Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Implementation of Technology and Its Dangers for Our Soul

Commenter Jeff left this comment to my blog post on this article, and I thought it was worth highlighting:
There are actually two separate and distinct components to technology: its theoretical basis, and the implementation. I would argue that while the theory might be ethically neutral, the implementation certainly is not. For instance, there is no intrinsic morality attached to a small package of processor, memory, display, radio transceiver and battery . . . but when the design engineers at Blackberry are crafting this device, they are also optimizing it to be used in a particular way. They are incorporating their world view into the design of the user interface, the unit's feature set and functionality. Then the marketing folks add their own world view into the mix, and generally this shapes how the product is publicly received and used.

My own job is to implement technology; I design equipment, I design broadcast facilities, and I write software. In every case I am building into these projects my own sense of how people should use them -- in many ways, I am imposing my own values of work and my own idea of how people should engage with what I design, into what I create. Sometimes this is fairly obvious -- for instance, when I design a piece of equipment with a particularly loud alarm that must be manually silenced every time it triggers, I am asserting my value that this alarm has greater priority than whatever else might be going on. Sometimes it is more subtle, and the limitations I impose on what a piece of software will do, or how it is to be used, strongly reveals my own vision of how it should be used.

Dr. Sleasman's description of the effect of his own Blackberry on how he lives is perhaps more revealing than he had intended. It would seem that in his uncritical acceptance of the technology, he has allowed a tool to control its user, rather than the other way around . . . and instead of being alarmed and reordering his priorities, he instead views the phenomenon with a bemusement that this should be increasingly less foreign.

The thing that particularly bothers me is that as technology has become enmeshed in how our culture interacts socially, there is an implicit assumption that in order for people to remain interconnected, that they must buy into the current technology to do so. There is considerable pressure to conform: if you don't have a cell phone, email, pager, wireless PDA, or whatever, you are increasingly tossed onto the discard pile of Luddism. Who hasn't received an electronic tongue-lashing from someone who could not get your attention immediately because you had shut down your electronica out of deference for the person with whom you were immediately present? The implicit value of immediate access to others, and the resultingly reduced respect for the time and priorities of others, is hard-coded into much of our current communications technology. And this certainly is not value-neutral!

This might be trite, but it bears a reminder: as Christians, we need to constantly apply the mindset of Romans 12:2, not being conformed to the world, but rather being transformed by the renewing of our minds to the end that we can discern God's perfect will. When we abandon our responsibility to thoughtfully examine the values implicit in a particular implementation of technology, we automatically conform ourselves to an unexamined world view. Be discerning! Use technology to God's glory, for building the Kingdom and edifying others . . . not to unwittingly enslave yourself or those around you.