Understanding Technology

Rosie Perera, writing in Comment, examines the relationship between faith and technology in her essay “Loving Technology, Loving God.” She is an unabashed technophile, and she explains how this love can co-exist with, and be fed by, her love of God. Much of what she writes resonates with me, as we share vocation (programmer). I am as immersed in technology as Ms. Perera. I concur that programming is not strictly science or engineering.

My experience of writing software is, I believe, the closest thing to creation ex nihilo that humankind is capable of (with the possible exception of writing poetry and fiction). Although the tools used in producing software and the media on which it is distributed are all material things, software itself is simply made up of ideas and instructions—nothing physical. Programmers put together bits of nothing, and out of their virtually limitless imaginations, they create software which actually does something. Pretty amazing! The line between science and art or craft when it comes to writing software is blurry. The Greek root of our word “technology” bears this out. The word technĂ« suggests the arts of the mind as well as the fine arts and crafts.

While I think her opening is a bit of hyperbole, programming is a craft, a practice, often disguised in the white collar world of the desk jockey. While our finished product is often virtual, we still create and build things. Of course, this process is often distracted in the business world, as we work against deadlines and requirements, often forced to make compromises with our craft. But still, the craft is there.

I must, however, disagree with Ms. Perera when she examines the work of the technological skeptics. The work of thinkers like Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman can be challenging because our tendency the throw the baby out with the bath water, as it were. Ellul does not criticize technology–that is, the computer or the tape recorder or the printing press–but what he calls Technique–the autonomous power of progress over technological development and, by extension, culture. Technique seeks only its own ends–constant progress. And by becoming enamored of technological progress–better, faster, smaller gadgets–we unwittingly become slaves to it. Many reformed thinkers, however, dismiss Ellul because he does not share the Calvinist perspective on the Cultural Mandate. This difference, however, does not invalidate his critique, as evidenced by the work of Egbert Schuurman.

Schuurman, working from a reformed/Neo-calvinist perspective, was initially critical of Ellul’s work, but there has been shift in his thinking where he has come to assess our culture’s relationship to technology (and vice-versa) in the same sort of way of Ellul, namely that we have given ourselves over to a technical way of thinking which attempts to reduce the nature of humanity to mere science and technology and remove creative, mysterious work of God. In his book Faith and Hope in Technology, Schuurman states:

Technicism* has produced a powerful linkage between science and technology. The result is a technical complex on which humanity is becoming every increasingly dependent by of which lacks an overview. In order to grasp this deficit, we may well listen to the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. From the standpoing of his philosophy of culture, he deals at length with the combination of science and technology. The scientific basis of technology and the scientific method of design, according to Ellul, are the reasonbs for the clear line of distinction between modern technology and traditional, craft-based technology. That view is correct. For Ellul, something is at work in the interrelationship between science and technology that culminates in the autonomy of technology as a law unto itself. I endorse this analysis with the proviso that, when science and technology are subject to the influence of technicism, there is no escape from the prospect that the two, united in a grand unholy alliance, will control everything.

Two things to note. First, Schuurman is not a neo-Luddite. It is not technology (or science) that is to blame, but a way of thinking (technicism) that exults both above human nature (which is, of course, God’s creation). Second, Schuurman understands that technology can have a positive effect (as Perera argues in her essay). In his discussion of medical science and technology, Schuurman concludes:

There is room for responsible technologies only when the ethical principle of “no, unless” is accepted. That “unless” then unambiguously serves and protects human life. The destruction of it may not be permitted.

[In that case] the love of neighbor is the controlling viewpoint in the use of these technologies.

This viewpoint is similar to Ivan Illich’s concept of conviviality which envisions technologies and institutions that allow for individuality (rather than impersonal conformity) and the growth of meaningful, productive interpersonal relationships. His vision for “learning webs” in Deschooling Society were to be built on just such technologies. Networked computers could be used join individuals who pursued the same learning activities (Illich’s vision was rather prophetic, given that Deschooling Society was written in the 1970s). Technology is not to be feared, or avoided, but used in ways that will build up human relationships. “Love of neighbor” is again the rule.

There is, then, clearly a thin line to walk between conviviality and technicism. Ironically, in her essay, Perera criticizes Ellul as a technological pessimist while applauding the work Martin Heidegger, whose critiques in many ways mirror those of Ellul, Illich, and Schuurman. In the end, however, Perera draws the correct conclusion–that we must always be aware of our relationship to technology, and not be lorded over by it. A “technology sabbath,” as Perera describes it, allows us to re-assess the function of a particular technology in our lives, and whether we are using it convivially. Of course, such a sabbath may reveal that particular technologies may never be convivial, and we may be compelled to avoid them.

Schuurman defines technicism as “the pretension of humans, as self-described lords and masters using scientific-technical method of control, to bend all reality to their will to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress.”