Review: Modern Technology and the Human Future

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

Craig Gay is professor of interdisciplinary studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Interdisciplinary” means approaching topics from the multiple perspectives of, for example, theology, history, business, sociology and engineering – rather than just a single lens. Gay has written several impressive books earlier in his career, including With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate over Capitalism (1991) and Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society (2003). Modern Technology and the Human Future is a superb addition to a vast and growing literature reflecting on our technological society and culture.  

Gay’s study of technology is broad-ranging and deep: not just about one or another device or invention but about the relationship of technology-thinking and making to life and culture as a whole. It’s about the forest, not just the trees. Gay draws deeply and repeatedly on several of the great technology and culture analysts and critics of the past including Martin Heidegger, Lewis Mumford, George Grant, Peter Berger and Jacques Ellul and on more recent voices such as Sherry Turkle and Albert Borgmann.

The basic challenge is expressed by Peter Berger (Gay’s doctor-father at Boston University): modern societies assume that “all human problems can be converted into technical problems, and if the techniques to solve certain problems do not as yet exist, they will have to be invented” (p. 10). Technology is not just machines and devices but a method, an ensemble of methods, that continually expands its sway over the whole earth and the whole of human life. Gay insists he is not a Luddite wishing to smash all machines: “Our technologies often enable us to become more of ourselves, more personally interrelated with each other, more dynamically engaged with the world, and better able, even, to worship the living God” (p. 19). Wow! But “given its evident trajectory (Silicon Valley boosterism notwithstanding), modern automatic machine technology is more likely to detract from our ordinary embodied experience of the world than it is to enhance it” (p. 19).

The central concern of Gay’s critique is the replacement of “bodily existence” with technologically-mediated existence, which is fundamentally dehumanizing. We are embodied creatures. God created us with bodies and called his creation good. God was incarnated in a real body and resurrected in a real body. Central to Christian worship is the eucharist/Lord’s Supper in which we remember and celebrate that bodily gift at the heart of history and eternity.

Gay teases out the distinctions between tools (used by humans for specific actions and purposes) and machines (programmed to act automatically on their own, replacing specific human choice and action as much as possible). We have embraced a view of the world that is de-personalized and “disenchanted.” Disenchanted means an assumption that the material world is all that exists: no creator, no gods, no spirituality that is not just the expression of material causes. Persons are just clusters of material. Nature and human beings do not have intrinsic value, just instrumental value. Gay’s history of the origins and nature of this modern technological worldview (and philosophy of life) is excellent.  

But is this invasive monopoly of technological thinking and acting inevitable? Is it desirable? Gay does a good job of showing that it is not desirable in its monopolistic form.  In a limited place, subjected to human values and purposes, as an aide to human flourishing, technology is to be welcomed and developed. The value of Gay’s book is to provoke us to rethink this broader, deeper modern worldview and philosophy of life. The great alternative is the biblical worldview of a meaningful, purposeful creation by God, broken by sin and failure, but in process of redemption not by escaping bodily existence but through incarnation and resurrection. It is a completely different way of viewing the world.  Are Christians capable of living and working 24/7 with this alternate view of reality (and technology)? Or do they remember it (and then just leave it) in the sanctuary? That is the terrible challenge we face.

Note: Author photo Regent College, inset montage image TradigitalWorks

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