We live in the “Information Age.” Our society isn’t hung up on what you can do as much as it is what (or who) you know. A college degree, once the ultimate, nigh-unattainable goal of many has now become standard issue, and more people are pursuing advanced degrees than ever before. Our quality of life and sense of self-worth is largely dependent on how much we know and the nature of the material itself. (For example, knowing about data migration is probably a bit more helpful than learning the migratory patterns of butterflies. At least in certain circles.) And how do we manage all this information we learn, store, and use every day? Technology. Technology is the logical outgrowth of information, for it allows data to be managed and applied. As we learn new principles of biology and engineering, we can craft better prosthetics, drug delivery systems, and surgical techniques, among other things. Information Age cultures are largely driven by wave after wave of technological progress.
This puts the Christian in the interesting position of having to sort out what exactly to do with all of this new tech. Should we embrace each innovation that comes along and delight in progress qua progress, do we adopt only certain inventions which are developed in accordance with strict ethical standards and which can only be used according to a certain ethos, or do we reject new technologies and go back to older ways of doing things? (I admit we could probably fix the road rage problem if everyone had to ride a mule instead of drive an automobile.) Different groups throughout the history of the Church have answered the question in different ways. The first and most obvious is the “Christ Against Culture” mindset of the Amish and Mennonite communities (and my mother’s constant assertion computers are tools of Satan). All technology beyond that achieved by the 17th/18th centuries is eschewed as evil, and an appropriately contemporary German society is promoted as the ideal.
Most of us find that particular solution to be a bit extreme. At the other extreme, then, is the early adoption of all technologies regardless of any external factor. (Think of people waiting in line for weeks to get the latest iPhone. No concern for anything but the phone.) In this view of technology, progress is good because it’s progress. It’s a new way of doing things, and the new way is better. New technology allows for society to progress in other ways: better healthcare, more energy-efficient homes, cheaper clothes, etc. The tech in question could be entirely dependent upon slave labor for its production, or it could have required the death of a human embryo during its research and development phase. Moral and ethical issues simply don’t matter: the technology is the ultimate.
The more balanced middle view takes the ethical concerns into account when considering what technology to promote and what to eschew. If a medical treatment is developed using fetal/embryonic stem cells, it is to be rejected, but perhaps it can be replicated using adult stem cells. If a computer requires child labor, it shouldn’t be bought or even allowed on the market. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ascertain these particular details most of the time. In our globalized economy, a single gadget or gizmo could need a dozen countries and even more labor forces to be designed, built, tested, and put into mass production, and it would take a great deal of devotion to trace each link in the chain. (But don’t let that stop you from trying when you can!) Elements of stewardship theory make it into the thought process as well. Christians should look for green solutions to transportation (fuel efficient and hybrid/electric vehicles) and other needs in an effort to show God’s love for the world He gave us to care for and steward.
Alright. Say a piece of tech passes the test and makes it into your hands. What can you do with it? The easy answer is “whatever is right, just, and true” (but then you just sound like Superman). Cameras on cell phones, tablet PC’s, and laptops make it much easier to stay in touch with people around the globe. Families connect via Skype or FaceTime, and many companies now conduct interviews over the Internet. But video technology in general can also be horribly abused. Pornography, sexting, and other sexually immoral practices depend upon the wrong use of a technology which can be used in right ways. People can hide behind a keyboard and post things on social media sites which are deliberately inflammatory and personally degrading (or just plain narcissistic) when they would never do so under normal “in-person” conditions. The rise of “stalkers” is also largely contingent upon the misapplication of technological innovations, and the list goes on. It’s important to realize technology in these cases may not be inherently immoral or evil; it’s the intent behind the use of the device.
It’s difficult to think of any invention which is fundamentally evil (although the electric chair leaps to mind fairly quickly). The problem is the person behind the gizmo. We have all sinned and continue to come short of the divine ideal. All of us have sin in our lives, and much of that sin depends on misusing some “thing,” whether it’s the Internet or a piece of paper. As always, the rule of thumb is to listen to the Holy Spirit and to evaluate the impact the tech will have on our walks with God. If we get addicted to the Internet, a television show, or something more sinister, we’ve walked away from God a bit. If we violate someone’s privacy or watch someone violate his/her body, then we walk away from God a bit more. By being open to the guidance of God and making deliberate decisions incorporating a Christian ethic, we can be sure to adopt helpful technological innovations and put them to use in the edification of the kingdom of God on earth.