Friday, June 29, 2007

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What might the iPhone undo?

You got to read this!
If you are not subscribing to the Clapham Commentary, you need to. Everything that Mike Metzger writes is provocative and thoughtful.

I am usually reluctant to post an entire article, but since this first came in an email and won't be posted on the website until a few days later, I couldn't have you wait to read the entire thing.

by Mike Metzger June 29, 2007

Staring at us.
Benedictine monks never imagined that their new technology, designed to help workers unwind, would eventually wrap workers around the axle. William Farish never imagined that his technological innovation would make his profession meaningless. New technologies are wonderful in what they promise to do, yet we are often "incapable of imagining what they will undo," said the late Neil Postman.1 The iPhone has been described (by some) as the greatest technological innovation since the telegraph. What will it possibly undo? The answer is staring at us. Look carefully. It's right there.

Benedictine monks invented the mechanical clock in the 12th century to remind workers to take periodic Sabbath breaks. They never imagined someone like Frederick Taylor, known as the Father of Scientific Management, would use the stopwatch (notice it's called a stopwatch?) to start a movement to increase productivity. Today we "fight" the clock to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of every last second.

William Farish (a Cambridge University tutor) never imagined his idea of numerical grading – unheard of before his time – would eventually marginalize mentoring. Before 1792, students were evaluated through dialogue, not digits. This conversation required a counselor, a tutor. Numerical grading led to cavernous classrooms and computers.

Now consider the iPhone – a wonderful new technology promising us the world. It can do a lot. What might it undo? If we stare long enough at an iPhone (or any mobile technology), the answer is right in front of us. See it? People who putt through life with their nose pressed against a window are called tourists. Sightseers. Yet according to the ancient Judeo-Christian faith, we're supposed to be travelers and sojourners instead.

Our word travel comes from the English travail, meaning "a journey fraught with danger." The Bible is chock full of words picturing this life as a sometimes scary sojourn. A world inhabited by God, gargoyles, devils and demons means we don't simply float down the lazy river of life like fallen autumn leaves. Remember when Mr. Beaver was asked by one of the children if Aslan was safe? "‘Safe?' said Mr. Beaver... ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he's good.'"2 God is good and God is great. But that doesn't mean life is supposed to be safe.

It was the late Daniel Joseph Boorstin, prizewinning author and the historian who had served as librarian of Congress and director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology, who argued that new technologies often turn Americans into tourists rather travelers. They keep us seemingly "in touch" while actually making us more "out of touch." The ease of surfing between Darfur and Dunkin' Donuts (or Paris France and Paris Hilton) is closer to voyeurism than voyaging. In times past, we wouldn't know about Darfur without being present and covering our noses to keep the stench of death out of our nostrils. Now we can simply watch through a window in air-conditioned comfort.

This is not an argument against technological advancements. We can't become Luddites. But we have to remember that technology, according to Paul Goodman of the New Reformation, is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science. In the nineteenth century, science's new attitude was "if something can be done it should be done." It replaced the Judeo-Christian faith, which believed that just because something can be done, it's better to ask whether we ought to do it. Technologies can do – and undo – a lot.

It's hard to imagine the iPhone's "iffect." The problem, as Neil Postman pointed out, is that "once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it was designed to do."3 And undo. It's interesting that a number of coffeehouses are pushing back and unplugging their wireless access. They complain that customers have their faces pressed to the computer screen. No one is present. Coffeehouses are for travelers, not tourists.

Becoming travelers once again includes resolving one of the great ideological conflicts of our modern age. It's between the Judeo-Christian faith, with all its transcendent moral underpinnings, "and a twentieth-century thought-world that functions not only without a transcendent narrative to provide moral underpinnings but also without strong social institutions to control the flood of information produced by technology."4 If one "iffect" of the iPhone is to amuse us to death in a deluge of entertainment, that's not progress. If the "iffect" of the iPhone is to stir travelers, stem the tide of tourism and help people solve real problems, I'm all for it.

1 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (New York: Random House, 1993), p.5
2 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (New York: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp.75-76
3 Postman, p.7
4 Postman, p.83

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  1. Bill, he writes that his article "is not an argument against technological advancements," but I don't see how he can escape that conclusion if he follows his own logic.

    Everything in life can be abused: sex, alcohol, food, etc., but we are not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Why not look at the iPhone as a wonderful took for ministry?

  2. I didn't get from his article that we should avoid technology, but rather understanding that it isn't merely neutral, that technology has an effect on our life, some good and some bad. I think it is a good idea to at least ask the questions. Let me tell you I am a big proponent of the use of technology within ministry. I lead the charge on our staff team to consider Web2.0 apps and I even use a Blackberry. But I can't ignore the fact, that these technologies do have an effect on me. It all goes back to Neil Postman's thesis in "Amusing Ourselves to Death"

    Thanks again for your comments and interacting with Metzger's article.

  3. So, I am writing this from an IPhone right now, which means I am most certainly biased. However, I agree with the sentiment that tech certainly affects people and how they interact, or don't interact, with the world. In every age there has been a struggle between people and their decisions to be participants or merely passive. It is not something which will go away because we adopt or ignore a new technology. Responsibility will remain in the hands of the individual to make the correct decisions and turn things off, ignore certain people, or get active with and for causes which they feel are worthy. I fear apathy more than technology.

  4. great post.

    What he's talking about is technorealism.

    Wiki defines
    "Technorealism is an attempt to expand the middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-luddism by assessing the social and political implications of technologies so that people might all have more control over the shape of their future. The technorealist approach involves a continuous critical examination of how technologies might help or hinder people in the struggle to improve the quality of their lives, their communities, and their economic, social, and political structures"

  5. Thanks for forwarding the read. Interesting...

    Sometimes I can't help but wonder if my life would be MORE productive without the bogging down that technology brings to my life.

    Of course at the same time, I'm jealous that Nate has something I don't!

  6. Bill,

    Thanks for passing this one on. I loved it, esp. the line "People who putt through life with their nose pressed against a window are called tourists. Sightseers. Yet according to the ancient Judeo-Christian faith, we're supposed to be travelers and sojourners instead."

    And you can't beat that Narnia reference ;)

    Metzger's points are insightful and ring true. I think we need to remember that our possessions can sometimes possess us. We've got to remember who's in charge, and keep things in their proper place.

    Here's a little bit of wisdom from a certain Polish philosopher I know: "The true must prevail over the useful, good over well being, liberty over fashions, the person over structures..."

  7. B”H

    Hey Bill,

    Thanks for this post and so many others too. I have been reading your posts for a while now and I really like a lot of the topics you address. In this case, you have introduced us, your reading audience, to Mike Metzger and this too is a great find. Beyond just the wise insights that Brother Metzger brings, I liked several of the comments your readers made. I never heard of technorealism, or any of the other terms mentioned in that wikipedia piece, but I really liked the points they raised.

    Keep up the good work and may the LORD richly bless you,