Volume 13, Issue 6: Cultura
Americans and others from the underdeveloped West are far too eager to dub the latest
technology, gadget, or gizmo as "revolutionary." A glance at history's greatest hits in technological innovationthe eight-track tape, the electric toothbrush, or the Vegematicconfirms that advertisers and tech buffs are far better at hype than understanding the role of technology in social change. In fact, in the history of technology very few inventions have had truly revolutionary implications. Probably only the stirrup, the plow, the pencil, the printing press, the steam engine, the electric light, and maybe the computer (although the jury's still out on that one) merit such status. Most inventions end up with the Hoola Hoop and computer punch card in the museum for less than revolutionary technologies. Truly revolutionary technologies alter, substantially and broadly, the character and direction of the community or culture that adopts the innovation.
Thankfully, such things are rare. As important as technological innovations may be to
various agricultural, educational, social, political, and economic developments, they never appear out of the blue. Most are products of various trial-and-error experiments over years, decades, and sometimes centuries. They have a history and a context on which they depend. They are supported by complicated systems, amazing providences, and tangled relationships with other more foundational technologies. The plow may have turned the world upside down in one sense, but it was utterly dependent on earlier developments in forged metals, ore-refining process, and the invention of the leather harness. If the printing press was so revolutionary, then what do we make of cloth-rag paper, printable inks, woodcuts, division of labor, or the illuminated manuscript?
Without a prophet's insight we have no way of knowing where a given technology is in its life cycle. And calling a technology revolutionary at a particular point in time doesn't make it so. When an invention is introduced, we may be excited by its potential or imagine how it will alter what we do and how we do itall other things being constant and equal. But that little, usually unstated assumption is rarely (never?) the case. Technologies are always tangled up with a vast number of highly unstable social, economic, political and cultural conditions. Teletext and videotex, precursors to the Internet, for example, came on the scene in the early 1980s and were hailed as a revolution in shopping and communicating. But the timing and setting for widespread
adoption of the innovation weren't right, and they died an embarrassingly quick death. Despite all the hype about the Internet today, it is still unclear whether it is just a new version of short-lived videotex, or if it will have longer staying power. If technologies are considered in the abstract and considered autonomously, it is easy to overemphasize their revolutionary consequences. But as James W. Carey has observed, "It is not an infrequent experience to be driving along an interstate highway and to become aware that the highway is paralleled by a river, a canal, a railroad track, or telegraph and telephone wires. In that instant one may realize that each of these
improvements in transportation and communication merely worked a modification on what preceded it. The telegraph twisted and altered but did not displace patterns of connection formed by natural geography: by the river and primitive foot and horse paths and later by the wooden turnpike and
canal."1 Far from being revolutionary agents in human experience, most technologies, ironically, have a conservative bias: they tend to reinforce (rather than undermine or displace) the major habits, lifestyles, cultures, and worldviews of a society's dominant groups.
The revolution associated with today's technologies is not found in the real or imagined role they play in changing the warp and woof of our planet. Rather, it is found in the more subtle ways they have become accomplices in our abdication of responsibility for the promotion and protection of a healthy Christian culture in our families and communities. It's not that these things are sinful in themselves; they're not. But when Christian parents buy a cell phone, hook up satellite TV, or upgrade their computer with the latest software without carefully considering the motive behind their adoption in the home, a revolution is brewing. Are these things being pursued to improve the spiritual aroma of the home, to build up the children in wisdom and godliness, or to protect the family from the temptations and evils common to this age? If not, then parents are acting like revolutionaries using technology as a means to undermine what is true, good, and beautiful. The
revolution begins by putting a fascination with new gadgets above the biblical requirements for personal and familial faithfulness and well being. The revolt becomes obvious when a counterfeit faith justifies the power of autonomous technology as "progress" (whatever that is) or as an improvement to our lives independent of broader biblical obedience. When we believe deeply (as evidenced by our purchases and actions at home) that the latest technology, not God or biblical faithfulness, can fix our problems, cure our diseases, educate our children, stop crime, bring prosperity, or redeem our sinful condition, then technology has become our idol in rebellion
against the living God.
Lots of cool technologies are available in the marketplace, but the really revolutionary stuff can be found more often in the hearts and homes of Christians than on the Web.