“Progress”

I have been in Kenya for less than a week now, and the culture-shock is only beginning to wear off. Where to begin in describing this place? Travel from one location to another is done in overcrowded matatus – vans in which twenty or more people are packed like sardines – and they are infamous for their removal of speed regulators and their flouting of attempts at government regulation. Schoolchildren in brightly-colored uniforms trek many miles to and from their parochial schoolhouses. Packs of wild baboons creep out from the forests, scavenging through piles of roadside waste for unclaimed edibles. Aggressive Kenyan businesswomen climb the corporate ladder, testing the boundaries of traditional African gender roles. Masai tribesmen cling precariously to their pastoral legacy, weaving their cattle through city traffic in search of grass on public lands and undeveloped properties. Indian expatriates – who dominate local business – hawkishly monitor the work of their African employees. Work crews dig drainage ditches and pave roads using a combination of iron-age tools and 21st-century machinery. Second-hand suits fly off the shelves of local markets, and second-hand novels sell at a premium to industrious Kenyans seeking to perfect their English. Orphans–the product of AIDS and a powerful bathtub liquor called chang’aa–drift like ghosts through the city, clutching bottles of glue underneath their noses.

Common to all of these images is one theme: that of a society in transition. Technology and Westernization promise Kenya reform, renaissance and plenty, but come with a high price of squalor, pollution and cultural abnegation. An African proverb, I am told, warns that “only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet.” Why, then, does Kenya unquestioning embrace these new forms of technology and wealth, without any apparent reservation?

I have posed this question to several Kenyans since my arrival, and the responses I’ve received have been eye-opening. Apparently the elders of Kenya’s many tribes have indeed expressed frequent discontentment with Kenya’s changing cultural landscape, but never have their rumblings coalesced into a systematic traditionalist, reactionary or Luddite movement. Also, Kenyans at large place a high value on their cultural traditions (e.g. the primacy of family, polygamy, the separate dining of men and women, taboos against homosexuality), but the same Kenyans, or at least those that I’ve spoken to, knowingly accept that most if not all of these cultural values are in decline due to the influence of Western technology and culture. To them, it appears a fair price to pay for the material benefits of a 21st-century, consumerist lifestyle.

Worldwide polls reveal, however, that the correlation between technological/material ‘development’ and happiness is both sporadic and weak, and in light of the negative byproducts and cultural homogenization that modernity entails, one is left wondering whether the tradeoff is worthwhile at all. Indeed, humans possess what John Dyer calls a “moving target” for our happiness, where improvements to technology simultaneously increase our expectations, triggering a cycle where we endlessly pursue newer and more powerful technologies without regard for their consequences, with the delusional perception that the next breakthrough in technology will finally bring about our fulfilment, which it never does.

This is the Kenyan dilemma, and it provides me with the perfect impetus for my own confrontation with a question that has long haunted me: What is the proper relationship between Christianity and technology? That is to say, can Christianity deal with the relentless, steamrolling frontier of technology in a way that culls its benefits while reducing its harms?

The most obvious stances on technology are the complete rejection of all technology, which would reduce humans to naked animals, and the complete acceptance of all technology, which would posit that humans are in no position to separate ‘good’ technologies from ‘bad’ ones. This latter position is called instrumentalism, and it holds that the use of a technology – rather than the technology itself – is what possesses a moral dimension. The most familiar example of this position is the statement: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

Can it also be said that “Nuclear weapons don’t kill people; people kill people”? Or does the same line of thought apply to heroin, weaponized anthrax or gas chambers? No; clearly technologies that can only be used for evil, even according to the instrumentalist position, are wholly evil insofar as they fail to produce one positive implementation. So it would seem to be the case that there are, in fact, intrinsically bad technologies, and that, to some extent, technology is not beyond our judgement.

However, the overwhelming majority of technologies fall into a moral grey area, having both good and bad uses. Fertilizer, for instance, can increase the crop yield of a starving village, or it can increase the blast radius of a terrorist’s bomb. Since they have no intrinsic moral dimension, should such technologies be accepted unconditionally, so long as they are not used for evil?

No. Scripture indicates that some ‘neutral’ technologies nevertheless need to be used prudentially, because they possess secondary effects that might be deleterious to our spiritual well-being. In 2 John 12, for example, the apostle explains that “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Note: John could have transmitted his full message via correspondence, but he wisely observed that ‘complete joy’ and spiritual edification are best achieved through a voluntary ‘fasting’ from this convenient but impersonal mode of communication. Another example: when Jesus appeared to the disciples for the third and final time, he prepared a charcoal fire and a simple meal of fish and bread (John 21:9). We see here that God incarnate chose to use a simple technology in lieu of miraculous mana or multiplying loaves, because this way He sent a more egalitarian and deeply personal message to the world.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us,” wrote John Culkin. For this reason we ought to exercise caution in which tools we use, how we use them, and with what frequency we employ them. Is there a formula, then, that can be applied to deduce when it is and isn’t prudent to use a morally neutral technology? That is to say, how can we know when the use of a technology is hazardous to our spiritual health?

This question is more important now than ever. Jacques Ellul, a new favorite theologian of mine, holds that modern “technique” poses a unique danger to humanity, in that it “is the main preoccupation of our time” such that “no human activity escapes this technical imperative” (The Technological Society, 21). Previously, “Christianity condemned luxury and money,” and “‘Is it righteous?’ was asked of every attempt to change modes of production or of organization. That something might be useful or profitable to men did not make it right and just” (37). But with the help of “the philosophy of the eighteenth century,” which “was utilitarian and pragmatic,” technology supplanted religious concerns as the primary measure of all things, and due to its “superiority of manifesting itself in a concrete way and of leaving its tracks for all to read” (46), we today witness “a kind of secularization of religion,” where Christianity “integrates itself into society, adjusts to it, and adopts the notion of social utility as criterion and justification” (56). Without religious and cultural constraints, “[t]echnique has been extended geographically so that it covers the whole earth. It is evolving with a rapidity disconcerting not only to the man in the street but to the technician himself. It poses problems which recur endlessly and ever more acutely in human social groups. Moreover, technique has become objective and is transmitted like a physical thing; it leads thereby to a certain unity of civilization [the cultural homogenization I bemoaned earlier], regardless of the environment or the country in which it operates” (78). So what is our answer to this rapidly growing problem?

John Dyer proffers in his book, From the Garden to the City, that “[i]nstead of living our lives according to the values of new technology,” we should “determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values” (157). But this is an imperfect solution. Advances in technology, and particularly the advances of modern technology, cause “complication, distraction, and chaos rather than simplicity, contemplation, and order” (165), and we typically cannot predict the changes that these technologies engender until they have already come to pass. For instance, studies indicate that internet saturation literally rewires our neural pathways, worsening our memory and shortening our attention spans, in much the same way that writing obliterated our former ability to memorize entire Socratic dialogues or oral sagas. But humanity had no way of foreseeing these changes, and in fact it is at all times impossible to make an objective, fully-informed decision regarding the adoption or rejection of a new technology.

But the imperative remains: insofar as “[a] good portion of the Christian life requires the ability to concentrate and focus on on ideas over long periods of time, to read and memorize Scripture (not search for it online), and to love God with our hearts and our minds,” “[w]e have to work against these tendencies in order to maintain balance between the natural and the unnatural” (165). One solution is to freeze technology at some point, as the Amish did. However, any level of technology chosen would be completely arbitrary, and, as John Dyer wisely notes, “we’ve not been called to go backward in time but to live faithfully in our own age” (176). The other answer, and indeed the the one I find most compelling, is to routinely “see what happens when we put boundaries on it [technology]” (177), with contemporary examples including ‘fasts’ from computers, the internet, Facebook, and other technologies that we can identify as detrimental to our spiritual health in excessive quantities. Of course, more discussion, more introspection and more skepticism of cutting-edge technology is also key to the Christian’s successful pilgrimage through a world of accelerating technical cacophony.

We are fortunate to have the example of John, who found that ‘complete joy’ often does not accompany the use of our most recent technical achievements. That said, one can only hope that Kenyans come to believe the same before their cultural heritage is lost completely, and before the sicknesses of modernity and urbanization, masquerading as the golden calf of technological salvation, contribute further to suffering, unrest, or worse.