In our rush to embrace technology and its promise of convenience, do we overlook the deeper moral questions at play?

Were we to stop and think about it, we would be amazed by the speed with which technology evolves and advances. Consider the iPhone 5. Someone ran some performance tests on it and found that not only was it nearly three times faster than the previous iPhone, but it also had more computing power than the professional desktops Apple sold in 2003. Think about that: We now have pocket-sized devices that are faster than some of the most powerful computers available to consumers a decade ago.

Another example: VHS players were introduced in 1976, kicking off a home entertainment boom. Twenty years later, DVDs were introduced and their superior quality and storage capabilities effectively killed the VHS format. Ten years after that, in 2006, high definition formats like Blu-ray were introduced, with even better quality and storage capabilities. Now, in 2012, physical discs are becoming marginalized as consumers move to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon for their viewing needs. In four decades, entire industries and technologies have come and gone, each one supplanted more quickly than its predecessor.

Technology’s quickening pace has many positive aspects. It opens up new frontiers in research, development, engineering, art, and science that were previously unimaginable. It gives more power, convenience, and flexibility to individuals. Goods become cheaper and easier to produce. And technology begets technology: Existing technology gives rise to new technology that is more powerful, flexible, and innovative than its predecessors. Indeed, given the swiftness at which technological change occurs, it’s tempting to see us living in a sort of new golden age — especially if you’re of a geeky persuasion.

However, there is a side to this rapid rate of change that often gets overlooked: The laws used to regulate the technological spheres simply can’t keep up with the rate of technological change. Furthermore, once technology gets out into the wild, it becomes incredibly malleable. In other words, it’s used in ways, both good and bad, that its creators may never have foreseen. (When Tim Berners-Lee essentially created the World Wide Web in 1989, I doubt he envisioned such things as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix.)

As a result, there’s a growing divide between what is possible — again, both good and bad — and what is legal. The way that individuals use their technology could be illegal and punishable, and they may not even know it, due to technology’s rate of change and malleability. That, or the divide becomes so wide as to make what is legal so irrelevant and antiquated that users no longer care about breaking any relevant laws.

I became aware of this divide while in college in the ’90s. We were discussing copyright issues with regard to the then-nascent World Wide Web in my “New Media” class when someone brought up the issue of browser caches. When you visit a webpage, that webpage’s files — code, images, etc. — are downloaded behind the scenes and stored in a temporary file on your computer. If you visit that webpage again within a certain period of time, your web browser retrieves the necessary files from that local storage rather than re-downloading them from the Web, thus making subsequent visits faster and more efficient.

But what happens if you visit a webpage that contains copyrighted material and that material, through your browser’s normal caching process, gets downloaded to your machine? Were you in copyright violation? Did you steal that material? Could you be prosecuted? Or did the viewing and downloading of such material fall under fair use?

Such questions may seem quaint now, but in the Web’s early days, they were uncharted legal territory, and that territory that has continued to expand since then. Patent law, copyright law, and privacy law are being increasingly challenged thanks to technological innovation. Here are just a handful of examples from within the last few years:

These examples represent only the tip of the iceberg. Search online for “technology lawsuits” or “software patents” and you’ll find many more examples. And as technology develops at its inexorable pace, there will undoubtedly be even more to come. So how do we react, not just as consumers, but also as Christians?

First, we need to educate ourselves. It might be tempting to dismiss these issues as the domain of geeks and nerds, to think it’ll never apply to us because it all sounds too bizarre and far-fetched. But as we’ve seen, technology takes surprising twists and turns in its development, and it’s becoming increasingly personal and ubiquitous. It behooves us to remain informed so that we can be better aware of tech-related issues that affect us, because right now, many affect us without us even knowing about it. (Consider how the traditional understanding of ownership is being challenged.) More important, education allows us be better participants in the larger cultural conversation about technology and to make better-informed choices about the technology we incorporate into our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

The tech sphere can be daunting but there are plenty of good resources available. Publications and blogs like WiredTechCrunch, and The Verge routinely cover these issues and do a good job of translating the “geekspeak” into “plain” English. If you want to get more technical, there’s always Hacker NewsSlashdot, and Ars Technica. And if you want a legal perspective, there’s Groklaw.

Second, consider what the Bible might say about what we learn and experience. The “wild west” metaphor has often been used in conjunction with technological development. As technology outpaces the law, it leads to a lawless environment — or at least one where it’s very easy to circumvent the law provided you have the smarts and gadgetry. But for Christians, this can be tricky territory, and we need to be biblically minded, especially if we believe that the Bible has something to say for all ages and cultures.

My concern here is that, in our rush to embrace technology and its promise of convenience, we overlook the deeper moral questions at play. Is it right to acquire something in a way that its producers/creators frown upon, or in a way that harms the original creators by not compensating them (financially or otherwise)? Do biblical concepts of theft still apply when you are downloading a movie without paying for it, even if there’s no physical crime? I think we’d all agree that the Eighth Commandment applies to shoplifting a physical CD, but does it apply to downloading the songs from that CD digitally, as a bunch of ones and zeros, without paying for them? Is it really and truly stealing if the manner of acquisition doesn’t actually deprive anyone of anything, if scarcity is no longer an issue?

Technology is a great blessing, but its convenience should never be an excuse to abandon biblical teachings. We need to search the Scriptures to help us wade through the complexities and remind us what it means to be committed to justice and mercy in a technological age, even if we’re talking about BitTorrent.

Third, we should push for better, more reasonable reactions. Herein lies a great tension. On the one hand, we have corporations, studios, and other property holders who have invested large amounts of time and money into their properties. They have a legitimate interest in protecting their investments lest they lose some advantage in the marketplace. On the other hand, we have consumers who are trying to integrate technology into their lives, to bend it to their wills so they can do with it what makes the most sense to them. These two will inevitably clash, but what shape should that conflict take?

When the RIAA was cracking down in earnest on music pirates, their methods were often disproportionate to the crime. For example, in 2007, the RIAA sued Jammie Thomas-Rasset for downloading 24 songs by Aerosmith, Destiny’s Child, No Doubt, and other artists. At one point, she was charged with nearly $2 million in damages (that figure was eventually lowered to $222,000) — which would be far more than any penalty she’d have to pay if she’d simply shoplifted a couple of CDs from a record store. (Search for “RIAA Lawsuits” to find more examples of this.)

The responses by studios, companies, legislators, and others to legitimate technological concerns often seem worse than the problems they’re trying to fix. (Remember SOPA/PIPA?) Christians need to be concerned with what is fair and just, but suing people up to six figures for each song they illegally downloaded has little to do with justice and more to do with exercising fear and power. On the other side, there are people calling for the death of all relevant legislation and for total freedom. In a CNN opinion piece regarding file-sharing, Rick Falkvinge, founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party, writes, “So not only can sharing not be stopped — I argue that it shouldn’t be stopped, either, once you see the flip side.”

Working with consumers and not treating them as criminals in waiting — which, sadly, often seems like the default stance of trade organizations, record labels, and politicians — ought to be encouraged, if only because it can be very lucrative. For example, Apple’s iTunes Store has been wildly successful, selling over 20 billion songs since it began, and it did so by making it relatively easy for consumers to legally acquire music online without forcing them to jump through complicated legal or technical hoops.

Conclusion

Technology is a Pandora’s box. Once it has been opened and let loose in the wild, it can hardly be contained. Throw in human innovation and inventiveness — and our great love for comfort and convenience — and it will evolve in increasingly rapid and surprising ways. In the process, it will continually challenge and frustrate many of our preconceived notions of legality, from copyright to patents to property rights. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that we need to consider lest our love for convenience — and newfangled gadgetry — run away from us, and we suddenly find ourselves in compromising situations.

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of music, movies, books, and video games. He’s a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami, BioWare and Square Enix, and of course, Joss Whedon. He’s also a web development geek, which is handy when it comes to paying the bills – and buying new CDs and DVDs. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.