Whom Will Technology Serve?

This is an essay about technology, a subject that tends to polarize, with proponents too often dismissing the critics as “pessimistic” and the critics too often tending toward the apocalyptic.

Part of the problem is that we need somehow to learn to speak about technology again. We need to do so in a nuanced manner which does justice to the complexity of our current situation. A part of the problem is that certain technologies are not devices we make use of on certain rare occasions but are, in some instances, something more akin to companions the loss of which would, for some, be quite literally catastrophic. The human species has always been homo faber but the integration of technology into our lives is such that it mediates almost every facet of our lives, and we can only expect this process to continue. What I want to do is suggest not simply that we have a technology “problem” on our hands (this is obvious) but that those who adhere to the Christian religion have particular problems on their hands, problems which are not located simply within the ethical domain and which force a decision, even if the decision is, as is most likely, in favor of indifference.

Given that I am by no means an expert on technology or media studies, I will utilize two texts, both published relatively recently, in order to attempt to think through some issues that that pertain to the relation between technology, philosophy, and theology: Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (2013) by Brett Robinson and Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet (2014) by Antonio Spadaro S.J. These are very different texts, but they provide perspectives—one from cultural-media studies and one from theology—that need to augment each other if any insightful and realistic (and non-hysterical) discernment is to be made on these issues.

Let me say a few brief words about the issue of indifference. Our evaluative or critical relation to technology is for the most part retrospective. This has perhaps always been the case. But the interval between invention (which is now rapid and continuous) and consumption is becoming increasingly miniscule. We evaluate the worth of a new technology, its effects, etc., only after its assimilation which is, in many cases, often too late. And this situation becomes all the more disconcerting when one no longer thinks of technology in a mere instrumental manner (although in some cases it comes closer to this) such that we stand over and against it remaining untouched. Certain forms of technologies and media have demonstrated a capacity to dramatically reshape what it means to be a self, to be in community, how we communicate, how politics operate (the recent US election being an obvious example), indeed, even how one thinks about God and prays.

To be human, one might respond, has always required “adaptation” to changing external conditions. But to be human within the technological milieu is always to be adapting to cultural dynamics that are increasingly marked by permanent instability, a major factor of which is the proliferation of technological innovation: our most prized values are therefore flexibility, efficiency, innovation, change, adaptability, “disruption” (all of which are demanded for economic growth). The current era is, one might say, a new “nomadic age.” What is being demanded of us? To be mobile and flexible, it seems; to be without roots . . . But who gains from this situation? And what form of freedom do most truly have in such a situation? What about those who cannot be mobile or who cannot “adapt” quick enough? Where exactly is all this non-stop disruption and innovation leading us? Who is leading us?

Indifference to talk about technology and the problems it raises reveals either a deep apathy and hence passivity regarding these issues (“what can we really do about it anyways? And, besides, those who criticize do so using the technology they raise concerns about, etc.”) or a sort of quasi-faith in the progressive and self-correcting nature of technology or an adherence to something like an anthropology of liquidity marked by normative minimalism. Those adhering to this latter position can point to the fact that history shows us a remarkable diversity and dramatic changes in ways of being human. What we are going through now is just one more shift and, while it might seem that it is a time marked by turmoil, perhaps no one will be thinking twice about it in, say, in 50 years’ time. Those who complain simply represent that which is to be (and will be) transcended.

I do not deny the pull of these stances, but I take them to be lazy ones which ignore not just the issues I have raised about permanent and rapid flux but also ethical and political questions related to the technological age. The boom of technology in the recent decades has indirectly involved consumers of modern tech in a globalized economic web held together by exploitation, all of which must be hidden from the consumer. What would our consuming practices look like if, before each purchase, we watched video footage of the workers and processes required for that product to appear at the cost that it does? How would we think, for instance, about the technological revolution of the past few decades and the companies that have led it if we focused on the minerals required for laptops, computers, iPhones, etc., and the stories of those who have labored to extract these minerals, often under shocking conditions for next to no pay?

But this is not an essay about exploitation. There is extensive and quality literature (and documentaries) out there on the subject. I want rather to speak about the more subtle and quotidian effects of (and addictions to) technology and the significance these might have for the life of faith. As a way in to the latter, let me pose a question: can the bible in the liturgy be replaced by a digital device such as an iPad or Kindle? If one is unnerved by the image of a priest reading from an iPad (as well as incensing and kissing it in veneration), is this reaction nothing but an irrational emotivism, one that can be (and will be) easily overcome over time?

What these questions do is, in this instance, force a decision about the nature of the written text as a medium. If one claims that the scriptures in the liturgy ought only to be read from a written or printed text, then one has made a decision that there is something irreducibly significant about the hand-written or printed text: it is not a neutral medium for propositional content that can be mediated through another medium if needs be. There is something else at stake here. But what is it? Many of us do in fact already read the scriptures on the computer or an iPhone. The Church has, moreover, always adapted to new technologies (e.g., the printing press!) and will inevitably do so with new mediums. The liturgy is already saturated with various forms of technology: the written (writing is a technology), or printed text, the microphone (Marshall McLuhan suggested that the introduction of the microphone into the liturgy completely changed it), the musical instruments, etc. A transition to, say, the digital device is just one more mere technological addition to what is already an event filled with various technologies.

This may very well be the case, and, truth be told, our uncritical openness toward technological innovation has left us without any real sense of urgency about such an issue. Here, however, is why attention to media studies is of absolute importance. Shifts in media and major developments in technology have always been watershed moments in human history which mark profound transitions in how it is that we are human. As the cultural historian Walter Ong put it in Orality and Literacy: “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness” (82). Our relations to, and fascination with, our technological creations form a feed-back loop of influence which we grow inattentive to.

In Orality and Literacy, Ong further argues that there is in fact a gulf between primary oral cultures (i.e., those that have had no exposure to writing) and cultures in which writing, reading, and print are assumed. Indeed, his conclusion was that much that we take for granted about the nature of thought and expression and consider to be an essential aspect of what it means to be human is highly contingent and connected to the emergence of writing, reading, and print culture. The centrality of literacy within Western society renders it almost impossible for us to comprehend what the “word” is for a primary oral people and how different our thought patterns in fact are due to the ubiquity of the written (and hence visualized) word.

I do not wish to suggest that the shift from reading a printed text to reading on a laptop or iPhone is as monumental as the shift from purely oral to print-based societies. My aim in mentioning Ong’s thesis about oral and literary societies was only to point out that it is possible for new technologies to drastically alter human forms of consciousness. We are currently still in the midst of the revolution of the age of the internet and the handheld device, and, although we can make responsible observations about what is emerging, we do not completely know what patterns of thinking and being in community will correlate with this. All I have suggested is that, if one is attentive to this dynamic between shifts in technology and shifts in “consciousness” or modes of being human and being together, then questions arise that simply cannot be brushed aside.

The situation becomes even more complicated when, as McGrath Institute’s Brett Robinson has done in his Appletopia, close attention is given to a company like Apple. Robinson’s book provides a fascinating reading of Apple’s highly effective advertising campaigns. The task of the book is to interpret Apple’s advertising campaigns and to unveil the religious dimension at work in Apple. Steve Jobs and Apple provide what he calls “an allegory for reading religion in the information age” (105). And Robinson’s reading of Apple provides further confirmation “that shifts in popular religion that occur throughout history are accompanied by changes in the media environment” (105-106).

The book provides incisive insights into Apple’s ideology. Apple’s first major advert, aired during the 1984 Super Bowl, made clear that its aspirations were grand. It reveals, interestingly, a company very aware of the potential detrimental effects of the computer age. It therefore created an “other” (namely, IBM) against which it could present itself as liberator. Apple would therefore ensure that 1984 would not in fact be Orwell’s 1984. That is, it would ensure that the computer age will not be one of automation and enslavement but would transform it into a new age of enlightenment, expressivity, creativity, etc. The fact that we do not think about the computer as alien and as a potential threat is in large part due to the thorough advertising success of Apple. We might do well to recall, however, that advertising is essentially propaganda and manipulation.

As the anti-1984 1984 advert suggested, the era of Apple would be an age for the rebellious, those who, as the vague but revealing 1997-1998 campaign slogan put it, “Think Different.” The latter was part of an advertising campaign which began Apple’s associating itself with the world of celebrities. The “Think Different” campaign latched on to various cultural heroes such as Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Ted Turner, Picasso, and Muhammad Ali, among others. According to the voiceover for the advert, these figures were and are the “trouble makers” and the “rebels.” They were the figures who, supposedly, had “no respect for the status quo” and who pushed the human race “forward.”

Notice the range of the choices: heroes of science (Einstein), of civil rights (Martin Luther King), of religion and peace, (Ghandi), of business (Ted Turner) and of creativity (Picasso and Bob Dylan). Apple, presumably, merges the “essences” of all of them and extends them in its products marked by its ethic of disruption and antagonism toward the “status quo.” And who would not want to be part of the new movement being ushered in by Apple which continues this legacy (although the reduction of these figures to those who were “against the status quo” is an absurd one)? Who, in an age of “innovation,” “change,” and “disruption,” would be so backward as to stand up for the “status quo,” especially when shattering the status quo is so financially lucrative?

Robinson makes an important observation which I want to dwell on a bit further. In a chapter discussing technology and religion, he notes not only Job’s fascination with eastern spiritualties of various sorts but also Job’s determination to transform the computer from a foreign intimidating device into a tool “for transcending stale traditions and re-enchanting the world” (87). He has of course been utterly successful in this regards. Max Weber claimed the age of science and technology to be one of disenchantment. We, however, are beyond this: the likes of Apple have ushered in the age of re-enchantment, a central role of which is played by music mediated through devices such as the iPod (and now iPhone).

Robinson alerts the reader’s attention to this in a brilliant section on the iPod entitled “Re-enchanting the City.” Apple has always been a city-oriented company. The modern or post-modern city is one of rapid change, instability, incessant stimulation etc., all of which Apple celebrates. Apple’s 2004 “Wild Postings” advert targets the young urbanite. It begins with a young man emerging from his apartment, and the viewer is hit immediately with the chaotic sounds of the city. The young man promptly puts his earphones in and, with the noise of sirens, traffic, construction temporarily erased, the entire milieu is transformed: he becomes the 21st century equivalent of the detached flaneur, although the actual sounds of the city that once attracted the flaneur are now erased by the music controlled by the user (52). The city has been (temporarily) re-enchanted but at the price of being acoustically effaced by the music.

What the iPod made available was the permanent possibility of “detachment” from the concrete here and now and from the concrete stranger in front of you, of altering one’s sensory relation to a given environment. Indeed, Robinson suggests that the iPod is an attempt by Apple to mimic Job’s own most formative experiences of listening to music in a LSD altered state of mind (54). With the iPod, Apple sought to provide (self-consciously) a medium for psychological alleviation through music. But this power to provide a “private soundtrack” does not attune one to the city as it really is in all its excitement and brutality, but rather provides the possibility of a non-presence to one’s environment and to the people in it. It provides, as Robinson puts, a form of “mobile privatization” (54).

Whether one takes any of this to really be a matter of concern depends upon a variety of factors. I have tried to remain as descriptive as possible. I therefore leave the evaluative moment to the reader. But I have spent a considerable amount of time on Apple in order to show that not simply are their technological innovations potentially transformative of what it means to be a self and to be in community, but they are deliberate about bringing about a transformation. And with the cultural power possessed by a company such as Apple, it is hard for those who seek to resist to appear to be anything other than those who support the “status quo” which, in an age marked by the ethic of disruption, must always been transcended.

I turn now to Spadaro’s Cybertheology and will focus a bit more concretely on questions pertaining to the liturgy. Spadaro’s approach toward the question of technology, the internet, etc., is a sober one, albeit one fully aware that the issues facing Catholicism are by no means trivial. While apocalyptic denunciation is to be rejected, so is the indifference which resigns to adaptation. For instance, Sparado notes that, “The Catholic Church always insists that it is impossible and anthropologically erroneous to consider virtual reality to be able to substitute for the real, tangible, and concrete experience of the Christian community” (74-75). A document released by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication in 2002 also claims that “virtual reality cannot substitute for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments and worship” (75).

While those who think that virtual reality can substitute for the real presence in the Eucharist are a tiny minority, the issue is more about how our thinking about issues such as presence, communion, community, etc., has already been reshaped by means of the internet, computers, iPhones, etc. The question on the table is how our understanding (even if implicit) of community, of presence, and of communication has transformed due to the new technologies which follow what the likes of Eric McLuhan call the logic of dis-incarnation. Information within the electronic age does not move along with a person from place to place. The physical body is therefore no longer a limiting factor. This has led Eric McLuhan to speak of the “disincarnate user [who] is simultaneously here and there at the same time” (55). Communication has become meta-physical. And this has brought with it a new (quasi-angelic) anthropology, a new dualism, one might say: we are becoming more accustomed to being divided, being both in one place but everywhere else at once simultaneously.

But the Catholic liturgy demands that one be present bodily in one specific place, with very specific mediums (bread, wine) for grace. The logic is, for obvious reasons, thoroughly incarnational and place-specific. While certain evangelicals Christians have moved in to the era of the “online Church,” it does not seem possible for the Catholic Church to make this same transition. To be present on the web or through a device is of course a form of presence, but it is closer to an angelic form of presence and one in which the visual dominates.

Let me conclude, however, with Spadaro’s comments on the issue of the text raised earlier. Spadaro claims that the Church is a bulwark of resistance against “the ‘spiritualization’ of the text, disembodied from a page of ink” (86). The logic of dis-incarnation is operative in both anthropology and the digital device. With the iPad or Kindle, the text is detached from the materiality of the page such that the “veneration has been displaced onto the message, onto the text, and the page becomes provisional, the book an accessory” (85). And here Sparado makes the important observation that the sacred page in the liturgy is iconic. As such, it is not a mere vehicle to convey information but is, qua material page, worthy of veneration.

That an iPad or Kindle, which do not have “pages”, could be the object of veneration seems absurd right now. But, again, the question is whether this is a reaction that can withstand the changes underway and, indeed, whether anyone has the energy to resist even if they believe that resistance is demanded. It would, moreover, probably have seemed absurd for a medieval monk that one could venerate a Bible massed produced in a factory. In any case, it is a fantasy for Catholics to saturate themselves in the new technologies but somehow expect the liturgy to remain free from such influence.

To defend the “resigned realists” in conclusion, the burden is upon those who show concern about the deep effects of the new technologies. The task is daunting not simply because the shifts in “consciousness” spoken of by Ong have already taken place but also because Christians have already adjusted to various monumental shifts brought about by technological innovation. As Eric and Marshall McLuhan outlined in their Laws of Media, each new major technological is marked by both enhancement and obsolescence. We are currently in the midst of this transition. Moreover, we live after what Jacques Ellul, in The Technical Bluff, called the neutralization of the self in relation to technology: “It is not that we or society are better adapted to technical growth, but only that we are, let’s say, neutralized in a way that there can no longer be any open or secret conflict” (19).

Editorial Note: This essay is part of a developing series on media studies.

Featured Image: Ary Scheffer, The Temptation of Christ, 1854; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.



Dylan Belton

Dylan Belton received his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a Mendel Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University. His current research focuses on theological anthropology and human embodiment in dialogue with both evolutionary and social-cultural anthropology.

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