Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology
Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology
Derek C. Schuurman
IVP Academic, 2013
138 pp., $18.00

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Steve VanderLeest

Two Tales of Technology

The blessing and curse of our own devices.

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Technology is woven deeply into the fabric of our culture. We find technical terms threaded into our language. We speak of someone "pushing our buttons," we ask for "input" from colleagues, we call our pilot project a "test drive." We increasingly find technology forming the curtained entrance to goods, services, and ideas. One of those goods is this review, which most of you are likely reading on a device, not a printed page (though one could argue that printing is also technology). The recent debacle with the roll-out of illustrated the criticality of technology as the gateway to essential services. Current ideas in wide ranging disciplines often make their debut appearance in online journals.

While technology is part of the warp and woof of our lives, we view our relationship to our devices and machines with ambivalence. On the one hand, technology has been a boon, providing significant health improvements, raising the standard of living for many, uncovering deep scientific mysteries, improving productivity at work, and interconnecting us in a global community. Our tools enhance our sight, amplify our voices, and extend our reach. On the other hand, technology comes with baggage. The cars that get us where we need to go also may provoke us to road rage. The phone that connects us with far-away friends also seems to disconnect us from neighbors. Our time-saving devices often break down or misbehave, effectively squandering any time savings we had hoped to gain.

Highlighting our immersive interaction with technology and then identifying the mixed blessings that come part and parcel with that connection is the usual approach for writing about technology. A few authors have focused on the blessings of technology as part of a utopian vision of an ever-improving technological society. However, many writers have skipped the blessings and jumped directly to the curses of technology as part of a dystopian editorial condemnation of our machine-dependent existence. Unfortunately, it is simpler and more provocative to swing the pendulum hard toward either of these opposite directions of blind praise or unrelenting critique.

Why is technology often considered so monolithically? Must our judgment be all or nothing, either embracing or rejecting? We do not generally treat other forms of culture in this way. We immediately consider such dichotomous choices to be false -- to embrace or reject music, legislation, theater, or science. Why should technology be treated differently than other human endeavors? Technology is not an alien thing woven into our culture: technology is a cultural artifact as well. Humans are not only musical, political, philosophical, and scientific. We are also technological. We are not only homo sapien, we are also homo faber. It is thus refreshing to discover two books addressing these two sides of technology with a balanced hand: John Dyer's From the Garden to the City and Derek Schuurman's Shaping a Digital World.

The style of each book is indicative of the author's background. Schuurman, an engineer and computer scientist teaching at Redeemer University College, uses a rather scholarly approach to state his case. He targets an audience of Christians who are "practitioners and students working in fields related to computer technology." Dyer works in information technology as well, but it is his theological training at Dallas Theological Seminary that comes through in the stories he weaves together into an extended three-point sermon on technology. Although he doesn't explicitly define his audience, it appears to be the Christian community in general, i.e., the users more than the developers of technology. However, as each book unfolds, it becomes clear that humans are creative by nature and calling, and thus the line between developer and user is rather fuzzy. We are all engineers in some sense, when we adapt the resources around us to solve the problem at hand, whether the problem is pounding a nail (and we adapt the sole of our boot into a makeshift hammer) or whether the problem is communicating the plight of a protest crowd under attack by a dictator (and we adapt social networks into news broadcasting platforms).

In defining technology, Dyer turns to a seminal book from a team of Christian scholars seeking to relate Christian principles to technology, Responsible Technology: A Christian Perspective, edited by Stephen V. Monsma (Eerdmans., 1986). That earlier work has been a central influence for many of us thinking and writing about technology from a Christian perspective. It reflects a distinctly Reformed take on technology, drawing on the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd—two key thinkers in this tradition. The Responsible Technology (RT) narrative informs Dyer's definition of technology as "the human activity of using tools to transform God's creation for practical purposes." Following RT, Dyer views technology as not merely the tools we use, but as an activity, and in particular, a cultural activity. Technology is a cultural good as much as art, music, and legislation are cultural goods. It is distinctive from these others aspects of culture because technology's central purpose is utilitarian: to transform. These technological cultural goods do not "exist for their own sake, but tools have a job: transforming the natural world."

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