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5 Things Every Christian Should Know About Digital Technology

5 Things Every Christian Should Know About Digital Technology
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By: Akos Balogh

Digital technology saturates our lives: smartphones, social media, Google and Instagram. From teenagers to grandparents, we’re all swimming in a digital sea.

As Christian blogger and author Tim Challies points out:

‘Over the past three decades, digital technologies have powerfully changed our lives. They are woven into the very way we understand and relate to the world around us. We are now a digital culture. We are no longer who and what we were just a few decades ago.’ [1]

There’s no doubt our lives have changed as a result of digital technology. And the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook have worked hard to tell us (and sell us) on the benefits. And there are benefits – of that there is no doubt (e.g. connecting with friends and family over social media).

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But should we just trust what Silicon Valley tells us? Or is there more to digital technology than what the Zuckerberg’s of the world are letting on?

I think there’s more – much more – to digital technology than what the tech companies are telling us. And God’s Word is the lens through which we can explore these brave new tools sitting in our hands.

So here are 5 things every Christian should know about digital technology:

1) What Does God Think Of Human Technology?

Technology is a gift from God, but it’s been affected by the fall.

The Bible has much to say about technology in general, which will help us better understand and evaluate digital technology. Let’s take a look at what the key turning points in the Bible’s story reveal about technology.

Creation. The Bible begins with God’s command to Adam ‘cultivate’ and keep the garden of Eden (Gen 2:15). Although God made the garden, He intended for Adam to impact and change it.
As author John Dyer points out:

‘God created the garden not as an end point but as a starting place. Adam’s job was to take the raw materials of the earth – from the wood of the trees, to the rocks on the ground, to the metal buried deep within the earth – and create new things from them. In a sense, Adam was to take the “natural” world (what God made) and fashion it into something else – something not entirely “natural” – but sanctioned by God.’ [2]

Technology is the result of this creative process. Thus:

‘[Technology is] the human activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes.’ [3]

Fall. But sadly, creation and humanity fell. And this fall had an impact on all of creation, including technology. We see this clearly in the Tower of Babel, where humankind used the technology of building a tower, for evil purposes: namely to live without God.

As John Dyer again points out:

‘[T]echnology is…one of the chief means by which humans attempt to create a world without God. As our technology grows more and more powerful, the illusion of control becomes increasingly convincing. ‘ [4]

Redemption in Christ. But the fall isn’t the end of the story. God is in the process of redeeming creation and humanity from the fall, and He can redeem technology as well.

So God uses technology throughout history to further his plan of salvation: whether it be saving Noah and his family through the ark (Gen 612-22); or using the technology of writing to disseminate His Word (e.g. 1 John 1:4; 2:1,7); or through his people using the transport technology to take the gospel to the corners of the Roman Empire (e.g. Acts 13:4-5).

But the ultimate example of God using technology for salvific purposes is through the (brutal) technology of the cross (John 19:16-18; 1 Cor 1:18).

Furthermore, God affirms technology use as a way to mitigate the effects of our fallen world. For example, He gives Adam and Eve animal skins to cover their shame (Gen 3:21); and affirms the Israelites building of houses and grow crops while they’re waiting for salvation from exile (Jer 29:4-14).

But technology use is limited, as on its own cannot save us from death and judgment (Heb 9:27).

New Creation. The new creation is presented as a city not built with our hands or technology, but built by God (Heb 11:10). Thus we must not put our ultimate hope in technology.

In summary, God designed us to create and use technology, but technology has been affected by the fall. However, technology can still be used for useful purposes – proclaiming the gospel, and doing good for others. But by itself, it cannot solve all our problems – least of all our fractured relationship with God.

2) Technology is Not ‘Value-Neutral’ but Shapes People According to its Inbuilt Values.

Technology changes us as we use it.

Technology is not ‘value-neutral,’ because embedded within technology are values – which often aren’t apparent at first – that shape the user in various ways. This shaping can happen physically, intellectually, emotionally – and spiritually.

For example, both cars and bicycles are forms of transport technology. But does a bicycle ‘shape’ its user differently than a car? (Just try riding to work for six months instead of driving a car to find out.)

Likewise, when it comes to digital technology – smartphones and social media – such technology also shapes us in various ways – often without us realising it.

As author John Culkin wrote:

‘We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.’ [5]

Now, to be clear I’m not talking about the content you view through your digital screen. Yes, content matters, but the medium matters just as much (and some might say even more). We’ll see this as we unpack how digital tech shapes us.

So then, how does digital technology shape us? What are its inbuilt values?

I was cycling on the Gold Coast recently, and noticed many Facebook adverts on local bus stops. ‘Fake Accounts Are Not Our Friends‘ read one advert; ‘Data Misuse Is Not Our Friend‘ read another.

Evidently, Facebook wants you to know (or at least believe?) that they care about you, and your privacy.

But there are things Facebook and Apple don’t want you to know. Because if you knew these things, you would be more suspicious of digital technology, and more careful how you use it (potentially hurting the tech companies’ bottom line).

3) What Apple Doesn’t Put on Its Marketing

The unseen values of digital technology.

So if all technology shapes its user, because it’s designed to perform particular actions in particular ways, according to the values of its designer – what are the values of digital technology?

Here are some that astute observers have noted:

  • Access to information; (Google)
  • Speed and immediacy; (Think of how quickly you can search for anything)
  • Constant connectivity; (You can be reached wherever you are – be it the bedroom or the boardroom).
  • Mediated Identity; (The ‘virtual self’ you present to the world on social media)
  • Mediated communication (Communicating electronically via text, call, and social media).

Now, these values will shape its users (i.e. you and me), as we’ll see next:

4) Technology Wears its Benefits on its Sleeves

But its drawbacks are buried deep within.

Apple and Facebook market their products with all the potential benefits that smartphones and social media bring: a connection with loved ones, access to a world of information, entertainment, etc. And yes, there are benefits – don’t hear me saying otherwise. In many ways, it’s great that we can connect with others, and share our lives online.

However, there are also drawbacks to these values, which are unseen at first. But over time, these drawbacks become apparent.

Here is some of the negative shaping that can happen:

  • Access to information might lead us feeling overwhelmed with information overload;
  • Speed and immediacy can lead to the habit of scanning information, damaging our capacity for alow, deliberate reading; It is also distracting, taking our attention away from other important things (e.g., our work, or real people).
  • Mediated Identity can lead to greater narcissism, as we take more time building and presenting a (filtered) online identity;
  • Constant connectivity can be incredibly distracting, as you are bombarded with notifications and messages, whether at dinner time or work.
  • Mediated Communication can lead to shallower, more temporary relationships, as we cut down on the face to face time required to build deeper, long-term relationships.

And of course, there are a whole host of other negative ways that technology can shape us:

So what’s the solution?

5) The Critical Skill in Our Age of Digital Technology:

‘Disciplined discernment’.

So what are we to do with technology? Should we ditch our smartphones and take a leaf out of the Amish playbook?

Not necessarily. Technology is here to stay, and removing ourselves entirely from digital technology is neither desirable nor necessary. As we discussed, technology is part of God’s design for humanity – even as it’s affected by the fall.

Thus, we need to cultivate the virtue of what Tim Challies calls ‘disciplined discernment’:

In this approach [of disciplined discernment], a Christian looks carefully at the new realities, weighs and evaluates them, and educates himself, thinking deeply about the potential consequences and effects of using a particular technology.

Challies continues:

Through it all, even as he is using a specific technology, he disciplines himself to be discerning, to embrace what can be embraced and to reject what needs to be rejected.’ [6]

To put it another way, we discern the advantages and disadvantages of using a particular piece of technology. Then we make use of the advantages, while mitigating the disadvantages through disciplined use.

For me, disciplined discernment has meant removing semi-addictive apps from my smartphone, so I’m no longer distracted by them (yes, including FB and Twitter). I turned off many app notifications, so I wasn’t interrupted as I worked or shared life with others. And I make it a habit to keep parts of my life digital-free: the dinner table, in the car with the family, and after 8 pm at night (an hour before I go to sleep).

Furthermore, I no longer read the bible from my smartphone: it’s too easy to get distracted. Making these changes has allowed me to reap the many benefits of digital tech, without being overly shaped by the negatives.

Becoming Digital Disciples

Digital technology is here to stay. And there is much good that it brings. But if we’re to become faithful digital disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and use technology for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31), then we do well to listen to technology theorist Neil Postman:

We need to proceed with our eyes wide open, so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.

[1] Tim Challies, The Next Story – Faith, Friends, Family and the Digital World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), Kindle Edition, 190.

[2] John Dyer, From the Garden to the City – The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011), Kindle Edition, 741.

[3] Challies, The Next Story, Challies, 369.

[4] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 1359.

[5] John M. Culkin, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan,” Saturday Review, March 18, 1967, p.70. Quoted in Derek C. Shurman, Shaping a Digital World – Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 16.

[6] Tim Challies, The Next Story – Faith, Friends, Family and the Digital World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), Kindle Edition, 296.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

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