Most people believe that technology itself is always morally neutral (I disagree, but that’s a matter for another post). What we can all agree on is that technologies can be used in both morally good and morally bad ways.
The computer can be used for good or bad. A rocket can be used for good or bad. A hammer, for good or bad. The internet can be used to bring people together or divide us up. eCommerce can be used to start a stay-at-home business or to put local shops out of business. Etc.
There is an underlying assumption in all of this, however, that regardless of the bad and good of particular technologies, that “technological progress” on the whole has resulted in a net positive for humanity. After all, we live longer, healthier, more luxurious, more comfortable, more leisurely lives with far less physical suffering. And so we assume that for all the negative that may be caused from our technological progress, that the “good outweighs the bad.”
Kevin Kelly, the famous technological prophet, believes technology is 51% good and 49% bad and thus we inevitably make positive progress overall.
But I think this thinking is based on more of a hope than real evidence. And of course, when measuring such good and bad effects, one must first have some consensus on what “progress” means and by what moral markers we are measuring.
Certainly, from a spiritual standpoint, it would appear that the great technological age has coincided with a great spiritual depression. Certainly far fewer people take seriously (or are even familiar with) philosophy, theology, and religion. Less people pray. Far more are depressed and fail to find deeper meaning in their lives. All in an age of continuously marvelous technological distraction. The correlation is not a coincidence. Technology has made us more efficient, but less holy.
So it appears that Technological Progress has not had an overall positive effect on Man’s relationship with God (the ultimate purpose of Man).
But then the question follows, if this be so, how can we justify all the benefits of technology if they have generally resulted in a net separation of Man from God? We can’t call it “progress” and we certainly can’t make the assumption that technology has been “more good than bad.”
So what do we do? Are we to become ludites…rejecting technology outright? After all, it is apparent that even though technology has done all these good things (insert endless list of good things everyone uses to justify it), that it is actually still worth giving all of it up if it results in more meaningful spiritual progress. This is absolutely true, and it is helpful for us to admit that (and perhaps use that as a starting point!).
But, of course, this is also a false choice.
Instead, we are called to something much more difficult in the messy middle. We must wrestle with and discern with intention whether a particular technology is good for us, and then resist it or baptize it accordingly.
What we mustn’t do is 1) blindly assume that overall this “technological progress” is necessarily a net positive and 2) mindlessly accept its widespread use as inevitable. For most all of it, we do indeed have a choice, particularly as it pertains to how our own homes operate. And when we make this choice, it’s important to make sure we are accounting for all of the variables (…which we rarely do).
For example, when springing for the riding lawnmower over the push mower, it’s easy to simply say…”it will save me 2 hrs per week…over time that’s definitely worth the extra cost!” But this calculation doesn’t account for the most important variables. Yes, you’ll get two hours back each week, but what about the 2 hrs per week of guaranteed exercise you just lost? What about the 2 hrs per week of time to think, distraction free? What about the 2 hrs per week or time spent caring for and cherishing your home, making you a more grateful person? What about the extra muscles and the lessons in hard work and frugality your son gets when he must make do with the old push mower?
That’s not to say a riding mower may not be justified. But we must make sure we are accounting for the most important variables and weighting them as such. In the end, nothing is more important than the soul.
Is this bigger, smarter TV making it more likely my child becomes a saint? Or less likely? How about giving my 12-year old a cell phone? How about picking up a screen over a book? Will a dish rag or a dishwasher make me more grateful for my clean dishes? Is a high-tech abode going to produce more or less virtuous children? Is the desk job better than manual labor? Is pre-made better than handmade? Is an email better than a letter?
The answer isn’t always straight-forward, but the only way “technological progress” ends up more good than bad for us is if we are willing to wrestle with it at every step, account for the most important variables (which are often not the most immediate nor apparent), and then be willing to make hard, often counter-cultural, sacrifices for the sake of our souls.