Saturday, January 12, 2008

Is Technology Really Neutral?

Scriptural Comparison with Money
Many people choose to see technology like money as something that is not evil in itself, that it is 'neutral.' The common argument is that the love of money is the root of all evil. It is tempting to see 'mammon' as a neutral thing. Paul's warning in 1 Tim 6:10 about the love of money makes us think that Jesus's use of the word 'mammon' is also used here. The trouble with this linkage is that in Paul's writings, Paul did not use mammon. He did not say the "love of mammon is the root of evil." The word 'mammon is never used by Paul. Instead, he used "phlarguria" which is translated as "love of money" or more accurately "covetousness." In fact, the only use of the word 'mammon' in the entire Greek text is from Jesus. [see Matthew 6:24; Lk 16:9,11,13]. Lk 16:11 translates this more emphatically as 'unrighteous mammon.' This strongly suggests that 'mammon' is not neutral. It is not neutral because it stirs up the 'philarguria' inside of us. This purpose of this article is to argue for a critical assessment of our use of technology. Too many people have become uncritical users of technology, assuming that it is more good than evil. I will argue that it has a negative connotation from the very start. It is only when we consciously, constantly and consistently discern our use of it, will we be able to eke out some good from the use of it.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus affirms that no one can serve two masters. Man will either love one and despise the other. It is not a "both-and" choice. It is "Either-Or." All of us have to choose one and reject the other. The word 'money' is translated from the Aramaic 'mammon', referring to earthly possessions or wealth. In this verse, 'mammon' is used in a strongly negative sense, reflecting a certain evil temptation or power it possess.

Reading Luke 16:9 on the use of the word 'mammon' reveals the following:

"I tell you, use worldly wealth (mammon) to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:9)
Even if I were to grant that in its strictest technical sense, that if mammon is something that is devoid of all human inklings and empty of all kinds of spiritual possesion, all it takes is one look or one peep at it, it will no longer be neutral in the eyes of the beholder. That is, if we put a lifeless stone in front of mammon, that mammon will not budge anything. After all, the lifeless stone is never going to get emotional about the mammon in the first place. However, put a living person next to mammon, the whole equation now shifts. This new non-neutrality status have to be actively dealt with. The person beholding the mammon must make a conscious attempt to do something good out of the use of mammon. This is the same with technology. The moment we lay our eyes or to make use of it, we must beware of its power to corrupt our human selves.

Non-Neutrality Argument
People like Jacques Ellul, Marva Dawn and Neil Postman are some of the folks who will argue that technology is never neutral. Technology can influence one's worldview considerably. Using the hammer/nail metaphor, according to the perspective of the hammer, everything looks like a nail. If we embrace technology to the point that its use start to shape our worldview, everything will begin to look like a problem that needs to be solved. For example, communications technology can easily mislead us to think that our human communications have improved just because we have the latest cellphones. More often than not, instead of yakking on the phone to build intimacy with others, I have seen many cell users play games or avoid the people around them as they interact with the mobile device. Take a dinner conversation between two persons. When the phone rings in the middle of an intimate time, the priority goes to the distant person rather than the person sitting next to us. Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Message shows us that the message itself in the hands of the medium will change, to the point that the original message is not quite the same after it goes through the medium.

Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death argues against technology, saying that the television medium for instance, confuses education with entertainment, and has strong negative social implications. In contrast to the printed word, television has bred a new generation of visually stimulated individuals. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman's main argument is "Technology giveth and technology taketh away" and users tend to come out on the losing end. Not everyone will agree with Postman, though his warnings will be appreciated. I think he has something valid, especially to technology users who use tools uncritically. Marva Dawn is an unrelenting proponent that technology is not neutral. She attributes the modern fetteredness and distractedness due to the misuse of technology. Quoting a Ellen Ullman as one who prefers to see computers as neutral, she said that there is a notion of principalities and powers that reside inside technological stuff.
"that computers are neutral, a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image... It forms an irresistable horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life." (Marva Dawn quoting Ellen Ullman in Unfettered Hope, p5)
Technology is Neutral?
This view is mostly held by technologists. The more one depends on technology for daily living, the more one swears by it. They will be one of the first to vehemently defend technology as a neutral device. They see technology mainly as a means to an end. My problem with this view is that it is difficult for technologists to have an unbiased assessment of technology when they have so much vested interest in technology in the first place. How can we say that technology is neutral when it influences one's worldview? A mobile phone changes how one communicates. The use of computers may speed up some things, but it also speed up one's ability to sin. For example, stealing money by hacking accounts, all from the convenience of an Internet connection. With increasing use of technology, it is becoming harder to fight plagiarism. Even terrorism has taken on new forms, thanks to the Internet.

From a practical standpoint, I do not deny that there are inherent benefits to the use of technology. Yes, we have to be vigilant against it. In order to assist this proactive stance of discernment and careful use, we cannot see technology as neutral. If we do so, we can easily let our guard down. At least, at the starting point, we ought to see technology as 49-51 in the equation. 49% positive use and 51% negative connotation. If we start with the attitude of technological suspicion, we activate our discerning process from the very start.

From the biblical standpoint, we have to take serious note on Jesus's use of 'mammon' that we must not lower our defenses against it. Mammon has a tendency to whisper into our ears: "Did God really say?", which starts the corruption of the heart in motion.

In summary, I will tend to tilt toward the argument that technology is not absolutely neutral. This is because the moment we look at it, something inside us changes. I remember a joke about a man looking for a perfect church. He said that once he finds the perfect church, he will start going to church. Instead, he was told by a wise man, that if he ever finds a perfect church, DO NOT join it, as he will end up contaminating that church, making it imperfect. I think this in some way apply to technology. Even if technology is neutral, for argument's sake, when humans touch it, it no longer becomes neutral. When we try to possess it, it could possess us. How do we know we have used technology wisely? A short answer is, "Whenever we are able to help our fellow humans with it in an ethically beneficial way."

Use your computers wisely with constant discernment.


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