Is Technology Morally Neutral—Or a Moral Peril?

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Is Technology Morally Neutral—Or a Moral Peril?

PC: Bear with an Internet connection / via Pexels

One of the challenges every writer faces is reading their older work with a furrowed brow—or even a grimace. A few years ago, I was assigned what I still think is a valuable article for Adventist Review magazine called, “What Would Jesus Tweet?” Among the points I made was a line that reads, “those who can’t keep up often turn the use of technology into a moral issue.” [1] It’s a decent line actually, but I am not sure I agree with all that it implies. It isn’t only those left in the digital dust who should concern themselves with the morality of technology—it is everyone.

 

When I began my doctoral journey, I was, like most people, an “instrumentalist” when it came to technology. An instrumentalist is someone who believes technology is morally neutral, and therefore it creates moral issues solely based on how it is used. Again, a line from my previous work reflects this: “Like dessert or seasoning, social media can be used in ways that keep it from being a valuable tool to enhance quality of life.”[2]  Other Adventist voices have affirmed (and continue to affirm) this idea.

 

In 2010, Harvey Alferez, in a Spectrum piece entitled “Technology Reformers,” pointed out, “No matter the situation, there is a high probability that if you are reading this column is because you love technology and want to use your IT knowledge for the good of the Adventist mission.”[3] The idea of “use” and morality are linked again. In 2017, another author shared her personal experience of tension between her pastor decrying technology as a distraction from God and her mother testifying to how it helped her Christian walk. Dorcas Daboni concludes, “Technology is like a knife. It makes cutting lettuce and chicken easier, but used by someone else, it can also make committing murder easier as well.”[4]

Of course, a knife is a piece of technology, which reflects an observation by media philosophers that technology is at its best when we don’t notice it as technology, or even as language, when it provides a metaphor for other technology. Daboni continues the argument that the moral nature of technology depends on its usage: “Technology can be used to bring glory to God and lead people to Christ, or it can be worshipped as an idol and lead people to be lost.”[5]

Countless others embrace a hard-instrumentalist position, evidenced by the current debates on gun control: “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” This view of technology and media made sense to me a few years ago. Then, as often happens, I stumbled across an area of study that complicated things.

 

At the beginning of the book, From the Garden to the City, John Dyer cites a professor who told him, “One of the most dangerous things you can believe in this world is that technology is neutral.”[6] Dyer says that technology becomes “mythic” over time, meaning that as certain tools rise to familiarity and prominence, they establish what people believe ought to be the way life functions.[7] Finally, Dyer points out that our tools not only transform the world but also the ones using the tools.[8] It isn’t only how a piece of technology is used, or the content of its usage, but the fact that we use it at all that changes us.

 

One of the most striking examples of this dynamic comes with the invention of the phonetic alphabet and writing. All the way back to ancient Greece, writing was held suspect by thinkers like Socrates. In Phaedrus, Lysias tells Socrates how wonderful writing is since it will allow him the pleasure of listening to speeches any time he likes. Socrates replies with a story of Theuth and King Thamus. In the story, Theuth introduces the gift of writing to King Thamus, who replies:

 

Your affection for it [writing] has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. It will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.[9]

 

Writing not only introduces mobility of communication, it also hurts memory—something increasingly chipped away at as we store more and more of life in databases and clouds.

 

Most famously, Walter Ong studied the transition from oral cultures to literary and print cultures. He observed that with the advent of the phonetic alphabet and print, people began to think more abstractly and linearly, versus thinking in aphorisms and in constant grounded conversation with their community in order to remember.[10]

 

In Presence of the Word, Ong observes the connections of the Gutenberg press with Protestantism’s emphasis on sola scriptura, “plain readings” of the text, and primacy of the word over tradition.[11]  Interestingly, Peter Horsfield observes:

 

Although an emphasis in Protestant bible reading was placed on the “plain sense” of the text, it became apparent that it was possible for the people to gain a variety of plain senses from individual reading. This led to a number of hermeneutic aids being produced to assist readers in understanding the text the way Protestant church authorities wanted them to understand it.[12]

 

In Language as Hermeneutic, Ong notes how “all text is pretext”[13]—indicating that, even though print culture’s visual bias believes the printed word should be plain, it doesn’t always communicate all there is or even according to expectations.

 

Moving to the present, Craig Detweiler demonstrates how Facebook may encourage “treating friends more like an audience”[14] (pg. 138) and thereby teach us to “exploit our friends” (pg. 149). The reality that people seek social validation and build social capital through something as simple as a “like” reflects an experience so common we seldom think about it. It isn’t just what people post on social media (which is a bit of a misnomer since all media is social) but it is that they post at all. Different mediums shape the message—even religious messages.

 

Writers such as Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) and Neil Gabler (Life: The Movie) have observed the nature of television being entertainment. This means that when someone sees a preacher on the television, regardless of the truth of their message, there is an element of entertainment. Within the Adventist church, this is commonly seen at camp-meetings and large conventions when those in attendance approach a well-known speaker asking for an autograph in their Bibles. There exists a Christian celebrity culture, fueled by the medium of television, whether a televised/streamed speaker wants it or not.

 

These are only reflections on a large subject meant to stimulate a new way of thinking about communication technology that goes beyond instrumentalism. Lawrence Terlizzese observes:

 

The crisis in Evangelicalism’s approach to technology lies between the doldrums of academic and intellectual participation and the ready acceptance of all things technological for the sake of evangelization and church growth.[15]

 

We either uncritically embrace all new forms of media, or we act like Luddites[16], eschewing anything new as a mere fad or toy.

 

It’s important to note here that I do not subscribe to technological determinism. This means that whatever technology exists dooms us to a certain way of life. While highly influential (mostly because we aren’t paying attention), we still have a choice as to how we use our technology, and can work to shape it and take the edge off its tendencies. However, when existing in a mediated environment as we do, it is easy to stop seeing every item as a piece of technology and just assume they are tools accomplishing tasks—not changing the way we think.

 

Every technology has a tendency. It’s no use saying that new forms communicate the same message—they don’t, not entirely. Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.”[17] They always tweak it just a bit. We need deep Christian thinkers who can discern how each new tool can be used for God’s glory, but who also have enough wisdom to mediate the attitudes and shifts in consciousness it will create.

______

Notes.

[1] Pierce, S. (2015). “What Would Jesus Tweet?’ Adventist Review Online, Retrieved July 25th, 2018, https://www.adventistreview.org/1511-22

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alferez, H. (2010). “Technology Reformers.” Spectrum Magazine Online, Retrieved July 25th, 2018, https://spectrummagazine.org/article/harvey-alférez/2010/07/06/technology-reformers

[4] Daboni, D. (2017). “Is Technology anti-God” Adventist Today Online, Retrieved July 25, 2018, https://atoday.org/is-technology-anti-god/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dyer, J. (2011). From the garden to the city: The redeeming and corrupting power of technology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

[7] Ibid, pg. 25.

[8] Ibid, pg. 36.

[9] Plato, Phaedrus, pg. 275a.

[10] Ong, W. J., & Hartley, J. (2013). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[11] Ong, W. J. (2001). The presence of the word: Some prolegomena for cultural and religious history. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

[12] Peter Horsfield (2015) From Jesus to the Internet: A History of Christianity and Media. UK: Wiley Blackwell.

[13] Ong, W.J. (2018). Language as hermeneutic. NY: Cornell University Press.

[14] Detweiler, C. (2013). IGods: How technology shapes our spiritual and social lives. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

[15] Terlizzese, L. J. (2009). Trajectory of the 21st century: Essays on theology and technology. Eugene, Or.: Resource Publications.

[16] This is a common pejorative for those who are technology averse, but the reality of the Luddites is less anti-technology and more related to labor unions, due to jobs being replaced by new technology.

[17] McLuhan, M. (1994) Understanding media: the extensions of man. MA: MIT Press.

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About the author

Seth Pierce pastors the Puyallup SDA Church in Washington State and is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication.

  • Rebeca Ene

    Good article. I am glad to see some of us are seriously interested in the widespread effects of technology on all human experience, but most importantly the spiritual experience.

    I am just curious. How is a less able memory a moral matter? Is writing wrong and/or right in itself or its consequences are? Writing didn’t only impair humans’ ability to memorise, it has also allowed people to preserve the truth for millennia (the Bible), developed people’s ability to think, communicate more clearly, etc. It looks like writing brought diverse consequences, both good and bad. If anything, technologies are more of a double-edged sword.