Technology Rules

“Technology is everything invented after you were born!” Allan Kay

It was 1987. The year of the share market crash. David Lange was re-elected PM and our first child was born (no connection between these two events, in case you’re wondering). It was a momentous year. And somewhere in the mix was a seemingly innocuous interaction in the offices I worked at. My colleague Mark walked into our leadership meeting with a laptop computer. He plonked it on the desk in front of him and confidently predicted, “Within a couple of years all of us will have one of these on our desks.” I was very restrained. There was no loud (Tui) “Yeah, right” issued from my lips. No look of incredulity. Just an internal cynicism bordering on the passive-aggressive. Not me, Mark.

Well, it turns out Mark was wrong. Okay, partly wrong!

My desk was devoid of a computer of any type for many years – eight in fact (but who’s counting?). However, eventually I succumbed. After consisting telling my colleagues that I could handwrite as fast as I could think, they stared me down in a meeting designed, I’m sure, to set me right. “Wayne, you HAVE TO get one. You have to learn to touch type. It’s for your own good!”

Within months I had a desktop computer and was furiously typing out the draft of my first narrative book. It revolutionized things for me. While my typing was only marginally faster than my handwriting, the capacity to edit and cut and paste my own work was transformational. I’ve never looked back.

It’s probably obvious to all of my friends that I’m not really an early adopter when it comes to technology. I’m a little on the slow side. I prefer to hold back – cautiously observing what the effects of the new device are. There’s one notable exception – my Kindle, which I bought in the US well before they were available here in New Zealand.

I have some friends who always seem to immediately see the potential in the latest device. They embrace its great benefits as soon as their bank manager will allow them. They appear to be able to grab hold of the great advantages it will bring to their lives. They see the potential. I see the problems.

Technology (particularly of the digital type) is not my natural habitat. Not only am I, because of my age, a digital immigrant, but I am also definitely not a technophile – someone who waxes lyrical and enthusiastically embraces new technology.

To top it all off, I’m what I call a “technical imbecile” – I have very limited intelligence for using, let alone understanding, how many of the great devices and innovations work.

Not great qualifications for writing an article on technology then, eh?

However…

So be warned! I am neither wildly enthusiastic and optimistic about where our digital age is leading us, nor a head-in-the-sand, don’t-want-to-think-about-it kind of technological ostrich. Just somewhere in between.

However, because most of the loudest voices out there are making extravagant claims about the amazing future ahead of us, like fast-talking car salesmen or super white teethed tele-evangelists, I figure we hear enough of the “benefits” of a digital future and too little of the challenges. So you might find that the general tone of this article (and the one to follow) is more cautious and questioning than triumphalist.

Technology – what is it?

Perhaps, though, it would be good to define what we mean by the word “technology”.  For like so many words we bandy around, it has come to mean anything from a school subject that teaches metal or wood working skills, through to microchips and Silicon Valley multi-nationals.

For many of us, “technology” is shorthand for a particular type of technology – namely the digital variety – devices that enable us to communicate with each other, access information, and store knowledge. Computers, tablets, smartphones, social media, and the like.

However, the word technology actually encompasses a great deal more than this. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” If we trace the root Greek words techne (skill, craft or technique in making something) and logos (the study of) we gain an even wider sense of the word. Technology refers to any knowledge, tool, craft, device, product, or equipment that enables us to enhance the world and our everyday lives.

So technology is not just a device. It’s also the “know-how” that has been developed to produce that device and the tools made to bring it into being.

In the beginning…

Allan Kay, an early computer pioneer, once quipped that technology is everything that was invented after you were born! His point, of course, is that we have a tendency to forget that virtually all our modern existence is built on technologies – many of them that have been around for thousands of years. Writing, bicycles, old villas, electricity, starting a fire in the backyard – we don’t automatically think of these tools, products, or know-how as technology.  In fact, “…all of us treat them as if they were as normal as the water we drink or the air we breathe.”[1]

The truth is that technology is as old as the human race. In the beginning God created humankind in his own image – with the capacity to innovate and develop what God had made.

This was part of the creation mandate. In Gen 2:15 God commissioned “the Man” to “work the ground and keep it in order.” This necessitated the development of technology to do this – know-how, tools, techniques etc.

In fact, the very first human technology developed in the Genesis story is the systematic naming of the animals and birds that the Man does, on instruction from God (Gen 2:20).

You see, technology is actually a good gift from God. In enables us to co-create and shape God’s creation for the benefit of not just humanity, but the whole of creation. Having been commissioned to manage and govern over the Earth, we are imbued with the God-given intelligence and gifts to do so.

Here is one of the things that set humans apart from the rest of the animal world. We can observe and analyze. We can experiment and innovate. We can develop and modify. We can dream – and bring these ideas into fruition.

These are gifts of God and clear examples that we are indeed made in God’s image.

The Fall and its consequences

However, all of us who are familiar with the biblical story know what happens next. The blatant disobedience of the first humans leads to an unforeseen disruption. Like every other aspect of life, human technology is deeply impacted.

Genesis 3:7 states: “At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves.”

Here is the first act of technology post-the-Fall: the making of clothes.

Soon after, banished from the Garden, Adam and Eve are sent out “to cultivate the ground”, which has already become a much harder task than before.

What can we surmise from this story?

The ability to learn skills and make things is not lost as a result of the Fall. Humankind continues to carry the mandate and ability to co-create.

However, as we soon discover, the ability of humans to innovate and build is now open to enormous abuse. The gifts of God now have the capacity to be used for good or destructive purposes.

The same capability to make and play beautiful music, raise livestock, and build shelter (Gen 4) is also that which enables humans to build the tower of Babel (Gen 11).

Babel

While it is true that the exponential growth in new technologies during our lifetimes has spawned a whole new optimism that we humans have the capabilities to tackle any challenge we face, such confidence in ourselves is really as old as the hills, as story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 illustrates:

At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down.

They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.”

God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built.

God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.[2]

At first read it may seem that God badly over-reacted. After all, he is the one who has made humans with the capacity to co-create – to develop technologies that will improve life.

However, God’s harsh reaction is a response to the excessive pride (hubris) that led the people of Babel to aspire to godlike status. The key to their rebellious intentions is found in their statement:

“Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous…”

Not only were the people asserting their independence from God, wanting to become the masters of their own destiny – they were, in fact, captured by the belief that they could use their technology to actually challenge God. This was really an act of idolatry.

The people were really boasting, “We have the technology!” We can make a life for ourselves so that we no longer need God.

The story of Babel is proof that the gift of technology has been corrupted as a result of the Fall (Gen 3) – just like every other good gift in the creation story.

The lie of Babel is not only that we have the power (and the tools) to shape a new and better future for ourselves, but that we can solve all of our (and the world’s) problems solely by utilizing our ingenuity and capacity to innovate new technologies.

There is a deep naivety that runs the length and breadth of such hubris. As Quentin Schultze notes: “We love to presume that our newest contraptions will equip us to engineer a better world. We thereby display an extraordinary capacity for collective self-delusion, because the same machines that appear to give us a greater command of life are harder and harder for us to control.”[3]

[1] John Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 297

[2] The Message

[3] Quentin Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart, 208

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