Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.
Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, I’m not (and nor was Postman) strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.
In particular, reading Postman illuminated three things for me.
First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics, alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.
Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought—even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). To a man wielding a hammer, it’s nails all the way down. This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because such an establishment can have no other gods before it.
Second, Postman shows how the more technological (vs. physical/organic) our societies become, the more we are governed by the tyranny of statistics. If something is not trackable, quantifiable, and sortable, we are duped into believing that it must be somehow less than real. The dangers of this idea for the ministry of the Gospel (or friendship, marriage, parenting, etc.) are profound. In a world ordered this way, which makes more sense (and brings in more donations)? A ministry strategy that can point to x conversions, y recommitments, and z baptisms or a ministry that patiently wades through the morass of sin in the human heart over the course of decades to bring a handful of men and women to a saving and lasting faith in Christ? Leaving the 99 to reach the 1 doesn’t add up in the statistical realm.
Third, though Postman was not, to my knowledge, a Christian, he understood that people are designed to uncritically trust in something, giving it their full confidence and shaping their lives around its constancy. For much of human history, this trust was placed in the supernatural–whether in the One True God or in various false “gods”–men understood that there were things beyond themselves that they could not subdue, so they worshipped. Once that trust gets dislodged by doubt, desire, or dominion, however, Postman observed that it drifts from place to place. In our present era, it has landed on science and technology—there is no suffering under the sun that a new innovation will not ameliorate, no problem the experts cannot answer.
The trouble is that this new foundation is unstable, being wholly unsuited to the weight of the world placed on its shoulders. Once our technopoly (in Postman’s terminology, the reign of technology) collapses, as it someday must, Postman fears mankind’s confidence may collapse with it, leading to despair and desolation.
As with most cultural critics, Postman is far better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective solution, and Technopoly (like many of his other works) bequeaths that task to his readers.
The one thing that gives me hope after reading Postman (and a quick glance out the window to be reminded that his social observations were spot on and the phenomena he described decades ago are now in full flower) is that he doesn’t factor the actual existence and influence of God into his equations. God is not merely a pillar of support imagined by ancient man, but the Creator and sustainer of all there is. That’s why all such secular “doomsday” scenarios seem somewhat hokey to me—if tomorrow the incurable pandemic arrives or the worldwide power grid crumbles, God would still be on His throne, and my responsibilities before Him are still the same, if perhaps thrown into sharper relief.
The challenge of worship in a still-functioning technopoly, however, is to remember that God is on His throne even when the whizbangery of the day wants me to believe that the apparent authority it has over me is absolute. This means shutting down, logging off, etc. is as important a spiritual discipline as anything else because it is a prerequisite of any of the others—I’ve never truly prayed, worshipped, or meditated on the Word while in the thrall of the digital.
A little lesson in this came to me in the form of my daily bread. A few years back, my wife contacted an old friend of mine—a baker—and arranged for me to spend the afternoon with him learning the art of sourdough bread-making as a Christmas present. Since then, I’ve spent part of at least one weekend a month corralling “wild” microbes, kneading them into dough, and waiting for the mythos of fermentation and a 450-degree oven to turn this pungent goo into a loaf of bread worthy of the king’s table. Once you’ve tasted this stuff, going back to the mass-produced air bubbles we call “bread” in America is not an option.
It’s been a visual reminder that the old ways can still be good ways (people have been making bread this way since time immemorial—it is a way to work with, rather than around, the created order of things) and that efficiency is not always synonymous with speed and volume. Just because something is billed as “the best thing since sliced bread” doesn’t make it a net good for your life. Next time somebody tries to sell you that lot, stop and ponder whether you’d rather choke down store-bought simplicity or something better and more valuable than convenience can comprehend.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2).