The Magic of Technology

What does it mean to apply biblical notions of wisdom and virtue to technology?

When I was young, electronics and electricity seemed like a form of magic. Computers seemed to magically run using special incantations called “code.” Radios and televisions could teleport voices and images from around the globe. Energy harnessed from Niagara Falls could be invisibly transported to turn on a motor or light a home. Part of my motivation to learn about electronics was to demystify and understand what seemed like magic.

In a famous experiment in which he flew a kite during a storm, Benjamin Franklin demonstrated that lightning was the same as electricity, leading to the invention of the lightning rod. Later, Michael Faraday discovered how electricity could be “induced” by a changing magnetic field, an insight that led to the development of motors, generators and transformers. Later nineteenth-century developments included the telegraph by Samuel Morse, radio by Guglielmo Marconi, the light bulb by Thomas Edison and alternating current by Nikola Tesla.

Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The simple fact is that most people don’t understand how their computers, televisions or phones work. Abraham Kuyper compares human ingenuity to magic in Pro Rege, where he writes, “the heroes of the modern spirit of the age are the great philosophers, leading scientists and those who can work magic with electricity and technology.”

Technology has become increasingly a symbol of human power and ingenuity, but the notion that technology is like magic can be problematic. Technology as magic suggests that we are like magicians who can completely control our technologies with the flick of our wand (or smartphone).

The Magician’s bargain
In the popular Disney animated classic Fantasia, Mickey Mouse takes on the role of a sorcerer’s apprentice. In the absence of the sorcerer, he is left with the chore of filling a cauldron with water by lugging buckets of water. Mickey tries on the sorcerer’s hat and commands a broom to carry a tiny bucket and do the work of hauling the water for him. At first things seem to go well, but as the story unfolds Mickey envisions the brooms multiplying out of control until the whole room fills with water. So it is with technology: although magically brought forth by human ingenuity, it unfolds with a logic of its own that can quickly escape human control. This is the Frankenstein story, a story in which the magic of electricity is harnessed to create life that eventually turns on its creator.

C.S. Lewis connects magic and technology (what he called “applied science”) in his book The Abolition of Man. “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages,” he writes. “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious. . ..”

Here Lewis observes that technology is like magic, practiced to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.” The inclination to subdue all of reality results in a technological worldview that sees everything as objects to be manipulated. C.S. Lewis refers to this as the “magician’s bargain” whereby “man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power.” This changes our relationship with creation, ourselves, and ultimately with God, leading to “disgusting and impious” results. Philosopher Martin Buber writes, “Whoever knows the world as something to be utilized knows God in the same way.”

While we can delight in the “magic” of electricity and technology, wisdom and virtue ought to direct the development and use of technology. Rather than using technology to manipulate creation for our own ends, technology ought to assist our call to steward the earth and love our neighbour to the glory of God.

What about you?

The next issue of CC will focus on faith & technology, as this columnist has done. What role has technology played in your family’s life, and has that changed during the COVID-19 pandemic? Send your thoughts to ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide.

Author

  • 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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