Techno-Skepticism

The discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. – Socrates

In Plato’s book, The Phaedrus, Socrates shares the story of a conversation between the Egyptian King Thamus and Theuth, the god responsible for countless inventions. Theuth showcases his inventions to Thamus before showing him what he believes to be his greatest of all: writing. It might sound strange to us to view writing as an invention, as a technology, but it is simply another man-made device that seeks to assist us.

Much to our surprise, however, Thamus looks at our classic symbol of knowledge today (the written word) as a barrier–not an aidto knowledge. Thamus is skeptical that writing will assist us, but will instead change us. He believes it will prevent mankind from growing in true wisdom and knowledge; only serving to glut man with an abundance of information before being quickly expelled and forgotten. For Thamus, knowledge must be handed down through speaking, not reading. Oral tradition requires community, memorization, and mastery over a subject–all of which Thamus believes is necessary for true knowledge. The written word instead will give to the masses “a receipt for recollection” and the “conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”

(It is slightly ironic that Socrates’ greatest student, Plato, wrote this story down)

Regardless of whether or not we agree with Socrates’ view on writing, his opening warning given to Theuth is worth us reflecting on: “The discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.” In other words, the inventor of a technology is a poor judge of what the unintended consequences (for good or bad) of the technology will be.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, its doubtful either of these men foresaw the toxic consequences smartphones and social media would have on our culture. These were tools that promised to make us more productive, more connected, and more informed. And the masses gobbled these technologies up greedily. Who doesn’t want more productivity, connectivity, and information? It is a dark irony that a mere 15 years or so after their arrival, these two technologies have served to distract us, isolate us, and confuse us possibly more than any other invention ever has in the history of mankind.

When the Lord commanded humanity in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth and subdue it,” He had in mind the entire human enterprise to govern and cultivate the creation. This included the creation of technology, which we see take place just a few chapters later (Gen 4:20-22). Technology–whether it is language, hammers, or nuclear reactors–serves as an amplification of human nature, of human capacities. And because human nature is now indelibly marked by sin, that means that sometimes our technology amplifies good and sometimes evil impulses. You can use a brick to build a hospital or you can use a brick to bash someone over the head.

But it also means that some technologies are more fitted to human flourishing than others. This is Socrates argument about writing–he believes that this technology actually erodes the foundation of wisdom and thus does not correspond to human good. I disagree with Socrates (and apparently, so did his famous student, Plato), but I do agree that there is no such thing as a neutral technology, that all technologies come with an embedded worldview attached to them, and there are some that are better and some worse for us. Nuclear bombs are an incredible technological achievement, incredible in a way that a modest garden shovel isn’t. And yet, I would argue that the technology of the garden shovel and its embedded worldview is far more conducive to our human flourishing than the technological marvel that creates Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s. 

This means that in our fallen world we must think carefully about technology. We must be willing to be critical, while also being grateful for how the Lord’s Genesis 1:28 mandate can be fulfilled through many technologies we see today. When we see new technologies break onto the scene, we should be willing to wait and see for a good while before we adopt it, and especiallybefore we hand it over to our children. I think the numerous reports about the connection between dismal mental health and social media usage in teens serves as an ironclad argument for this. 

So before you buy the next techno-marvel or adopt what is so popular or succumb to the “but all of my friends have one” line from your children, ask yourself: “Will this technology help me flourish as a human in accordance with God’s design for me? What does this technology amplify within me? Do I want that amplified? How has this affected others who have used this over time? Will this help me cherish and preserve what is most important to me?”

In our current climate, where technological breakthroughs rush us at a dizzying pace and companies unveil their newest products to cheering crowds like rock stars, we might be helped by being more cautious in how we view our relationship to technology, to be a little more like Thamus and a little less like Theuth.

I hope in time to reflect more on the intersection between the Christian life and technology since we now live in what Neil Postman calls a Technopoly and Tony Reinke calls a Technium. Some further resources to consider:
– All of the resources from Tony Reinke, a Christian thinker who has thought more about the Christian life and technology than anyone else I know, are all very helpful. 
– Neil Postman’s two classics, Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, are superb.
– Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing Our Brains

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