Overcoming The Technological Divide

Wha-Chul Son 02 Jun 2010

A Response to Al Erisman’s ‘The Face-to-Face Gospel and the Death of Distance’

The technological transformation that Koreans have gone through since the last century is unprecedented in terms of its speed, scale, and scope. My father, born in 1938, saw a train for the first time when he was 13 years old. These days, he regularly takes a bullet train, speeding up to 300 kilometers per hour, to give lectures to seminarians in Busan, a city 500 kilometers from home. There was virtually no industry left in South Korea just after the Korean War in the early 1950s, but now one can see Korean mobile phones and cars almost everywhere on earth.

Looking back over the recent Korean experiences, I find that Al Erisman’s analysis of the five layers in information technology provides good insight into all forms of technology. So far, the common discourse has focused on the first three layers, namely the underlying basic technologies, products, and the infrastructures made out of these products. The influences of technology on what we do and on ourselves have largely been forgotten or ignored. In Korea, the achievements of technology have been emphasized even more than in most places, as science and technology were considered the only way to overcome poverty and threats to survival.

While appreciating Erisman’s perspective, I will add a few points that he did not fully develop. First, the impact of technology should be considered on a deeper level than Erisman touched upon. Technology not only alters the way people do things, but also the nature of the activity and the agents involved in that activity. Fast transportation, for example, transforms the context and meaning of family life and work. When sermons are televised, the message itself is bound to change to a certain degree. During the last few decades, Koreans experienced a radical change with respect to the definition, context, and meaning of tradition, education, work, leisure, family life, community, birth, aging, illness, death, etc. Christian ideas and activities were no exception. Technology has touched us to the core of our being.

Unfortunately, we have been so busy coping with and adapting to the new technologies that we have failed to seriously reflect on the impact and place of those technologies in our lives. There have been some discussions concerning the ’bite back’ effects of technologies in Christian contexts, but not how those technologies influence the context and meaning of Christian lifestyle and worship. It is probably pointless to ask whether or not Christians should use an iPad, but it is still worthwhile to consider how it affects human relationships and how Christians should react to the transition.

Second, I suggest that we pay more attention to the global context of technology. When we talk about what is good and bad, we should think not only of the direct producers or users of the technology, but also of those who are indirectly influenced by them. Korea used to be a country of sweatshops that produced low-tech products for developed countries. Because of this experience, it is easier for Koreans to understand that our affluence is related to the sufferings of people in other parts of the world. In this sense, it is welcome news that Christian engineers in Korea have recently started a movement called ’engineering design for the other 90 percent,’ which is concerned with changing the trend in engineering that uses 90 percent of resources for the richest 10 percent of the world population.

Furthermore, I believe that it is time to leave behind the endless examining of good and bad aspects of technology. We need to look for a new paradigm. Probably the time has come for Christians in developed countries to honestly ask whether it is justifiable to pursue the current trend of technological progress—both in the way engineers design it, and in the way ordinary people adopt it. We might have to start searching for new technologies that are available for more people, in a more efficient, a more environmentally friendly, and a less expensive way, rather than those developed at the expense and sacrifice of other people’s needs and well-being.

I am not saying that the current technology is a Tower of Babel or that progress is wrong. I am simply making a proposal for expanding our options in dealing with technology. When Paul rebuked rich Corinthians for not waiting for brethren to share the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11), he was not saying that eating was wrong or the bread was bad. All he asked was for Christians to wait for others. At some point in history, science and technology were good news for Koreans. Now the time might have come to take a deep breath and ponder how to sustain and share the blessings.

Wha-Chul Son teaches philosophy at South Korea’s Handong Global University, and is the author of The light and Shadow of Modern Technology: Alvin Toffler and Jacques Ellul.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)