Connecting with a Theology of Technology
A conversation that has percolated for decades and even centuries feels, lately, one-sided or even silenced, as if overwhelmed by the speed and dazzle of the technology. The resulting silence falls like a worrisome shadow over contemporary life.
In the late twentieth century, a group of writers helped us think about that intertwining. Jaques Ellul’s The Technological Society, argued that what Karl Marx saw as the fundamental operation of capital in nineteenth century capitalism could be replaced by the operation of technique in the late- capitalist, technological society. Techne is means, which quickly becomes confused with ends in technological society. Techniques become things we produce, with their efficiency, value, design, and innovation overwhelming traditional notions of purpose, use, tradition, and shared knowledge.
Ellul saw great theological implication in this transformation. Many followed Ellul. Marshall McLuhan, himself a Roman Catholic believer, speculated about the technique of electronic media, coining that famous image of cultural transformation, “the medium is the message.” Neil Postman examined how the multiplication of media has forced education to give way to entertainment, while Camille Paglia pushed back at Postman in defense of the liberating play that media provide. William Stahl asked about the increasing “mysticism” of technology in an electronic age, our dazzling digital devices becoming for us an impenetrable “black box” upon which we depend. These ideas were explored in the fiction of Vonnegut and others.
Stealing from the Church
In the same tradition and with his own theological commitments, Albert Borgmann helped us see that the radical break between modern technology and pre-modern technology is rooted in the way technological culture steals the promises once held by the church – to heal, to satisfy, to bond, and to give a future. During the early years of internet communication, Sherry Turkle explored what it means to create human identity “on the screen.” Susan White and others demonstrated how the history of Christian liturgy in the West has reflected, even tracked, the history of technology.
Further linking theology and technology, Ivan Il- lich proposed that the very rise of modern Western technological culture can be traced to medieval de- bates about the mechanism of change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the new media revolution, he suggested, we are witnessing something as culturally and theologically momentous as the invention of “the page” (with accompanying tables of contents and indexes) in eleventh-century monasteries. Those technologies transformed reading, and not just how we read, but what reading is. In every computer screen, Illich saw a bulldozer tearing down the neighborhood of his bookish youth. Our millennium-long sense of identity with the book is now over.
As we moved into this new cybernetic era of computer-based communications, it seemed reasonable to ask divinity students to think theologically about all of this. When I was teaching Yale divinity students in the early 2000s, I did just that. It was fun, and engaging. Students were sharp, and reflective.
The Debate is Over
Now five years out from that teaching and back in parish ministry, I’ve come to two conclusions about all this. One came early, around 2007. It became clear to me that in the largely white, upper-middle- class community in which I was a pastor, the theological concerns raised by the authors I noted above didn’t matter a whit. The debate was over. The new world had begun. There was no way to function without embracing that new world. And so I did – with more and more dependence on software to aid my ministry, with cell phone and email in my pocket, and a nearly uncritical insistence on the need for sophisticated and contemporary design in our vision for ministry.
The second conclusion is that a new watershed has appeared in the last year or so, in the form of a new intertwining. This transition is within wired culture itself, with the convergence of social me- dia technology (such as Facebook and Twitter) and “cloud” computing – with the promise that more and more of our data and calendars and correspondence and commerce will be gathered and stored and enacted “out there somewhere.” We are sold miniature portals that promise nonstop, ubiquitous access to a purely external, but never locatable, universal trove of data, a parallel world.
It sounds a lot like what prayer used to promise, but it doesn’t feel much like prayer. I knew there was more behind this tech trend than a desire for convenience or productivity or even the shiny brilliance of a screen. But I didn’t quite know what.
And then I recently attended a gathering – an ideas festival of sorts. I learned something there that brought a new set of questions, though few answers. It’s a new acronym, born of a generation walking this watershed. The acronym is FOMO. In FOMO, I found a topic worth a theological wrestle.
This gathering included a number of young, successful entrepreneurs. Some of them were from Silicon Valley, others from projects in international development, community organizing, education, and public health. They were extroverted, engaging, self-confident, and happy to share their vision of the world. The language of entrepreneurialism dominated in every area, whether business or non- profit, with terms like “capitalization” and “venture investment” ruling the air. The life-work of these young creators seemed to be to get an idea, get organized, get backed, get successful, get bought or get absorbed, and then move on to the next idea on the basis of the reputation they’ve built from the last one. Everyone was leveraging everything to make connections, get networked, and get known. Social media is not just the tool of choice for them, it is the environment they swim in. Global reach is assumed and a sense of clean break from the past is pervasive.
Where older participants at the event spoke of economic and cultural crisis, these younger folk spoke the language of opportunity and change. They also spoke the language of speed (and they spoke that language very quickly). One woman, maybe thirty years old, declared that the college-educated peers of her generation will experience up to seven- teen careers in their lifetimes. I remember the early 1990s, when as a college chaplain I was stunned to hear our campus career counselors telling students that they could expect to have five distinctly different careers in their working lives. I thought that sounded excessive then. Yet it seems now that each one of these young entrepreneurs has already had at least two if not three careers well before they’re thirty. Even more interesting, they seem to have three, if not four, positions at once – each of them listed behind their names like we used to list degrees. They take on several projects simultaneously, building from one company or project or campaign or network to the next.
Fast Times in the Zeitgeist
“Fail fast,” we were told, “and move on.” In the economy to come, we were told, we must all “make our own jobs” – maximizing impression, value, and the energy of others to create and leverage our own. It’s what sociologist Zygmut Bowman calls “liquid capitalism” – electronic, mediated, short-term, with high production design and always catchy labels. It was all genuinely impressive, genuinely novel, genuinely curious, and genuinely startling. It is where we are, at least in a certain stratum of society.
What questions must theology pose to all of this? Do we resist it, with the hope of preserving an older memory? Do we harness it, with sure confidence that it is a gift from God? Or do we find ways to critically but realistically engage?
These questions lead me back to FOMO. A conversation at the ideas festival about education turned to how educators might keep the attention of students in the face of so many distractions in their hyper-mediated world. We spoke of the new normal in the upper middle class: an iPhone in one’s pocket, an iPad in one’s purse, and a laptop in one’s bag all syncing every fifteen minutes with Facebook, Twitter, and whatever one calls an office. Websites and other apps are designed to scour other Facebook pages, websites, newsfeeds, and blogs on our behalf, sig- naling every time a tailored topic of personal interest appears. Eyes look down to laps instead of up to a teacher, checking a handheld screen for whatever’s being “pushed” toward us.
“Why?” one of the old-timers asked. “FOMO!” came the answer, spontaneously, from a couple of voices in their late twenties. They spoke at the same time, as if surprised that the inquirer didn’t know the answer. “FOMO?” came the reply right back. And with glances at each other, our young tutors responded in concert again: “Fear Of Missing Out!” I tested the acronym with anyone under thirty I could find; they all knew it immediately.
Prerogative of Youth
FOMO. The idea’s nothing new, of course. It has been a hallmark of youth all along: wanting to know what’s happening, keeping one’s options open, scanning the terrain for what you want. We’ve always measured youth by energy and experimentation. By contrast, we’ve always measured maturity by the ability to move beyond grazing distraction in order to make promises, then to mark those promises with commitments, with persevering and building something that lasts. In that sense, the FOMO of youth is as predictable as the stability of age.
Except … something feels different about this moment, and not just because FOMO has been promoted to acronym status. I think that something has to do with acceleration and mediation. FOMO is now supported technologically, mediated electroni- cally, and monetized for profit in ways we’ve never seen. It is becoming the signature reason for wiring in. And that might make it the great underestimated impulse behind social media – more powerful than the desire for association and friendship that we’re told stands behind it all. FOMO rules. And when it seems like there is so much more to miss out on these days when we can capture the world on a tiny screen in our palms, FOMO also drives. The fear fuels itself.
So in our churches, our youth groups tweet, blog, upload videos and photos for the church’s website or their parents’ iPads when on retreat – to assure that no one will miss out. Our friends post what they had for dinner on Facebook and take a survey of who likes Chipotle Grill better than Baja Fresh – so no one will miss out.
Some of our high schools are now reconsidering their “no cell phone or smartphone in the class- room” policies, because of the anxiety produced by FOMO. Instead, they are incorporating social media breaks into class time, allowing students a moment to check their social media every fifteen or thirty minutes in hopes of allaying their FOMO and regaining their attention. Our universities incorporate options for instantaneous feedback to lecturers, so the teacher may revise her lecture as she gives it. We’re not supposed to miss out on our hearers’ immediate responses, no matter how hasty or undigested those responses might be. The instant response becomes the most valuable response, and so educators become choreographers of immediacy rather than midwives of a slower wisdom. FOMO.
This new set of expectations has slid into place without much conversation, resistance, or even notice. Yet religious tradition has some questions to ask. For hasn’t the religious vision of spiritual maturity always staked at least part of its claim on the value of “missing out”? Hasn’t it cherished the experience of deep exploration, of closing off options, focusing attention, and accepting limits? Hasn’t spiritual wisdom demanded patience, forgiveness, a grace that is shaped (not data-banked) by memory? And haven’t the disciplines of restraint, choice, concentration, humility, and focus been essential to the work of prayer? Can these questions be asked today without appearing hopelessly naive?
We’re also told that in this new convergence of social media and cloud computing, privacy is an archaic concept – and that FOMO has killed it. We’re told that even the notion of a search engine must be reversed in a post-privacy age, that we no longer use Google to search the internet. Instead, the internet now uses Google (and Facebook) to search us – our habits, beliefs, preferences, apparent worth, relationships, weaknesses, future actions, and more. What comes, then, of the theologically rich notion of the private, upon which all possibility of commitment and love through the course of suffering is based? Do not ethics require a healthy distinction between private and public, an orderly way of guarding the eye and deliberately missing out? And doesn’t a healthy soteriology require the same, whereby we allow the One who searches us to be a Loving Other (Holy Spirit) and not a piece of impersonal software.
The Holy Spirit searches us, not to feed our FOMO, but to fill it and so quiet it. The Spirit searches us to know our innermost thoughts, to unearth and reveal to us our deeper, hidden desires, and to shape our desires in ways that might teach us to say “no” as well as “yes,” and transform our fear of missing out into a desire for love. What becomes now of that possibility? It isn’t gone, but is it changing?
Earlier I mentioned Ivan Illich, who envisioned a bulldozer behind every computer screen, destroying the world of his bookish youth. When he framed that image in his commentary on medieval reading practices, In the Vineyard of the Text, he was describing an understanding of truth that has guided nearly a millennium of Christian practice. Adherence to the faith has been imagined as a journey of discovery through shared practices of engagement. These were mediated by logic, metaphor, narrative, and long traditions of interpretation in a culture of gracious learning. It required holding, for the time being, some questions unanswered and some paths untaken, with faith in our capacity to gather greater knowledge by hiking some paths again and again. It was not a wandering. It was a guided, patient exploration.
Bookish faith certainly suffered from a high bar of admission, a certain exclusivity and the occasional sin of arrogance. The democracy of new media, mak- ing information more widely available, is a praise- worthy promise of “the cloud.” Yet it would still be a mistake to miss Illich’s point: consuming data in the form of postmodern “information” has little in common with what a millennium of Western con- sciousness has understood as “learning.” Much is gained today. Yet much is lost. Uncritical celebration of what’s coming might be as naive as precipitous rejection. It smacks of FOMO.
So what will happen as we get used to living underneath a social media saturated “cloud”? We need theologically interested thinkers to wonder. We can resist the idea that all knowledge can be “stored,” that all ideas and records and music and correspondence and half-finished essays and fully finished gossip can be kept in one huge – time- less – searchable database. We can resist the idea that the only barrier between personal and public is a faintly reliable password. We can resist the idea that access to the cloud will ease this fear put into us of missing out.
We can resist the temptation to elevate the cloud to the status of heaven, where we once sought God but now seek linkage. We can resist such a metaphor. There is no divine Other in this cloud, except the otherness of ourselves. It offers no catharsis for our striving, except in the thrill of speed and the distraction of tweets. It offers interest, convenience, and usable information, but little trace of the love for which faith has always turned toward the heavens. This gnostic promise of saving data cannot, finally, redeem a broken soul.
But it’s time to get back to the here-and-now. Despite my questions, I’ll still learn social media and encourage my congregation to dive in. I’ll be an early adopter of cloud computing, when it is fully unfolded. I’ll love the shine, admire the bitten apple. A bit of me will fear missing out. But along the way, I’ll keep hoping that those who preach and teach in the church will keep thinking about all of this. I’ll believe that a theology of technology is still possible. I’ll hope that we can still preserve a pre-internet, pre- cloud memory of a living hope mediated by prayer and not by hyperlink. I’ll keep hoping in a heaven that is less gnostic and more incarnational, less digitally powerful and more peaceful, less about access and more about acceptance. I’ll keep hop- ing that we can help a new generation remember something that technological innovation cannot give them, and hope that in so remembering they will find their FOMO healed.
Wes Avram, pastor of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scott- sdale, AZ, was the Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of Communication at Yale Divinity School and the Institute for Sacred Music from 2000-2006. He received an M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Communication from Northwestern.
Albert Borgmann, Holding On to Reality (Chicago, 2000), Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago, 1987)
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (Vintage, 1967) Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago, 1996) Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto, 1962)
Camille Paglia and Neil Postman, “She Wants Her TV! He Wants His Book!” Harper’s (March 1991)
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking, 1985) William A. Stahl, God and the Chip: Religion and the Culture of Technology (Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion, 1999)
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon & Schuster, 1995)
Susan White, Christian Liturgy and Technological Change (Abingdon, 1994)