Thoughts on Technology

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I’ll be chatting with Jon Leonetti on the morning show on Iowa Catholic Radio today about technology – specifically: how to keep from being mastered by technology.

It will be a very quick little chat and so I don’t know how far we will get but I wanted to post a few thoughts and links here as an accompaniment.

My personal favorite author on this topic is Neil Postman, whose book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” was one of the few assigned reading at my state university which I really enjoyed and found useful.

I would highly recommend picking up a copy of that book but to get a taste first, read this address he gave to Catholic Bishops in the lat 1990’s:

Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

One of the general characteristics I admire in Postman’s work was that it is neither “technophilic” nor “technophobic” but rather merely realistic. A piece of technology cannot carry any inherent moral good or evil (this much we know and are frequently reminded) and yet all technology does carry with it certain ideas, values, and prejudices about our world:

In a culture without writing, human memory is of the greatest importance, as are the proverbs, sayings and songs which contain the accumulated oral wisdom of centuries. That is why Solomon was thought to be the wisest of men. In Kings I we are told he knew 3,000 proverbs. But in a culture with writing, such feats of memory are considered a waste of time, and proverbs are merely irrelevant fancies. The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether.

The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, “The medium is the message.” – Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

This, again, appears to me to be quite realistic. A piece of technology is a finite invention with a rather static potential for utility. As such, it cannot help but carry with it certain ideas about our information, our work, our relationships, and our world.

It is up to us to, again, not be automatically techno “philic” or “phobic” but simply to approach technology with eyes wide open, aware that all technology/media carry a message and actively seeking what that is. Then of course we have to have the self-knowledge and discipline to see how a technology is or could be affecting us negatively and then to do something about it, whether this means trying to limit the damage or just passing up on a given piece of tech entirely.

In addition to discipline and the ability to just say “no” if necessary, I think we need to be creative. We need to avoid merely taking new technologies at face value and using or embracing them as their inventors expect us to. The creators of our communications technologies – computers, smart phones, email, etc – tell us that we should be connected 24/7, but we don’t have to be. But my little family limits tv watching (Netflix, in our case) to weekends only and I personally restrict my email checking to twice a day. After college I got rid of my video games entirely just because there was/is no more space in my life for them (and if there were, there are better things to be added).

Wow, I have a lot more I want to say on this topic but for now, 1) be aware, critical, and realistic about technology, 2) know and be realistic (and honest!) about thyself, and 3) be disciplined, be able to say “no”, but also be creative when figuring how to continue living “in but not of the world” ad majorem Dei gloriam.

 

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