Expanding Our View of Technology

My wife and I love our video doorbell, especially when we are traveling or someone comes to our door unexpectedly. Not only can we see who is there or when packages arrive (especially when I order more books to my wife’s disdain), but we can also turn off the ringer when our kids are napping and even check in our house when we are out of town. But stepping back and viewing this common technology through a broad understanding of technology, we can see that this innovation is much more than a simple isolated gadget. It was developed to meet a need brought on by another innovation that came before it. So what’s the innovation that came before the smart doorbell invention? Online shopping. Particularly through popular services such as Amazon, Walmart, and Target.[1]

Think about it—we live in a day where more and more of our household needs are delivered right to our front doors through online shopping. Innovators sought new solutions like the doorbell camera to overcome the fallout of issues spawning from the previous innovation. After all, that’s a lot of delivery people at your house on any given day—people you don’t know. And the delivery people aren’t the only thing to think about; what about those “porch pirates” who steal packages from doorsteps (especially during the holidays)? Clearly, the smart doorbell wasn’t created in a vacuum. It was created to meet a growing concern over home safety from our modern-day package-delivery phenomenon. Doorbell technologies also helped to address the fear of homeowners from break-ins and satisfied the curiosity of homeowners about who is around their homes even if they live in relatively safe areas. And, in turn, these same cameras also brought about a number of new concerns over neighborhood surveillance and personal privacy. And that’s just one example. Most innovations you and I enjoy today are built to solve problems with the innovations that came before them.


A web of relations

Famed philosopher Martin Heidegger observed this very thing, and the way he explained it was by saying technology is tied up within a web of relations.[2] Considering technology as a web of relations helps us zoom out and gives us a more expanded view of tech, helping us see the numerous connections and shifts that occur within our society as new innovations are developed and deployed. In the case of the doorbell camera, they became increasingly popular because of online shopping that itself naturally arose from the convenience of information sharing through the advent of the modern internet. But if we trace the internet back, it too was solving a problem. It was created by the US military originally for the convenience to share vast amounts of information—vital information—across long distances in a short amount of time. The point is that, as the late Canadian philosopher George Grant said, “More technology is needed to meet the emergencies which technology has produced.”[3]

Grateful for the trivia, but what’s this to me? Glad you asked. I share all of this is to say that when we examine a particular instance of technology, we need to understand that these tools do not exist in complete isolation. As we zoom out and see the various aspects of the technology web, we see that they exist in a larger framework or movement of technology. This means that simple answers or trite platitudes about “reining in screen time” are rarely going to alter our deeply embedded relationship with technology from a place of tips and tricks to a place of true biblical wisdom needed for the digital age.

It means that we must be eyes-wide-open about what we’re actually dealing with when it comes to technology—and it’s not just a social media platform that distracts us from our work or a phone that takes our attention from our kids. It’s not just a doorbell camera or even a gadget that makes our life a little more convenient. It’s a whole way we’ve been trained, a whole orientation we walk in, a whole web of relations that does nothing but breed faster and faster—all built to remove any trace of inefficiency, difficulty, obstacles, or friction in our life. And is that the way of Christ’s kingdom?


Is technology unstoppable?

French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, didn’t see this pattern of technology ending well for us as a society or as individuals. To him, technology almost takes on a will of its own and forces us to accept that technology will eventually invade every area of our entire life, regardless of what we do. Ellul described this inevitability as the technological imperative, where once a technological development is underway it is essentially unstoppable.[4] Ellul describes this imperative by saying, “If a desired result is stipulated, there is no choice possible between technical means and non-technical means….Nothing can compete with technical means…It is not in the power of the individual or the group to decide to follow some method other than the technical.”[5] Ellul is showing here that we always choose the technical means when faced with a decision.

But why do we do this? We tend to opt for the technical solution to our problems because we falsely believe that technology will be more efficient, streamlined, or produce a better overall result. Though you can find a glimmer of hope in his work, Ellul predominately saw that technology is nearly unstoppable—that it would eventually overtake all of humanity in a way that shaped us toward the efficient end rather than the godly one. In his view, the path before us is determined and there is little that we can do to change our relationship with tech.

If we’re honest, we all agree to some extent with him, don’t we? We can sense how fast things are moving. And though technology has its good points in some ways (for example, digital imaging can spot cancer that needs healing, and GPS capability that can get us where we are heading faster), it’s not hard to see that overall, its goal and highest value is efficiency that plows forward unabated, no matter the high cost or lines crossed. And we can feel the predicament we’re in: in our current society, we simply don’t always have a choice between the non-technical and technical means. Our world is increasingly mediated and managed by technology, including how we think about the world and the nature of truth itself. It all seems so inevitable.


A different path

At the same time, though, we see humanity wrestling with these things here and there, asking the hard questions. Whether through a parent blog written by a concerned mother or a sophisticated article written by a top scholar, we routinely see calls for seriously addressing our dependence on technology. Often these calls come in the form of digital addictions, being safe online, being aware of how easy it is to be duped online with fake news or misinformation, managing our screen time better, filtering out dangerous content including pornography, or even how the blue light from our devices is causing issues with our sleep. But is this the only way to handle things? Those things may certainly help in various ways, but overall, is this the best approach

If technology has such a reorienting effect in our lives, what are we to do about it? Is there any sense of hope for us to turn the tables on this push by technology toward efficiency? While Ellul saw that technology constantly pushed us toward more, better, faster, God’s Word reveals to us a different path through the digital age that is grounded in biblical wisdom and moral responsibility. Once we see the totalizing effect of technology, we can despair, or we can proceed with wisdom as the key to navigating the digital age—because biblical wisdom is how God calls us to live no matter what we face, whether that be a den of lions in Daniel’s day or a web of relations in our own. Wisdom is a key to understanding how God calls his people to act in a world saturated by technology.


Excerpted with permission from Following Jesus in a Digital Age by Jason Thacker. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.


[1] Interestingly, Amazon purchased Ring for one billion dollars in February 2018 as a way to gain access to the lucrative doorbell technol- ogy business, which neatly aligns with their primary business of online shopping. See Ali Montag and Sarah Berger, “Amazon Bought ‘Shark Tank’ Reject Ring Last Year—Here’s What the Founder Says about Jeff Bezos,” CNBC, February 22, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/27/amazon-buys-ring-a-former-shark-tank-reject.html.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarie and Edward S. Robinson (New York: Harper Perennial/Modern Thought, 2008), 67–71.

[3] George Grant, Technology & Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1991), 16.

[4] Ellul, The Technological Society, 21. See also Derek Schuurman’s exposition of Ellul’s thought in Schuurman, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 21.

[5] Ellul, The Technological Society, 84.