Technology!? Its spiritual and practical implications
There's no doubt that this is a huge subject. What I want to do, is deliberately open-up a can of worms - enough to make us start realising the cultural and spiritual implications the fast pace of technological change is having, Not only on the way that our society thinks and reacts, but also those God has called us to pastor and teach.
So I intend to just glance off the following areas:
- What’s the theological root which drives our insatiable desire for technology?
- How should we protect ourselves and our children?
- Whatever happened to security and privacy?
- Worshipping the almighty Steve?
What spiritual craving – drives us to invest our technological minds to produce something that’s as enormous in terms of its impact on our world,as it is mundane in terms of its aim. What I mean is this; Facebook does nothing new, it just does it in a way that impacts more people, more quickly.
You see, what drives Facebook is our desire to communicate – our desire for community – and it’s the same thing that’s driven much of our technological advancement actually:
The printing press, the postal service, the telegraph, the radio transmitter, the television, the satellite communications system, the cell phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, the list goes on and on…
When the Voyager satellite was launched in 1977, you may think its aim was all about scientific discovery as it hurtled around our solar-system beaming back pictures and sensor readings – and of course it was. But alongside its many scientific instruments, it also carried a gold-plated video disc with photographs of the earth and it’s life-forms, maps of our solar-system, samples of music and sound of our planet, including a spoken greeting from a representative of mankind – actually the US president.. but almost human!
In a real sense then it was an inter-galactic Facebook page on a disc, it was information designed to represent what we wanted an alien species to learn about us. And I’d like to suggest that what drives our technological need is our deep-rooted desire to communicate. That need comes from the way God has made us – it’s a reflection of God’s image in us. More specifically, it’s a reflection of God’s Trinitarian nature.
You see, what we see in God is a perfect communicator, a perfect relationship within himself – He is the perfect, complete and everlasting illustration of perfect relationship. So, rather than a monarchic God, God is a sharing God who interacts and participates not only within Himself but with his creation. And so, when God creates, his actions invoke conversation – So, in Genesis 1:3, God spoke our universe into being, and as he did so, he shared within the Godhead, the delight of his creative work.
As creatures, in God’s image then, it’s no surprise that we share that desire to communicate – after all, God’s created us to be in community and communion not only with others, but principally with Himself. It’s that broken relationship with God which drives us to find a panacea for a disease we’re unable to understand let alone able to cure without reference to God.
Dr. David Murray Old Testament Professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, makes the point that technology and invention are simply the discovery of what God already knows. I think that’s a helpful starting point as it gives us a basis to see it as something that’s neither systemically evil nor good. Technology is simply putting God’s creation to use - its purpose can either be God centred or an expression of mankind’s idolatry.
The internet – global invasion
At this point, let me take a little detour and consider one aspect of technology that has, more than any other in our history, changed the way we communicate.
In 1989, Professor Timothy Burners-Lee proposed an information management system based on a system of sending tagged-text from a server across a network of client computers– that system become known as the ‘Hypertext Transfer Protocol’ or as we now all know and love it today, HTTP. That was the birth of the world-wide-web.
Burners-Lee later went on to become the director of the World-wide-web Consortium which, broadly speaking has continued to oversee development of that original protocol.
For those of you interested in connections, the first operational web-browser was developed by Berners-Lee for a system called NexTSTEP which was a company headed by the then not so famous, yet equally arrogant, Steve Jobs of Apple fame –during a period when his attitude issues saw him ousted from his own company‘Apple.’ It was an operating system that he subsequently developed before he was later re-appointed as CEO of Apple and later re-developed into what’s now called OS X (I just knew you’d find that interesting!) - But more about Steve a little later!
What’s particularly interesting is that Burners-Lee’s system was essentially designed for academic papers – even graphics of any kind were always a bolt-on extra and the whole of the internet was to a large extent focussed and driven by either military or academic interest.
Would you like porn with that?
There’s clear evidence to show that what saw it evolve from that into a public and commercial infrastructure was, in no mean part,driven by the pornography industry. A recent book by PatchenBarss called the ‘Erotic Engine’ (not a particularly good read) he sets out to explore this suggestion and he writes:
“In the past half century, the influence of pornography has become so pronounced that there is a clear argument that any business model for a new communications technology should consider appealing to the pornography market in its early days. Pornographers are ‘early adopters’ who will see a new medium through its rough early stages until it is ready for mainstream markets.It is clear that the privacy, convenience and anonymity afforded by modern media have made them pornography’s natural bedfellows. But the most surprising aspect of this story is how people’s desire to express themselves sexually, passionately and intimately to and with other people has proven a staggeringly powerful force driving creativity and innovation in mass communications.”
Sadly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the pornography market that invested in the first video ‘codecs’ Coders and Decoders to allow video to play on computers, it was the pornography market who first invested in the development of secure online credit-card transactions and even the pornography industry that invested in the development of online encryption techniques.
It’s a shocking but actually unsurprising truth that mankind’s desire to find satisfaction for a broken relationship with his creator, finds its expression in this aspect of the sex industry. And yet equally shockingly, is that in my view, we’ve not been clear or open enough, as church leaders, in responding to this situation. I have to say, over the past few years, it’s one of the problems men come to talk to me about far more frequently than I ever expected. But it’s a problem that affects quite possibly the majority of men, and women for that matter, in all of our church families!
Before the internet pornography explosion, there was always the social stigma associated with purchasing printed porn but, the removal of that gatekeeper and the huge problems of simply stumbling upon internet porn has serious consequences for us all. I doubt there’s any of us who haven’t to some extent or other found ourselves following links or finding our eyes lingering on sexually explicit images we had absolutely no intention of dwelling on. And if it’s difficult enough for us, then what about our children? A recent study showed that children, both boys and girls between 12 and 17 form the largest group of regular viewers of pornography.
Our young people are having their innocence destroyed and their minds desensitised in a way that we can’t underestimate. Murray has created a DVD called ‘God’s Technology’ which can be found at http://www.ligonier.org/store/gods-technology-dvd/ He calls it, “A Christian response to the digital revolution” and it’s a parents’ guide to giving our children some training in ‘Spiritual Discernment.’
Let me just say, I think his approach is excellent, it empowers parents to not ignore our children’s internet use, but neither does it fall into the trap of advocatingan isolationist position which I think is an equally terrible mistake. Well, I think that takes us neatly onto the next thing I want to consider which is security and privacy.
Security Story from working at MasterCard…
When I worked as the IT director for a semi-conductor design company, on my frequent visits to Phoenix, AZ, I become very friendly with the head of our software development; he’s an extremely clever man who used to work, coincidentally for the CIA at their headquarters in Langley. He discovered the same thing in his work there.
The reality is, advances in technology don’t make things any more or less secure because the weak link is always at the point of interface with a human being. The problem is, in a church, that interface can become very difficult to manage. The point is, we live in a culture which is as paranoid about privacy as it is delinquent.
We have more laws than ever that govern how we store, process or distribute details regarding individuals than at any other time in human history and yet at the same time, we openly squander that privacy without concern.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, entered the Forbes list of the ten most powerful people in the world. The reason? Forbes noted that the 27-year-old had done in seven years what the CIA had failed to do in 60: “find out what 800 million people think, read and listen to.”
To that end, I’d like to introduce you to someone who was, until very recently a friend of mine on Facebook. She’s called Andrea Mendax,she was born in 1993, she went to Kingsway School in Cheadle and she’s currently a student at Chester University – she had a total of 27 friends on Facebook that might seem remarkably few to some of you, but let me tell you a little bit more about her:
Actually, some of you might even have been friends with her, or more accurately, have had her listed among your Facebook friends… The truth is, she was only on Facebook for around 3 days and in reality she never really existed at all! I know that, because I created her – despite that, she had a legitimate and untraceable Google email account and a legitimate Facebook page, she has a photograph of someone I found by typing the name ‘Andrea’ into Google images. But most surprisingly, within the space of three hours of posting her profile, Andrea had collected 27 friends!
Frightening isn’t it… particularly as a good number of those friends were people who worked for churches – several youth ministers who probably thought they ought to know her… As things currently stand, there are nearly 6 million children under the age of 18 in the UK who have active Facebook accounts!
What’s worse, from the information Andrea was able to glean from her new friends on Facebook, was astonishing – so many people who share all their details: Email address, mobile phone numbers, dates of birth, schools attended – it didn’t take much in many cases to get maiden names or even mums maiden name! In fact, everything I’d need to steal someone’s identity without them having a clue!
Currently, there is one new person added to Facebook every second and it’s global power is both incredible and terrifying – incidentally, the age-group that’s currently being added at the fastest rate is middle-aged women.
Probably not the group we would identify as being the most vulnerable – and yet they rate as among the least technically savvy – They are what Tim Challies calls “Technological immigrants.” Born after the IT revolution – which he says took place in the 80’s. Personally, I disagree with him and would say it was actually the 90’s. The fact is computers in the 80’s were either games consoles or for those with a love of maths enticing geeky Australian boys like Mike Smith – who, incidentally harbours a secret love for Unix!
Privacy and closely related to that – secrecy, is a huge problem and it has specific implications for the way churches interact with the internet. As leaders, make sure your Facebook profile is completely private – it doesn’t happen by default! Lock it down!
Also, remember that most privacy on sites only works downwards. You can stop people – lower than you from gaining access to your information, but you cannot stop the owners of the information – such as Facebook – from having access to it. Facebook and Google works by selling your profile for targeted advertising. That doesn’t mean they sell private information but they link your profile to individual advertisers so that they can link targeted advertising. That’s the reason that if you search on Google for something you’ll then find for weeks afterwards you’ll get adverts for items related to that search, inserted in web-pages wherever you browse. Now of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with that is there?
Well yes and no…If you were searching for information on a new jumper for Christmas that’s fine. But ultimately, we’re putting our trust in the hands of those we have no control over!
It was Steve Wazniak the co-founder of Apple who said –
“All of a sudden, we’ve lost a lot of control, we can’t turn off our internet; we can’t turn off our smartphones; we can’t turn off our computers. You used to ask a smart person a question. Now, who do you ask? It starts with g-o, and it’s not God…”
That’s a quite remarkable theological reflection for someone who finds his own spiritual fulfilment in his membership of the Freemasons!
Likewise, those of you who, as we do at St. Mary’s, make good use of Dropbox for sharing information please remember that as soon as you upload your files, you relinquish control over them – the contents of those files are used to profile you, each word, every picture used for the purpose of data collection – all part of information for sale!
Incidentally, if you have confidential data stored on Dropbox it’s probably in contravention of the Data Protection Act.
Those of you who use iGoogle on your homepage… at first glance, it seems great – it gives you loads of information as soon as you open a browser window. But it’s not there for your benefit, it’s there because it helps to profile you – there’s the weather based on your location, there’s your calendar items used to find out how you spend your time – by default your star sign – providing your date of birth… each thing is designed to harvest critical information. But of course, it’s not only our computers; our phones too continually provide details of where you are within a 100m radius in urban areas.
Now,Just before you think I’m going over-the-top on this, I need to say that I’m not a conspiracy theorist and there’s no reason why we should get overly concerned about all of this – right now!
But, we need to recognise our complicity in handing over access to our lives to a faceless power - as Christians, that should at least make us question what we’re doing.
I recently wrote a small piece of software for a Chinese friend – an ex-colleague who now works back in China – it was a to enable a tablet computer they were developing to run the latest version of the Android OS – There was no problem until I came to send my code back to them at which point, whenever I sent it, it became corrupted – eventually, I discovered that this was being caused by China’s online defence that stops people in China downloading items from outside China – in the end, I had to use a Chinese authorised file download site – my point is, the free nature of the internet is potentially controllable, if not fully certainly to a large degree. The problem is, our expectation is that it isn’t – we assume openness!
In the UK, filtering is beginning to happen under the new (currently) voluntary filtering codes implemented by the major internet service providers. These codes of conduct are being pushed by government with the aim of reducing the uncontrolled seeping of undesirable websites getting onto our computers.
And you may well say that’s a good thing isn’t it, but is it?
Who decides what’s acceptable – how long will it be before the first Christian website is blocked, perceived to be spreading an anti-gay agenda or considered to be anti-Islamic? As it is, in the US, gay pressure groups are already known to trawl sermon material from Christian websites looking for evidence that can be used against churches.
Like many of you probably already do, I use ‘OpenDNS’ (http://www.opendns.com) which although it doesn’t provide a solid unwanted-site filter it’s a good first line defence but again, in doing so, I have no control over what else is filtered – neither do I have any control over what re-direction these systems can automatically do.
But finally, I thought I’d finish by considering the power and influence technology has over us – Of the top 5 richest people in the world, three of them make their money from the technology industry
- Carlos Slim – $74 billion, telecoms
- Bill Gates - $56 billion, Microsoft
- Larry Ellison - $39.5 billion, Oracle Group
Furthermore, apart from Bill Gates own private fortune, he also presides over the Gates foundation with an estimated endowment fund of some $33.5 billion.
Thetop 3 most valuable companies in the world are all technology companies – Apple, Google and IBM. Apple has a current value of around $153 billion, followed closely by Google with a value of $111.5 billion. To put that into perspective, each are valued at more than the total GDP of 76 out of the top 124 performing countries in the world.
But it’s not all about the numbers..let me quote this response to a recent BBC television programme:
We humans are a passionate bunch. There are some who are so passionate about something – perhaps something inanimate – that it can turn into fanboyism (or fangirlism).
One such noted variety around the tech circles is the apparent love for Apple products that some consumer faithful seem to have. It may be simple fanboyism, or it may be something deeper – so deep that it's on the same level as religion.
BBC Three's Secrets of the Superbrands program took a look at Apple's rabid following, which included the massive lineups for customers who are excited to be the first into a new Apple store location. While massive queues for a new product launch are not uncommon, Apple manages to attract its legion of customers to new store openings even when there aren't any new products or special promotions.
The Bishop of Buckingham, who totes his Bible on his iPad, explained to the show the similarities between Apple and religion.
A team of neuroscientists then observed the brain of an Apple fanatic. Amazingly, Apple stimulates the same parts of the brain that respond to religion, perhaps leading to an explanation of how some people can be so loyal (and defensive) of their personal computing choice.
This is what one journalist wrote about what he witnessed:
The scenes I witnessed at the opening of the new Apple store in London's Covent Garden were more like an evangelical prayer meeting than a chance to buy a phone or a laptop…
And what did those customers - some who'd travelled from as far away as the US and China and slept on the pavement for the privilege - find when they finally got inside?
Well, all the same stuff as in the Apple store half a mile away on Regent Street. No special offers, no free gifts (a few t-shirts were handed out), no exclusive products. Now that's devotion.
One of the biggest dangers of the way we use technology has to be self-promotion, the unabashed narcissism and obsession with self that leads to an over-inflated belief in our own importance.
It can become an idol, sucking up more and more of our time. It becomes the first thing you turn to when you’re feeling happy or sad or when you want affirmation or support. It can so easily fill the Gap that belongs to God.
But in conclusion, we need to remember that one of the things, that, in God’s perfect timing, allowed Christianity to spread so rapidly in the time just after Christ, was the technology of the day - technology of the Roman Empire – roads, safety and freedom to travel across borders, common language, currency… they were all used by God – the same Roman empire that designed crucifixion – that tortured our Saviour brought us the Gospel.
Barss, P. (2010). The Erotic Engine. Montreal: Anchor Canada.
Challies, T. (2011). The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Clowney, E. P. (2003). Preaching Christ in all of Scripture. Wheaton: Illinois.
Ligonier Ministries. (2011, January 06). God's Technology: An interview with David Murray. Retrieved November 7, 2011, from Ligonier Ministries - the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/gods-technology-interview-david-murray/
Lucas, G. (2011, October 31). Jesus Loves me this I know, his Facebook status tells me so. Cheadle, Cheshire, UK.
OpenDNS. (n.d.). OpenDNS. Retrieved from OpenDNS: http://www.opendns.com