Battling with Technopoly (2)
Written by Anthony Selvaggio
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Reformed Practice - Technology

Last month I described how the sons of Cain and the Babelites used technology to subvert a God-centered world view. They succumbed to the deification of technology or what Neil Postman referred to as “technopoly.”

However, we must realize that this is a common human pattern. As Derek Kidner notes: “Cain’s family is a microcosm: its pattern of technical prowess and moral failure is that of humanity.”1 We may fall prey to technopoly, too. So how do we know if we are suffering from its ills?

Disengagement

While technological developments such as cell phones and the internet are lauded as a means of fostering greater connectivity in our world, ironically they have often delivered the exact opposite.

Technology frequently disengages us from our real, three-dimensional world and connects us to an unreal, two-dimensional, virtual world. By disengaging us from the context of our real world, technology can subtly rob us of meaningful interaction with our neighbor.

I remember the first time I encountered someone wearing a cell phone earpiece. I was waiting in line at Starbucks and this man in front of me seemed to be talking to himself. At first, I thought he was mentally unstable and cautiously backed away from him. But then I saw the device protruding from his ear. The man proceeded to carry on a cell phone conversation during the entire time he was in Starbucks. My guess is that he never even noticed the other humans around him. He was entirely disengaged from his real world surroundings. He was there, but wasn’t there. Social scientists have coined the phrase “absent presence” to describe this phenomenon.

This type of technologically induced disengagement has real spiritual implications. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27) and to share the gospel with every creature (Matt. 28:18 –20). We can’t love our neighbor and we can’t share the gospel if we refuse to engage with our world.

In our culture we are plugging in and tuning out. This is exactly what Satan wants us to do: he wants us to neglect our neighbor. Think about it—if the good Samaritan was wearing an iPod and text-messaging his friend on a cell phone, do you think he would have noticed the wounded man in the ditch?

Distraction

The primary way technology distracts us from what is really important is by entertaining us. As Neil Postman has pointed out, technology enhances our opportunities to amuse ourselves to death. Technology has exponentially increased our ability to entertain ourselves.

Of course, entertainment is not inherently evil. It is a legitimate form of recreation. It becomes harmful, however, when it is sinful or when it dominates our lives and distracts us from focusing on the truly important things, like our relationship with God. When it dominates, it creates what the French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, referred to as “empty time.” It causes people to “lose their sense of reality and to abandon their search for truth.”2

Satan loves to distract us. He is quite pleased to satisfy our minds and consume our lives by offering us endless sources of entertainment. He wants to fill our lives with empty time. He understands that distractions and diversions work in his favor. He knows what the French theologian Blaise Pascal knew, that all “the major forms of diversion are dangerous to the Christian life.”3

The last thing Satan wants you to do is to fulfill the admonition of Paul to “set your minds on things above” (Col. 3:2). One of the ways he keeps you from doing this is through the distracting power of technology.

Disembodiment

A third symptom of technopoly is disembodiment. God has created us as unified beings possessing both a body and soul. This vital union of body and soul is what defines us as human.

Technology, however, has made it possible to divide this union. The philosopher Albert Borgman notes that technology allows us to receive information solely through our eyes and ears while the rest of our bodies become both “immobile and irrelevant.” Borgman notes that the end result of this process is a “disembodied person.”4 Never before in human history have humans had the ability to separate their consciousness from their bodies.

The reason why this disembodiment is spiritually dangerous is because it makes us both less human and less humane. It allows us also to separate our actions from our bodies.When humans are able to separate their bodies from their actions, they are more likely to engage in sinful and destructive behavior because they can distance themselves from the consequences of their actions. In other words, technological disembodiment leads us to engage in activities which we would never engage in if our whole being were present. A prime example of this is the practice known as “cyberbullying.”5

Cruelty

Schoolchildren now trash their classmates in virtual internet communities. They cavalierly ruin the reputations of real people by their disembodied actions in a virtual world. They display a level of cruelty in this virtual world which they would never express in a real-world encounter.

Why is this occurring? Because the internet allows them to separate their bodies from their actions. It is true that technology is a tool to build and create things, but it can also become a tool to destroy things. Technology can destroy our communities through disengagement, our relationship with God through distraction, and our sense of morality through disembodiment.

In the next article, we will explore ways to resist the destructive power of technopoly.

Rev. Anthony Selvaggio is visiting professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a teaching elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. This article was printed in Heritage Reformed Churches' "The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth" and is republished here with permission.

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  1. Derek Kidner, Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1967), 78.
  2. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Random House, 1964), 337; as quoted in Marva Dawn’s Unfettered hope (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 18.
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 764; as quoted in Dawn’s Unfettered Hope, 19.
  4. Albert Borgman, Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992), 106; as quoted in Dawn’s Unfettered Hope, 4.
  5. Anne Marie Chaker, “Schools act to short-circuit spread of Cyberbullying,” The Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2007, D1.