(January 2012)

I took a class about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, last semester, and one of the things the Pentateuch is known for is its collection of laws. Ancient Israelite culture was very different from our own, and one way to learn about what that culture was like is to examine what they needed laws about. That there was a set consequence for bulls goring people shows that this was common enough to be a concern. I am tempted to engrave modern traffic laws on stone or something similarly permanent so that people might dig it up 5,000 years from now. I would hope that upon reading it, they would come across a law against texting while driving. They would wonder what kind of people could ever find this kind of law a challenge to keep.

While we’ve grown up, technology like music players and cell phones has become ubiquitous, but we haven’t quite worked out how to properly use that technology. The number of social grey areas shows this: Is it acceptable to browse the Internet on your laptop during class? Is it acceptable to text one friend while talking with another? Whatever side of these questions you may be on, there is a troubling trend towards using technology in inappropriate ways, like texting while driving or listening to an iPod during dinner at a restaurant.

One person reflecting on this trend was the first speaker in Calvin’s 2012 January Series, Sherry Turkle. She is a psychologist who has focused her work since the late 1970s on how people interact with computer technology. In her book, “Simulation and Its Discontents,” she describes a similar story of technology burrowing its way into unwelcome places in the world of architecture in the early 1980s. Computer-aided design (CAD) software was being introduced to architects, and many of them hated it. It made preliminary drawings look like a final design. Students were using templates in the software instead of designing their own solutions. It made it harder to get the “feel” for the place the building was going to end up. Worst of all, to the architects, the CAD software was replacing drawing and sketching. To the architects, drawing was a “sacred” part of what it meant to be an architect, and CAD software was desecrating that space.

Turkle’s most recent book “Alone Together” examines how technology has impugned on another sacred space, human relationships. Human beings are marvellously subtle and complicated things, and we enjoy being physically in the presence of those we love. We still miss people that we talk to over Skype. Therefore, it is hard to argue that something hasn’t gone wrong when we all know someone who felt it was necessary to reply to a text message during family dinner or church. Turkle tells the story of Hugh, a young adult who wanted his friends to give him “private cell time,” without multitasking or other distractions. He found that even when his friends granted the request, they became upset if he wanted to talk about anything less than a major life crisis (page 204). The mystery is then why we are tempted to exchange being fully present with the family for being in superficial contact with friends, trading exclusive time with friends for greater efficiency. Why would we be willing to make such an uneven trade?

For one account, we can look back to St. Augustine, who was concerned with how we fulfill our natural human desires. He wrote that God created us with desires that need to be fulfilled in him, but that we instead of displace onto improper, earthly, perishable things. The same kind of dynamic is at work with technology and human relationships: Technology offers a shortcut way to fulfill our desires that does not satisfy them. We desire to be with the people we love; a shortcut way to do this is by exchanging text messages. We desire to be respected, which can be short-circuited by posting well-“liked” links on Facebook.

The problem is that flourishing, fulfilling desire in the right ends, is hard to obtain and not as exciting as it ought to be. Desire, even for good things, is bottomless — Augustine also said it is not possible to have our desires fulfilled in this life. The good things in life are scarce, and frustration is an inevitable part of being the finite things that we are. Technology dangles in front of us the possibility of bypassing these problems. I had this experience when first playing “Half-Life 2” this summer — I kept on wanting to play because it gave me such a sense of accomplishment, but it was for my great deeds in City 17, nowhere near the real world, where saving humanity is an achievement much harder to come by.

Another account looks to the way we understand human beings and the nature of relationships. We live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “age of authenticity.” The authenticity he is talking about is authenticity to yourself as an individual. This is why we encourage each other to study what we love in college, even if only three people worldwide can make a living in that field. It is why young adults are less willing to accept their parents’ religion or denomination than in the past. It is also why we build an image around ourselves with the brands we wear (or don’t wear) and broadcast an image of ourselves on Facebook, blogs and other social media.

However, being truly authentic to yourself and being self-expressive is incompatible with being the kind of person it is possible to have deep, significant relationships with. Self-expressive people are unstable and self-directed. Relationship requires being oriented towards another person, being selfless, but authenticity has a hard time even understanding what selflessness means. In this way, texting at the dinner table might not just be a breach of etiquette, but an accurate reflection of relative importance. It’s making a personal choice about who I want to be with, which might not be my family.

Also a concern is that in a culture of authenticity, with droves of people expressing themselves (there are an estimated 182 million blogs according to the Nielsen Corporation) you need to be unusually interesting in order to be listened to. But being interesting is like being beautiful or strong — not everyone can be that way, and the capacity is easily lost.

Another way that we trade off genuine relationships for their electronic shadow is through a process Turkle calls “better than nothing becoming better than anything.” It will be easiest to illustrate this through one of her own stories. Turkle gave Edna, an elderly woman living alone, a “My Real Baby,” a robot that looks like a baby and demands frequent care. Edna’s great grandchild Amy comes along. However, while Edna has the robot, Amy cannot pull Edna’s attention away from it. Having the robot was better than nothing for Edna, but she saw it as better than anything when Amy showed up (page 117-119). A friend of mine knew a woman who brought her laptop to a Christmas gathering so that she could keep harvesting her Farmville crops. Farmville might be an acceptable way to spend time when bored — it’s better than nothing — but it became better than anything, even family gatherings, for this woman. A cell phone is better than no communication at all, but texting has come to be treated as better than any other way to communicate. The story is one of unintended consequences: We developed and embraced a new technology to solve a real problem, but we liked it so much that the technology overshadowed over the real problem and eclipsed the real solution.

Another reasonable explanation of this trade off could be to simply say that people just don’t like each other as much as we say we do. We have non-technological social cues, like reading a newspaper in a subway, that signal that we want to withdraw into our own world. Listening to an iPod or reading texts is just a more technological way of doing the same thing.

Turkle studied how people react to the program “Eliza” during the 1980s. Eliza is a chat program that is convincingly human. It works by rehashing user input, such as “I wish I could play the guitar better,” into questions like “Why do you wish you could play the guitar better?” Turkle noticed people loved talking to Eliza and told it secrets that they were unwilling to tell fellow humans. She wrote, “I came to understand Eliza revealed more than people’s willingness to talk to machines; it revealed their reluctance to talk to other people.” (page 282) Likewise, using texting, emailing and Facebook chatting to interact with people opens a way to talk to people we feel bad abandoning but have a hard time tolerating in person.

All these ways that technology brings out our weak and dark sides should prompt both the people that create and the people that use this technology to reflect on what we have done. Certain types of technology are turning out to be like food, sex and alcohol, which are enjoyable and necessary in moderation but tempting to abuse. However, it would not be wrong for computer scientists and electrical engineers to be filled with regret at many of the ways that computers have shaped society, mixing superhuman powers with human weakness, invading the sacred space of humanness. God felt the same way about what resulted from his creation, leading him to wipe his creation clean with the flood in Genesis 6. Curiosity is a modern virtue, but sometimes we have explored avenues of technology that ought to have been left alone, leading to the proliferation of such things as atomic weapons and cell phones.

But given that the Internet, cell phones and the like are here to stay (and would pollute the primordial floodwaters terribly), a critical stance towards them will have to do. To properly use a buzzword, you could call this discernment. However, I would suggest that discernment applied to technology leads to rejection of the technology much more often than discernment of music leads to rejection of particular works. Technology is more dangerous than it is sometimes taken to be. What follows are a few directions in which a critical, discerning stance towards technology can go.

First of all, technology should always be put in its proper place: Humans are the masters of technology, not the other way around. There are many places this is not the case right now: Car technology dictates how we build cities, instead of the way people want to live. Talk to any computer science professor about user interface design, and they will give you a half-hour speech about how software unnecessarily gets in the way of people doing work because of poor design.

There is another, more subtle side to this too, where computer models of reality can shape the way we think about reality, causing us to think the world works the way a computer does. Take Facebook as an example — a computer model of real-world social interactions. But it has its own take on reality: “Friendships” are always mutual and non-hierarchical, which does not reflect the way they are in the real world. Technology masters humans here when Facebook’s model of relationships influences our mental model of relationships. A critical stance identifies these disconnects and makes sure they don’t become part of our assumptions about the world.

Second, a critical stance can recognize that technology gives us extraordinary power. Technology is useful to us because it compensates for things we are not naturally good at, like finding cube roots, travelling at high speeds, communicating over long distances, and remembering large documents to the letter. Technology is like a lens that magnifies our abilities. However, it also magnifies our potential for evil and destruction, making much worse things easily possible. It makes it possible to hurt people over long distances and smash ourselves into things at high speeds. Being cautious about which technologies we use and how we use them is a necessary safeguard on the power they give us.

Finally, being critical of technology and limiting ourselves makes it possible to rediscover the virtue of contentedness. The ability to communicate quickly and openly has done more to seed discontent than anything else I can think of. It makes it easy to see how many Facebook friends it takes to be popular, how many papers I need to publish before I graduate, and how much recognition other people are getting for the same accomplishments I’ve made. As well, since the Internet has levelled the intellectual playing field by making quality information easy to access, my level of opportunity is the same as those who have been extremely successful. In these ways, technology makes it easy to feel like a failure even if you are doing exactly what you ought to be doing, occasioning envy.

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets out human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed,” Turkle notes in “Alone Together” (page 1). We are vulnerable to trade real relationships for safe, superficial ones, so we are tempted to use the technology at our fingertips towards the wrong ends. Looking at technology with critical eyes ensures that technology is what it ought to be — a means toward human flourishing in the real world.

For Further Reading

Jonathan Franzen spoke about love and his Blackberry at his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2011. The New York Times ran a version of that speech.

Andy Crouch, the author of “Culture Making,” wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal about Steve Jobs’ death, talking about how technology impinges on and offers an alternative to religion.

Peggy Orenstein wrote in the New York Times about Twitter as performance.

Turkle gave an interview with NPR’s “On Being” in April 2011.

This piece was also published in the Calvin Chimes on January 13, 2012.