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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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” . It is difficult then for us to control what we cannot always see.
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.
 Evgeny Morozov, Susan Douglas, Stephen Talbott, and Langdon Winner are examples of philosophers, scientists, and social critics that have reached such a conclusion.
 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.
 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 208.
 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff, transl. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), 39.
 David Noble, Forces of Production (1984).