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Auditing our tech

Does our technology help or hinder us?

I recently replaced my old analog watch with a new digital one. It came with several nifty features such as a step counter, Bluetooth link, heart rate monitor and a video game, among other things. It didn’t take long for this watch to subtly shift some of my daily practices.

Author and media critic Neil Postman warned against being “one-eyed prophets” who “see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.” Rather than blindly accepting a new technology into our lives (or schools, businesses, churches – or on our wrists) we ought to discern carefully how it will change things. Advertisers never fail to offer compelling stories about why a product is essential to the good life, but rarely do we consider what it might “undo” or make more difficult.

What follows is a list of questions to help tease out the ways a particular technology might help and hinder us. This list is informed by the summary of the law (given by Jesus in Matt. 22:36-40) as well as by a variety of creational norms derived from Reformational philosophy.

10 Qs for your tech

  1. How will this technology shape my interaction with other people?
  2. How might it impact my relationship with God?
  3. What tangible benefits does this technology provide?
  4. What habits are encouraged by this technology and will these shape me into the sort of person I wish to become?
  5. How might our culture change if everyone used this technology?
  6. Is the economic cost of the technology reasonable? Is this product used to display wealth and status?
  7. What are the environmental costs of this technology? What energy and materials does it require and can the components be recycled?
  8. Is the technology transparent in terms of how it works and are the instructions clear? Is it safe to use and easy to maintain and repair?
  9. Does this technology promote fairness and justice (or at least not hinder them)? Are the people who build it paid fairly?
  10. Is the technology beautiful with a delightful melding of form and function?

Some questions may be more pertinent than others. For example, some digital technologies are purposely crafted to nudge us in profound ways, so the question about habits can be significant. My Calvin University colleague, Jamie Smith, recommends a “liturgical audit” to explore the habits and rituals in our lives. This can apply to our technological habits as well. Further questions might probe if a certain technology might encourage certain vices, such as pride, envy, lust or sloth. Clearly, the answers will vary for individuals and require sanctified common sense to discern how to proceed.

Applying these questions to my new digital watch uncovered some issues I had not fully considered. As a result, I decided to disable certain features such as email alerts. Other features are less consequential and can be adjusted based on personal preferences, such as the option to display the time in a variety of different clock faces. In the end, I chose to display the time using an analog clock face – just like my old watch (though I do miss the gentle ticking sound).

Author

  • Derek Schuurman

    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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