Technology and the Human Future

Technology and the Human Future

Fall 2019

John Bucher and Craig Gay

All Technology– from the wheel to the latest smartwatch – has been billed as ways to improve life and advance human productivity. But how does technology contribute to or detract from our flourishing? In his latest book, Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal, Craig Gay, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, highlights concerns about how our use of technology might be undermining our embodied experience in dangerous ways. He also argues that the Christian faith has a powerful ideal of our embodiment: the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

John Bucher, co-director of the CCCU’s L.A. Film Studies Center, author of Storytelling for Virtual Reality, and a leading thinker on the potential theological implications of virtual reality, talked with Gay about his book and the impact Christian thought can have on our use of modern technology. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JOHN BUCHER: Craig, I appreciated in the introduction to your new book, reading a little bit about your background, that you’re not someone who is anti-technology. What sparked your thinking in this field? What is your primary concern in the book?

CRAIG GAY: Basically, I think it’s that we ought to keep the conversation [about technology] focused on Christ and ask ourselves, “Okay. What is it about Christian faith that might offer us something useful in answering these questions?” One of the points that I make in the book is that there’s actually quite a lot we can say about the endorsement of ordinary, embodied human existence by virtue of the Christian understanding of Christ’s incarnation, his resurrection, and his interactions with his apostles following his resurrection.

The created order – including our existence in it and our engagement with it – has received an incredible, astonishing endorsement by virtue of the incarnation of Christ. God cares so much about the created order that he himself became one of us in a human body. This is reiterated and even amplified by the resurrection of Christ in a human body. Of course, this becomes a key aspect of Christian confession – that Christ was fully human, remains fully human, is even now fully human at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, will come again in a human body, and is the first fruits of all of those who will be resurrected in bodies.

So we have to begin with the premise that God is committed to this creation and to human beings in bodies in this creation. There’s a transhumanist thesis that maybe the next stage in human evolution is to evolve out of bodies and into machinery. Christian faith doesn’t provide much in the way of support for that. In fact, I think that from a Christian point of view, we have to say, “No. We know that such a thing can’t be true by virtue of the risen Christ and by virtue of the fact that he remains a fully human being in a human body.”

Whatever we use our technologies for, we ought to be using them to enhance ordinary embodied human engagement with each other and with the created world. It’s not really a question of should we use technology or not. The question is: What should we use technology for? And, of course, that question can’t be answered unless we also have some sense of who we are trying to become. Looking at the risen Christ gives us an image of who it is that God desires us to become. We’re not aspiring to become disembodied – [we’re aspiring for] a more fully embodied and engaged existence.

The problem that I have with a lot of automatic machine development is it actually diminishes the capacities of most of the people that use those machines. Take the systems that are now being developed for medical diagnosis. I’m sure they’re very good. But it seems tragic that you would implement a system that would diminish the capacities of ordinary physicians to diagnose disease, meanwhile placing us in the position of being dependent upon machinery for accurate diagnoses. …

JOHN BUCHER: A lot of people certainly deal with technology in our health care, but all of us engage some form of technology daily – cell phones and computers and iPads. We initially developed these tools to create more spare time. Look back to the Industrial Revolution – [we find] articles written at the time suggesting machines would bring us a four hour work week, and in turn people would have all this time to pursue their ambitions, their dreams, and family time. But what we’ve seen is that the more technology develops, the less time people seem to have for the things that matter to them. How do you view the relationship between technological development and time?

CRAIG GAY: It’s hard to know who to blame for the problem. I think we live in a civilization that is driven by monetary concerns primarily. And we are people who are greedy in many ways – we want more, and we want it now. And so, in a civilization where time is money, that means trying to fill time up with more of whatever it is that we have to fill it with. And that means a busier life.

Now, technology comes into play on this. I don’t know that I blame technology for it, but it’s a problem. And if anyone thinks that new technologies are going to make the problem better, they’re probably mistaken; odds are that they’ll just make it worse. There’s a great quote from Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century: “If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice I should reply: Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard for all of the noise.” He goes on to suggest that publishers have become sleepless trying to figure out how to publish more and more noise, more and more quickly. Indeed, we seem to have gotten to the point where we put so much emphasis on the machinery that enables us to “communicate” that we have all but forgotten what is worth communicating.

So is technology part of the problem? Well, yeah. It is. But the problem is larger than technology.

JOHN BUCHER: I agree with you. I think technology is one of those concepts that we can very easily make out to be a bogeyman for a lot of different things that are actually philosophical problems we have in culture. But at the same time, the concerns that you and I both share about technology are about specific things. They’re not just these big philosophical ideas. I think sometimes we who come from a certain worldview or have a certain faith perspective see ourselves as completely separate from the rest of the world and technological concerns.

Certainly, we have some very specific things we’re concerned about. But I think it’s also important to remind people of faith that concerns about technology go back a long time. Look at the myth of Icarus – it is certainly an example of how the ancients were also concerned that technology could be problematic. In that myth, Icarus’ father, Daedalus, was the one who actually invented the wings to help he and his son escape the labyrinth. He was also the one who advised Icarus, “Don’t fly too close to the sun. Don’t use this technology that I’ve created to help us escape in a way that’s going to destroy you.” We’ve often told stories about our concern for where technology could take us if not handled with care.

Now we’ve seen Bill Gates and Elon Musk and a number of other technological leaders actually sign an agreement that says, “if we reach a certain level of development with artificial intelligence, we’ll stop because we believe that AI would then not want to be enslaved by humanity and could perhaps wipe us off the face of the earth.” What do you think we [Christians] can do to be a part of that larger cultural conversation in shared values with people like the Bill Gateses of the world, who actually have some control over where some of these things go, instead of just being in our own cultural corner?

CRAIG GAY: That’s a good question. We’re so far behind in terms of being able to really speak into this culture that it’s hard to know where to begin. The very first thing we’d have to do, I think, is to try and remember what the Christian religion is, what it teaches about the world, and what it teaches about who we are in the world. When, for example, we repeat the Apostle’s Creed and other basic Christian confessions, what implications should these confessions have for our understanding of ourselves in this world?

One of the things we should remember, for example, is that immediately following the Fall, God pronounces a curse upon the ground, which I take to mean our labor in the world. This, I think, suggests that our work in the world, as good and as necessary as it is, will for the time being be frustrated by unintended consequences. Anything we do in the world – including anything good – will have unintended consequences. And the larger and the more significant our action in the world, the larger and more significant the unintended consequences are.

So this caution that Gates and Musk and others talk about in respect to AI, it’s consonant with Christian insight. It’s probably not a good idea to push AI out too far, because we cannot foresee the consequences of doing so. …

One of the fundamental things we Christians need to do today is simply to remember our theology so that we have a clearer sense of what the world is and what our task as human beings in the world is. Once we remember these things, it will become much easier to answer questions like: Should we do this? Or should we use that? The questions boil down to whether technology is really helping us or not, and helping us to become the kinds of people God desires us to become. If it isn’t, then it’s pointless to use it; if it is, then great! Celebrate it and use it.

At the moment, we don’t seem to know who we are, we don’t know where we’re going, and we don’t know what kinds of people we want to become. So we drift along with our technology, fingers crossed, hoping that whatever happens, it will turn out okay. …

Now, I want to get back to the administrators that we’re speaking to because I think one of the problems that administrators face – and I say this having been one for a while – is money pressures. Technology in our colleges and in the educational context promises to save money so there’s a push toward this.

Online degrees are an example. They provide a way to enable students to do programs without having to move. It’s also a way for the school itself to save money – they don’t have to hire as many faculty and have an actual campus and all of the things that go along with that. So there seems to be a constant push now to mediate theological education through technology because it’s more cost-effective. And the administrators are the ones who feel that pressure most keenly, most acutely.

So to those people I would say, “Look, I understand this, but don’t give up on face-to-face interaction – on the actual embodied human experience. Try wherever possible to facilitate that in the lives of our students.” Here I would recommend the work of Albert Borgmann. He argues that when we allow technology to get in between us, the result is loneliness. It’s disengagement from each other and a disengagement from the larger world. And that leaves us alone and lonely.

Let’s not do that to ourselves if we can help it. I know it’s expensive, and getting together and actually meeting together is sometimes difficult. But it’s worth it, especially for students who have been shaped by technology. I think of the work of Sherry Turkle. One of the things she stresses is that interpersonal communication is an art. It’s something we learn to do by doing. And all of the time we spend looking at our screens is time not spent looking into each other’s eyes. And that has a cost, right? We’re being shaped either way. If we spend too much time behind these screens, I think we’re being shaped in such a way as to be destined again for isolation and loneliness.

I would also recommend Andy Crouch’s recent book, The Tech-Wise Family. I think it’s full of practical wisdom. One of the things he mentioned is the practice of technology fasting, which I think is pretty useful. We don’t really realize how addicted we are to these technologies until we’re forced to go without them for a period of time.

JOHN BUCHER: One thing I’m doing in the classroom is trying to create as many experiences as possible for students and to turn what used to be lectures into experiential moments. No one is going to be on their death bed talking about a great text conversation they had. No one’s going to be on their death bed talking about the weekend that they bingewatched Game of Thrones. We’ll be talking about those moments that we experienced life with each other. And I think even walking students through that exercise of thinking about what will be the moments you reflect on when you lie on your deathbed – just bringing that into their consciousness is helpful.

The other thing that I try to do is change things up about every 10 to 15 minutes in the classroom in order to accommodate the attention spans of students. Research has shown that students start to disconnect and disengage the material after about 10 to 15 minutes. So if you can, in some way, even a small way, encourage some change in the classroom space, then I think you have a fighting chance of holding their attention.