Technologies Are Not Just Tools

Juan D Rogers 02 Jun 2010

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

Technology is a label for all kinds of things humans create. Some are material, such as machines of various sorts. Others are procedural, such as organizational approaches. In recent times, technologies have become more interdependent and work as systems of many technologies. The automobile, for example, is a complex machine with an engine, safety systems, comfort systems, and so on. In order to work in modern society, it presupposes a system of roads, fuel distribution systems, a maintenance network, a legal system with rules to address the contingencies of many people driving them around, and much more.

Technologies are not just tools we use to do things. They are an expression of our lifestyle and a manifestation of our culture.  Technologies, as human products, are congealed decisions and commitments made at the point of design that all future users tacitly agree to. Technologies come with an inherent ambiguity because the designers are never fully aware of the consequences of their decisions embedded in the technologies they create. Nor are the users fully aware of the exhaustive list of original decisions and commitments that were built into technologies they use. So technologies normally, as a rule rather than exceptionally, have unforeseen consequences and reverse implications.

The very popular notion that technologies are neither good nor bad (i.e. neutral) and that what users do with them is what may be good or bad is clearly false. The embedded decisions and commitments of the designers give moral significance to the technical content of technologies. There is a complicated interplay between the moral implications of the technologies themselves and the intents and purposes of future users. Since technologies enable or constrain human action, they come with an inherent power dimension. Technologies either facilitate or impede the realization of various human purposes, sometimes in non-obvious ways. Some things will be made easier and others more difficult. Some people will be able to meet their needs and goals more easily and others will not and may be adversely affected, as is the case when jobs are lost because certain human skills are built into machines.

The main conclusion to draw from this is that technologies are not external factors in human existence, such as the weather might be. They are a direct expression of what we are as a human society. And that is where the relation between technology and the gospel comes in. The gospel is the message of a new order of things in the kingdom of God. According to this message, this new order has already begun, inserted into the old one, one might say, with Jesus Christ. Therefore, the entire arrangement of life embedded in modern technologies is subject to both the judgment and hope of redemption that is inherent in the gospel message.

All too often the gospel has been considered very narrowly when trying to articulate its implications for contemporary technology. If we only think of the gospel in terms of preaching a message, then it follows naturally that we think of technologies as tools to aid in its diffusion. Whether we begin with a narrow conception of technology as tools or with a narrow view of the gospel as proclamation alone, we miss the heart of the issue. The call to live in the new order of the kingdom of God includes our involvement with technologies in all dimensions and not just how we use them for church meetings. For example, a transportation system that is associated with urban sprawl, long solipsistic commutes, and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming—among other results that are clearly not sustainable—is highly dubious from a broad view of the gospel. The message of the gospel is about eternal life, the epitome of sustainability. As citizens of the kingdom who already embody its priorities as a witness to a world in need of redemption, we cannot be unconditional supporters of unsustainable ways of life. We should actively press for alternative arrangements that suggest different sorts of technologies more in line with kingdom priorities.

A theologically sound view of the gospel of the kingdom of God should enable us to see through the shiny surfaces of sophisticated new technologies and capture the underlying networks of decisions and commitments that are embedded in its systems. One practical way to be faithful is to take time before deciding that we will adopt new technologies, especially when many people will be affected. During that time a pilot trial could be set up and the initial consequences carefully watched. If there are concerns, they should be heard and articulated and alternative approaches considered. Let the kingdom priorities shape our technological choices rather than the other way around.

Juan D. Rogers, a native of Argentina, is associate professor of Public Policy and director of the Research Value Mapping Program at the School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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)