Saturday, July 7, 2012

Ideas Have Consequences: Introduction

Mystie is hosting this book club, which I'm planning on participating in. I read the book when Cindy hosted the discussion in 2007, but I wasn't able to comment on each chapter. This time around I'm mainly planning on dusting off my old posts (which aren't on this site yet -- I was blogging elsewhere then and that site died, sadly), but hopefully I'll be able to reread the book and have more to say this time.

That said, I hadn't planned on doing the introductory chapter, but the discussion at Mystie's blog spurred me to write a long enough response that I figured I may as well post it here. The subject of technology came up and whether it's good, bad, or neutral.

(For a summary of this chapter, be sure to visit Mystie's blog.)

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I’ve been thinking all week, trying to figure out how to word this and I haven’t come up with anything satisfactory, but here goes anyway.

It seems to me that “things” (specifically technology, since that’s the topic) by their nature encourage certain uses and choices and discourage others, so that they aren’t exactly completely neutral objects. I’m not going so far as to say that they are actors, but I also can’t say that they are completely... neutral or passive in the way they are used.

We conservatives are fond of saying things like “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” which is true as far as it goes, but the fact is that guns are designed to blow holes in things from a distance, ideally while keeping the user safe from close contact with the target.

So, a gun, as a weapon is used differently than a sword, for instance, and it requires different skills and different strategies. Same thing as a hunting tool when compared to a hand-made spear. So the kind of person who is trained to use one weapon will turn out to be different than the kind who is trained to use the other.

That’s what I mean by technologies not being neutral.

I find it interesting that in most of these discussions someone eventually gets around to saying, “I’m not saying we should all be Amish,” but that betrays a lack of understanding of how the Amish approach technology. They don’t reject things outright. New technologies are picked up by interested members of the community and used for a while, while everyone else watches what happens. How does the technology actually affect the user? How does it change the way he’s been doing things? How does it affect his family? How does it affect the broader community? After a few years of watching this experimentation, the bishops will meet and begin discussing what they’re learning, and eventually reach a conclusion. This technology has these effects, so in order to protect our relationships with each other it may be used in this way but not in that.

It’s a slow and deliberate method of evaluating change, values the family and the community above individual convenience or profit, and is understood and respected by the community. Seems like a good plan to me.

A few years ago, Rick Saenz mentioned on his blog that prior to the Industrial Revolution, new technology developed really slowly so that the broader culture had time to adapt to the changes brought about by each new thing before the next new thing was developed. I think that was a blessing. The more I read about the Industrial Revolution the more I wonder why it happened. Why was it a revolution and not simply a continuation of the past slow progress? What was different and why had it changed? Even though we’ve benefitted materially in many ways from it, overall I can’t help but think that as human beings, as families, we really are not better off.

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I'm an Amazon Affiliate, which means I'll get a bit of monetary compensation for advertising on my blog if you click through the links and purchase the book.


  1. This reminds me of a story I read about the Amish before. It was about an Amish couple that actually owned a milking machine! It was then explained that they had gained permission to use it for a time to explore the impact. They decided to keep it because it allowed the wife and children to be involved in the work, whereas before the husband had essentially done the work alone. The couple treated the milkings sort of like a "date" and took the opportunity to connect together.

    Or, at least, that is how I remember it.

    The issue with technology seems to be like medicine: one man's cure is another's poison, right? So with a milking machine, if *I* bought one, I think it would disconnect me from my animals (which I am just getting to know). I think the physicalness (which is not a word, I know) of the activity is particularly good for me. I even have stronger arm muscles because of it! And goats are small, so involving the children isn't as big of a deal. But if I had, say, 12 goats--or worse: cows!--that I was milking all by myself and was completely overwhelmed by the job, the machine would lower the stress in our home, help me have time to make our home in other ways, etc.

    What I learned from the Amish is that it is okay--or at least it *should* be okay--to sit back and watch the early adopters and then decide what wisdom in regard to a new technology would really look like.

    My own relationship with technology is tenuous, and I'm trying to figure out what I really think. I don't want to be a technology=bad person, you know? But then I find that the adoption of technology has really changed our culture, and I don't like what I see. You make an excellent point about technology changing the man. My husband says that about culture in general (and technology is definitely a facet of culture) he says that it is a cycle. So: we make culture, but culture also makes us, and we can't completely help that. We could definitely say this about technology. We make it, but then its existence makes us, and it especially makes our children, who cannot remember a time when the world was not this way.

    I was talking with my grandma yesterday about her life as a young bride. She had no phone and the only way she could communicate with her mother was to write letters! Today's world must be a strange place to her!

  2. I do think it is more the lack of wisdom than the technology itself that is the issue. Getting rid of technology would be an "easy" answer, but I think it wouldn't address the root of the issue. For example, the builders of Babel misused their building technologies, using them in idolatry and self-glorification. The answer to that wasn't to make rules about how high buildings could be or how one built, but instead it was a smashing of their pride. Perhaps the smashing of our nation's pride could come in the form of a smashing of the technology, but it is the pride, self-glorification, idolatry, distraction that is the root issue; our technology helps us along on the path we choose (even if our choosing is a by-default assumption), but it doesn't mean it's the problem.

  3. I thought of this post when I read this over at the Common Room today.

    Also: I've been thinking more about this issue of we make culture, then culture makes us. Why is technology somewhat neutral, but adoption of it not? (If that makes sense.) Anyhow, I was thinking about this in regard to birth control (as a technological idea), and I think it's a good illustration. What I mean is, okay, so birth control has been helpful for me before. I'm not saying we used an abortifacient, but we used *something* when I was on progesterone because that hormone can cause serious birth defects. In this isolated incident (and others like it), I was completely comfortable with taking steps to protect a potential child from harm. Does this make sense?

    But when society as a whole adopts birth control as a *technology* and it becomes a way of life, we see that there are multiple consequence, from when and how people go about having children, to children being considered a "decision" in the first place, to society's view of children as an inconvenience, to our view of the marriage bed once the marital act is separated from its natural consequences, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum!

    I think a *lot* of technologies are this way. They are useful in their own way, but once they reach that critical mass, where they are adopted by the majority of the culture, then we see all of the consequences we couldn't predict.

    Just something I was thinking about...


What are your thoughts? I love to hear from you!