“Technology,” said Alan Kay, “is anything that was invented after you were born.” Kay knows a thing or two about technology. He pioneered a tool that most of us use every day: a computer interface that uses panes, or windows, to display content. For him that’s technology.
Alan Kay is also a classical organist; he plays music on an instrument invented long before he was born. Under his definition, an organ isn’t really technology. But anyone who knows how an organ works intuitively realizes that an organ is a marvel of technology. And that’s how we know that Kay’s definition needs improvement. It’s more cute than useful.
Kevin Kelly, an American author and thinker best known for co-founding Wired, has an exotic definition all his own. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kelly makes the case for his conviction that technology is actually a seventh kingdom of life. Kelly claims that technology plays an integral role in the past and future evolution of life itself. He believes that technology is a guiding force in the universe, a contention that obviously conflicts with our biblical worldview but even rejects common secular consensus about the theory of evolution. If Kay’s definition is too cute, Kelly’s is too provocative.
When I introduced myself and the work of my committee I wrote,
I’d like this project to be an opportunity to do some careful thinking, some detailed research, and even some philosophical musing about how we want to use technology to accomplish our goals.
My committee is meeting for the first time this week, so I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to proceed with the careful thinking, detailed research, and philosophical musing that I promised we’d do. We need to define “technology” before we can really explore the topic. We need a definition of technology that reflects the nature of technology, handles its philosophical impact on society, and also fits well into a spiritually enlightened system of thought. In other words, we need a definition of technology that is both empirical and theological. This is more than just finding a “Christian way” to think about iPhones and iPads, this is deciding to have a well-informed conversation about the nature and role of technology in our lives.
So here’s a definition that I think works very well: technology is the collection of tools and media that people use to extend their own senses, bodies, and abilities. This is technology in a broad sense, not the more narrow, specific usage that we’ve grown accustomed to. The tools that formerly whizzed and whirred and bleeped and blooped but now fit in our pockets and connect to wireless networks are technology, yes, but they are from a very specific family of technology called “digital technology.” Other inventions like cars, corkscrews, and calendars are also technology, although each from a different family.
This nuanced understanding means that the average liturgical service is brimming with technology. Audio systems (technology) amplify the pastor's voice while electric bulbs (technology) help worshipers see the book (technology) in their hands as they sit on pews or in chairs (both technology). Experts used needle and thread, and even powered machines to craft the paraments that adorn our sanctuaries. A carpenter once used woodworking technology to convert raw materials into an altar, pulpit, and font. People even travel thousands of miles to admire European church technologies like the flying buttress and the tracker action pipe organ.
In its broad sense, technology is the art, skill, and craft of human minds. Scripture teaches that God serves the world through individual vocations. “We are God’s masks,” says Luther. Indeed, our entire body and life are meant to be a dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Art, skill, and craft—technology, that is—are extensions of ourselves for they are expressions of our own soul.
Technologies enable us to carry out our vocations with greater range and impact. Who could count how many encouraging words have been exchanged between Christians over the telephone? How many hours have been recovered for ministry thanks to the automobile? How many minds have been enlightened because we have the ability to reproduce printed materials on a massive scale?
Of course, in a fallen world, any art, skill, or craft can be put to bad use. Even our own tongues—which are God’s creation and not ours—frequently spew forth evil. Without the covering grace of God’s love everything we make and do is by nature unclean. We need redemption, and we have it through the blood of Christ. Now Jesus can call what we make and do salt and light—a vast improvement. The Spirit now moves us to put art, skill, and craft into the Lord’s service.
There will be plenty of time to discuss the negative effects that come from sinful hands operating human technologies. Today’s world is in a period of turmoil and transition as two major eras of technology converge. As happens when hot and cold air collide, the centuries-old world of print media is mixing with the decades-old system of electronic media and the results have often been stormy. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
With a useful definition of technology, the worshiping Christian can approach this topic with a level head. Understanding that technology is more pervasive than we might think gives us perspective. Realizing that technologies are an extension of human art, craft, and skill unlocks a redemptive, vocational approach to technology.