S1E2: Between Optimism and Pessimsim
(The following is the manuscript for episode two of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on August 28th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
Is the glass half full, or half empty?
There is probably no question more amusing – or annoying – than this idiom. Its an easy way to quickly gauge who is the Leslie Knope and who is the Ron Swanson in the room. Its a quick shield and dismissal from criticism about whether or not you’re hopelessly positive or critical all the time – “I just see the glass half empty, its who I am!” Its the Intro to Philosophy question about whether or not absolute truth exists and what role subjectivity plays in the pursuit of truth. In high school my nickname was Eeyore, from Winney the Pooh, because I carried the same gloomy, woe-is-me, super pessimistic disposition as the stuffed donkey. In my world at the time, the glass was definitely half empty – and even that was being generous.
And yet, despite the triviality of the question, it’s nonetheless a useful diagnostic question to get a conversation started about how we approach subjects in general terms. It illustrates that, when tackling large, big picture questions, that starting with something that reduces a complicated topic or situation into something approachable like a glass of water. Obviously the question is not meant to be a nuanced, comprehensive answer, but its an easy question to ask that makes it easier to ask further, more specific questions that can lead to more fruitful conversations. I say all this because I recognize that the first episode of this podcast asked a lot of questions, and believe me, there are plenty more questions that will be asked along the way. It can be overwhelming to even know where to begin. Part of the problem is the scope of the subject matter – we are asking questions about things we spend hours with each and every day, whether its our phones, the Internet, or our entertainment. We aren’t also just concerned with asking questions about how these things are affecting us individually (though that is perhaps the best place to start), but how these things are affecting society and culture as a whole. The range alone is significant, and we haven’t even factored in the implications of the questions we ask. What will we find in the answers? What conclusions will we come to, and what will we do in response to them? You answers might be different than the ones I’ve come to, and will come to, and the course of action might be more or less drastic. I am a social media manager; my job is to know how Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram work, both as a consumer and as a producer. Leaving social media is not an option for me; but it may be for you. Conversely, you may not have a problem with being on your computer all the time, but I definitely do, and I’ve been trying to take steps to change that.
Perhaps it would be easy to start with some ways that people, including Christians, have thought about technology through the ages. We are not the first to wrestle with these questions, and we have much to learn from other thinkers who have gone before us just as much as we have to learn from present day writers. I really appreciate the work Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Garner did in their work “Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith In Digital Culture”, and how they summarize the work of science and religious scholar Ian Barbour. Barbour proposed three categories that represents the three common response to technology: technological optimism, technological pessimism, and technology ambiguity. These categories are not all encompassing, and I imagine that none of us fall fully into one of these categories, but I think they give us a helpful starting point for making sense of the technology and media around us.
Technological optimism is probably the easiest response for us to understand; I think its the default response of culture and society as a whole. Its the view that technology is what will usher us into a better, more peaceful world; as advances in science, medicine, engineering, and education are made, the world will become a better place. Ignorance and physical limitation will be overcome by an abundance of information and the tools to accomplish what was previously difficult or perhaps even impossible. We can think of Tesla, the car manufacturer and their leader, Elon Musk, and the possibilities of a future of electric vehicles. We can think of services like 23&Me and Ancestry.com, which help us gain understanding and control over who we are and where we’ve come from. We can think of Uber and AirBNB, which bypass the traditional transportation and lodging industries to make transportation and travel more convenient and more adventurous – not to mention cheaper. We can think of Apple, Amazon, Google, and dozens of other powerful companies who make truly life changing products or offer services that make life more convenient and stress-free than ever before. There’s even a unique Christian spin on technological optimism, one that baptizes this optimism in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit and sees technology as a means of fulfilling the Great Commission. Social media makes it easier to connect to members in our congregation and stay in touch with them throughout the week. Live streaming platforms make it possible live stream conferences, workshops, and seminars for those who would like to travel and attend, but lack the funds or means to do so. Creatives, like those who are a part of the Austin Stone Story Team, are able to use their talents in filmmaking, graphic design, storytelling, and other artistic talents to creative beautiful works that convey the Gospel in novel and powerful ways. Technological optimism knows that there are downsides and limitations to technology and media, but believes the benefits of current technology – and the promises of future technology – outweigh the downsides.
Technological pessimism, on the other hand, is the opposite response. Technological pessimists don’t believe there aren’t any upsides to these new technological forces; they just believe, in general, that the negatives outweigh the positives. The root of this belief is not unreasonable; we all understand that, in some ways, technology has come to take a life of its own, and has grown beyond being a tool for the benefit of humanity to being something that exerts control over us and makes demands of us that we would rather it not make. In addition, it creates a new “in” group – you either adopt to the technology and the times, or risk being left behind and on the margins of culture, society, and the workforce. Perhaps the best example of this is automation, and the possibility that someday major industries, such as the trucking and supply industry, could leave thousands of drivers without a job as machines quite literally take over the driver’s seat. Another example is how the quest for efficiency and performance – things we expect our machines to produce – trickles down to the way we treat ourselves and our humans. Rather than seeing our employees as being made in the image of God, they are now cogs in the productivity machine. Amazon is well known for having a culture that rewards workaholism and flattens out the needs of individuals in the name of capitalistic competition – a New York Times expose of the company in 2015 painted a very dark and depressing behind-the-scenes picture of the company who guarantees free two-day shipping for their Prime customers. Technological pessimists who hold to a Christian worldview rightly recognize that advances in technology and media can have a direct impact on those made in the Image of God, either by making their jobs more difficult (in response to advances in other fields) or by depriving them of work outright, or can cause them to drown in comforts and distractions that numb them to the urgency and need of the world that desperately needs the Gospel. They recognize that technology does bring upsides and improvements, but doesn’t necessarily buy into the hype that those benefits make up for what’s lost in the process.
Technological ambiguity is in the middle, between pessimism and optimism. Unlike the optimism or pessimism views, this position sees technology in the social context that gave birth to it or makes use of it, and examines how this technology came about and what it’s being used for. Campbell and Garner offer the example of a hammer; in the hands of someone building a house, a hammer is a good thing. In the hands of a murderous madman, a hammer is a bad thing. What matter is the intentions of those who use the technology, and the consequences of their use. Technology is neither inherently good, or inherently bad; it can be both, depending on the circumstances. Computers, for example, can tools used for productive work, study, creativity, and fun one moment – and used as a gateway for pornography the next. In one moment, we can comment how much we love and miss our friends and family on social media, and in the next moment, we can tear down and destroy a stranger and a neighbor. This response to technology recognizes the nuance and complexities that come with technology and media, and strives to hold these diverse uses together into a complete picture – the problem, however, is that ambiguity is still ambiguity, and sometimes taking an ambiguous stance is an easy way out of making firm statements where firm statements are required.
These three views, as I said, are not all encompassing, nor are they without their shortcomings. Technological optimists rightly get excited about advances in technology, but can sometimes get too caught up in the hype and fail to do their due diligence in the process. There’s no better example of this than the biotech company Theranos, who spent more than a decade hyping up their proprietary blood testing machines that could run a battery of tests, with just a few drops of blood, in one’s home or nearby Walgreens. Turns out, it was all a complete, utter lie, and as John Carreyrou documents in his remarkable book, “Bad Blood”, this lie was only made possible by dozens of board members, doctors, the media, and several other parties getting so caught up in the hype of what Theranos was doing that they were willing – or, in some cases, forced – to ignore the literally dozens of red flags that came their way. By contrast, technological pessimists rightly get concerned about the impact of new technology and who loses out on these new advances, but can sometimes lose sight of the fact that every benefit will have a cost of some kind, and sometimes that cost is a negative impact to an industry, a product, or a livelihood. There will always be winners, and there will always be losers, and while we should know who the losers are and what they’ve lost and even see if that can be mitigated, we should not pretend that technology can advance in such a way that it doesn’t leave anyone on the outside looking in. And, of course, those who fall into the technological ambiguity camp can use that ambiguity as a shield for making appropriate moral judgments about technology or media and the impacts they have, and can be content to wrestle with the implications of technology simply as a mental exercise.
There are two things that all three responses have in common: the first, is that both camps agree that there is some degree of good that comes with technology, and even though this podcast is aimed at getting us to ask questions about technology, this is always something to keep in mind. As Tony Reinke outlines in the introduction of his book “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You”, technology modifies creation, pushes back the results of the fall, edifies souls, upholds and empowers our bodies, and all of it happens under the direct supervision of God. The question is not whether or not good things have come from technology, but to what degree that the good ought to be held in tension with the bad. As Reinke notes, the copper and iron that was incorporated into ancient farming practices to make cultivating the land easier also made its way into the swords, spears, and shields of warriors who used them to defend their land – or pursue bloodshed and violence. Like every other gift from God, there are twisted perversions that arise when they’re used without acknowledging the Creator they came from. Sex, a beautiful and wonderful gift meant for marriage, becomes twisted into lust, exploitation, and enslavement as an entire industry exists to reduce women into sexual objects to be consumed by as many men as possible. Food, which we not only need to live but are given to delight and use in feasts and celebrations, becomes twisted into being a means of escape, an expression of a lack of self control, or a means of idolatry and pride. Houses and homes, given to us to be places of safety, shelter, and security, easily become prisons of harm, abuse, or laziness. Technology is no different, and these three response that we’ve looked at in this episode all revolve around the idea that technology is good, but is not only good. The glass has water in it, but how much is up for debate.
The other thing that all three responses have to technology is that we live in a technology-driven world, and that will not change. Going back to a pre-technological world, or living in a world completely divorced from technology and its influences, is not possible. To quote Campbell and Garner:
“Whether it be the vast vistas of possibility envisioned by the optimists; the bleak, oppressive world of technological determinism posited by the pessimists; or the ambiguity of those wrestling with technology, all agree that technology cannot be removed from human existence. Technology and media have become ingrained in our environment.” - Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, “Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture”
Which raises another big question: how did we even get to this point? What were things life before technology and media became ingrained in our environment? Most of us can remember a time before the pervasiveness of the Internet, but what about before television? Before phones? Before radio? Before books? In order to make sense of the present, we need to understand the past, and in the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we are going to go back to the beginning, and in the beginning…was the Word.