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The Tightrope of Technology

June 27, 2018


One hundred fifty. That’s how many times a day the average American checks his or her phone (according to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’s annual Internet Trends report). I don’t doubt it. In fact, it could have said 250 and I probably wouldn’t have been surprised. I can’t tell you the number of times I check my phone, but I’m embarrassed to say, it’s probably right around the average. I’m no different than old Pavlov’s dog at times, rooting that little contraption out of my pocket at every alert. Just the other day I caught myself driving home from work and reaching for my phone at nearly every stoplight, reviewing my emails, texts, Facebook, etc. When I realized this, I committed to fasting from my phone for the remainder of my trip home. It was surprisingly difficult.

We live in an incredible era. The access we have to information is magical. We can tap into a seemingly infinite repository of information with a device that tucks snugly in our front pocket. We can know exactly what’s going on halfway around the world in the time it takes to say “halfway around the world.” The amount of knowledge and information, thousands of years’ worth of human development, toil, and discovery, is a mere swipe of the thumb away. We’ve been submerged into a stream of abundant knowledge that’s dulled just how miraculous this is. As Pope Francis observed in Evangelii Gaudium:

“This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid, and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.”

It’s not just this repository of information that has come with such advancements in technology, but also endless hours of entertainment, attraction, distraction. It’s even easier today, it seems, to find ourselves immersed in what nineteenth-century writer Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” I don’t think anyone doubts that technology is a wonderful thing. No reasonable person can suggest a revival of Luddism (the anti-technology movement in Britain in the early nineteenth century). In fact, despite the false claim from time to time that the Church is anti-science or opposes technology because it might dispel once and for all the antiquated myth of God, the Catholic Church speaks of such things as gifts from God. And gifts they are. Technology is a great good. It can help make our lives more fruitful and meaningful, elevating all of creation closer to the Kingdom that God had in mind when he created us. Yet, we all suspect there is something perilous that lies beneath if we’re not careful. Though wonderful, technology can be idolized—used in such a way that keeps us from living fruitfully. One way we can fall prey to this is by displacing human relationships with technological surrogates. Frank Pasquale, in The Algorithmic Self, affirms:

“Excessive engagement with gadgets as a substitution of the ‘machinic’ for the human—the ‘cheap date’ of robotized interaction standing in for the more unpredictable but ultimately challenging and rewarding negotiation of friendship, love, and collegiality.”

We can see this happening already with video games, phone apps, excessive texting (as opposed to having real conversations), and more. It’s everywhere. Our culture has even explored this phenomenon in the past few decades in several films. Pasquale makes mention of the 2001 movie A.I., which takes a look into how we can or should relate to machines if they develop advanced enough cognitive functions to be “almost” human. In the 2013 movie, Her, we see a witty, caring, and lovely operating system take the place of a real woman, offering friendship, love, and meaning to an otherwise lonely man’s life.

Then there is the ambiguous presence of social media, which combined with our innate desires to be loved and appreciated, can sometimes produce an unhealthy allergic reaction. Falling into the trap of measuring our worth or the quality of our relationships via “likes,” “shares,” and “favorites” will only lead us away from authentic relationships, tethered instead to the feelings of acceptance or approval that comes with such a mindset. It can lead to isolation. By “following” so many others, we can fail to follow the one person who matters most—Jesus.

In addition to the blurred classification of relationships and the burgeoning collective narcissism, the overdependence on technology—a tool that sheds a seemingly unlimited amount of knowledge and information—can, ironically, leave us less informed, thoughtful, and wise. Nicolas Carr picked up on this in his viral article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—as far as I can tell—but it’s changing.”

Are we substituting deep reading, thinking, and conversation for frothy and overly simplified human connections? Walking that tightrope toward fruitful technological advancement isn’t an easy feat. As it turns out, the weather is quite nasty up there.

So, where does faith fit into the new world of the New World? Many Catholic leaders, especially in the last few decades, have talked about the need for technology and modern-day economic structures to serve human beings, not the reverse. All technology should affirm and corroborate the dignity of human beings, made in the likeness and image of God. As Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic letter The Rapid Development, new technologies are gifts that “God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use, and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom.”

We have to constantly turn to God in prayer and trust and ask him to show us how to use the technological gifts we have to bring about his new creation. For one, we have to be willing to use these tools to preach the Gospel. Secondly, I think we have to be careful with how we spend our time using such technologies. We need to be wary of spending too much time on social media, forming brittle relationships with hundreds of people, comparing our profiles and status updates obsessively, and taking refuge in that little device in the palm of our hands instead of in the company of others—in their “suffering flesh,” to quote Pope Francis.

God calls us to authentic relationships. And we can definitely have authentic relationships through social media—that’s exactly what makes social media such a gift. It allows us to reach out to others across the globe in ways we never thought possible. Yet, we know the difference between using it to establish a real connection with someone and using it to pass the time, feel better (or worse) about our own life, or wrest the admiration and jealousy of our “followers” and “friends.” One enriches life and confirms our dignity; the other leaves us restless, unfulfilled, isolated.

The world will only continue to become more technologically inclined, granting us incredible gifts of human progress that will have the capacity to do great good. However, like most tools that can be used for good, it can also be used for ill. It’s up to us to harness the technology for good. By using this gift to connect as oppose to scatter, proclaim as oppose to defame, and inspire as oppose to debase, we can help sanctify the culture through grace, trust and—most importantly—love.