (or any mobile technology), the answer is right in front of us. See it? People who putt through life with their nose pressed against a window are called tourists. Sightseers. Yet according to the ancient Judeo-Christian faith, we’re supposed to be travelers and sojourners instead.
Our word travel comes from the English travail, meaning “a journey fraught with danger.” The Bible is chock full of words picturing this life as a sometimes scary sojourn. A world inhabited by God, gargoyles, devils and demons means we don’t simply float down the lazy river of life like fallen autumn leaves. Remember when Mr. Beaver was asked by one of the children if Aslan was safe? “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. but he’s good.'”2 God is good and God is great. But that doesn’t mean life is supposed to be safe.
It was the late Daniel Joseph Boorstin, prizewinning author and the historian who had served as librarian of Congress and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology, who argued that new technologies often turn Americans into tourists rather travelers. They keep us seemingly “in touch” while actually making us more “out of touch.” The ease of surfing between Darfur and Dunkin’ Donuts (or Paris France and Paris Hilton) is closer to voyeurism than voyaging. In times past, we wouldn’t know about Darfur without being present and covering our noses to keep the stench of death out of our nostrils. Now we can simply watch through a window in air-conditioned comfort.
This is not an argument against technological advancements. We can’t become Luddites. But we have to remember that technology, according to Paul Goodman of the New Reformation, is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science. In the nineteenth century, science’s new attitude was “if something can be done it should be done.” It replaced the Judeo-Christian faith, which believed that just because something can be done, it’s better to ask whether we ought to do it. Technologies can do – and undo – a lot.
It’s hard to imagine the iPhone’s “iffect.” The problem, as Neil Postman pointed out, is that “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it was designed to do.”3 And undo. It’s interesting that a number of coffeehouses are pushing back and unplugging their wireless access. They complain that customers have their faces pressed to the computer screen. No one is present. Coffeehouses are for travelers, not tourists.
Becoming travelers once again includes resolving one of the great ideological conflicts of our modern age. It’s between the Judeo-Christian faith, with all its transcendent moral underpinnings, “and a twentieth-century 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.”4 If one “iffect” of the iPhone is to amuse us to death in a deluge of entertainment, that’s not progress. If the “iffect” of the iPhone is to stir travelers, stem the tide of tourism and help people solve real problems, I’m all for it.
1 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (New York: Random House, 1993), p.5
2 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (New York: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp.75-76
3 Postman, p.7
4 Postman, p.83