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Technology: God’s gift or Satan’s trick?

Last week, we chatted about AI vs human consciousness. Our guest, emerging technology specialist and ethicist Steven Umbrello, walked us through the differences between the two and how conflating them betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology. Find the episode here! This episode was part of a larger conversation that we will continue having about technology and innovation and the implications for our faith.


This week I want to consider another idea on the topic of technology: should we think of it as God’s gift or as Satan’s trick?


Depending on who you ask on a certain day, the response will vary. In Silicon Valley, you might find more of an “innovate at all costs” mentality whereas in a Mormon community you might find the exact opposite. But where does the Church stand, and where should we stand as Christians?


The answer isn’t simple and I’m not even sure there is a single answer. The truth is that technology is just technology. It can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. How it’s designed and how we use it will determine those outcomes.


How it’s designed


When something is created, it is worth asking what the intent of the creator is or was. For example, Facebook was created as a free social media app. There’s a popular saying in Silicon Valley: “if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.” Facebook makes a lot of money by selling advertising. Advertisers are interested in eyeballs. It follows that Facebook does well financially by having its users coming back to the app regularly (i.e., more eyeballs for the people who want to get advertisements in front of them). If people used the app just once a day there wouldn’t be as much incentive for the advertisers. And, in fact, while Facebook’s founders and executives have said the intent was social connection they have also openly admitted that they exploit our psychology to keep us hooked on the app.


It has to be said that it is impossible for Facebook to have made the app addictive if it had nothing that people perceive to be valuable: connection, information, and entertainment. I believe people are decent judges of what their needs are but terrible judges of how to go about fulfilling those needs. We know we need information, but we are not great about verifying the accuracy of that information. We know we need connection, but we choose social media over in-person interaction. We know we need entertainment but we choose Netflix instead of going outside for a walk. 


Our human experience so often devolves into seeking the path of least resistance. So, with Facebook providing for all these needs (albeit in a subpar way) with minimal effort, it was inevitable that people would get addicted. That leads me to my next point.


How it’s used


I don’t think anyone could reasonably defend an argument that technology is completely useless. Even social media has its merits. I couldn’t count the number of useful lessons I have learned from content creators on social media. People who have amazing gifts now have a brilliant way to share it broadly with the world.


However, how much time is spent learning something new and applying that knowledge? In contrast, how much time is spent watching goofy videos of cats doing silly things (or worse…)?


We absolutely have the ability to master technology and use it to augment our abilities or the work that we do, but that requires the right mindset. If we fail to guard against the desires for cheap dopamine highs, the technology masters us and we become subservient to it.


How it’s affecting our world


When I was a university student and I asked a mentor how to start networking as an introvert, he said there is no shortcut. Start talking to people on the train, or strike up a conversation with someone while waiting in line at a store or fast food joint. “Practice makes perfect,” he said. Think about how realistic that is these days. If you are on a train, everyone’s head is down staring at their smartphones. I recently returned from a trip to California and on the flight back I was sitting next to a young woman. When I got to my seat, she was already in her seat and staring at her phone. She stared at it for the duration of the ~4 hour flight. Even as my wife and I got picked up from the airport when we arrived home, I saw this young woman again. What was she doing? You guessed it. Still staring at her phone.


The reality of work


When computers became prevalent at work, when factories were automated, and now when AI is booming, people start worrying about job security. But the truth is our economies have only ever grown with technological development. This technology that should have the ability to reduce our workload actually just allows us to do more work in the same period of time. The amount of work never reduces. The type of work an individual does might change, but companies essentially leverage these technologies to increase their productivity.


Smartphones are the most obvious example to me because they are literally a mini-computer in our hands. In the past, when we finished work, that would be it. We go home and spend time with family because we’re disconnected. Now, we have email and all the necessary applications to continue working even during family meal time and other times that should go uninterrupted. We are always plugged in if we don’t resist the urge.


What is the way forward?


Well, if you’re a Christian, just turn to the first commandment. It is easy to turn technology into an idol. Each minute we spend on our phones is a minute that could’ve been spent in prayer. Each time we outsource our thinking to AI, we diminish the gift of consciousness that God gave us. If we are parents, we also need to remember that we are the role models for our kids and that we have a responsibility to build the right habits in them as they grow. If we know that they do as we do and not as we say, the real responsibility is on the parents to demonstrate (not tell) what responsible technology use looks like.


With all that, tune in to this week’s episode of the podcast where we are joined by Dan Churchwell to talk about kids, smartphones, anxiety and Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Anxious Generation.


God bless,


Rigel


P.S. My wife and I getting away from technology and going for a walk outdoors in beautiful northern California...


Northern California

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