Do our tech tools match our goals?

As we head into the second decade of ubiquitous social networking, and mobile phone technology starts seeming more normal than novel, it is well worth regularly pausing to consider the impact these technologies have on our lives. Part of the design of any particular technology is an embedded, intrinsic set of values. That is, every technology is designed to do something, or to make some task easier. The very design thus suggests that some courses of action and outcomes are preferable to others.

One of the main unifying values present in the majority of modern computer technology is efficiency, getting the most utility with the least possible effort invested. This is, of course, often positive. Finding ways to accomplish our tasks with less time, energy, effort or risk is obviously a valuable goal in many cases. However, in the context of community or relationship, a focus on efficiency can backfire badly. An “efficient friendship” is an oxymoron – if you’re measuring a friendship in terms of the amount of utility you get compared to the amount of time and effort you invest, it’s not really a friendship.

This does not mean that there is no role for modern technology to play in our relationships and communities. As a flexible medium which can represent and transmit much of the meaning we find in our lives together, there are many ways in which a careful use of technology can greatly enhance our relationships with friends, family and community by opening up new possibilities for interaction.

But we need to remember that the goals and values inherent in our chosen tools do not necessarily line up with the professed values we try to live out in our friendships, relationships and communities. In order to make the use of technology in our lives line up most faithfully with how we are called to live, we must first be sensitive to the possibility for a mismatch between the tool and the goal, and second, be wise about how to respond to such a mismatch.

Easy or right?
For example, many young people express a preference for texting over making voice calls. When a phone call is placed, there is a moment of connection, in which the caller and the recipient must declare themselves, must form or re-form, at least temporarily, a genuine human relationship. With texting, much less opening ourselves up is required. Texting takes less emotional effort on our part than a live call, and thus communicating using this medium seems more efficient. It may not always be the most appropriate medium, however.

One possible response is to recognize that the device or application we are using may be pulling us in a direction we do not want to go, and to exert extra effort of will to pull back. In order for this to be workable, we need self-knowledge – we need to understand our own internal predispositions, and gauge whether or not we’ll be able to successfully resist the temptation to do what is easy rather than what is right. If we determine that our willpower is not up to that task, then the second alternative is much more radical and countercultural – to selectively abandon that particular use of technology.

A number of my acquaintances have taken this approach with Facebook. Having determined that it was having a negative impact on their behavior in relationships – and in particular, their own narcissistic (human) tendencies to post comments and replies for reason of subtle self-promotion and self-love rather than edifying others – they have either temporarily or permanently ended their participation in this social networking tool. When this step begins to seem too radical, that may be a telling indication that idolatry may be at work.

Living well with technology cannot involve either mindless acceptance or mindless rejection; rather, it requires mindful evaluation. We must be sensitive to the embedded suggestions inherent in any technology, so we can perceive the subtle pull exerted by any particular device or application we choose to use. With this, and having both a clear understanding our own internal motives and predispositions, and a vision of how we wish to engage with others, we can be prepared to make careful choices about which technologies we use, and how we employ them.

  • Nick Breems is a Professor of Computer Science at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA, where he lives with his wife and three children. This article was adapted from an essay originally published on inallthings.org, Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA. Republished with permission.

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