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Christian Perspectives: Contemporary Assessments of Technology

Christian Perspectives: CONTEMPORARY ASSESSMENTS OF TECHNOLOGY

Insofar as Christianity, like any religion, is a way of life as much or more than a system of thinking, its relations to modern technology are even more problematic than those with science. The Christian life aspires to provide guidance for daily behavior, from the saying of prayers to charitable care for others. When Jesus of Nazareth was asked about the most fundamental commandments (not ideas), he answered that they were "to love the Lord your God ... and your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). And when asked who is the neighbor, he answered not with a theoretical discourse but the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37). The most fundamental question for Christianity is the degree to which technology is or is not a way to practice love of one's neighbor.


The Origins of Technology

The historical fact is that modern technology arose within the context of a Christian culture. This has led to numerous debates about the degree to which Christianity has itself contributed to this origin. The most radical position is that of the historian Lynn White Jr. (1967) who has argued at length that the roots of technology in its distinctly modern form lie in Christian theology as it developed in the Latin West.

White's chief contention is that Christian theology, particularly the teaching of human dominion over creation, is the primary culprit underlying the environmental crises of the late twentieth centuries. In exercising this dominion humans have developed and deployed various technologies in an irresponsible manner, leading to ecological instability.

Although White's thesis has been subjected to subsequent criticism noting his failure to take into account the attending biblical emphasis on stewardship, which blunts the more egregious forms of exploitation he deplores, he nonetheless identifies a dilemma regarding a Christian moral assessment of technology per se. If on the one hand, technology is a valuable instrument humans use in exercising their dominion and stewardship, then it is inherently good. If on the other hand, technology is used in an exploitive and environmentally destructive manner thereby distorting human dominion and stewardship, then it is inherently evil. Various Christian theologians have adopted one or the other of these options, as well as a range of alternative assessments between these two extremes.

This historico-theological debate easily invites further analysis of the spectrum of theological attitudes toward technology. Drawing on a typology developed by Ian G. Barbour (1993), it is convenient to classify these basic attitudes as those of optimism, pessimism, and contextualism.



Christian Optimism

The first approach, optimism, perceives technology as a liberating force. Optimists contend that technology has been a singularly effective means for improving the quality of human life by overcoming a series of natural, social, and psychological constraints. This impressive accomplishment has been achieved by enabling higher living standards, improved health care, an expanded range of individual lifestyles, greater leisure, and rapid communication. Moreover, there is no compelling reason to believe that technological development will not continue this progressive trend in the foreseeable future.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Teilhard, 1964) offers an expansive vision in which technology is used by humans to determine their own destiny as a species. Current technical interventions are prompting the evolution of a global spiritual consciousness, and Teilhard foresees the day when humans will no longer be discrete organisms. Subsequent theologians in this category draw heavily on the works of such futurists as Daniel Bell, R. Buckminster Fuller, Herman Kahn, and Alvin Toffler. Harvey Cox (1965), for instance, praises technology for rescuing humans from the tyranny of tradition, thereby expanding the range of their freedom and creativity. Philip Hefner (1993, 2003) portrays it as a principal mechanism for humans to fulfill their calling as God's created co-creators. In general, optimists tend to regard technology as a means for humans to better display the divine image they bear, or to more effectively express a love of neighbor.

Critics charge that optimists too easily disregard the costs and risks of technological development; unintended consequences and catastrophic accidents can and do occur. In addition, the large-scale technologies advocated by most optimists concentrate economic and political power in the hands of the few, which is inherently antidemocratic. Most importantly, the emergence of a technological age has alienated humans from nature, and is unsustainable because it is consuming natural resources and destroying ecologies at voracious rates that will eventually threaten human welfare. Confidence in unlimited technological development is more an unorthodox than an orthodox leap of faith. In the words of Jacques Ellul (1964), it is a non-Pascalian wager on human power, not the existence of God.

In reply, optimists contend their reliance on technology is justified. History is a relatively accurate indicator of future trends, and the path of technological development has an impressive track record. Whatever problems may exist presently or in the future can be solved through rational policies governing further technological development.


Christian Pessimism

The second type, pessimism, is the polar opposite of the first because it views technology as a grave threat, a consequence of living in a fallen creation. Pessimists perceive the emerging technological society as a place of unrelenting uniformity and conformity that undermines individual freedom. They decry a narrow understanding of efficiency leading to numbing specialization and social fragmentation. Moreover, the process of developing and maintaining various technological projects is inherently alienating; genuine communities are displaced by functional and manipulative relationships. More menacingly, technology takes on a life of its own that is not easily subjected to human control.

Ellul is the dominant figure here. His principal thesis is that society now comprises a series of interdependent ensembles of economic, political, and psychological techniques. More troubling, these ensembles are merging into a singular, comprehensive, and autonomous technique that resists, if not defies, meaningful human participation or control. In short, modern technological development is totalitarian and dehumanizing. A number of other writers have either expanded on or formulated similar arguments. George Grant (1986), for example, contends that modern technology embodies Friedrich Nietzsche's will to power, resulting in an unrelenting desire to master nature and human nature.

This fixation on mastery creates two related moral problems: First, technology is the means of the powerful to assert their will over the weak, and second, rather than enabling human flourishing, technical efficiency becomes a standard to which human behavior must conform. As a consequence, basic notions of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice become profoundly disfigured and corrupted in a technological age. Albert Borgmann (2003), for instance, argues that the principal values underlying technological development distort normative patterns of human interaction. The fast-food industry has transformed the art of dining into a quick meal on the run. What is lost in the process is a rich set of cooperative practices involving the careful preparation of the meal, its leisurely consumption, and accompanying conversation. This loss in turn has a detrimental effect on the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities. It should be noted that although pessimists are certainly not sanguine about the future, neither are they without hope. For instance, Grant and Borgmann assert, respectively, that a recovery of Platonic principles and Christian moral convictions, and the employment of key focal practices can at least mitigate the ill effects of a technological society.

Critics charge pessimists with such a high level of abstraction that their ensuing analysis diverts rather than focuses attention on the ethical issues at stake. They grant technology a deterministic power that cannot be challenged; the outcomes of technological development will, by definition, always be evil or at least menacing. This conclusion is unwarranted because pessimists have concocted a self-fulfilling prophecy instead of demonstrating an inherent inevitability. This is reflected in their failure to make any discrimination among discrete technologies, and how their development has varied within different cultural settings. More importantly, pessimists refuse to entertain the possibility that technology can be redirected in ways that strengthen rather than corrode the values they commend. More control over the direction of technological development can be exerted than they are willing to admit.

In response, pessimists insist that their level of abstraction is no less than that employed by optimists. Consequently, the resulting analysis in behalf of progressive technological development serves to confuse rather than clarify the ethical issues in question. Moreover, the contention that technology can be easily redirected to serve human values is naive, because it fails to recognize the extent to which the purported values have been deformed by a pervasive technical rationality, thereby rendering them unsuitable as a moral rudder.


Contextualism

The third type, contextualism, occupies the middle space between the previous two. Rejecting the generalizations of both optimists and pessimists are those who claim that technology is an ambivalent instrument of power that can be used for good or evil purposes in varying socioeconomic contexts. Consequently, contextualists contend that through a combination of social, political, and economic reforms, technological development can be redirected toward more just and humane goals.

Given their heavy emphasis on reform, contextualists devote a great deal of attention to issues involving regulatory policies. Victor C. Ferkiss (1969, 1974), for instance, argues that existing political structures can redirect technological development, but that this requires two prior steps. First, technology must be directed away from generating private wealth (for example, corporate profit) and toward promoting the common good (such as the environment). Second, a rampant individualism that diminishes the common good must be tempered with more decentralized, inclusive, and participatory decision-making processes. Roger Shinn (1982) agrees with the pessimists that various technologies form an interlocking structure that tends to concentrate and centralize economic and political power, but he argues that citizens can marshal sufficient pressure to garner greater democratic control.

Barbour places himself in the contextual camp because he believes it embodies a biblical perspective that combines the ideal of social justice with a realistic assessment of self-interested power. Contextualists seek the practical application of moral convictions that direct technology toward meeting basic human needs, and this goal is best accomplished by creating more distributive economic systems, implementing widely participatory and democratic regulation, and developing appropriately scaled and sustainable technologies.

As might be expected, optimists and pessimists offer differing criticisms of this middle position. Optimists contend that the reforms envisioned by contextualists would serve only to retard economic growth. Without sufficient incentives for return on investment little innovation or technical progress will be achieved, even on the modest scale envisioned. The net effect would be to amplify the very injustice and suffering of the disadvantaged groups the contextualists purportedly wish to serve. Pessimists dismiss reform as little more than a rearguard action that may slow the pace but will not change the direction of technological development. Once enacted, reforms will be subsumed within a more encompassing framework of techniques, thereby rendering them ineffectual. There is scant evidence that the course of modern technological development has been redirected once it has achieved sufficient momentum. In reply, contextualists argue that the dire predictions of optimists and pessimists cannot be known in advance. The only way to test the validity of reform is its implementation in order to judge the failure or efficacy of actual results.


Illustrative Issue: Energy

Although this typology identifies three basic approaches for assessing technology, the question remains: What difference do these approaches make in respect to specific ethical issues and religious life? Consider two illustrative case studies. First, since the 1960s environmental issues have commanded public attention. Focusing on the related issue of energy allows for a more clear focus on the arguments originating in the categories outlined above. In each instance a dominant theological doctrine or theme underlying these arguments is also identified.

Optimists assert that the so-called energy crisis is greatly exaggerated. There is admittedly a finite limit to fossil fuels, but new and more plentiful sources, such as hydrogen and nuclear power, can be developed. The adverse impact on the environment caused by steadily increasing energy consumption has also been overstated. Automobile and power plant emissions have already been reduced through the use of more efficient technologies, and the development of new fuels promises even cleaner sources of energy. Individuals do not need to forsake their affluent lifestyles as claimed by many environmentalists. Rather, what is needed are economic incentives and investment opportunities that promote rapid technological development to ensure plentiful and relatively cheap sources of energy.

The principal theological justification of this position is an underlying anthropocentrism. Human benefit is the measure for determining whether certain acts are good or evil, a belief stemming from the biblical mandate that humans have been given dominion over creation. Consequently, humans may exploit natural resources to improve the quality of their lives, and the standard used to evaluate this improvement is predominantly materialistic.

The optimists' energy manifesto merely confirms the worse fears of the pessimists. On the one hand, hope is being placed largely on unproven technologies with unknown risks. The entire enterprise could prove disastrous. On the other, even if successful the envisioned programs would centralize political and economic power even more, thereby exacerbating the gap between rich and poor, and further eroding the already fragile bonds of various communities. This is but another ploy for tightening the grip of an autonomous technological system already beyond democratic control.

The primary religious imagery informing this perspective may be described as theopocentric. The morality of certain acts is judged in relation to God's will or commands. Moreover, nature is not a storehouse of raw material waiting to be exploited, but part of God's creation, and should be honored as such. Consequently, natural limits should shape normative patterns of both individual lives and communal life. This may require adopting far simpler lives of restricted mobility and reduced consumption of material goods, but such is the price, as well as the joy, of being God's faithful and obedient servants.

Contextualists claim that pessimists and optimists proffer, respectively, a mistaken diagnosis and remedy. Technology per se is neither the problem nor the solution. The real issue at stake is the purposes that various technologies serve. The generation and delivery of energy should be directed primarily toward meeting needs rather than wants. This means that a combination of renewable and nonrenewable sources of energy should be developed, and the delivery mechanisms scaled down, decentralized, and subjected to participatory and democratic control. These reforms admittedly require adopting less mobile and consumptive lifestyles, but not a wholesale rejection of technology as feared by the optimists. In addition, greater democratic participation and less hectic lives may also promote the kind of human relationships and communities advocated by the pessimists.

The principal theological theme informing the contextualist approach is stewardship. Humans do not own the earth and may not do with it what they wish. They are instead entrusted by God to oversee its care. Because humans are accountable to God, there are certain normative convictions inherent to the role they have been called to perform. Consequently, there are limits to the extent to which natural resources should be exploited, but this does not mean that technology should be rejected because its appropriate use can assist humans to be good and faithful stewards.


Illustrative Issue: Biotechnology

Although Barbour's typology helps to identify differing ethical assessments of and theological perspectives on technology, the analysis is confined principally to mediating a perceived dualistic relationship between nature and human culture. But are the three approaches still illuminating when technology is used to bridge or even eliminate the nature–culture distinction? This question is prompted by anticipated developments in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology. The most promising advances presumably involve the complementary approaches of designing sophisticated machines that emulate biological processes, while at the same time engineering biological organisms. Such an approach blurs the line separating the natural from the artificial. In practical terms, this implies a gradual merging of humans with their technology. Presumably this will occur initially through the introduction of more effective prosthetics (for example, optical implants to relieve blindness), but these therapeutic interventions could be used to enhance normal functions (such as telescopic or night vision). Some writers, such as Rodney A. Brooks (2002), Hans Moravec (1988, 1999), and Ray Kurzweil (1999), predict that this merging will prove so beneficial and complete that someday humans will be more like software than hardware. Minds will be uploaded into computers and then downloaded into organically engineered, robotic or virtual substrata. Yet how would Christians assess the prospect of an emerging technoculture populated by a new species of "technosapiens"?

Technological optimists and pessimists have an apparently easy time answering this question. Optimists presumably support these envisioned advances. Alleviating suffering and extending longevity, to say nothing of the virtual immortality predicted by bold visionaries, would certainly benefit humankind. Against the assertion that developing technosapiens negates the anthropocentric base of the optimists' moral stance, it can be maintained that the possibility that humans might evolve into a superior species is not ruled out in principle. Natural selection, which is slow paced and indifferent to human well-being, is being replaced by a more efficient and purposeful form of selection that favors human flourishing. Moreover, the quintessential characteristic of the human mind will be preserved and amplified in technosapiens. This emphasis upon a technologically enhanced human could in turn enable the emergence of the kind of global and spiritual consciousness envisioned by Teilhard de Chardin.

Pessimists are appalled by the prospect of a technoculture because it is little more than thin veneer disguising a death wish for the human species. On the one hand, no one can foresee the potentially lethal consequences of the proposed technological developments. Pessimists echo the concerns of Bill Joy (2000) and others, who contend that these new technologies could very easily run amok, leading to the extinction of Homo sapiens. On the other hand, if the project proves successful, the emergence of posthumans nonetheless signals the end of human life. Individuals are formed within a series of relationships that are experienced in and mediated through organic bodies. To ignore this embodied quality is also to reject what it means to be human. Asserting their underlying theopocentric stance, the pessimists contend that humankind is a unique creature bearing the image of God. Bearing that image faithfully requires that the vulnerable and mortal nature of embodied existence be accepted and honored as a gift instead of despised as a burden to be escaped. Any presumption that humans can improve or perfect themselves is an idolatry predicated upon and ending in death.

It is difficult to determine how contextualists might assess the emergence of a technoculture. First, contextualists tend to use conceptual frameworks that may not be applicable in an emerging technoculture. How, for instance, are concepts of scale, sustainability, participation, and identifying risks and benefits applicable to the interests of posthumans? The reformist agenda promotes a responsive rather than proactive ethic, one more suited to redirecting rather than charting a new course of technological development.

Second, the dualism presupposed in the underlying theological rationale of stewardship is severely eroded if not rendered unintelligible. The role of the steward is to somehow protect nature or creation from what are judged to be unwarranted intrusions by human culture. Yet the force driving the technology in question itself collapses the boundaries separating these categories. Recovering a role for the steward in the context of an emerging technoculture would require making normative claims about nature or humankind. Such a maneuver, however, would also presumably entail moving closer to either the optimist or pessimist camp, thereby forsaking the middle ground.


Assessment

To ponder the prospect of an emerging technoculture populated by technosapiens is admittedly highly speculative. If history is a reliable guide, many, if not most, prognostications about this future will prove mistaken. Moreover, the immodest predictions about digitized beings enjoying their immortality within the friendly confines of virtual reality can be easily dismissed as science fiction posing as science. Such a casual dismissal, however, should be resisted. Again, if the past is any guide, the wildest dreams of many scientists and inventors that never came true, nonetheless sparked the imagination of previous generations to form a culture, for good or ill, intricately dependent upon an evolving technology. Even if none of the predictions about a technoculture and technosapiens prove true, the speculation itself reveals how humans are coming to perceive themselves and their future. This imaginative enterprise in turn poses a crucial question: In light of humankind's technological potential, what does it mean to be human? And more importantly, should the question be answered in terms of an essential feature (mind or body), or function (stewardship), or some combination? Answering these questions requires both critical and constructive engagement, and given the unprecedented transformative power these new technologies embody this will also require creating new categories which go beyond either optimism or pessimism. The Christian theological tradition can offer both critical constructive resources for answering these questions, and hopefully its contribution will help forge an ethic to guide the future course of technological development.

BRENT WATERS

SEE ALSO Ellul, Jacques; Kierkegaard, Søren; Nietzsche, Friedrich.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barbour, Ian G. (1993). Ethics in an Age of Technology. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. An overview of historical and contemporary ethical assessments of technologies from various religious perspectives.

Borgmann, Albert. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A detailed and in-depth analysis of how technology shapes modern social structures and institutions.

Borgmann, Albert. (2003). Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. A critical and constructive assessment of the emerging technoculture from an overtly Christian philosophical perspective.

Brooks, Rodney A. (2002). Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us. New York: Pantheon. A leader in the field of robotics argues that human nature contains key features that are essentially mechanistic, especially in respect to artificial intelligence.

Cole-Turner, Ronald. (1993). The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press. Argues that Christian theology needs to be reformulated in light of recent advances in genetics and biotechnology.

Cox, Harvey. (1965). The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. New York: Macmillan.

Deane-Drummond, Celia. (1997). Theology and Biotechnology: Implications for a New Science. London: Geoffrey Chapman. An introductory overview of issues theological issues raised by recent developments in biotechnology.

Deane-Drummond, Celia, and Bronislaw Szerszynski, eds. (2003). Re-Ordering Nature: Theology, Society, and the New Genetics. London: T and T Clark. A collection of essays by theologians and scientists examining a range of ethical issues related to genetic research.

Ellul, Jacques. (1964). The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf. A wide ranging critique of the social and political influence of modern technology.

Ferkiss, Victor C. (1969). Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality. New York: Braziller. Argues that modern political philosophy must be formulated in light of technology as the most influential formative social and economic force.

Ferkiss, Victor C. (1974). The Future of Technological Civilization. New York: Braziller. A philosophical argument in behalf of "ecological humanism."

Fern, Richard L. (2002). Nature, God, and Humanity: Envisioning an Ethics of Nature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Argues that a Christian solution that places a higher premium on the inherent value of nature needs to be developed in response to the environmental crisis.

Grant, George. (1986). Technology and Justice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. A highly critical assessment of the destructive nature of modern technological development.

Gustafson, James M. (1996). Intersections: Science, Theology, and Ethics. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press. A series of theological reflections on the cultural and religious meaning of modern technological development.

Hefner, Philip. (1993). The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. A theological apology for the human as God's created cocreator.

Hefner, Philip. (2003). Technology and Human Becoming. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. A religious reflection on the prospect and potential benefit of humans becoming cyborgs.

Heidegger, Martin. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row. Argues that technology is enfolding humanity within its own rationality and destiny.

Herzfeld, Noreen L. (2002). In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Written by a computer scientist; the central contention is that various approaches to research in artificial intelligence reveals corresponding assumptions regarding the central aspects of human nature.

Houston, Graham. (1998). Virtual Morality: Christian Ethics in the Computer Age. Leicester, UK: Apollos. Proposes that Christian theology can provide basic moral principles for governing behavior within the growing virtual domain of cyberspace.

Kurzweil, Ray. (1999). The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking. Argues that in the twenty-first century computer intelligence will become superior to that of humans, and that humans in turn will be forced to merge with computers in order to survive.

Mitcham, Carl, and Jim Grote, eds. (1984). Theology and Technology: Essays in Christian Analysis and Exegesis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. A collection of essays assessing the theological and religious significance of modern technology.

Moravec, Hans. (1988). Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A highly speculative essay on future developments in which artificial life will emerge as earth's most highly evolved species.

Moravec, Hans. (1999). Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. New York: Oxford University Press. A description of anticipated developments in robotics and artificial intelligence that will pave the way for humankind's "mind children" described in his previous book.

Pullinger, David. (2001). Information Technology and Cyberspace: Extra-Connected Living. London: Darton Longman and Todd. Examines such issues as privacy and community in light of the Christian teaching on love of neighbor in a world being shaped by communication technology.

Schultze, Quentin J. (2002). Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Discusses, from a Christian perspective, how people can be virtuous in a high-tech world.

Schuurman, Egbert. (1995). Perspectives on Technology and Culture, trans. John H. Kok. Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press. A critical analysis of technology's historic and scientific background in contemporary culture.

Shinn, Roger. (1982). Forced Options: Social Decisions for the 21st Century. San Francisco: Harper & Row. A leading Christian social ethicist examines a wide range of issues related to science, technology and society.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. (2004 [1964]). The Future of Man, trans. Norman Denny. London: Collins; New York: Image Books/Doubleday. A collection of highly speculative essays on the future course of human evolution.

White, Lynn, Jr. (1967). "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis." Science 155(3767): 1203–1207.


INTERNET RESOURCE

Joy, Bill. (2000). "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us." Wired 8(4): April. Available from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html. Argues that research in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology should be regulated, and in some instances prohibited, because they pose a threat to human survival.

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