Stephen Beale has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 10 years, reporting on presidential politics, government corruption, and other public affairs. He also writes frequently about Church history, spirituality, and theology. He holds an undergraduate from Brown University in classics and history. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
The notion that technology can be a harbinger for all sorts of evils is not new.
The question is whether technology itself is morally neutral. In other words: Is technology simply something that can be used either for good or evil or is it inherently problematic? Often we hear the case made for the former position. Technology is not the problem. Rather, the argument goes, it’s in how we use it.
There is some obvious truth in this: the same processes of nuclear fission used in the first atom bombs also can be harnessed to provide energy. Likewise, the same iPhone that distracts us from those around us also has apps that help us read Scripture or pray more often.
But an intriguing case for the latter claim—that technology is inherently problematic—is presented in one of the later chapters of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option. Specifically, Dreher labels technology as an ‘ideology.’
We typically think of an ideology as a system of beliefs and values about politics and society. Capitalism is an ideology and so are nationalism, communism, globalism, and fascism. But calling a tool or a class of objects an ideology seems like a bit of a non sequitur. So what does Dreher mean when he calls technology an ideology?
Dreher is worried about how modern technology shapes and warp our perception of the world. In his words, technology “is an ideology that conditions how we humans understand reality.” Dreher elaborates on this point:
Technology as a worldview trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old and familiar and to valorize the future uncritically. It destroys tradition because it refuses any limits on its creativity. Technological Man says, ‘If we can do it, we must be free to do it’ (Benedict Option, 221).
Dreher’s example of this is in vitro fertilization, a once-controversial procedure that he says has ‘commodified’ child-bearing and resulted in the production of millions of frozen embryos most of whom soon either die or are later destroyed.
In describing technology as an ideology, Dreher is leaning on a famous dictum of media theorist Marshall McLuhan—“The medium is the message.” This is, Dreher explains, “because the medium alters the way we experience the world and interpret it.”
For example, television in the twentieth century made our world seem more interconnected—crises in some remote corner of world became immediately accessible to us. It has transformed how we consume the news in other ways, dialing down meaningful information and turning up the volume on sensationalism.
One of Dreher’s chief worries is the Internet, which he warns has ushered in a whole host of social and spiritual evils. The Internet isolates us from other friends and family, can become addicting, and cripples our ability to focus on anything of importance. Dreher readily grasps the serious spiritual implications of such chronic distraction. The iPhone, he says, has become a sort of false icon of our age:
The Middle Ages prized contemplation, which is why medieval societies, including products of their technological knowledge, were ordered to God. The icon, thought to be a symbolic window into divine reality, is an apt symbol of that age. Contemplation is alien to the modern mode of life. The iPhone, a luminous portal promising to show us the world, but really a mirror of the world inside our heads, is the icon of our own age (Benedict Option, 225).
Dreher’s insights on the ideological ramifications of technology could easily be extended to other areas of modern life. Think, for a moment, how the mass production of cars revolutionized American society—leading to the birth of the suburb, reinforcing individualism, and making us feel like we are constantly in a hurry.
Think also of the unhealthy effect of the microwave, which has brought us TV dinners and has rendered unnecessary the natural liturgy of food and cooking that is integral to any well-balanced home.
Even air conditioning has led to the decline of community. Before this technology became widely available, the outdoors was our air conditioning. People seeking an escape from their homes would lounge on porch sofas or lawn chairs, to catch the breeze or the cooler temperatures of the evening. Inevitably, this led to socializing with one’s neighbors. Air conditioning put an end to this, as one Detroit area writer, quoting an anecdote from a friend, explains:
He said his northwest Detroit block used to be a tight nucleus of neighbors before people installed air conditioning units. Families would drag lawn chairs down to the street light along with their favorite beverages, and talk till the wee hours of the night, swapping stories and swatting mosquitoes. Once they had A/C and LED screen televisions, folks seldom ventured out except to mow the lawn and water their petunias.
Cars, microwaves, and air conditioners are examples of technologies designed to maximize personal convenience, isolating us from others around us and insulating us in a self-made world where it’s easier to forget our dependence on God.
Of course, again, this all comes with a necessary disclaimer: cars, microwaves, and air conditioners are not all bad. In the case of the latter, air conditioning is potentially life-saving for home-bound elderly would otherwise be at serious risk during heat waves. But at least we should be aware of the unintended, deleterious side effects of even seemingly harmless technologies like these so that we can be more conscious and purposeful in our use of them, on guard for ways in which they may diminish our lives.
Although Dreher’s assessment that technology is an ideology may seem extreme, his solution isn’t all that radical. He recommends ‘digital fasting’ and ‘digital Sabbaths’—extended periods of time in which we do not use our iPhones, computers, iPads, or watch television.
Perhaps we also could extend his advice to those other technologies we take for granted. Instead of driving, walk to a local grocery store and discover your neighborhood. If you’re a habitual microwaver, make a point of learning to cook. And, the next time a heat wave hits, resist the urge to flip on the air conditioner and take a stroll out to your front porch at night. Get to know your neighbor or pray to God under the stars.