Connecting with a Theology of Technology
By Wes Avram
The intertwining of theology and technology in the Christian West has long been a personal interest. Because of the success of new media, this relationship between religious faith and technological change has lately turned more urgent.
A conversation that has percolated for decades and even centuries feels, lately, one-sided or even silenced, as if overwhelmed by the speed and dazzle of the technology. The resulting silence falls like a worrisome shadow over contemporary life.
In the late twentieth century, a group of writers
helped us think about that intertwining. Jaques Ellul’s
The Technological Society (1964), argued that
what Karl Marx saw as the fundamental operation
of capital in nineteenth century capitalism could be
replaced by the operation of technique in the late capitalist,
technological society. Techne is means,
which quickly becomes confused with ends in technological society. Techniques become things we produce, with their efficiency, value, design, and innovation overwhelming traditional notions of purpose, use, tradition, and shared knowledge.
Ellul saw great theological implication in this
transformation. Many followed Ellul. Marshall
McLuhan, himself a Roman Catholic believer, speculated
about the technique of electronic media, coining
that famous image of cultural transformation, “the medium is the message.” Neil Postmann examined how the multiplication of media has forced
education to give way to entertainment, while Camille Paglia pushed back at Postmann in defense of the liberating play that media provide. William Stahl asked about the increasing “mysticism” of technology in an electronic age, our dazzling digital devices becoming for us an impenetrable “black box” upon which we depend. These ideas were explored in the
fiction of Vonnegut and others.
Stealing from the Church
In the same tradition and with his own theological commitments, Albert Borgmann helped us see that the radical break between modern technology and pre-modern technology is rooted in the way technological culture steals the promises once held by the church – to heal, to satisfy, to bond, and to give a future. During the early years of internet communication, Sherry Turkle explored what it means to create human identity “on the screen.” Susan White and others demonstrated how the history of Christian liturgy in the West has reflected, even tracked, the history of technology.
Further linking theology and technology, Ivan Illich
proposed that the very rise of modern Western
technological culture can be traced to medieval debates
about the mechanism of change in the bread
and wine of the Eucharist. In the new media revolution,
he suggested, we are witnessing something
as culturally and theologically momentous as the
invention of “the page” (with accompanying tables of contents and indexes) in eleventh-century monasteries.
Those technologies transformed reading, and not just how we read, but what reading is. In every computer screen, Illich saw a bulldozer tearing down the neighborhood of his bookish youth. Our millennium-long sense of identity with the book is now over.
As we moved into this new cybernetic era of computer- based communications, it seemed reasonable to ask divinity students to think theologically about all of this. When I was teaching Yale divinity students in the early 2000s, I did just that. It was fun, and engaging. Students were sharp, and reflective.
The Debate is Over
Now five years out from that teaching and back in parish ministry, I've come to two conclusions about all this. One came early, around 2007. It became clear to me that in the largely white, upper-middleclass community in which I was a pastor, the theological concerns raised by the authors I noted above didn't matter a whit. The debate was over. The new
world had begun. There was no way to function without embracing that new world. And so I did – with more and more dependence on software to aid my ministry, with cell phone and email in my pocket, and a nearly uncritical insistence on the need for sophisticated and contemporary design in our vision for ministry.
The second conclusion is that a new watershed has appeared in the last year or so, in the form of a new intertwining. This transition is within wired culture itself, with the convergence of social media technology (such as Facebook and Twitter) and “cloud” computing – with the promise that more and more of our data and calendars and correspondence and commerce will be gathered and stored and enacted “out there somewhere.” We are sold miniature portals that promise nonstop, ubiquitous access to a purely external, but never locatable, universal trove of data, a parallel world.
It sounds a lot like what prayer used to promise, but it doesn’t feel much like prayer. I knew there was more behind this tech trend than a desire for convenience or productivity or even the shiny brilliance of a screen. But I didn’t quite know what.
And then I recently attended a gathering – an ideas festival of sorts. I learned something there that brought a new set of questions, though few answers. It's a new acronym, born of a generation walking this watershed. The acronym is FOMO. In FOMO, I found a topic worth a theological wrestle.
This gathering included a number of young, successful
entrepreneurs. Some of them were from
Silicon Valley, others from projects in international
development, community organizing, education,
and public health. They were extroverted, engaging, self-confident, and happy to share their vision
of the world. The language of entrepreneurialism
dominated in every area, whether business or nonprofit,
with terms like “capitalization” and “venture
investment” ruling the air. The life-work of these
young creators seemed to be to get an idea, get
organized, get backed, get successful, get bought
or get absorbed, and then move on to the next idea on the basis of the reputation they’ve built from the last one. Everyone was leveraging everything to make connections, get networked, and get known. Social media is not just the tool of choice for them, it is the environment they swim in. Global reach is assumed and a sense of clean break from the past
Where older participants at the event spoke of
economic and cultural crisis, these younger folk
spoke the language of opportunity and change. They
also spoke the language of speed (and they spoke
that language very quickly). One woman, maybe
thirty years old, declared that the college-educated
peers of her generation will experience up to seventeen
careers in their lifetimes. I remember the early
1990s, when as a college chaplain I was stunned to
hear our campus career counselors telling students
that they could expect to have five distinctly different
careers in their working lives. I thought that sounded
excessive then. Yet it seems now that each one of
these young entrepreneurs has already had at least
two if not three careers well before they're thirty.
Even more interesting, they seem to have three, if
not four, positions at once – each of them listed behind their names like we used to list degrees. They take on several projects simultaneously, building from one company or project or campaign or network to the next.
Fast Times in the Zeitgeist
“Fail fast,” we were told, “and move on.” In the economy to come, we were told, we must all “make our own jobs” – maximizing impression, value, and the energy of others to create and leverage our own. It's what sociologist Zygmut Bowman calls “liquid capitalism” – electronic, mediated, short-term, with high production design and always catchy labels. It was all genuinely impressive, genuinely novel, genuinely curious, and genuinely startling. It is where we are, at least in a certain stratum of society.
What questions must theology pose to all of this? Do we resist it, with the hope of preserving an older memory? Do we harness it, with sure confidence that it is a gift from God? Or do we find ways to critically but realistically engage?
These questions lead me back to FOMO. A
conversation at the ideas festival about education turned to how educators might keep the attention of
students in the face of so many distractions in their
hyper-mediated world. We spoke of the new normal
in the upper middle class: an iPhone in one’s pocket,
an iPad in one’s purse, and a laptop in one’s bag all
syncing every fifteen minutes with Facebook, Twitter, and whatever one calls an office. Websites and other apps are designed to scour other Facebook pages, websites, newsfeeds, and blogs on our behalf, signaling every time a tailored topic of personal interest appears. Eyes look down to laps instead of up to a teacher, checking a handheld screen for whatever's being “pushed” toward us.
“Why?” one of the old-timers asked. “FOMO!”
came the answer, spontaneously, from a couple of
voices in their late twenties. They spoke at the same
time, as if surprised that the inquirer didn't know
the answer. “FOMO?” came the reply right back.
And with glances at each other, our young tutors
responded in concert again: “Fear Of Missing Out!”
I tested the acronym with anyone under thirty I could find; they all knew it immediately.
Prerogative of Youth
FOMO. The idea’s nothing new, of course. It has been a hallmark of youth all along: wanting to know what’s happening, keeping one’s options open, scanning the terrain for what you want. We’ve always measured youth by energy and experimentation. By contrast, we’ve always measured maturity by the ability to move beyond grazing distraction in order
to make promises, then to mark those promises with commitments, with persevering and building something that lasts. In that sense, the FOMO of youth is as predictable as the stability of age.
Except . . . something feels different about this
moment, and not just because FOMO has been
promoted to acronym status. I think that something
has to do with acceleration and mediation. FOMO is
now supported technologically, mediated electronically,
and monetized for profit in ways we’ve never
seen. It is becoming the signature reason for wiring
in. And that might make it the great underestimated impulse behind social media – more powerful than the desire for association and friendship that we’re told stands behind it all. FOMO rules. And when it seems like there is so much more to miss out on these days when we can capture the world on a tiny screen in our palms, FOMO also drives. The
fear fuels itself.
So in our churches, our youth groups tweet, blog, upload videos and photos for the church’s website or their parents’ iPads when on retreat – to assure that no one will miss out. Our friends post what they had for dinner on Facebook and take a survey of who likes Chipotle Grill better than Baha Fresh – so no one will miss out.
Some of our high schools are now reconsidering
their “no cell phone or smartphone in the classroom”
policies, because of the anxiety produced
by FOMO. Instead, they are incorporating social
media breaks into class time, allowing students a
moment to check their social media every fifteen or thirty minutes in hopes of allaying their FOMO and regaining their attention. Our universities incorporate options for instantaneous feedback to lecturers, so the teacher may revise her lecture as she gives it. We're not supposed to miss out on our hearers’ immediate responses, no matter how hasty or
undigested those responses might be. The instant response becomes the most valuable response, and so educators become choreographers of immediacy rather than midwives of a slower wisdom. FOMO.
This new set of expectations has slid into place
without much conversation, resistance, or even
notice. Yet religious tradition has some questions
to ask. For hasn’t the religious vision of spiritual
maturity always staked at least part of its claim on
the value of “missing out”? Hasn’t it cherished the experience of deep exploration, of closing off
options, focusing attention, and accepting limits?
Hasn’t spiritual wisdom demanded patience, forgiveness,
a grace that is shaped (not data-banked)
by memory? And haven’t the disciplines of restraint,
choice, concentration, humility, and focus been essential
to the work of prayer? Can these questions be asked today without appearing hopelessly naive?
We’re also told that in this new convergence of
social media and cloud computing, privacy is an archaic
concept – and that FOMO has killed it. We're
told that even the notion of a search engine must
be reversed in a post-privacy age, that we no longer
use Google to search the internet. Instead, the internet
now uses Google (and Facebook) to search
us – our habits, beliefs, preferences, apparent
worth, relationships, weaknesses, future actions,
and more. What comes, then, of the theologically
rich notion of the private, upon which all possibility
of commitment and love through the course of
suffering is based? Do not ethics require a healthy distinction between private and public, an orderly way of guarding the eye and deliberately missing out? And doesn't a healthy soteriology require the same, whereby we allow the One who searches us to be a Loving Other (Holy Spirit) and not a piece of impersonal software.
The Holy Spirit searches us, not to feed our
FOMO, but to fill it and so quiet it. The Spirit
searches us to know our innermost thoughts, to
unearth and reveal to us our deeper, hidden desires,
and to shape our desires in ways that might teach
us to say “no” as well as “yes,” and transform our
fear of missing out into a desire for love. What becomes
now of that possibility? It isn’t gone, but is it changing?
Earlier I mentioned Ivan Illich, who envisioned a
bulldozer behind every computer screen, destroying
the world of his bookish youth. When he framed
that image in his commentary on medieval reading
practices, In the Vineyard of the Text, he was describing
an understanding of truth that has guided nearly
a millennium of Christian practice. Adherence to
the faith has been imagined as a journey of discovery through shared practices of engagement. These were mediated by logic, metaphor, narrative, and long traditions of interpretation in a culture of gracious learning. It required holding, for the time being, some questions unanswered and some paths untaken, with faith in our capacity to gather greater knowledge by hiking some paths again and again. It was not a wandering. It was a guided, patient exploration.
Bookish faith certainly suffered from a high bar of admission, a certain exclusivity and the occasional sin of arrogance. The democracy of new media, making information more widely available, is a praiseworthy promise of “the cloud.” Yet it would still be a mistake to miss Illich’s point: consuming data in the form of postmodern “information” as little in common with what a millennium of Western consciousness has understood as “learning.” Much is gained today. Yet much is lost. Uncritical celebration of what’s coming might be as naive as precipitous rejection. It smacks of FOMO.
So what will happen as we get used to living
underneath a social media saturated “cloud”? We
need theologically interested thinkers to wonder.
We can resist the idea that all knowledge can be “stored,” that all ideas and records and music and
correspondence and half-finished essays and fully
finished gossip can be kept in one huge – timeless
– searchable database. We can resist the idea that the only barrier between personal and public is a faintly reliable password. We can resist the idea that access to the cloud will ease this fear put into us of missing out.
We can resist the temptation to elevate the cloud
to the status of heaven, where we once sought God
but now seek linkage. We can resist such a metaphor.
There is no divine Other in this cloud, except
the otherness of ourselves. It offers no catharsis
for our striving, except in the thrill of speed and the
distraction of tweets. It offers interest, convenience,
and usable information, but little trace of the love for which faith has always turned toward the heavens. This gnostic promise of saving data cannot, finally, redeem a broken soul.
But it’s time to get back to the here-and-now.
Despite my questions, I’ll still learn social media
and encourage my congregation to dive in. I’ll be
an early adopter of cloud computing, when it is fully
unfolded. I’ll love the shine, admire the bitten apple.
A bit of me will fear missing out. But along the way,
I’ll keep hoping that those who preach and teach
in the church will keep thinking about all of this. I’ll believe that a theology of technology is still possible. I’ll hope that we can still preserve a pre-internet, precloud memory of a living hope mediated by prayer and not by hyperlink. I’ll keep hoping in a heaven that is less gnostic and more incarnational, less digitally powerful and more peaceful, less about
access and more about acceptance. I’ll keep hoping that we can help a new generation remember something that technological innovation cannot give them, and hope that in so remembering they will find their FOMO healed.
Wes Avram, pastor of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale,
AZ, was the Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of
Communication at Yale Divinity School and the Institute for Sacred Music from 2000-2006. He received an M.Div.
degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Communication from Northwestern.