Flourishing with technology: An exercise in discernment
Technology: What’s Gained and What’s Lost?
In an article titled “How You’ll Get Organized,” James Fallows asked five technology experts “to speculate about the future of personal-information technology, especially whether the race for mastery of one’s own data might someday seem winnable” (The Atlantic, July/August 2014; 30, 32). The five technology experts, not surprisingly, are optimistic about what technology will bring. “We’ve been through the worst,” they believe. “The next stage in information technology will put people back in control, or closer to it.”
If that forecast turns out to be true, it would be a welcome development. Almost everyone I know who uses technology, and that is everyone, tends to express some sense of feeling out of control. Whether it’s too many emails or too many texts or too many social media platforms or too many programs instituting changes we don’t want or like or too much pressure to keep up with too much, many of us feel, at least occasionally, that somehow the technology that was supposed to be our servant and make things easier and more efficient has somehow gotten out of hand. “All of a sudden, we’ve lost a lot of control,” Steve Wozniak has said. “We can’t turn off our internet; we can’t turn off our smartphones; we can’t turn off our computers. You used to ask a smart person a question. Now, who do you ask? It starts with g-o, and it’s not God.”
In any case, whether or not we share the experts’ optimism about where things are headed in the next few years, Fallows’ piece provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on the impact these various technologies have in our lives, for blessing or for curse. Consider, for example, the two brief paragraphs in which Fallow and his experts address what they refer to as “the email nightmare.”
E-mail is indispensable, and unendurable. That is because it does not scale. Every message, as Esther Dyson has written, “represents a task—something to read, a query to answer, a meeting to schedule, a bill to pay, a request to fulfill or deny.” Thus senders can generate more tasks than recipients could possibly perform. As she told me, “The reader’s time is free to the sender, which is a huge market inefficiency.”
Dyson says that some market mechanism will reset the balance. One way or another, senders will pay a premium for recipients’ time and attention—as they did in the pre-e-mail days, by having to request appointments or make sales calls or, at the very least, pay for postage. Phil Libin says improved filtering systems are already solving the problem. “I have 100,000 e-mails I haven’t answered,” he said. “I know that I can’t even open 90 percent of the e-mail I get. Am I missing something important I should see? Sure, but rarely.” The remaining challenge is to reduce “the error rate”—that is, the share of important e-mails that he does miss. And this, Libin said, should be “an easily solvable” problem, with the help of systems that learn whom he wants to hear from, and whom he doesn’t.
It would be wise to remember this is not a new topic for conversation. Every advance in technology tends to generate concerns as well as delight. Bringing torches and candles into our dwelling places made it possible to see after dark, and they also increased the risk of fire that could snuff out lives. Cell phones allow us to be more available to those we love, as well as more easily interrupted when we need to be left alone for a few hours.
As life changes, we must respond if we want to live intentionally, or be swept along if we aren’t vigilant. OK, that’s too stark—to some extent we all find ourselves swept along. Things happen too quickly, events overtake us, time flies by so unrelentingly, change creeps up on us, and being finite we can only pay close attention to so much before we are overwhelmed, too distracted to keep up with the things that must be done if we are to survive. So, perhaps the more accurate image is that of being swept along in the river of a technological society where occasionally we find ourselves caught for a few moments in a little eddy near the shore. Here, in this little shelter from the current we can reflect, and be better able to live intentionally as a result when we push back out into the stream.
However we arrive in the temporary quiet spot that allows us to take the measure of things shaping our life, we find we are in a place of grace. A place where thoughtful yet probing questions can help us see with greater clarity, and to shine a bit of comprehension on things that seem to exist in the shadows.
Questions1. Every advance in technology also brings some unintended consequence that may not be quite as welcome, though it is not always noticed. “Technology,” C. P. Snow noted in the New York Times (March 15, 1971), “is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.” For example, central heating transformed the quality of life for those of us who live in Minnesota. However, it also did away with the chores of cutting, splitting, storing, and stoking wood that traditionally were performed by fathers and their sons. What was gained, and lost, in this particular technological advance.
2. Do the same gain/lost analysis for other technological advances that shape the contours of our lives: land lines to cell phones; snail letters to email; photo albums/postcards to Facebook. What other technologies should be subjected to the same process?
3. Do you ever take Sabbaticals from technology? Are they partial sabbaticals or complete? How, how often, and why do you do this? What do you gain and lose in the experience?
4. The experts with whom James Fellows consulted were optimistic about what was ahead. “I am not being naïve,” Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote says. “But the long arc of technology bends towards the more awesome.” More specifically, they are optimistic that future advances in technology will solve the problems generated by today’s technology. What good reasons could we give to support this optimism? If future technology, like all technology, brings both gains and loss, what does this suggest for the future technology that solves today’s technological unintended consequences?
5. How do you handle the crush of email? Are you satisfied with your approach? Why or why not?
6. How do you handle the pressure to keep updated on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media? Are you satisfied with your approach? Why or why not?
7. How do you handle the interminable interruption of your cell phone? Are you satisfied with your approach? Why or why not?
8. At the heart of the effort in advancing technology is the promise that it will increase our personal freedom, our leisure time, our efficiency, and our availability. To what extent has this promise been met? What unintended consequences have resulted?
9. What is the difference between technological progress and human flourishing? How might the two advance or hinder one another?
10. “Western society has accepted as unquestionable,” social critic Lewis Mumford said, “a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.” To what extent do you agree? What does this suggest for the discerning Christian who wants to live an intentionally faithful life?
11. A Christian is someone who has sworn allegiance to Christ as king, against all gods and kings and things that might seek to take his place. “My wish,” Wendell Berry says in The Art of the Commonplace, “simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.” What might he mean?
12. What does this discussion suggest for your life? What plans should you make? How can we, in Christian community, better help one another live faithfully in a technological society?