Appraising a Christian Appraisal of Modern Technology

Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal by Craig Gay

Review by W. Jackson Watts

“Modern automatic machine technologies,” to use author and professor Craig Gay’s formulation, are reshaping our present, and, in so doing, reshaping the future as well. Believers and unbelievers agree on this, though some are more sanguine than others about that fact. In the face of this situation, Gay seeks to address the dearth of wisdom through his recent book, Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal (IVP, 2018).

Gay is not a latecomer to the body of “tech criticism” published in recent years. His 1998 book The Way of the (Modern) World, offered substantial analysis of the nature of technology. Gay opens his new book by making clear his personal and professional indebtedness to modern technology and its many benefits. Indeed, he argues that we must acknowledge those benefits if we’re to honestly evaluate modern technology. Thus, he offers this book-length treatment in the spirit of helping readers assess both the harm and profit modern automatic machine technologies bring to human life and society (xii).

How is Modern Technology Impacting Human Beings?

In chapter one, Gay carefully reviews the multi-faceted implications of our modern technological milieu, focusing on our habits of thought, concentration, and learning; the workforce; and personal relationships. His aim in describing the impact technology is having in these areas may cause the skeptical reader to see the problems as tied solely to intent or agency: better foresight should easily forestall certain negative effects. Yet the technological narrative itself is one of good intentions and creativity coupled with our inability to imagine the possible consequences of unhinging technological development from a consideration technology’s proper ends and its true nature. As philosopher Bruce Little once remarked to me, in a technique-driven culture ends become irrelevant. A point frequently made by Jacques Ellul.

Gay cites George Grant who famously noted how difficult it is to “comprehend technique beyond its own dynamism” (34). In other words, it is very difficult to stand outside of the effects, mindset, and culture that technology creates and see it with clarity. Yet Gay manages to provide significant reasons why all parties should agree that modern automatic machine technology isn’t entirely beneficial. Drawing on the work of McLuhan, Berger, Carr, and other recent research, Gay convincingly shows the disruptive effects of technology on human concentration, the workforce, and social relationships.

These disruptive effects, however, have been offset (at least in most people’s minds) by the gains and benefits. No one wants to challenge this status quo. A hyper-technological future seems much more appealing than a pre-technological past. Progress, if defined in terms of material welfare, is hard to debate or challenge. Of course, if we begin with the assumption that whatever is easier is better, then on that basis it is hard to evaluate the true costs of machine technology, not thinking that perhaps something that requires toil may actually be good or healthy for us.

One of the more original and nuanced aspects of Gay’s book is his attention to the role of money in technological development. The logic of money is a far-reaching and often unexplored reason why we cannot “comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism.” (58). There is too much at stake. Gay contends the main reason why “there has not been more resistance to modern technological development” is due to how closely it is connected to economic interests (57).

Where Are We Headed?

Gay utilizes two metaphors from physics to help readers understand the nature of modern technological development. The momentum of technology has increased profoundly in the last 150 years, driving civilization further into a future it isn’t prepared for. Inertia refers to the direction of this development, best known as automatism. These two dynamics, momentum and inertia, constitute factors that increasingly make embodied human beings unnecessary, and so overcoming them will require a concerted effort (60).

How this trajectory has been set is the focus of chapter two. The emergence of money and later capitalism provided a potent environment for industrialization to not only occur, but to transform the way human beings thought about time, space, and technological possibility. Ironically, many religious influences, namely the Protestant understanding of vocation, helped to underwrite this emerging mindset. As Gay explains, within the new Protestant ethic, “believers were all but mandated to improve the material conditions of life by inventing new devices, increasing productivity, diminishing the costs of production, hastening transport, facilitating communications, and opening up new markets for distribution. This ethic was naturally open to the practical empiricism of early-modern science” (71). One hears the echoes of Baconian thought here, only being worked out in a nation on the precipice of a total economic and technological transformation.

Drawing on the analysis of Lewis Mumford and Max Weber primarily, Gay explains the social and economic context created by, anticipated by, and followed by technological development. “The fact that a good deal of modern technology has developed within the context of the market economy also helps to interpret the increasingly dizzying pace of technological change, as well as the restlessness and insatiability that characterizes contemporary culture” (82). The demand for growth, combined with the ideology of human progress, and the willingness of people to believe in the promises of technology constitute the main drivers of modern technology’s momentum and inertia (77).

These developments have also produced an environment where more and more people are convinced “that ‘reality’ is something that we can redesign” (84). “The assumption that reality can be mastered also contains the implicit metaphysical assumption that no mysterious and/or incalculable forces bear upon our spheres of interest and activity” (88-89). This precludes not only God’s existence, but also the notion of a telos to the universe or any final human purpose beyond material well-being.

The Technological Worldview

How have so many found themselves caught in the momentum and inertia of modern technological development? In chapter three, Gay explains that machine technology was always intended to function automatically, mostly independent of human engagement, unhindered by human frailty or limitation. It is clear to many observers, however, that this has left behind countless laborers in our modern economy. But there is still a widespread feeling of inevitability that we must accept. Gay attributes this to a technological worldview, a worldview in which technology, as Martin Heidegger once argued, is the prevailing metaphysic of the modern age.

Our technologically-savvy milieu encourages the view that modern life is mostly a series of problems to be solved with technology. This is further exacerbated by the way the logic of money and capitalism propels people to embrace means which focus more on quantitative achievements than qualitative ones (as they are the same to many modern people). Furthermore, our commitment to progress requires such innovations. The technological worldview promotes “instrumentalism, functionalism, and the engineering mentality,” which in the end objectifies the natural world as well as people (98).

The tools themselves aren’t all that have fostered the technological worldview. Drawing on the dated but still helpful analysis of Lewis Mumford, Gay reminds us that a “change of mind, a new way of looking at the world and a new estimation of human purposes within it” predated the rise of modern machinery (99). Described as the “mechanical world picture,” Gay outlines how Cartesian thought, Protestantism’s “duty of mastery,” and other medieval-to-modern developments contributed to the means-oriented, problem-solving, technique-driven mindset which is the technological worldview. His analysis of Heidegger’s ideas of “enframing,” or the modern way of seeing the world and envisioning human purpose, is especially insightful. If the world is merely a collection of raw materials to be used, then any inherent value and telos of human life suffers the same fate as the technologies that have long since been surpassed by their modern, automated successors.

Automatic machine technology has increasingly drifted from a vision of flourishing essential to ordinary embodied human existence. Is there “something outside of ourselves that might direct and discipline—and thus give order to—human making and willing”? (129). Gay tries to point to this something in chapter four.

Where We Are and Who We Were

According to Gay, modern secular thought is in no position to offer society a credible response, protest, or critique of current technological developments or the prevailing technological worldview. However, the implications of the gospel have the unique resources to do just this. That is, if we understand the gospel not as an escape plan to an ethereal world, but the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the present age, to a reigning, resurrected Christ who first took on flesh and dwelt among us, then we have an answer.

Gay acknowledges that not all churches are equally prepared to offer this response, for so many Christians have acquiesced to modern technology due to a “mistaken ‘otherworldliness’ and this fascination with technological possibilities” (134). They have overlooked the significant of embodiment, incarnation, and resurrection. However, for Christians willing to “re-remember,” there is within the Christian faith a basis to celebrate God’s creation, the gift of human embodiment within that order, and the vocations to which we are called in this world. This recovery of memory is possible when creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are the matrix through which we understand reality, including who God is, what the world is like, who human beings are, and God’s good design for them. Gay’s main thrust continues to be the centrality of the body as the “very means by which and in which our spirits are enabled, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to love God and neighbor and to do our necessary work in the world” (153). The nature of this work is significantly altered, undermined, or even rendered unnecessary by automatic machine technology.

This latter concern is woven throughout the book. Though modern technologies no doubt make our lives easier, cheaper, and more convenient, promises of a better life often obscure the ways in which dealing with natural limits and resistance are essential to learning, development of virtues like patience, and depending on God’s grace to help us overcome adversity, not our cleverly-devised tools. Indeed, drawing on Luther’s theology of the cross, Gay suggests that while loving our neighbor often entails alleviating forms of suffering, this suffering is also the place where “the living God often chooses to meet us” (165). In other words, relief from suffering and hardship requires discernment in order to avoid some of the idolatrous tendencies bound up in technological remedies.

What Can We Do?

How might we begin to “comprehend technique beyond its own dynamism?” Naturally, the earliest chapters implicitly and explicitly provide affirmations that are essential to this discernment. But Gay offers a bit more in chapter five. Specifically, he calls for repentance when it comes to the prideful pursuit of autonomy, which is itself built on the lie that it is up to human beings to define who they are. He also says we must repent of the vision of the world in which nature is inert, raw material waiting for us to determine its value and use. Beyond these, we must “refuse to abet the disintegrating tendencies” in our world, while recognizing our responsibility to make the world “endurable so that the gospel stands some chance of being heard” (170). Christians should seek to model grace and freedom as much as possible, which constitute a rejection of the latent determinism that is often assumed in our modern technological society. Gay helps tease out what this may entail, especially when it comes to family life and social life more generally. His suggestions are more than a mere five-step plan. He insists that Christians must think deeply about what constitutes genuinely human purposes, and how those sorts of purposes might be attained appropriately. We must “insist that personal ends simply cannot be achieved through exclusively impersonal means” (188). So then in the pursuit of cultivating a vital social life, for example, constant manipulation and compression of time and space, no matter how impressive, may not be acceptable concessions to make.

The book ends with a personal conclusion and an epilogue that discusses how the Eucharist is a key Christian practice infused with the assumptions and affirmations that can help Christians see and reject technology’s false promises more clearly. Gay concludes by saying that insomuch that technology can “enable us to become more fully ourselves, more delightfully related to one another, more thoughtfully engaged in and with created reality, and better attuned to the voice and will of the living God,” then it may serve a proper place in Christian life” (227).

Response

Readers of Craig Gay’s other writings had long waited for a fuller treatment of technology, and they won’t be disappointed. His analysis ranges from the economic to the theological, from the medieval age until the present, and from the philosophical to the practical. Though some of his arguments are repetitive in places, he helpfully situates the reader to understand technology from “beyond its own dynamism,” to return to the Grant quote that drives Gay’s effort.

The book’s subtitle is important: “A Christian Appraisal.” In saying this Gay is not committing himself to a purely theological appraisal, though his work provides helpful theological insight. But this is worth pointing out as it reminds the reader that this is an interdisciplinary effort by a professor of interdisciplinary studies. It also may account for some interesting choices when theological analysis is provided. For example, Irenaeus of Lyons is utilized significantly in Gay’s perspective on creation, fall, and redemption. This early church father’s thought on these subjects is not without its tensions.

The use of Augustine alongside Irenaeus points to how the Reformed tradition could further illuminate Gay’s suggestions for how technology could appropriately foster authentic human being. The creation or cultural mandate, as developed by Reformed theologians working with Genesis 1 and 2, would have been a fruitful place for Gay to extend his discussion about how technology might have a place in human beings’ work as image bearers. This is hinted at in places, but as there are many in the Christian community who believe the cultural mandate still provides a basis after the fall, for robust cultural development, further engagement with this line of thought could have been useful.

Gay’s contribution is sweeping and impressive. He engages the most important parties, and considers layers of this discussion sometimes overlooked. Gay is right when he cites George Grant. The challenge is to make sense of technology from beyond its own dynamic impact will require honesty with history, science, economics, and Scripture. But it first requires honesty with how our own lives are so deeply implicated with the benefits of technology.


Jackson Watts (PhD, Concordia Seminary) is a St. Louis-area pastor and writer. He has written or edited two books, and is a contributor and senior editor for the Helwys Society Forum. He is interested in cultural studies, pastoral theology, and especially the relationship between technology and spiritual formation and ecclesiology. He and his wife reside in Pevely, Missouri.