Anti-Revolutionary Technology

Reformation not revolution.

Earlier this semester I entered my senior computer science class and greeted my students wearing a T-shirt that boldly declared: “Join the Anti-Revolution Party!” One of the topics for that day was the “Silicon Valley narrative” which seeks wholesale revolution by disrupting the current ways of doing things through technology. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has embraced the motto “move fast and break things.” Zuckerberg has suggested that “unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” The notion of “disruptive innovation” has become a mantra in Silicon Valley and is being pursued in virtually every area.

One recent example is how ridesharing services like Uber have disrupted the taxi industry. These services rely on the clever apps which connect drivers with passengers and have quickly grown in popularity. Unfortunately, some of the rapid growth came from ignoring local taxi laws. Another example is disruption in the publishing, entertainment, and media industry described in Jonathan Taplin’s book Move Fast and Break Things. The subtitle for his book is “How Facebook, Google and Amazon cornered culture and undermined democracy.” Taplin describes how digital media companies have disrupted music, film, television, publishing and news. He argues that this disruption may now pose a real threat to our culture and democracy.

In the mid-nineteenth century a Dutch politician and historian named Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer established the groundwork for a new Christian political party which was named the Anti-Revolution Party (ARP) in the Netherlands. The party was established to counter liberal ideas associated with of the French Revolution (hence the “Anti-Revolutionary” name). Groen van Prinsterer wrote a book titled Unbelief and Revolution which viewed history as a struggle between belief and unbelief. His premise was that a revolutionary ideology replaces God with human autonomy and ignores the reality of creational and moral laws.

REFORMATION NOT REVOLUTION
Reformation is distinct from revolution. In his book Creation Regained, Al Wolters suggests that reformation seeks “progressive renewal rather than violent overthrow.” Wolters acknowledges that the term “revolutionary” is sometimes used today to refer to “dramatic change for the better.” Indeed, there are many technologies that are revolutionary in this sense like penicillin, electric vehicles, and clean energy. But the word revolution can also refer to “the complete removal of every aspect of the established system.” This is the ideology behind the push to “move fast and break things.” Wolters suggests that we should not seek to “tear the fabric” of a given situation but rather to be mindful of the apostolic injunction to “test everything [and] hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

The emerging consequences of digital technology on human flourishing suggests it’s time we embrace the idea of reformation rather than revolution with our technological developments. Perhaps it’s time for “anti-revolutionary technology.” Innovation should not demand indiscriminate disruption, but rather the impacts of proposed technical change should be thoughtfully weighed by evaluating the benefits of continuity versus discontinuity. When a new computer program is developed, there should be considerations for backwards compatibility while simultaneously opening up new possibilities. For example, Blu-ray video players that still play older DVDs, word processors that read older file formats and websites that accommodate the capabilities of the device they are viewed on. The relative advantages and disadvantages should be carefully weighed when introducing new technology that potentially breaks existing standards, protocols, or practices. These considerations should not be limited to the economic interests of the company producing the product, but the interests of their customers and wider considerations like justice, stewardship and cultural context.

Despite the bold invitation emblazoned on my T-shirt, none of my computer science students came to me after class to inquire about joining the anti-revolutionary party. Nevertheless, it is my hope that my lesson will help them question the reigning Silicon Valley ethos to “move fast and break things” and instead to think about developing “anti-revolutionary” technology that can help people to flourish. 

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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