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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., 20.00

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Steve VanderLeest

Two Tales of Technology

The blessing and curse of our own devices.

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Although they come from different theological traditions, both authors frame their books in terms of the metanarrative of the goodness of creation, the stain of sin, the grace of redemption, and the hope of restoration. For example, both authors point to the imago dei in the creation story, noting that human creativity exhibited in technology is part of our reflection of the Creator. In regard to the fall, Schuurman provides some nuance, recognizing that scientism and technicism come up short as universal cure-alls because they do "not recognize that our problems are due to sin, not just a lack of knowledge." Later Schuurman demurs in deciding whether to lay the blame for computer software bugs at the feet of our fallen human nature or our finite ability to work with complex systems. As created beings we were always finite, but sin makes us also fallen. Should we blame bugs on our finite nature or on our fallen nature? The best answer may be to blame both.

Both authors warn us of the dangers of electronic communication compared to face-to-face dialogue. For example, Schuurman writes that email and social networking are "no substitute for face-to-face communication" because they leave out "nuances of body language, facial expressions and intonation." Similarly, Dyer says "the older medium has more of you and less of the machine while the newer medium is more machine and less you." It would be nice to hear the authors' thoughts on why video conferencing is not sufficient, since one can see the body language, observe facial expressions, and hear intonation. Even more so, what about anticipated virtual reality technologies where even higher resolutions of these subtle indications could be replicated? I suspect that there is something even more fundamental about face-to-face conversation, something about how the authenticity of our physical presence places expectations on our listener. For example, most technological channels of communication give us a way to mute the conversation and tune out the speaker. When the person is physically present with us, we have less control and we will likely be more hospitable and respectful in our listening.

While much of each book advocates for caution when using technology, or even outright resistance to its allures, the authors occasionally acknowledge its benefits. This approach, weighted more heavily toward the dangers, is not unusual among Christian perspectives on technology. The power of technology is so great that it makes many vices particularly beguiling and particularly harmful at the same time. Too often, we are the sorcerer's apprentice, quick to summon power that is beyond our ability to control. Thus it is not surprising that these books spend more time on the vices than virtues enabled or amplified by technology. Nevertheless, after warning us of the intrinsic dangers, both authors end on positive notes. Schuurman sees the power of technology to do good in Christ's name. In the penultimate chapter examining the future direction of our technological endeavors, he exhorts us all to focus intentionally on care for our neighbor and all of creation when developing and using technology. He adds the insight that our answer to the question of "who is my neighbor?" takes on a new character in a globally connected world.

I recommend both books as helpful next steps in the conversation about technology, developing some existing ideas a bit further as well as providing some new metaphors and new applications. Either book could be readily used for personal study or in a group setting such as an adult church education class, using the discussion questions the authors provide. In addition to these fine first books, it is no surprise that each author also maintains an online presence: Dyer's blog is titled Don't Eat the Fruit, while Schuurman's is Digitally Speaking.

Steve VanderLeest is professor of engineering at Calvin College.

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