The central argument of John Fresko’s The Christian and Technology is that technology is a double-edged sword that requires cautious and intentional use. Continuous uncritical use of technology erodes hunger for the Word of God, makes us self-centred and turns our useful devices into idols. The book intends to promote proper use of technology by encouraging us to dig into our hearts to see whether Christ so fills us that nothing can drag us away from him.
Fresko believes there is no need for us to flee from technology or become Luddites because technology is value neutral. It is not in of itself good or bad. Instead, we must focus on carefully evaluating how we think about and use technology. This necessarily requires us not only to understand the relevant technology, but also understand ourselves. A key part of this is recognising that we struggle with technology because we lack contentment in Christ.
The book explores explores six different technologies. I think the most fascinating and deeper reflections are on the oldest technology, the automobile. Fesko notes that the car has turned Christians into spiritual consumers. There is now a greater incentive for people to shop around for a church, be less local and less committed than in the past. In addition, the availability of the car has widened the locus of things we can do the weekend, that now competes with church attendance. There is no remedy to this challenge except growing closer to Christ and taking church membership seriously.
Another fascinating discussion relates to the use of screens. Fesko argues strongly that addiction and worship of screens is very high today. Indeed, the more technology develops, the more screens will be ubiquitous. Addiction to screens is a problem because in addition to all addictions being sinful, research shows that screens lead to depression, suicide, physical problems and other issues. The problem with screens explains why producers of these technologies do not use them as much as everyone else does. How do we live in the age of screens? Fesko believes we must recognise the issue of screens is a heart problem rather than a screen problem. We need to ensure we draw near to Christ, and we use the means of grace.
I think the broad conclusion that the challenges of technology are fundamentally a heart problem, which only closeness to Christ can solve, is correct. However, Fesko’s assessment of the scale of the problem is incomplete, which of course means a less comprehensive pastoral steer.
My reading of the book is that Fesko essentially believes that technology is value free, even though in some places he acknowledges that technology can induce good or positive behaviour. For example, in one place he notes that much of the technology being produced today tends to induce deep longings rather than fulfil them. This is certainly the case with algorithms embedded in social media technologies which seem to foster deeper yearning to stay in touch. Instead of meeting our needs, the technology seems to create more needs in us. Now if that is true, then it is surely the case that the technology in question is not in fact value neutral but bent towards evil. It is an “evil technology” even though it does not have a moral standing before God. To put it another way, suppose there was a robotic technology which has been programmed to utter blasphemies all day. Is such a technology morally neutral? No. It is an evil technology. An instrument of evil.
Now, I am labouring this obvious point because it is part of something bigger that is missing from the book. Fesko doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the producer dimension of the problem. I suspect part of the reason is that this book is focused on consumers. The problem is that seeing things only from a consumer angle underestimates the scale of the challenge, even for consumers. Most importantly not everyone in the pew is merely a consumer. A lot of Christians are involved in the production of these technologies. In that vein, it is interesting to note that the current debate in society is whether we are producing the right technologies. This is the question explored in TV shows like Black Mirror. It has also been at the heart of political debate over Facebook and Twitter.
In truth, my concern is larger than the the question of production. I worry that Fesko’s silence is perhaps due to insufficient appreciation of the problem of original sin. There are such things as evil technologies designed to bring out the worst in people or built with algorithms that promote sin. We can be sure of this because in general all technology produced by man is affected by the fall. People build things with the purpose of meeting their selfish goals. So most of the technologies will have a bent towards promoting evil. Of course this all comes down to how one defines “technology”. There are technologies within technologies. And sometimes the particulars may be value free but not the whole and vice versa.
In short, the book lacks a robust theology of technology. We see this particularly, with the discussion of Virtual Reality (VR). Fesko believes the fundamental problem with VR is that it separates the physical from the mind, thereby promoting a disembodied existence. It is okay to use it once in a while to achieve some leisure or utilitarian goal. But if it starts to displace our physical reality that is wrong. According to Fesko, the primary reality of life is physical because God created us to live physical lives.
The problem is that Fesko does not articulate a comprehensive theology of reality and creation. He doesn’t tell us how our primary reality can be physical when our lives are centred on worship God who is Spirit? And how do we grapple with the issue of our disembodied state in heaven? In Heaven we will be without earthly bodies. And whilst that will be incomplete it is not regarded in the Bible as a bad experience. More fundamentally, Fesko does not acknowledge that all creation including virtual reality is part of God’s creation. God is the creator even of the things we we create. These issues would have been fleshed more clearly if he had set out a brief clear theology of virtue reality.
Another area I would have loved Fesko to develop more relates to how we read books. Fesko admits that though e-books bring great benefits, there are also great downsides. One downside is comprehension. The other is around “sacred activities”. The use of e-books can make sacred activities appear less important. Fesko’s approach is that we should do a proper cost benefit analysis of the use of e-books and decide accordingly. The problem is that there are issues on the supply side that need more exploration. For example like authoritarianism and revisionism. There is also no discussion about the church’s reliance on PowerPoint and whether that fosters more wider use of screens and encourages a church where the church is not regarded as a sacred space. Should churches be more intentional in encouraging people to do more physical reading.
So, what is my conclusion? I think the book is definitely worth reading. I am thankful to God that Fesko took the trouble to put his thoughts down and especially for writing a short and engaging book. However, for those who have read books on technology you are unlikely to read anything that you have not come across before. For those of us who are not American we may find it too American and irrelevant in one or two places.