What is technology?

By: Webmaster|Date: Aug 16, 2018|Tags: School News

Looking around

Almost anyone can tell you that most people have an unhealthy or undesirable relationship with technology. I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with parents (including my own) lamenting about how much time their child spends on Snapchat, Instagram, and Fortnight. My own parents had the same complaints about AOL Instant Messenger, Myspace, and MarioKart. Interestingly, it seems like each generation likes to criticize the prior generation’s use of technology–ask my students about what I have to say in class and you’ll catch my drift. But even as I sit here writing this my mother-in-law and her friend are sitting in the same sunroom, both on their phones, one with a tablet in her lap, neither of them engaging with each other or me as I’m at work on my laptop. My father-in-law is upstairs on video calls for work, and the pool in the backyard has just been revealed from underneath its motorized cover, heated to a balmy 85 degrees. We are surrounded by double-paned windows and bug screens to shield us from the unwelcome natural pests outside, which are already significantly held at bay by the paved and mulched back patio surrounded by astroturf in lieu of real grass. Maybe you’re starting to catch my drift. I could continue for quite some time just noticing the way that technology and devices are currently mediating my experience to me. And all of us are in deep, not just our Snapchat-obsessed teenagers.

The purpose of technology

But are all of these really technologies? How should we define such an ambiguous word in the first place? Perhaps the best way to tackle such a complex question is to ask not what technology is but rather what does technology do? Philosopher Albert Borgmann writes that what technology does is make goods “available” to us. Technology is thus concerned with freeing us from the burdens of nature, and enriching our lives through providing access to more goods and services. At the risk of getting too philosophical and abstract here, let’s go back to my current setting. In the paragraph above, we can all pretty quickly point out the phones, tablets, and computers as “technology.” When most of us think about technology, those three devices are probably among the first that come to our minds, and rightfully so. But what we often fail to consider is just how deeply entrenched in technology our world is, and how fundamentally similar technological devices are. A closer look reveals that just like much of my experience of life is now mediated to me through my phone, so too is my current pleasant situation mediated by different kinds of screens that keep the bugs away, a fan that circulates cool air, astroturf that prevents me from having to keep up a lawn, and the perfectly regulated swimming experience should I choose to get into the pool maintained by a complex system of pumps, pipes, and chemicals. Just as my phone insulates me from some of the risks and discomforts of actual human experience and interaction, the other devices that surround me insulate me from the risks and discomforts of nature to an almost comical degree. And I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the technologies that surround us.

Looking forward

My point is, technology is pervasive and inescapable, and if we want to think seriously and Christianly about technology we need to be aware that technology is not just glowing screens, but, as Borgmann puts it, a pattern of “taking up with the world,” or approaching reality. This pattern has significant effects on the way we live in and interact with the world and with each other. It’s easy to name the countless ways technology enhances our lives, but often this way of life can form us in ways that are less fully human and lead us away from the full life that God intends us to live in his creation. In the next post, we’ll consider some examples of the way that technology shapes us specifically, and hint toward some practices to cultivate a different vision of human flourishing from the one that technology puts forth.

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