Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Interesting Philosophical Sandwich (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, by John Dyer. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011. 192 pgs. (including introductions, appendices, indexes, and notes)

Introduction: Is technology neutral? Are our technological tools and devices merely means to shape the world, or do they also in turn shape us? Many people have asked such questions over the past one-hundred years, and many have concluded that technology is anything but neutral. It shapes not only the world that it engages but also the one who uses it, i.e., us. For western Christians, living in "a lifestyle thoroughly saturated by technology" (20), how then should we approach technology? Is there a biblical way to address the intricately woven presence of technology in our lives as well as its effects on us? John Dyer seems to think so, and From the Garden to the City is his two cents on the question of a Christian view of the power and potential (and perils) of technology.

Summary: From the Garden to the City is interested in "media ecology," i.e., the study of "how technology operates within cultures and how it changes them over time" (16). Media ecologists do not treat technology as an inert object within a given culture. Rather, they treat it like a new species entering a particular environment, and subsequently they observe and analyze the various effects and changes that this new "species" creates in that environment. Thus, Dyer is approaching technology as a Christian media ecologist, treating it as the "supra-cultural phenomenon" (20) that it is while biblically deconstructing the underlying concepts of technology (and a technological culture) so that we, as Christians, may better understand the uses and threats that technology (and a technological culture) pose to the Kingdom of God. In order to do this, he begins with the creation of the world and what it means to be human.

In the beginning, God created us. As his creatures, we are made in His image, and thus reflect many aspects of his being. One of those aspects is that we too like to make things (we are "sub-creators," to borrow Tolkien's term) (44-47). One of the first things that we make are values and meanings that we attach to certain things (like God or the world or each other, etc.). Then we make tools to help us shape the world according to those values and meanings, making not only buildings or works or art but also a cultural environment that surrounds and penetrates all of those things. The catch is, however, that that cultural environment itself makes things as well: new values and meanings as well as tools to make them (50-51). From the first human beings forward, there is this cyclical relationship between us and our culture, where we shape it and it in return shapes us.

Now, technology has always been a part of human culture, but never like it has been today. We live in a technological cultural environment, which means that the tools and device that we use everyday (many time subconsciously and instinctively) are a part of the culture that is continually shaping us. As such, whenever "our devices change, our culture changes, and then the things people do in our culture change as well" (90). It is not hard to think of examples of this principle: social networking devices and tools (such as Facebook and Twitter) have changed the way that we engage with people, the world, and ourselves. They have become soapboxes and sounding-boards for our identities, the first point of entry (or line of defense) for others to engage us. Social networking did not merely change computers or corporations; it changed us. Thus, in a technological culture, with its laptops and iPads and apps and portable hot spots, technology necessarily becomes the default means of engaging all things: the world, our problems, others, ourselves, and even God (62-63).

Living in such a culture has its positives and negatives. For example (63), the positive side of technology being our default engagement with things is that there is an efficiency of productivity: objectives and goals are reached faster and smoother. The negative side, however, is that we start treating everything mechanically, as though all things could be fixed or understood if we could just find the "right" device or tool. For Dyer, such negatives are symptomatic of the primary way that technology corrupts us. If we stop seeing technology as merely a tool or servant to aid us and instead start seeing it as our savior, then we have crossed an insidious line (41). Such a line has been crossed before (such as popular opinion from the Industrial Revolution to the turn of the 20th century), and it is dreamed of being crossed again (e.g., transhumanism). Indeed, technology has become the "unspoken religion [of] the secular world" (145), and thus positions itself as a counterfeit to God and His coming kingdom.

If, however, we continue to treat technology as a tool, and a tool specifically in the service of pointing others to God, reflecting his creativity, and serving as a temporary barricade (for ourselves and others) against the effects of the Fall, then technology has redemptive potential. When we use social networking to facilitate community further, then we are using technology in a redemptive way. When we use our devices to heal others physically, psychological, and/or emotionally, we are using technology in service to the Kingdom of God. Technology has these potentials, but it does not do them automatically, and some technologies may even have inherit values and tendencies that make them antithetical to God and His character. Thus, as Christians we must not accept any technology blindly. Rather, we must first discern what values and tendencies are inherit in any given technology and then discern if those values and tendencies contradict the values given to us by God in his word (96). 

Review: When I sit down to take notes for these reviews, I'm usually sitting in my office at some rare moment of silence. I use the same notebook and the same pen every time. The notebook is adequate (I could use one that's more college-ruled), but I absolutely love the pen. It looks like any ordinary pen, but it produces the thickest, fullest black ink that I have every seen. Sometimes when I doodle with it, its ability to make thick lines and deep shading astounds me. It's not some artistic specialty pen, mind you; it's a regular old rollerball. Still, it left an impression on me. It even inspired me to go and buy darker pens to use when I do sketches.

While taking notes for this book, a strange occurrence took place. You see, this favorite pen of mine seemed to suddenly run out of ink. This is only to be expected; pens can't last forever, and mine never do anyway. When they run out, I always do two things: trace some quick circles to see if it really is dry, and then throw it out if it is. This time, however, I panicked. My heart literally skipped several beats. I began my ritual of tracing the circles, but I was doing it furiously, and at some point I actually shouted, "NO, MY FRIEND! DON'T GO!"

Fortunately, the pen had simply hit a dry spot, and it started working again. I breathed a sigh of relief (seriously, it was something like joy) and then continued to take notes. That was when I got to the part in Dyer's book about how technology/tools shape our values by the values that we give them. I stared at my pen and then back at the desperate scribbled lines that I had made in order to revive it. Let me tell you: there is nothing like an unintended real life example to drive a point home.

Technology is not neutral. It is not necessarily evil, but it is certainly not static. It has its effect on us and how we engage the world around us. What's really worrisome is that it can also affect how we engage with God. Living in a technological culture thoroughly saturated with and shaped by various devices and tools, I can't help but wonder how it has shaped our approach(es) to God. Will social networking redefine what we mean by having "a relationship" with God? Will video feeds, blogging (oh my!), podcasts, and comment threads change how we view concepts such as "revelation" and "knowledge"? And if they do change them, will they change them in good ways or bad? These are issues that Dyer is addressing in this book, and I commend him for calling on Christians to be discerning, critically engaging salt and light rather than passive cultural sponges.

Recommendation: This book is a solid primer on the philosophy of technology. It's basically a introductory-level investigation and smashing together of the ideas and concepts of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, and Neil Postman, making for an interesting philosophical sandwich. Not a full-course meal, but still a tasty, intriguing, and edifying treat.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. Bill says:

    Ellul! Yay! Postman! Yipee! Heidegger--meh.

  2. I thought you'd think as much. 8^D

  3. Jon, glad to hear you enjoyed the (light) sandwich. I think you might have actually done a better job of articulating the main points than I often do. Thanks for taking time to read it and offer your thoughts!

  4. You're welcome, Mr. Dyer, and thank you for your kind words. 8^)

  5. Bill says; on another note, have you tried the new(ish) Sharpie pen? Not as smooth as a gel pen, but I kinda like it.