Technology, Empire, and Authority

At InterVarsity’s Staff Conference 2017 back in January, Andy Crouch spoke on how authority and vulnerability shape human experience, and how the Biblical story of a fully realized, healthy, and holy society is one which maximizes both authority and vulnerability (He introduced these ideas in his InterVarsity Press book Strong and Weak). In contrast to a common human understanding, which seeks to maximize authority and minimize vulnerability, a Christlike life embraces the vulnerability necessary to fully meet with people and to fully serve the needs of our community, thereby enabling human flourishing.

 

Andy Crouch - SC 17 from InterVarsity twentyonehundred on Vimeo.

My reflections here will make the most sense if you watch his talk, but I’ll do my best to make it approachable for someone who hasn’t seen it. My main hope is to respond to one of the claims from his talk, and help us better understand how technology affects our faith, as well as how we should interact with it (and use it to interact with one another).

Preface

A quick recap: On the axes of authority and vulnerability, Andy named the High Authority, Low Vulnerability (upper left) quadrant as Idolatry, also called Control, or Empire. The fundamental problem with this posture is that in our world, achieving this circumstance invariably requires sticking other people in a place of High Vulnerability, Low Authority (lower right quadrant), which is Poverty. Since no one voluntarily pursues poverty, the only way to achieve control is violence - perhaps not the kind of physical violence you first think of when you hear the word, but imposition and force is always present. In short, an Empire is not a Christlike system because it requires choosing to harm others for the sake of self.

Andy went on to provide three examples of empires in our modern life: technology, sexuality, and the Presidency of the United States. He had worthwhile things to say about all three, and I’d love to explore them all, but for this post our focus is on technology.

Andy's Argument

(His discussion of technology as empire begins at about 26:30 in the video linked above)

Andy acknowledged that he was pressed for time, so his discussion of technology as an empire and an idol was brief. It centered around a few core ideas. I ultimately agree with some of his ideas as bullet points, but suspect from the way he presented them that we’ll diverge when it comes to the conclusions we draw afterward.

Essentially, he argues that technology is an empire because of the way it consumes our attention and energy and the way we come to depend on it. It is an empire because of the promises it makes to us about convenience, simplicity, and availability. Technology promises omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. The people who command these technological forces are more powerful than presidents. Having a device as powerful as a smartphone, always ready at hand, conveys an incredible sense of power to do, say, know, and see anything we want, including things that we should know better than to engage. It makes us feel limitless and invincible.

Digging Deeper

Let’s unpack some of those thoughts and dig into the most important distinction that needs to be made: the difference between what technology inherently is and what we make of it.

To put things in terms of the axes of Authority and Vulnerability, the majority of human technological development (across all of human history) has been a pursuit of more authority and less vulnerability. I’m not just talking about high tech here, either. Even early technology, simple tools like fire, shovels, and clothing are examples. Fire grants more authority over warmth, light, and food, while reducing one’s vulnerability to wildlife and the elements. A shovel grants more authority over the earth and enables farming, reducing the vulnerability of relying on foraging to find food. 

This continues in every age. The wheel granted more authority over land, reducing the vulnerability of being stuck in one place. The printing press granted authority over knowledge and reduced the vulnerability of relying on elite classes for knowledge. The clock granted authority over scheduling, reducing the vulnerability of uncertainty in trade and travel.

So we can affirm a fundamental point that Andy Crouch made: technology, as a human pursuit, has a decidedly imperial history at its heart.

However, I have two questions that add some nuance to the issue.

First, Is this something unique to technology?

I’m prepared to say no. Any student of human nature should quickly see that it’s quite natural for us to desire the Empire quadrant. No one, if they’re honest, wants to be vulnerable. Christ teaches the importance of it, and the richness of life that comes when we embrace this truth, but we all have hearts that want to get rich quick, and High Authority, High Vulnerability life is a get rich slow scheme. Technology lays no special claim on the earnest pursuit of a more comfortable, less demanding way of living.

This does not diminish the consequence of using technology with an idolatrous mindset, but it does challenge the notion of placing the blame on technology itself, making technology a watchword for corruption and danger in our time. The human heart, the selfish and ambitious nature of man, has been present in our kind for exactly so long as we have been a technological people; from day one. There are legitimate concerns with several specific modern technologies, and I’ll discuss them in a moment, but naming technology an empire without some very crucial nuance runs the risk of scapegoating and ignoring the real issue.

Second, Is it possible to develop and use technology without imperialism?

The short answer is yes.

Well known examples include the famous case of Jonas Salk choosing not to patent the polio vaccine, the Open Source Software movement, and the way Twitter was used during the Arab Spring.

Though many (probably most) companies develop new products with a mind to profits, shareholders, market share, and other economic influences, that doesn’t make it impossible for technologists to have more honorable intentions. Consider events like Indigitous #Hack, which brought together over 1,000 Christian technologists to develop products for the Kingdom of God. Consider Tesla Motors, who have decided to open source all their patents in the interest of advancing the quality of technology worldwide.

Promoting Flourishing (Andy's upper right quadrant) through technology needs to be a conscious effort; if we aren’t actively seeking it, odds are high that we’ll veer off into Idolatry. But it can be done, and that means that technology itself is not the villain in this story.

It's not my intention to criticize Andy; I only want to add some nuance. Though I don't believe it was his intention, I fear that a hasty application of his warnings could prompt some people to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and miss opportunities to flourish for fear of idolatry. It’s important to emphasize that balance is needed here. 

Exploring Dangers

With that in mind, let's look at where Andy has something really right: there are technologies in the world right now that have dreadful consequences if they’re misunderstood and misused. Careless, thoughtless engagement with technology is dangerous. Social media is not inherently harmful, but people regularly imagine that things they say on Twitter don’t “count”, or that what they post on Facebook doesn’t affect the people who are reading it. It takes time to learn the rules and etiquette of new social structures, and one of the really powerful things about new technology today is that we are building structures much faster than we can collectively process their potential impact.

There are also many CEOs, advertisers, and companies that want to promise you quick fixes to all your problems, cures for everything that ails you, and a cherry on top. Like I’ve said, the constant challenge of Flourishing, up and to the right, is that it is a get rich slow scheme. Anyone that promises you a quick fix is, intentionally or not, promising you something that won’t last. Empires rise quickly and fall in time; God’s Kingdom will come in the fullness of time, and will be everlasting. 

Conclusions

I loved Andy’s talk, and I was incredibly grateful to hear what he had to say. What I'm sharing here is intended to build on what he shared and help us all think more deeply and carefully about this issue.

There are real risks and dangers in technology, and we must be aware and deliberate in how we engage with all the new and shiny things we make. That should never be glossed over. But there’s not really anything unique about technology in this regard. Life is complicated from head to toe, and we should be just as circumspect in our faith, relationships, politics, and every other sphere of life as we are in engaging with technology. In the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Life is pain, Highness, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

The people who are selling a false bill of goods will say “I can end your pain, forever, today!” 

The God of all humanity, the author of the greatest story ever told, says “Endure this pain along with me, for a little while, and I will carry you to a Kingdom more beautiful than you can imagine.”

May His Kingdom come.

 

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