“Each form is made
by reaching among shadows for light. It is shaped
by circumstances that its shaping changes.”
—Wendell Berry, “A Small Porch in the Woods”
Newsflash: we’re dying. Actually, we’ve been dying for quite some time, but it would appear that it’s getting worse. We’re dying and using smartphones (and computers and a whole bunch of other technology) hoping they’ll save us. They’re just watered-down penicillin, though, and so we continue to die. In our haste to find a cause, we blame the smartphones, but we were dying long before smartphones were invented. Still, it is quite likely such ersatz medicine is speeding up our demise. Technology might be the hot press placed on a sore muscle, or the growth hormones given to a cancer patient, but it isn’t the efficient cause our rotting.
Whatever we’re seeking through these technologies we’re not getting, but rather than turn to something else, we double down.We live in a world full of anxieties and technology, and anxiety about technology. Every week or so we get some article referencing some study or book about the ill effects smartphones are having on us. Besides being way too early to know if the overall effects of this technology are negative (the iPhone is barely 10 years old, and it can take generations to know the effects of changing technology), the problem with most of these articles is that they treat smartphones as some sort of alien device dropped on us from above like a big, black obelisk. They seem to forget the fact that this, and all, technology was created by humans, and thus is to a great extent a reflection of their creators. I’m not saying that all technology is some Doofenshmirtzian “-inator” created to take over the tri-state area (and beyond!). Yet humans create and adapt technology for various purposes. Our use of it shapes it at the same time as it shapes us.
Necessity is supposedly the mother of invention. If that’s true then boredom and whim are probably the aunt and uncle. Whatever the reason, we humans invent stuff; we adopt technology to serve some need or to fulfill some desire. Technology that accomplishes some purpose outside our most pressing needs and desires tends to get discarded pretty quickly. One only has to peruse the history of infomercials to verify this. It is when some invention connects with a deeper part of us that it really takes off. For instance, automobiles connected with the American drive for individuality and independence. This is one reason why the car has become more essential to American life than the train. Rather than looking at technology and asking what it’s doing to us, we should be asking what we hope it’ll do for us. That is, what need and/or desire is it feeding?
The basic premise of the whole Netflix series Black Mirror is that technology is a “black mirror” which reflects the darkest parts of human nature. Technology is such a good reflector because it’s created by us and so resembles us in ways we don’t really want to imagine. Much of the analysis of technology treats it like Frankenstein’s monster, something we humans have created but then allowed to slip from our control. The truth might actually be that the monster we created functions exactly as we created it to, and it’s our own desires that are out of control.
Consider, for example, the first episode of season 4, “USS Callister,” which is about Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the CTO at a software company that makes a sophisticated virtual reality game. At his home, Daly has a special version of the game that only he knows about, one in which he can use DNA samples from his coworkers to insert versions of them into the game. Because he wrote the game, he can control everything, and therefore everyone, in it. His invention allows him to exert dominance over his coworkers, something he is unable to do in real life. The game is a very literal reflection of his desires. He adapted it to fill some dark void in his life. A significant turning point for Daly is when he starts using his computer program as a weapon rather than as a source of entertainment. There is nothing inherent in the video game that changes Daly; his particular modification of it does.
Technology is driven by our extremely disordered nature, but it also amplifies that nature, which is where it starts to shape us. To paraphrase the Berry quote from above, we are shaped by the technology that our shaping changes. There is a reciprocal influence between us and the technology we create and adapt. These objects are mostly benign. We grant them power over us depending on how we use them. Certain objects, like the video games or smartphones—or guns—can be used for multiple purposes, such as entertainment, survival, or protection, each one having a different effect on us.
Guns existed long before America did, but America’s adoption of them is somewhat unique in world history. Few other nations would claim that guns, alongside God and guts, made them great. Guns’ essential function is to destroy. That’s what they do best. We’ve adopted them to destroy that which threatens our life or liberty. The underlying desire driving us to use guns is volatile combination of fear and greed. We want to get stuff, and we’re afraid of losing the stuff we’ve gotten. But what does this use of guns do to us? How is it shaping us? One only has to look at the comparatively high numbers of gun homicides in the US, or the enormous size of our military, to conclude that guns have shaped us in ways they haven’t shaped other nations. At a minimum guns give us a sense of security and control. They can also give us a sense of power. Like Daly in the Black Mirror episode, they allow us to imagine a world in which we call the shots, in which we can be the hero. In even the short timespan the “USS Callister” covers we see Daly getting more domineering, more demanding, more sadistic.The game changes him, amplifying and strengthening his darkest traits.
We’re seeing a similar things happen with both guns and smartphones. It seems the more guns we have available the more insecure and fearful we’re becoming, which in turn leads us to gather up more guns. The more ways we have to connect to others through our smartphones, the more we are becoming disconnected and depressed, and so we plunge even deeper in the devices. Whatever we’re seeking through these technologies we’re not getting, but rather than turn to something else, we double down. It’s a huge feedback loop that’s slowly draining our humanity.
Scripture is very aware of this complexity. The New Testament teaches us to resist the devil. It also teaches us that that which comes from our heart defiles us. In the Psalms there are times where David asks God to create a clean heart within him, and there are other times when he asks God to deliver him from his enemies. Scripture is clear in that we are threatened both from within and without, yet so much of the current discussion centers only on the outside threat. We would do well to remember that it was never enough for Israel simply to tear down the altars. They needed to turn back to God. They needed a change of heart in addition to their change in behavior.
The solution to the issues caused—or shall I say, surfaced—by technology will not be to focus on the technology itself, though that should be a part of it, especially with something as immediately destructive as guns. The first altars Israel needed to break down were those dedicated to Molech. Our solutions should be more holistic. Even before that, though, we need to be much more precise in our diagnosis, which, somewhat paradoxically, also needs to be broader. It’s unlikely that only one thing is killing us. Walker Percy would say it’s that we’ve lost our sense of self; Wendell Berry would say it’s that we’re not in sync with nature; Charles Taylor would say it’s because we’ve become disenchanted; and a whole host other philosophers would offer up some other spiritual diagnoses, and they’d probably all be partly right. All of these issues are being exposed and amplified by technology. So let’s take a deeper look. Let’s not just smash the microscope that shows us the bacteria that’s growing inside us. Let’s figure out where the bacteria came from. We can enthusiastically smash the microscope only if we discover that the bacteria came from it.