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Flourishing In A Digital World

Technology is fundamentally about our human desire to flourish. We buy new technology not simply because of what it can do for us, but because we believe it can help us to live a better  life. This necessarily means technology competes with God as our potential saviour. Since we know that the only true Saviour is the Lord Jesus Christ, it raises a troubling question: should followers of Jesus be using technology at all? And  if we have no choice but to use technology, how should we use it?

This is the central question addressed by Nicholas and Brooks in their book Virtually Human. I have had the pleasure of reading the book twice. So, I thought I should record a critical summary for future reference. I have structured the summary around the key questions I have on the subject. Needless to say this is not the way the book is structured. This means I sometimes address issues here that the authors only touch on slightly. 

(1) Does our relationship with technology matter?

How we use technology matters because it is not merely a neutral instrument, it is also something that shapes us as we use it. That may sound obvious to many of us, but there are some who argue that technology is a neutral tool because it is after all a product of human invention. Therefore, it is within our power to master it. Those who believe this naturally argue that what we simply need are better human beings to use technology to increase our flourishing rather than slowdown or augment our “technological progress”. 

The other extreme is called “determinism”. This takes the view that technology always shapes us because no one arrives in this world “technology free”. From the moment we are born, we are surrounded by some technology that impacts our lives. There is a sense in which we are born “unfree and chained to technology”. Determinism views human beings as helpless before technology

Nicholas & Brooks argue that there is no need to choose between these opposing views. Technology is a tool that does what we tell it to do and it is a tool shapes us. This means we are both in control and not in control of the technology. What we need to keep front and centre is that technology is changing us in ways we cannot understand. At the same time, we must take responsibility as producers and consumers of technology.

A crucial way technology changes us is that it is seeking to fulfil some need in us. Human beings pursue technological advance to fulfil themselves. There are a number of human needs we have that technology tries to fulfil .

First, technology tries to fulfil our need for a better future. We want to live in a world without problems.  Technology promises to us the possibility of a paradise on earth. This is why every innovation is sold as an improvement, a march towards progress. 

The problem is that this assumption that technology means progress assumes that there is a clearly defined direction or destination and that with every innovation, we are getting closer to the goal. But by nature technology is a product of human invention. It has no goal. Therefore there is no reason to assume that each innovation represents progress, nor can technology tell us whether it is a good or bad innovation. The ethical standard must come from outside technology itself.

Secondly, technology tries to fulfil in us a need for a better identity. Every human being wants to know who they really are. Unless we know ourselves, we cannot relate with the world around us properly.  Technology promises to give us a better identity than whatever identity we currently have. It says to us:  you do not have to be who you currently think you are, you can be a “better you”. 

The reality of course is that technology cannot give us a better identity because it cannot define what constitutes a better identity. All that technology promises us is that you can change your identity. It cannot tell us whether that change is a departure from your true self or an improvement towards it. The truth is that, as the use of social media demonstrates, reliance on technologies which allows us to curate our identities, has not made us happier. We feel more dissatisfied the more we use these technologies and yet we keep doing it because the technology is engineered to addict us. 

Thirdly, technology tries to fulfil our need for better community. There is a real desire in all of us to connect with one another. All of us long to belong. To be in real community. It is a primary human need that is greater than food.  You cannot flourish in life without a sense of true belonging. Technology, especially social networks, promises to be give us a better sense of belonging than we currently have. It says we can have relational networks acros space and time. Social networking promises relational transcendence. The light of the network that overcomes our disconnected darkness.

Now, it is true that networking technologies seem to have “benefits”, at least on a surface. However, most of these benefits are illusory. The capacity to stay in touch online means we do not call and visit people as often as we should. To make it worse, technology creates perverse incentives to policymakers. It is unlikely we would have had the disastrous lockdown policies without Facebook and Zoom. 

The bottom line is that the good that is supposedly there does not seem to deliver on connectedness. Social networks promise  we will never be alone. In practice, we are becoming even more fragmented and tribalistic. Efforts to overcome the tribalistic echo chamber has led only to oppression of voices and loss of individual freedom. And in any case, it is not sustainable because the business model depends on algorithms that push groups apart. 

Fourthly, technology tries to fulfil our need for better management of time. Time is one of the greatest jewels of our existence. A W Tozer says, “ When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection”.  Time is a scarce commodity. So, it matters how we our understand time and use it. Technology promises to help us manage our time better by digitising it.  The invention of the digital clock is not only meant to enable us to measure our time with greater accuracy, but also to afford greater precision in spending time. The hope is that we will become more productive.

The reality is that technology has led to problems in how we manage time. We are increasingly multitasking, to get as much time out of every bit of technology as we can. This multitasking has left us anxious and distracted. There's a fear of missing out, as a result of technology induced paranoia. With digital time we have become increased restlessness. We are constantly bombarded with things every time to do them or at least we feel we have to do them and we have little time to do them.

Fifthly, technology promises to fulfil our desire for better sex. Technology has expanded the market for sexual fulfilment. The road to sexualization of society has been so closely tied with technological improvement, that to disagree with increased the currently sexualization in society, is seen as standing in the way of wider technological progress.  This progress view of sex has no intellectual credibility because cultures in the past have been more sexually liberal than today. So the arc of history clearly does not lead to more sexualization of society.  

The search for sexual fulfilment has led to many unintended consequences. The main impact of technology on sexualisation has been fragmentation of sexuality, technology has led to the human body being depicted without context. And this is very much the case for pornography where key context about the individual is stripped out, and the person is cheapened or becomes a shadow of the true self. The lack of context makes it easier for that person to be used to gratify our sexual cravings. 

The fragmentation has in turn led to us to become less free. The individual is now a prisoner of his appetite because we now live increasingly based on sexual identification, rather than our true God-given self. We have fragmented from our true self and have increasingly taken on pseudo identities in the name of pseudo freedom. This shift towards self-identification has been induced and accelerated by  technology which is allowing us to develop new terms of self-identification by giving us a new capaicity to modify the human body like never before. 

Finally, technology promises to fulfil our desire for better knowledge. The increase in technology has led to a rapid rise in the vast volume of human knowledge and information. We are swimming in a lot of data. One study estimates that an average person is bombarded by the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data every day. On top of this we have information on our fingertips all the time about the world.

The problem is that information and knowledge does not necessarily make us better able to live in the world. Indeed, it is true to say we currently have too much information. We do not seem to know what to do with it. To live we need more than knowledge, we need wisdom. Wisdom is a great asset of life. So, you know a lot of things but how does that knowledge translate into better living? This is the question we need to answer in our accumulation and use of knowledge. 

So, the bottom line is that how we use technology matter because it shapes how we live and it does not shape it in a fulfilling way. Technology competes with God to give us a salvation that it cannot deliver. It has been found wanting in the key areas of human future, identity, community, time, sex and knowledge.  This naturally leads us to the question of what we should do with technology. 

(2) What should be the Christian’s relationship with technology?

A biblical response to technology must start with the recognition that technology is a gift from God. He created us with the capacity to utilise the resources in his world to invent new technology for our use. The problem is that though God created humanity and the world perfect, the entire creation is now infected with sin. That includes the technology we invent. This means that it is not simply that technology may have negative side effects, it is that even the most excellent piece of technology has the stench of sin. It is corrupted by sin and is produced and deployed in a world that is stained by sin by people who are rebellious sinners.

The sinful effects of technology are all around us. Using technology can lead to damaged relationships, ruin human capacity to concentrate, rip apart public life and damage our children. Some technologies make us become distracted, addicted, and disoriented. In that sense some technologies are nothing more than tools used to “invent evil”. The result of using such tools is that we become “less human”. Indeed, our consumption of technology does not necessarily have to be sinful in of itself to make us less human. 

Thankfully God already knows all about the good and evil of human technology. Therefore what we need to do is to look in the Bible for an answer on how to engage properly with technology. The Bible does not comment on every specific technology. But it does answer the fundamental question that we want every technology to answer: how can we find true fulfilment in life?  We are looking to the technology to fulfil us by giving us a better future, better identity, better community, better sex, better management of time and better knowledge. But technology cannot give us these things. And even if it did, that would not fulfil us. Only God in Christ can fulfil our deepest needs because we are created to live in a relationship with Him. 

Now, this does not mean we should abandon technology altogether. According to Nicholas & Brooks Rather what we need to do is engage technology through a biblically shaped YES and NO model. We should say YES to aspects of technology that promote human flouring, as defined by God.  At the same time, we should say ‘NO’ to aspects of technology that promotes sin in our lives or may be unwise. This YES and NO approach is important for our Christian witness. If we only say YES we may compromise by saying YES to sinful aspects of technology. If we only say NO, we may become irrelevant because we are not using the blessings of technology to impact the world for Christ. 

Saying YES and NO to technology requires careful thinking about the story that technology is selling us Digital technology is geared towards getting us to react quickly. It promotes a “quick fix” mindset.  What we need to do is to avoid such a knee jerk response. Fools rush in. We need to cultivate a reflective mindset. This requires engagement with technology at a deep level to understand the technologies we use.

We also need to constantly remember that the foundational issues of technology are not technological. Rather technology is the means through which we seek to address age old issues related to our human existence (e.g. identity, community, time, sex and knowledge). Most importantly, our human life cannot be fulfilled in these areas, unless we have transformed the vision of a digital world that is built on God. In God we become increasingly who God made us to be. We are able to stay rooted in the middle of the changing tides of culture and technology. God enables us to live truly human lives through Christ. He gives us a new life that is able to live for God through the power and wisdom of God the Holy Spirit. 

In general, I think there is merit to the YES and NO model. The problem is that the framework is entirely on the user end. If we are taking Romans 1 seriously, the problem of technology in a fallen world is that man is both an inventor and user of technology. So Christians should not only be thinking about how to avoid sinful elements of technology, we should be thinking about creating technologies that promote human flourishing. Admittedly, we cannot do that for every technology, but we can set out a distinctly Christian vision of human production of technology looks. For example, how would a Facebook run on biblical principles look like? Is it even biblical feasible to have a Facebook business, given the drawbacks of social networking?   

It is interesting that the current debate in the secular world is heavily focused on the producer side, whilst Christians seem solely focused on the user end. This of course is not to say there are no Christians inventing technologies, but there does seem to be a vacuum of debate on the production side of the equation. I believe a more sound pastoral approach is to focus on both supply and demand.  

(3) How does this right relationship with technology look like in practice?

This question is not sufficiently addressed in the book. The authors point out early on in the book that the intended to give answers on use of specific technologies.  But they do offer some suggestions on what the YES and NO approach may look like in practice for various technologies. 

Perhaps, their clearest application of the YES and NO framework is in the area of social media. They give a nod to continued use of social media, noting that “social networks are good”, but without any substantive assessment of costs and benefits of  using social networks. However, they rightly advocate that tapping into the benefits of social media requires to minimise the costs. They suggest building into our social media use some solitude. Not “running away from the [digital] world, but retreating in order to reorient ourselves for life in the world”. This may take the form of adopting a daily or weekly practice of reflection “where you actively leave digital technology aside, to remember who you are before God”. 

In terms of “networking”, they suggest that we resist opting out of community in favour of an “easy life” on digital platforms. The “easy life” is not the same as the good life. They argue that good life” is found “in the simple but grace filled interactions of a community on and offline: rejoicing together, weeping together, worshipping together, serving one another, forgiving one another, bearing with one another, praying for each other, correcting each other and comforting each other, for in doing so we fulfill the law of love”. There is no deeper examination in the book about the difficult of striking this balance, give the presence of algorithms which are seeking to locate us squarely in the digital space. 

In the area of knowledge, we should say YES that knowledge is good provided that we recognise that wisdom (applied knowledge) is more important that information. Most importantly true wisdom comes by fearing God. Until we have the fear of God, we cannot walk wisely. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This means we need to see the information and knowledge we have through the prism of our relationship with God. Information that does not move us to God is not wisdom. It does not aid our human flourishing in our ultimate since, though it may have some practical good. This truth idea that we need God at the centre of our knowledge quest is alien to our Darwinian and atheistic culture.  

Sadly, in the other examples discussed in the book, the YES and NO framework is either incoherently applied or largely absent. This is particularly clear in the area of technological or “virtual” sex. What does a YES, in this area look like? The authors do not answer that question. A lot of time is spent looking at how technology has impacted our view of sex. The analysis is broadly sound. But the more complex issues related to technology and sex are not discussed. For example, how much should Christians use technology, if at all, in the realm of sexual intimacy and reproduction? What are the appropriate boundaries? A lot of debate has taken place on IVF and other reproductive technologies. But there are also other less debated areas. For example, should Christians use Viagra? In the future as there is greater fusion between man and machine, we may be talking about body enhancements in the area of sex. How should Christians approach this complex issue? These issues are not discussed. 

As I said, the authors are clear earlier on in the book that the book is not intended as a manual to answer how we should use specific technologies. It is meant as a framework for thinking about technology. The problem is that the effectiveness of any framework is only judged by how it works with real world examples. So the absence of a more consistent application of a framework to a varied number of real-world cases is a huge limitation of the book. 

(4) What other things should we think about as we engage with technology?

One area which is hinted at within the book but not sufficiently discussed is the role of community or the church in general. It seems to me that the book would have benefited from a clear statement that effective engagement with technology must be a community effort. We cannot and should not engage alone because in the multitude of counsellors there is victory.  Engaging with technology communally acts as a safety net and enhances accountability. Engaging with technology requires time to understand the issues and make the right choices. These things can only be done within a local church context.  God has deposited gifts in the church to help us.

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