Columnists > Voices

Technical difficulties

Technology | Are you running the worldwide web, or is it running you?

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

I ran across a list of random items set in my own hand—Balfour Declaration, San Juan Islands, and more—recalling a long lost habit. Back before high-speed internet search engines, I kept such lists for a day when I had spare time (and a babysitter) for oddball research at the city library—time to comb the card catalog and the microfiche indexes.

That kind of expedition today, of course, has become a gesture, something like brushing my teeth. Google “Balfour”—all you have to type is “b-a-l-f”—and there’s a one-paragraph synopsis of the 1917 communique calling for establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. In half a minute I can pull up maps and photos of the San Juan Islands.

As Andy Crouch points out in his book, Culture Making, there were a handful of lasers in the entire world in 1960; today, you are probably sitting no more than 50 feet from one. The speed and extent to which the digital age has transformed our everyday lives leads us, again and again, to contemplate whether so much personal technology is a good thing. That’s looking at the question all wrong: The dilemma is not about how technology has transformed our lives, but whether we are choosing to use it in transformative ways. As with any cultural goods, are we thoughtful stewards of the digital tools we have?

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“Cultural goods have a life of their own,” writes Crouch. “They reshape the world in unpredictable ways. … The interstate highway system was not just the result of a worldview, it was the source of a new way of viewing the world.” 

Recent headlines illustrate the highs and lows of internet-era transformation. As Superstorm Sandy barreled into New York, one FDNY dispatcher did more than man the phones: Emily Rahimi manned the Fire Department’s official Twitter feed, responding to pleas for help as disaster demands overwhelmed the city’s 911 system. When New York Times reporter Michael Luo tweeted, “My friends’ parents who are trapped on #StatenIsland are at 238 Weed Ave. Water almost up to 2nd flr.,” in minutes Rahimi tweeted back: “I have contacted dispatch. They will try to send help as soon as they can.” 

As we reported last month (“Feeding the hungry,” Nov. 5), one lower Manhattan pastor, Guy Wasko, discovered he was running out of gas while delivering supplies to storm-struck families. He tweeted his need, and a stranger in Philadelphia responded, delivering 10 gallons of fuel. 

A glaring example of technology gone bad came out of the FBI investigation of David Petraeus, forced to resign after email accounts exposed his infidelity. Four-star generals and CIA directors reportedly have betrayed their wives before, but technology exposed Petraeus—and others—in ways both historically swift and deeply tragic.

The creation mandate in Genesis 1 gives God’s people responsibility over technological changes as well as freedom from enslavement to them. Those advances have reshaped our world, but they shouldn’t rule our lives. 

I’ve come to believe that my children in their 20s in many ways have better relationships, partly because contact with their peers is more steady via social media. That doesn’t mean I like their devices at the dinner table. We know the blessing that Skype is for a family with a husband deployed in Afghanistan. But it can’t compete with a dad on the premises. And we’d all likely welcome touch-embedded remote controls to manage lights and warmth in our homes—but not at the expense of crawling under a blanket together on a cold night to read a story.

The dangers are seemingly contradictory: To become disembodied from the world we inhabit—and its norms of conduct, as did Petraeus. Or to become over-enamored by life lived too much on the worldwide web: “The immediate feedback of likes, retweets, and hits,” says technology writer John Dyer, “leaves the distinct impression that hitting certain numbers determines the value of not only what we do online, but who we are.”

So I conclude with fail-safe advice: Sometimes, just turn it off. As French Huguenot Henri-Frédéric Amiel observed, “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us."


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