Is Technology Neutral?

After conversing with a 22-year-old following a service, I realized my mistake. I had used iPods in a sermon illustration as a point-of-contact with my twenty-first century, media-saturated congregation. Yet the young man disagreed—“I don’t think most of them knew what you were talking about”—and he was right. I remembered that over half my congregation was 65+ years old. Few iPod owners were in my midst.

Though many Americans today own iPods, seldom do we ask, “What does this really do?” Of course, we know what Apple tells us—convenience and hipness. But the question that occasionally arises is, “Is this neutral?” Many today have failed to answer that question. Uncritically, they assume they fully understand their technologies.

To understand modern technologies, let’s first consider a preliminary definition. Second, we’ll consider whether neutrality is a truthful description of technology. And finally, we can consider our assumptions in order to practice a faithful, critical engagement with it.

What is Technology?

First, what is technology? Many philosophers and social critics have attempted to define ‘technology’. For our purposes, technology is a manmade tool, composed of both manmade and natural materials, designed for the purpose of supporting, sustaining, or extending some aspect of human culture. In short, technologies are artifacts that act in and upon our lives.

Given this definition, iPods are only the beginning. A fork, which serves as an extension of our hand and fingers to make eating less messy, is a technology. So is a stereo, which mediates music to our ears. The wheel, power-lines, and shoes—they fit the bill as well. These are all tools that make our lives as their creators better in some way.

Having defined technology, we now can begin to ask how to properly name our technological tools and our experience with them as Christians.

What Do We Mean by ‘Neutral’?

“Technology is neutral. It’s all in whether you use it for good or evil.” For those who make this claim, the only question is the intent of the user. Technology itself is neutral, and the only moral consideration is located in the intent of the individual using the technology. This is why people frequently describe technology in non-moral terms. But is technology really morally neutral? And is it proper to describe technology this way?

Many have considered these questions. And stated simply, most academicians have rejected the notion that technology is neutral [1]. They assert this because they recognize, as should we, that technology is more than an idle object plus the intentions of its user. Rather it bears (a) the intentions of its creator, (b) the possibilities and limits of its design, and (c) the foreseen and unforeseen results of its implementation. While we’d like to distinguish an object from its effect, or tool from consequences, the fact is that this is a false distinction.

Imagine “technology is neutral” being exemplified as an automobile. A car can actually be in neutral—not in forward or reverse. It is not running over little children, nor is it transporting us to our loved ones. However, even then the car is not truly neutral. The car is running. It is not invisible. It’s taking up space. It’s emitting noxious fumes into the atmosphere. It may be blocking a fire hydrant, or another car’s movement. The technology of an automobile, by its very design and presence, makes certain things possible and others impossible.

This is where deception occurs in thinking Christianly about technology: It is no mere object. Technology, in the broadest sense, is a tool at work. When we use the word “neutral” to describe technology, it assumes that the item in question is lifeless, without effect, and subject only to the whims of its user. However, this is not how technology functions in real life. The example of the automobile illustrates this. Form cannot be divorced from function. An iPod is only truly an iPod when it acts as one, and not a paperweight. Christian critical analysis means we take seriously objects and their politics, devices and their design. Otherwise, how else do we make sense of sites like the Tabernacle with all its artifacts? Each had its own design, aesthetic, usage, and symbolism. So do our technologies.

Consider the case of prescription drugs. Though we regularly take them, we seldom know their testing process. However, we trust the FDA, primary care physicians, and countless others from the laboratory to the pharmacy. Often we are told of potential side effects, but we take them anyway. In this simple process, despite the warning labels, we are often ignorant of the makers of our medicine, as well as how these chemicals will interact with our unique bodies. Yet we regularly participate in a technologically-driven way of life, often ignorant of the full implications of these technologies.

With other technologies, especially electronic tools, the process of evaluation is much less stringent because it is assumed that these do little to our social existence. Yet our social existence is tied to our bodies. As we use electronic technologies, they influence the way we inhabit spaces (iPod ear-buds in my ears block out others). They change the way we read and think about books (E-readers). They change our interactions with the world, and yet we call them neutral because they don’t immediately cause destruction. While their consequences and effects may be subtler than medical technologies, electronic technologies affect, form, and mold us just as profoundly as medical technologies.

A Case Study

New York City tourists unknowingly witness how technological design itself isn’t neutral. The architect Robert Moses spent the mid-twentieth century designing much of the city. What most don’t realize is that Moses was a racist by most accounts [2]. Public transportation was the only option for minorities during that time period. It is no accident then that buses were unable to make it into certain parts of the city due to shorter bridges. The design and telos of the technology, whether known or unknown to users, had anything but a neutral impact on human commerce and social life. Moses’ technology limited an entire class of people in their travel possibilities.

One could argue, “This is simply technology in the form of architectural design used for evil purposes.” However, as stated above, technology’s purposes and results are organically related to questions of neutrality and morality. The two are inseparable. We don’t always know the background of our technologies. Seldom do we perceive the values and intentions embedded into the structures in which we participate. Their advertised purpose often obscures hidden purposes. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know the long-term impact of new technologies or of technologies in new contexts. In the case of Robert Moses, tourists drive over and under his overpasses and perceive nothing awry. This is because we often make use of whatever technological structures further our goals, while being anything but neutral in the lives of others.

Was the printing press neutral? What about the telegraph? No—they transformed the societies that used them—in some ways positively, and in others, negatively. Whether Gutenberg had produced pornography instead of Bibles, it would have still had a profound cultural impact.  A technology cannot be evaluated by abstracting it from its use in society. In Langdon Winner’s words, “Artifacts have politics.”

Autonomy’s Dark Side

Many believe in technology’s neutrality because it affirms their personal autonomy. After the modern turn toward the self, nearly every major social force in American culture tends towards this. When technology is portrayed as a neutral, unbiased tool, the user is in control. Yet this is a misleading assumption. As Nicholas Carr has shown, as far as our brains are concerned, the hammer is a part of our hand [3]. Our very bodies merge with the tools we use. If we think we’re in charge when it comes to technology, it may be because our tools have become such a part of us that we don’t want to acknowledge their influence. It may be that we simply cannot see it.

Jacques Ellul cautions that technology brings with it a great number of unforeseen effects [4]. This is because “technology leads a double life, one which conforms to the intentions of designers and interests of power and another which contradicts them—proceeding behind the backs of their architects to yield unintended consequences and unintended possibilities” [5]. It is difficult then for us to control what we cannot always see.

Conclusion

Despite these cautions, I want to be slow to reject modern technology as a helpful and even necessary aspect of life. Indeed, we all owe gratitude to the common grace that God has shown to inventors of x-rays, antibiotics, and the telephone. These enrich our lives in countless ways. However, it is incumbent upon Christians to never adopt technologies without first understanding them. We should ask, “What problem is this technology solving?” And, “How might my dependence on the Creator be diminished through using it?” In my next essay, we’ll consider what happens when Christians as a believing community, the church, adopt technology into their way of life.

_______________________________________

[1] Evgeny Morozov, Susan Douglas, Stephen Talbott, and Langdon Winner are examples of philosophers, scientists, and social critics that have reached such a conclusion.

[2] The story of Moses is recounted in many sources, including Wajcman and Mckensie’s The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got Its Hum (Milton Keynes and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985), 7.

[3] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 208.

[4] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff, transl. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), 39.

[5] David Noble, Forces of Production (1984).

Author: Jackson Watts

Share This Post On

2 Comments

  1. Your article seems to open many areas of discussion:

    1. The use and value of technology in Christendom; simplistically, a new ways of doing old things.

    I was not around when electricity came to church but I am sure that there were those who viewed it as an unwelcomed visitor. I do remember when “canned music” began playing in the church, and I remember the opposition it created.

    Today, biblical literature contained on electronic devices is increasingly common and used by members within church related services. Are these changes evil or simply violating sensitivities by leaving the comfort of status quo?

    2. Relative analogous comparisons verses cultural analogous comparisons within diverse congregations.

    Sometimes these nicely intersect, while other times they are polar opposites. The latter leaves the hearer without a reference point and a truth is lost. There are historical cultural analogies within the Bible that unless they are explained go unrelated to modern congregations.

    Does that mean that cultural analogies make the Bible outdated? By no means and in no way is the Bible outdated or irrelevant. Just as Jesus’ parables required study and interpretation, cultural analogies need to be studied to glean applied truth. Oddly, technology aids in biblical study.

    As a side note, at no other time in history have the people of God had more access to the Word of God and its studies then the time we are living in. How great a responsibility and without excuse we all are.

    3. Obsolete the relevant with the fancies of new technologies.

    This is an application where technology may hurt the church. When personal interaction within a church is replaced with the electronic the quality of the interaction has a greater chance of being diminished, misconstrued, or insincere. Additionally, technologies that replace members of the body with automated tasks may undermine the unity within a congregation. It is easy to view technology as evil in these situations.

    Do not fear technology but do keep your hand on its plug.

    Post a Reply
  2. Thanks for the reflections, Mike. Good to hear from you, too!

    As you rightly said, once we enter into dialogue on this topic it opens up an entire range of questions–some of which I was unable to further pursue in 1500 words. However, I’ll offer just a few initial thoughts in response:

    Your aphorism/admonition is right on-target with the spirit of my essay: “Do not fear technology but do keep your hand on its plug.” This is why I chose the neutrality theme as an entry point. When people describe things like technology in those terms, it sort of numbs us and causes us to cease critical reflection on arguably the most dominant social force in the world today.

    When we understand technology in broader terms, as I am, I think it prevents one from (a) throwing it all out the window, and (b) still acknowledging both its form and function in our lives in positive and negative ways.

    In a sense, these two essays on technology were an exercise in applying a theologically-chastened/informed social theory and anthropology to Christian spirituality and ecclesiology. Hopefully, as you said, the questions I have raised will issue forth in an ongoing, critical investigation by all Christians.

    Thanks,
    Jackson

    Post a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Top Blog Posts of the Week | SBC Today - [...] “Is Technology Neutral?” by Jackson Watts on the Helwys Society Forum, with a thoughtful discussion on how Christians and…
  2. The Top Blog Posts of the Week | SBC Today - [...] by Jackson Watts in the Helwys Society Forum, with a follow-up article to his earlier essay, “Is Technology Neutral?”…
  3. Christianity and Technology: A Primer | Helwys Society Forum - […] our purposes, let’s thicken this with some insight from earlier Forum essay: A technology is a manmade tool, composed…
  4. Blockchain and the neutrality of technology | Blogchain - […] Jackson Watts’ example using iPods is fitting here: an iPod is only truly an iPod when it acts as…

What do you think? Comment Here:

SUBSCRIBE:

The best way to stay up-to-date with the HSF

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This