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The Joys of Tech Asceticism

On Staying Human

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  • Dan Grubbs

    The reference to the dominion mandate in Genesis 1 and 9 is apt here. But what is missing is the deeper and completely applicable understanding of the dominion mandate whenever technology is considered. A careful study of what God’s direction to man really was will reveal that God commands us to steward the Earth and all its resources, and our own creativity, in the way the God would manage it. That’s heady stuff, when you think about an omniscient Creator who asks us to farm, run a business, lead our families, live in community, just as if God was doing it. The ramification for technology development, deployment, and adoption is this: we have to do those things as if God was doing it. We must be forward thinking in our consideration. What will be the long-term effect of a technology – the blessings and the burdens? At the end of man’s time, will we look back and agree that we did it like God would? This is the question when considering technology and the adoption of something into our lives as Christians. Note that I did not say we won’t adopt a technology, but we must do so with as considered a thought as God would, to the extent a finite mind can. What is the total ripple effect of a technology? Just because we cannot be omniscient, does not liberate us from the responsibility of the dominion mandate and the responsibility of the impact of technology on the lives and creation around us. We must do this to the fullest extent possible in the parameters we find ourselves.

  • Jim Severance, Loganville WI

    The Tech Issue earns a summa cum laude! Readers may want to acquaint themselves with the Christian philosopher, Albert Borgman. He has worked at the intersection of faith and technology. His Laing Lectures (2011) at Regent College are rich. A quote from the publicity: "Technology as a rule is always more than a tool. It is inevitably woven into a culture of inducements and compliance that looks superficially congenial and yet is deeply inhospitable to Christianity. Cyberspace competes with grace as the dominant background of life. Hyperreal perfection makes providential burdens look irritating. The displacement of material reality by preternaturally glamorous images dissolves the ground where the life of the spirit can flourish".

  • Bee wenger

    The paradox : without Tec, how could I be reading this validating article. How could I even know about it .....SELECTIVITY — a difficult practice

  • Laura

    Interesting thoughts here. My 18 year old son and I just had this conversation today. He uses technology daily, as I do. However, he thinks AI is very dangerous when business and government use it for evil.

  • Paul Hughes

    I guess I'm that annoying guy with the nitpicks. At least you know we read your emails. (and I resolve not to do this so much in 2018). That said, Elon Musk is a joke. I know he's just the pivot in the piece for asserting we not being like him but honestly he is so irrelevant as to be an inadequate foil. He co-founded PayPal and wasn't even a top guy. His other three "billion dollar tech companies" are utter crap, kept alive by government largesse and humanity's worship-instinct. Here endeth the screed. For now. heh. Paul

Elon Musk, the man who started four billion-dollar tech companies, is worried that computers are on course to kill us. As he told an audience at MIT in 2014, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” In his nightmare, a future superintelligent machine will outwit and then eliminate humankind. Accordingly, Musk is working on plans to colonize other planets in case we, or the artificial minds we create, make human survival on Earth impossible.

Is Musk paranoid? Inconveniently for his detractors, he’s no agrarian crank, and his concern about artificial intelligence (AI) is shared by people as diverse as Henry Kissinger, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates. According to their line of thinking, AI may soon rank among the threats to humanity’s survival alongside nuclear war and biological terrorism.

These anxieties exemplify a wider shift. For a generation, a utopian glow has hung around Silicon Valley and all its works. Now that glow is fading fast. Critics on both the political left and right assail the monopolistic power wielded by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. From Washington to Brussels, Big Tech’s gospel of libertarian capitalism twinned with libertarian morality has worn out its welcome. Once upon a time, Mark Zuckerberg’s motto of “move fast and break things” sounded innocently boyish; now it seems to sum up all too well the menace of machines to humans. Already, robots are replacing workers at an alarming rate.

Stung by the backlash, technophiles point to technology’s achievements: What about the myriad ways it has reduced misery and enhanced the quality of human life? What about the printing press and electric lights and antibiotics and instant global communication and cancer drugs?

Nobody wants to return to a tech-free world of surgery without anesthetics.

It’s a valid point. No one, from Apple engineers to Amish farmers, wants to return to a tech-free world of fifty-percent child mortality and surgery without anesthetics. The urge to invent and use tools, to pioneer new frontiers of ingenuity, is part and parcel of being human and has brought astounding benefits. To Christian eyes, this inborn inventiveness reflects the Creator himself and corresponds to the task that he gave to humankind in the Book of Genesis: to be master and steward of creation on his behalf.

Still, this doesn’t provide much reassurance when new technologies are rewiring the brains of today’s children and will likely soon be used to edit the genomes of those to be born. We’re living in a radically new situation. How do we stay human?

We can start by taking Elon Musk literally: “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” Whatever Musk meant by these words, they fit with strange precision into the New Testament’s view of reality. As the biblical writers saw it, the major social systems that shape human communities are not merely impersonal. Rather, such systems – which include the state, religious institutions, and today surely also the technological structures that govern modern life – operate under the influence of distinct spiritual forces. The New Testament uses a range of names for these spiritual powers, among them daimonia: “demons.” It’s an awkward word. Yet in view of Silicon Valley’s fascination with transhumanism and rationalist ideology, to speak here of demons may be all too apt.

Recognizing that uncanny forces lurk within technological structures doesn’t require us to flee the Information Age. But it does mean Christians must stop pretending that technological products are just neutral tools.

The example of social media proves the point. Sean Parker, a founding president of Facebook, recently admitted in an interview that Facebook was designed to be addictive, adding, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Actually, even without special revelation, we already know: studies of teenagers show a strong correlation between heavy social media use and anxiety, depression, and suicide, as documented by Jean Twenge in the Atlantic. This is not what human flourishing looks like.

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Paul Serusier, Fisherman on the Laita, 1890
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For Christians, mental health risks are not the only concern. In Christ’s service we are pledged to spend all our energies doing good to our flesh-and-blood neighbors, building up a living symbol of his coming kingdom here on earth in community with others. This calling is incompatible with spending hours in thrall to a screen, not-quite-voluntarily chasing the next dopamine hit.

More often than not, then, the best social media policy is also the simplest: abstinence. Even those with strong reasons to post and tweet – keep up the good work, Plough social media editors! – need to set themselves firm guidelines. Plough’s house rule, for example, is to avoid social media outside of work hours, especially since many of us have young children at home. (The bonus family time can be spent in the great outdoors, reading, or singing together – or building harps, as Maureen Swinger describes.)

When it comes to children, tech abstinence is hardly a fringe idea. Steve Jobs famously refused to give his kids tablets or smartphones; as Johann Christoph Arnold writes, the abundant benefits of a screen-free childhood are widely acknowledged. More ominously, evidence is mounting of the long-term damage caused by internet pornography. In the face of this insidious horror, deciding to keep one’s children offline is not a tough call. Yes, it’s easier said than done, and may require changes to lifestyle and spending patterns, switching schools, or even moving. But to a Christian parent, does any other value outweigh the soul of a child? And life offline can be fun.

The joys of abstinence need not be restricted to new technologies, either. Forty years have passed since the advertising executive Jerry Mander provoked a national debate with his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and all of his arguments remain as compelling as ever. Here’s to the day when having a TV in the family living room will be as disreputable as having a cigarette-butt-strewn ashtray is now.

Voice such ideas, and sooner or later you’ll be called a Luddite. Rather than reject the label, then, perhaps we should rehabilitate it. The original Luddites of nineteenth-century England didn’t risk the gallows out of sentimental technophobia. They were working-class weavers who rose in protest when a new invention, the frame loom, threatened their livelihoods and communities. While it’s true they smashed machinery, their real opponent was the greed of textile barons who stood to make a fortune by putting them out of work. In a society warped by technological consumerism, a bracing dose of nonviolent Luddite rebellion might be just what we need.

The Luddites’ message was straightforward: people come before machines and profits. Surely that’s a slogan that both social-justice progressives and traditional conservatives can make their own. This is the truth at the center­piece of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’. Economists may mutter about what they call the Luddite fallacy, but the “people first” principle stands.

The Luddites’ message was straightforward: people come before machines and profits.

Jesus, too, taught that the welfare of human beings is paramount, trumping both economic efficiency and religious precepts. We can’t mine his words in the Gospels for proof texts on the newest technologies. But we can take seriously his teaching on an old technology: money. The technology of money was as essential to the functioning of society in the first century as it is in the twenty-first. Jesus never prohibited his followers from using it. But he came uncomfortably close, describing money not as a mere tool but as a personified false god boasting its own Aramaic name: “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13).

The same either-or clarity will be ­necessary as we hurtle toward an increasingly technological future. Technological asceticism on its own won’t solve society-wide dilemmas, much less save our species from extinction. Its function is more basic: to help us maintain the spiritual independence needed to tackle these challenges. Like any other kind of asceticism, it requires regular practice. But the reward is worth having: the prize of staying human.

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Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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