Thinking carefully and theologically about technology…

James K. A. Smith

“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us” wrote communications expert Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s.  His assessment of the various communications media (radio, television, movies, telephones, and computers) was simply, “We become what we behold.”


McLuhan’s aphorism has been used to voice the concerns of numerous folks in the intervening years.  It’s been used by technology lovers and Luddites alike.  For instance, it appeared in a 1999 edition of Wired magazine—Wired being the emerging technology publication that, in its early days, considered Marshall McLuhan its “patron saint.”


“First we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us.” That’s Marshall McLuhan on how we converse with technology. We invent a computer, it alters our minds and emotions, and then we—the computer and us—head off in an entirely new direction. To where? …


Wired was inundated when they asked their readers to respond to the “computer-and-me-headed-off-to-where?” question.


As soon as we hit the Send key, we knew we’d hit a nerve. The responses that flooded in were exuberant, disgruntled, sentimental, demanding—sometimes all at once. From cinematographer to gourmet chef to gearhead, each of the contributors to “The Wired Diaries” reveals that the line between our technological creations and ourselves is fundamentally fuzzy. We may differ in what tools we use, but the portrait of humans at the turn of the millennium is clear: We are beings entangled in our inventions.


In other words, this entanglement changes what it means to be human.  Yet, few Christians have given serious consideration to the powerful and complex ways technology shapes our lives—even though the issue has been debated in secular circles for decades, well before Marshall McLuhan’s work in the 1960s.


A good starting place for Christians who would think about the formative power of technology is an article written by philosopher James K. A. Smith,Creation, Culture, and Technology:  Asking the Right Questions.”


[T]echnology is so ubiquitous and mundane that we tend to not see it. Using it without thought, technology becomes sort of invisible. This also means that its affects can be all the more powerful precisely because they’re operative under the radar of our conscious reflection. When we take technology for granted as if it were just “natural,” we treat it as if it were just part of the environment and fail to appreciate how it shapes and frames our relationship to the world.


A Christian response would be to “hit the pause button” on our “uncritical employment of technology,” according to Dr. Smith.  But he is quick to clarify what he is not saying.


Saying, “Hang on, let’s think about this for a minute” is not the equivalent of saying, “No!”


Indeed, I don’t think there is really any viable, consistent “anti-technology” stance, nor should there be. Imagine someone holed-up, off the grid, penning their manifesto to simplicity that is a screed against the evils and ills of “technology.” While that screed might not be tapped out on an iPad, it is either scribbled with a pencil or banged out on an ancient typewriter, written in his hermit-like shack that is heated by a woodstove—in which case the author has inevitably employed technology to denounce technology.


Technology is as old as humanity. Or, you might say that technology is as old as culture. While we tend to associate the word “technology” with lights or electricity or digital realities, in fact “technology” is most basically defined as the application of knowledge in order to get something done (which is why technology is often described as applied science). In this most basic sense, technology is as old as human making. If, as Andy Crouch summarizes [in Culture Making], “culture is what we make of the world,” then technology is as old as the human propensity—and calling—to “make” the world. There is no human culture that is not always already technological.


If technology is an expression of our creaturely vocation to create, then the question isn’t whether to employ technology, but how and which. So we’re not hitting the pause button in order to ask whether we should use technology; we hit the pause button to slow down and ask much harder, more nuanced questions.


In fact, we would do well to ask the sorts of questions that Crouch—following Albert Borgmann—presses us to consider. In a lucid discussion of cultural artifacts, Crouch emphasizes that yes/no, good/bad questions are too clunky and ham-fisted. Instead we need to ask questions like the following (and we could simply insert “technology” where he says “cultural artifact”:


1)    What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?

2)    What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?

3)    What does this cultural artifact make possible?

4)    What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?

5)    What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?


These questions enable us to evaluate technology—and our relation to it—in ways that are informed by a biblical vision for flourishing.


·         What does Scripture say about the way the world is?

·         In the Bible, what does God tell us about what he wants the world to be? How is this pictured and practiced in the rhythms of Christian worship?

·         And so how does that inform our evaluation of various technologies? What do they make possible? Are these possibilities that resonate with what God desires for his creation? Or might some technologies functionally encourage disordered, sinful ways of being-in-the-world?

·         What do such technologies make virtually impossible? So do such technologies shut down capacities for relating to God, our neighbor, and God’s creation? Do some technologies actually make it harder to be open to God’s call to love God and neighbor? Might other technologies actually make us more responsive to the Gospel?


As I hope you can see, these sorts of questions take time. The answer isn’t a simple monosyllabic “yes,” “no,” “good,” or “bad.” If the answers are going to be biblically responsible and theologically nuanced, they are always going to be some form of “It’s complicated.” This is why we need to hit the “pause” button in order to buy the time and space to have complex conversations. …


While many Christians are cautious and even suspicious of “science”—especially if said science tells us that humanity evolved from pre-human life or that the globe’s temperature is rising because of human activity—we are often uncritically enthusiastic about the “applied science” that we can use in technology. Indeed, Christians have often been some of the first to see the power of communication technologies—from radio in the early twentieth century to television later in the century to internet capabilities at the turn of the millennium.


But our enthusiasm sometimes runs ahead of us, and latching onto these technologies for their instrumental possibilities—we sense what we can do with them—our haste prevents us from seeing what they might do to us. We simplistically imagine these technologies are neutral tools that we can use for good or ill. But then we fail to recognize that technologies come pre-loaded with ways of seeing and construing and making the world. In Crouch’s terms, technologies sort of “carry” within them a particular take on the world and what the world should be. You might even say there are implicit normative visions that are pre-loaded into technologies, which is why they make some things possible and other things impossible. So it behooves the church to “read” these technologies, as it were, in order to discern the normative visions that are “carried” in the technologies and the practices that they encourage. …


These various technologies are not simply tools in our hands that we can use. 


[T]hey becomes systems that work on us, surreptitiously forming our loves and longing and desires—indeed, shaping our character. This means that we can’t work with neat and tidy form/content distinctions when it comes to technology—as if the form is neutral and the technology becomes “good” if we insert good content. No, the very forms of technology are already loaded, Crouch would emphasize, with a view of the world and of how the world should be. So the question is whether that normative vision of and for the world accords with God’s desire for his creatures and creation.


Followers of Jesus are not just informed by ideas, they are formed by practices and rituals that inscribe the story of the Gospel into the fabric of their character—weaving a biblical orientation into their loves and longings. That’s why we want to invite Christians to pause and consider the alternative stories and visions that can be implicitly carried in technology, particularly the rising tide of social media and social technologies that have quickly come to dominate how we relate to one another. We’re not raising the question because we’ve already decided these are bad and evil; we’re asking the church to slow down and consider what’s at stake in our overly-enthusiastic (and largely uncritical) adoption of these modes of relating to the world and one another.


Dr. Smith concludes by providing several resources, both Christian and non-Christian, for understanding technology—available at the link below.  Then, he adds this final word of clarification.


Hitting the pause button is not meant to make things grind to a halt; nor is it a prelude to equally uncritical dismissal. Instead, the goal of hitting the pause button is to create the time and space to think well, to reflect theologically, to take an audit of our technological practices in light of God’s desires for his people and his world.



James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and a Senior Fellow with the Canadian think tank Cardus.  In Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, he devotes a section to the formative power of the social technologies (pp. 137-150). Creation, Culture, and Technology:  Asking the Right Questions” was published on the website of The Colossian Forum.



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