A Review of
Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal
Reviewed by Alden Bass
The Czech writer Karel Čapek introduced the word “robot” into the global vernacular through his 1920 stage production R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In the play, a scientist named Rossum invents a humanoid automaton which is subsequently mass-produced and sold as a labor-saving device. As the robots assume more and more responsibilities in the world, humans mysteriously lose the ability to reproduce. Their plight is compounded by a robot uprising which annihilates every human except one man, the first instance in literature of the machine apocalypse. Čapek’s critique – if not clear from the plot – is neatly captured in the title’s Czech wordplay. Rossum derives from rozum, “reason.” And robota simply means “slave.”
Exactly a century later, Craig Gay echoes the playwright’s concerns about the danger of instrumentalist reason, automation, and the existential threat of machine thinking in his newest work, Modern Technology and the Human Future. “It may come as a surprise to the contemporary Christian reader,” he writes, “that some of the thinking that currently informs modern technological development is almost entirely at odds with biblical religion” (136).
The book is an excellent summary of an emerging Christian consensus on the good of modern tech. Key ideas in the philosophy of technology – concepts such as “automatism” (Lewis Mumford), “the device paradigm” (Albert Borgmann), “standing reserve” (Martin Heidegger), “technique” (Jacques Ellul), and “tool vs. machine” (Romano Guardini) – are explained and enlisted in service to his plea for Christians to think more carefully about the machines which are rapidly colonizing every nook and cranny of everyday life.
Gay’s reflections are not merely academic; now a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Regent University, he spent his early years in Silicon Valley, working for his father’s tech start-up and absorbing the nascent digital culture. Gay was there when it all started. He is also a fairly typical North American consumer of tech, as he admits in the conclusion. Thankfully, he avoids cliché Dad-frets about iPhones and social media, focusing instead on the philosophical issues raised by our machines. Technology is not a particular invention or network but a stance toward the world that is instrumental and manipulative. He calls this the “mechanical world picture.”
The etymology of the word “robot” reflects one of the most potent myths about modern technology – that we are in control. Most of us consider technological development to be a good thing, associated with social progress and the promotion of personal health and happiness. Yet as Gay points out, “this optimistic and typically modern view overlooks the fact the master/slave relation is nearly as dehumanizing for the master as it is for slave” (31). Gay doesn’t seem worried about a dramatic robot apocalypse, but he is convinced that our freedoms are being eroded by the corrosive effects of the mechanical world picture.
Our machines, he argues, are making us more machine-like. To modify one of Churchill’s aphorisms, “We shape our technology; thereafter it shapes us.” We see the world as a mechanism which exists to meet our needs, a collection of “natural resources” made for us to exploit. The attempt to “master” our bodies and our world deforms us by abstracting us from material reality and situating us above creation. Čapek depicted this loss of essential humanity with worldwide reproductive failure. (Incidentally, his story may have been prophetic; according to the reporting of Kate Julian in The Atlantic, people are having sex significantly less than previous generations, in part because of technological shifts. She calls it the “sex recession.”)
Far from being morally neutral, modern technology is intrinsically nihilistic; it is oriented to nothing except its own proliferation. In this regard, it mirrors another feature of modernity: free market economics. One of Gay’s most valuable contributions to this discussion is his insight that technological development is intertwined with capitalism and market systems. Gay has written two other books in which he critiques market economics as similarly nihilistic; the goal is uninhibited growth. Money itself is an ancient technology which came into its own in the seventeenth century, the same period in which the Scientific Revolution was preparing the way for the Cambrian explosion of tech in our own time. Like machine tech, paper money is a social construct which removes us from the material world and away from real value. Both the market economy and modern tech are children of Enlightenment rationalism, the philosophy which elevated human reason to the place of god.
Sounding a more ancient Christian key, he also classifies the technological worldview as a species of gnosticism. In a misguided attempt to alleviate suffering, Christian gnostics urged their hearers to obtain gnosis, secret knowledge, in order to escape this corporeal body and its physical environments. A perfect virtual realm in the heavens was the desired destination. Time and space, in so far as they limit our movement in the world, were considered enemies to be overcome. Similarly, Silicon Valley gnosticism offers salvation by removing us from the constraints of the body.
Technology as we know it reflects our fallen state. It circumvents “slow, deliberate, sustained, and disciplined thought [and practices]” – the very things necessary to flourish as material beings within the constraints of time and space. Yet while modern technology may be fallen, machines are not inherently evil. As a product of human culture, technology’s proper purpose is to “enhance bodily relationality” (15). Tech should make us more, not less, human; material things need to be loved and cared for as divine gifts. Technologies can only be redeemed when properly ordered within God’s good creation.
Gay devotes a chapter to a retelling of the Christian story with an emphasis on its materiality: the goodness of the original creation, the example of the Word-Made-Flesh, and the promise of bodily resurrection and new creation. Technology properly understood has the potential to increase our “response-ability” to one another, the world, and Being itself. By way of example he cites the early technology of the phonetic alphabet. Writing lifted humans out of a participatory worldview, giving them critical distance and self-awareness in order to praise God and give God thanks. Likewise, God’s self-revelation to Israel was preserved in writing, allowing generations to reflect, ponder, and respond to the Divine. Can digital tech do the same?
Whatever the answer, Gay insists that technology is not a “problem” to be “fixed.” Seeing the issue in these terms perpetuates the engineering mindset of the mechanical worldview. Technology, insofar as it is sinful, will be “fixed” by God. Christians, he argues, are called to “re-member” the true story of the world and re-orient themselves to the goodness of the material creation in order to live more fully into God’s gift – with or without the aid of modern tech.
After meditating for most the book on cognitive frameworks, Gay concludes with a call to re-sacramentalize our experience of the world by attending to bodily practices such as Eucharist. Here he follows Albert Borgmann’s lead in re-imagining Eucharist as a “focal device” analogous to other devices. But I suspect that participating in the Eucharist once weekly or monthly will not curb our appetites for mastery or weaken tech’s power over us; Gay admits as much about himself in the “personal conclusion.” The Eucharist is certainly the anchoring practice of Christians, and one with the potential to transform the way we see the world. But the way of Jesus is more than a way of seeing or thinking. It is a set of embodied, communal practices. In the face of totalitarian tech culture, Christians need to develop daily disciplines, what Michael Sacasas has called “digital asceticism,” to resist the dominant culture through a counter-formation rooted in Sabbath, solitude, intentional community.