Monday, June 01, 2015

BookPastor >> "From the Garden to the City" (John Dyer)

TITLE: From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology
AUTHOR: John Dyer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011, (192 pages).

Technology is here to stay. How do we live with it? Do we embrace it? Can we shun it? Is it good or bad? Is technology neutral? These questions help frame the increasingly complex world of technology and culture. Right from the beginning, John Dyer, Director of Web Development at Dallas Theological Seminary shares how he was motivated to write this book based on his professor's remarkable comment: "One of the most dangerous things you can believe in this world is that technology is neutral." That sets him on a path to find out more about theology and technology. Seeing how little information out there about redemption of technology, he read widely. He researched and recorded his reflections on his blog called, "Don't Eat the Fruit." Subsequently, this little initiative moved from brain to blog, and from blog to book.

Using a model that parallels the four-fold biblical story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, he puts forth his own technological parallel of Reflection - Rebellion - Redemption - Restoration. Dyer reminds us that technology is a large encompassing word that includes washing machines, light bulbs, televisions, ball-point pens, lighting, cars, and many more. It is so present everywhere that our generation has a lot more in common than our predecessors many years back. Technology historians will claim that the recent 500 years have been phenomenally influenced by the printing press. Since the 15th Century, the printed text has been the main change driver. It is only recently where the text has moved from print to digital. Dyer writes,

"While God’s words are eternal and unchanging, the tools we use to access those words do change, and those changes in technology also bring subtle changes to the practice of worship. When we fail to recognize the impact of such technological change, we run the risk of allowing our tools to dictate our methods. Technology should not dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values.: Dyer, John (2011-07-14). From the Garden to the City (Kindle Locations 359-362). Kregel Publications. Kindle Edition. "

He observes that every generation comes with their own unique perspective of technology. As technology and culture get stratified, two errors can occur. The first is an uncritical acceptance of technology. The second is shortsighted critiques. Care must be taken not to adopt either extreme. Using the metaphor of a traffic light, he urges us not to stay GREEN which is uncritical acceptance, nor to cling on to RED which is unfair criticisms. The choice is YELLOW/ORANGE which is a discerning position. Like John's letter in 3 John 12-13 where John prefers a face to face communication instead of writing more in letter form. Pen and paper then may very well parallel our email, social media, or forms of electronic communications.

Dyer tells three stories to kick start the process. In the first, he sees Technology that can empower and enable us to bring our imaginations to life. It can add in the flesh to the skeletal framework of ideas. It can enhance the presentation of plots and stories. With the right tools, we can bring about a lot of good to this world. Technology also transforms us. The second story is about how the tools and technologies we invent and use start to shape us instead. Technology has double-edged sword. It cuts by transforming the world. At the same time, it also transforms us. We become what we use habitually, in body, in the mind, as well as in our relationships. The third story takes on a soul dimension that extends into ethics, practical theology, and transcendental perspectives. Like the use of medical technology. Technology can extend the life of a person in a vegetable state. Technology can be "advanced" but what does it then mean to "advance" human life at all costs? Is technology our saviour?

Dyer mentions the Genesis story as a way in which "technology" was introduced into the world. As humans, we reflect "three facets of humanity" which is our rationality, our relational and our call to subdue the earth. We cultivate the ground. We create. Part of the ability to create includes making things, designing symbols, adopting rituals and processes, and using languages to communicate. Contrary to what Mark Baurlein's book title suggests as "The Digital Divide," Dyer takes the approach that the digital world unites more than divide. He writes:

"The one thing that transcends all cultural, religious, and age boundaries, the one thing that is common among rich and poor and young and old, is the fact that we all share a lifestyle thoroughly saturated with technology.", Dyer, John (2011-07-14). From the Garden to the City (Kindle Locations 264-265). Kregel Publications. Kindle Edition."

Dyer argues that our world now is so "uniformly technological" that we have more in common despite our differences in our day to day lifestyles. On the Bible, Dyer reflects on why his students depended on verses projected on the screen instead of bringing along their own printed Bibles, he sees a parallel to the pre-printing press era where people depended on clergy to read the Bible for them. What is his key point is that we need to take notice of the technologies and the effects they have on our culture and people.
"While God’s words are eternal and unchanging, the tools we use to access those words do change, and those changes in technology also bring subtle changes to the practice of worship. When we fail to recognize the impact of such technological change, we run the risk of allowing our tools to dictate our methods. Technology should not dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values." Dyer, John (2011-07-14). From the Garden to the City (Kindle Locations 359-362). Kregel Publications. Kindle Edition. 
Here are my summaries and thoughts about Dyer's four-part framework to understand technology from a "yellow" or "amber" light perspective.

1) Reflection
We are created to be able to think rationally, relationally, and rule the world responsibly. We are called to cultivate, to care for the garden, and to create. Stan Grenz helps us understand the creative ability using four categories: "things, images, rituals, and languages." These are used to communicate our perceptions of meaning from which we get culture. Technology comes from two Greek words (techne and logia), the former refers to a "craft, skill, or art" and the latter "systematic study of a subject." Dyer further breaks down technology into four parts:
  1. Skill of making stuff
  2. Study of such skills
  3. Tools used to make things 
  4. Things made with such tools
This roughly parallels Stephen J. Kline's four layers of technology: Hardware, Manufacturing, Methodology, and Social Usage. Dyer also notes the exponential growth of technology especially over the past two centuries.

Dyer is right to point out that we are aware of how technology influences us only when the rubber hits the road. I enjoy the way he describes the different questions used to provoke a response. Take two questions for example. The first, "What do you think about the effects of technology on your life?" will hardly evoke an immediate response, compared with the second, "What happens if you lose your cell phone?" While the breaking down of technology into the four layers help academically, like the question scenario above, I wonder if there is a better way to communicate this to help more people appreciate it. Perhaps, it has got to do with the audience and who the book is written for. I suspect Dyer is taking an "amber" light approach too, not being too theoretical and at the same time, not too liberal in terms of colloquial language.

2) Rebellion
With the fall of man comes the setback on how original intent can be disrupted. We use our tools not only as a reflection of our creativity but also as a "rebellion" against God. The "first technological upgrade" was from fig leaves Adam and Eve found to clothes that God made. Dyer makes an interesting observation about "all of our technology" as "an attempt to overcome the effects of the Fall." That sound a little sweeping but I get his point. While I may not agree with it on an absolute scale, I can nod my head on the basis of a "somewhat agree" scale. My reservation is because I want to avoid the trap of dualism, that divides the technological world into a pure proposition and opposition distinction.  I believe there is room for a third position that comprises a combination of both. The danger however is seeing salvation through technology. Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City can be instructive here. We need to avoid the first kind of city, the one where Cain tried to set up an alternative city instead of the second, that cities are to cultivate relationships. Cities can be idols, and technologies self-satisfying. They can be distractions. The biggest danger for us now is to live as if we don't need God, especially when technology seems to be making us more invincible to solving the problems of this world. I agree with Dyer about the fallacy of neutrality of technology. Personally, the way I would put it is this. Technology is neutral as long as no one uses it. The moment an imperfect person touches it, it is no longer neutral.

3) Redemption
Here, Dyer begins with the story of a Pastor Andy who had people praying for him while he goes through cancer treatment. Each time someone prayed for him, he would get a beep on his beeper. Using that as an example, Dyer shows us how technology can be used for redemptive purposes. Another example is that of Noah who was taught how to build the ark. Rather than technology per se, Dyer points out the "redemptive capacity" in technology. In the world of social networking, we learn of how like-minded individuals can be connected and reinforced. There is a cautionary element as well, as readers are reminded how the Tower of Babel became a prideful enterprise in which God had to intervene to save humans from their own folly. The tablet revolution is another example. Going back to the ancient stone tablets God had given Moses, the technology of the written word is crucial to the retention and teaching of the Laws of God. The permanence and authority of the written word reinforced the Word of God. The use of images is a cautionary tale of how objects can turn into idols. As a medium, technology can communicate more than simply the content. There is the packaging, the fashioning, the speed, as well as ways of thinking. Indeed, it is important to know the medium we use to communicate ourselves. Marshall McLuhan's thesis about the medium is the message is highly instructive. In order for us to redeem anything, we need to know more about the potential as well as the limits of the medium we use.

4) Restoration

Every technology has its tradeoffs. Just like the soccer ball where making a ball more waterproof can affect its aerodynamics, Facebook can connect many people but also bring about other relational problems when things are communicated out of context. Going back to Jesus, we learn about how He redeemed mankind at the cross. He is an example how in the face of evil, God's will can still be done. He died that we may have life, and the hope of a new Jerusalem.

Dyer ends the note with a sombre warning. Like the machine gun that was originally made for good, or Nobel's discovery of dynamite, we learn that technology can also turn up on the wrong side. Every progress will raise up new ethical issues. Technology itself can be treated like a god. Upgrading and the hunger to be better drive up the expectations we have on machines and people. With the convergence of technology into a smaller footprint, we have on our hands a formidable piece of technology that carries with them benefits as well as risks. The four technological mediums, printing, imaging, telegraph, telephone, are now augmented by text, emails, and social media. In terms of access, we can easily obtain information but we can easily be misinformed. In terms of speed, we get news quickly but we can also communicate hoaxes as quickly. In terms of reading, we skim rather than read. In terms of interruption, we need to practise the ability to be present to the people around us, instead of letting the phone interrupt us. In terms of identity, we need to ask ourselves how true to life are we both offline and online.

This is one of the most balanced books I have read about living and thinking Christianly in a technological age. Dyer has given us a very good overview of what technology can and cannot do. His position and experience as a technologist plus his theological background makes him a reliable person to learn with. The information in this book is helpful but with each trending in technology, it is important to recognize that every change of technology will bring along new advantages as well as disadvantages. Rather than to focus on the content or specific technology or devices, look at the motivation and underlying message to communicate. Every medium has an influence. Every individual will behave differently depending on the medium used. Most importantly, as far as believers are concerned, behave in a manner that reflects one's reverence for God.


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