Some regular readers of my blog might wonder why I often write negatively about technology. After all, this is a blog, right? Isn’t that the epitome of modern technology? And don’t we regularly hear about the Pope encouraging both the clergy and the laity to embrace technology to further the Gospel?
Yes, all this is true. And I’m not anti-technology. I use the Internet for an average of 8 hours each weekday (for both work and leisure), I have worked in the technology field for over 15 years, I have six computers in my house, I own an iPhone, I am on Facebook, and I maintain a blog (I draw the line at Twitter). Clearly I’m not a Luddite. Yet I am also not a technology evangelist. Why? I have seen first-hand the dangers too much dependence on technology can have on the spiritual life.
One thing I often notice is whenever the Pope or other church official makes a “pro-technology” comment, it makes headlines on Catholic blogs and tweets, yet the warnings that usually follow the comment are left out. A case in point is the pope’s recent comments encouraging involvement on the Internet. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, followed those comments with some words of caution:
“The believer who ventures with enthusiasm and with courage into the world of social communications — boiling over every day with extraordinary technological novelties, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad — must know well the goal that guides him so that he is not taken captive by fascination for the means and thus loses his way.”
“And the goal,” the spokesman recalled, “is encountering God, who is the ultimate meaning of the relationships of dialogue, friendship and sharing that the Web makes possible today.”
“The traps that fill the pathways of cyberspace are countless,” Father Lombardi acknowledged, “from superficiality to falsehood to perversion. But there are also many users who seek friendship, truth and goodness.”
“Taken captive”: strong words which, I believe, accurately describe the pull of modern technology on many people. Technology has changed from a means to an end, and we can see an example of this in the fascination with Apple’s new iPad. For months people waited with bated breath for its release and rumors flew as to what capabilities it would have. Most of the discussion did not center as much around how it would help one to do certain tasks better, but instead on how cool it would be to have a device that can do [fill in the blank]. And in the end, the primary focus of the iPad was not productivity, but passive leisure. Now you can surf the web from your couch!
Note that I am not saying that the iPad, or owing an iPad, is immoral. But the inordinate fascination with it and all new technology is spiritually unhealthy. One of the things an over-emphasis on technology does is that it dehumanizes us. When our primary contact with the outside world is through a screen, we begin to lose a certain sense of the sacredness of each human person. Consuming a steady diet of violence, sex, and disasters via TV, video games or the Internet desensitizes us to the human reality behind it. We can see the extreme form of this desensitization in this news story:
This technological marvel is considered a breakthrough because it can “interact”, through artificial intelligence, with its owner. We see this and are rightly disgusted, but how far away is it from someone who spends every waking hour interacting with Facebook “friends”? Is it not in both cases someone who is filling the need for human interaction with technology instead of real, physical human interaction?
Simply calling modern technology a “tool” whose morality is wholly dependent on its use (or abuse) is not the answer, either. We need to recognize that many modern technologies are more ripe for abuse than older ones. Yes, a knife can be used to cut carrots or cut a child’s neck, but nothing in the knife itself gears you to one action over the other. Many of the technologies today, however, actually lead one to spiritually unhealthy lifestyles by their very nature. Thus, we must be on guard at all times that, as Fr. Lombardi stated, “the goal is encountering God, who is the ultimate meaning of the relationships of dialogue, friendship and sharing that the Web makes possible today.”
St. Isadore, pray for us!