Caution: Imagination at Work

By John Dyer


Flourish, Fall 2011

It’s commonly held that adults have lost the propensity for imaginative play. While kids have the ability to look past the world as it is and see the world as it could be, adults are only able to see the real world. A select few storytellers can create new worlds with their pens and keyboards, but most of us, we are told, can no longer imagine such places for ourselves.

Yet when it comes to using technology, the ability to imagine and tell stories is awakened even in adults. In fact, whenever we use a tool—whether it be a shovel or a cell phone—three powerful stories unfold.

A world shaped by technology

The first story tells how humans shape the world using tools. And the story becomes very individual, and specific, whenever we see a new tool. As we imagine ourselves using it, we see in our mind’s eye all the great new things we can accomplish with the device. Whether we come across a faster computer, an egg-white separator, or a space shuttle, our minds attempt to understand the tool by imagining what it would be like to use it.

When we use technology, we are reconstructing the actual world using tools.

Historian of technology David Nye writes, “Composing a narrative and using a tool require the imagination of altered circumstances . . . In each case, one imagines how present circumstances might be made different.” Just as storytellers imagine new worlds for their books and movies, we too envision an alternate reality when we imagine how we’ll use a tool. We see the world as it is, and then how it could be with the addition of the tool.

Not all of us, however, imagine the story the same way. Some look at new gadgets and think, “Wow, that would make my life so much easier.” Others have the opposite reaction: “That’s ridiculous,” they say. “I would never need that thing.” However, even though the reactions are polar opposites, both engage in the act of imagining what it would be like to use the tool, and both base their conclusions about the tool on how the story ends.

Though we might not realize it, we compose these mini-narratives whenever we encounter even the simplest gadget. If we happen to see a shovel, our minds can easily imagine the act of digging a hole, visualizing how the ground will look after we’re finished. This small effort of the imagination has a clear movement from beginning (the world before the shovel) to middle (the act of digging) to end (the world with a new hole)—the basic arc of any story. It might not be a long story, or a particularly interesting one, but it’s still a story; and when it’s over, the world will be a different place. After all, there is now a hole in the ground.

But the stories we tell ourselves about tools have an important difference from the stories we read in books. As we read a story in a book, we are transported to an alternate world that the author has crafted. For a little while we inhabit that world and are possibly even transformed by it. Eventually, however, we must return to the real world; we realize that those places and those people don’t really exist.

Yet when we use technology, we are no longer constructing a fictional world using words. Instead, we are reconstructing the actual world using tools. Unlike tales of goblins or love at first sight, the stories we tell ourselves about technology can become every day realities. If we imagine a world with a hole, a shovel can create that world for us. If we imagine a world free from headaches, medicine can make that a reality.

Technology, then, is the bridge from this world to the imagined one. Storybooks give us a glimpse into an alternate world, but technology allows us to actually live in an alternate world. From Adam’s invention of clothing to Edison’s invention of the light bulb, technology is the means by which we transport ourselves to the better worlds we are constantly imagining. The more powerful the tool, the more fully our visions can be realized. When we stumble into a problem we want to solve, we instinctively search for a tool that can help us get from the world with the problem to a world where the problem is solved.

If you’re not yet convinced of the link between tools and our love of stories, you need only to observe any commercial in print, TV, or on the Internet. A perfect example of how advertising attempts to capitalize on the desire for new tools comes from a 2010 Sprint advertisement that asked, “What will you do with EVO, the first 4G phone?” Notice that Sprint’s marketing department is inviting the viewer to imagine life with the device. Sprint knows that triggering the constant creative yearning for a better world can convince the viewer that the new Sprint phone is the answer. And a convinced viewer will buy whatever is offered.

The allure of technology, then, is a promise that the right tools will bring about a better world. We continually tell ourselves that with technology we can take this broken world and mold it into the better one that we all desire. The transforming role of technology is evidenced in the way many scholars define technology. For example, Dutch engineering professor and theologian Egbert Schuurman writes, “We can say that we are talking about technology when we use tools to shape nature in the service of human ends.” David Mindell sees technology as the “constellation of tools, machinery, systems, and techniques that manipulate the natural world for human ends.”

Technology, then, is the means by which we transform the world as it is into the world that we desire. What we often fail to notice is that it is not only the world that gets transformed by technology. We, too, are transformed.

A people shaped by technology

If the first story of technology is how we humans shape the world using tools, the second story is how those tools in turn shape us.

To see how this happens, let’s again use the example of our trusty shovel. Imagine for a moment that we see an advertisement telling us how exciting our world could be with several holes in the ground.

The allure of technology is a promise that the right tools will bring about a better world.

The advertisement convinces us that a shovel is the means by which we can get to the wonderful world of holes, and so we purchase the shovel and begin digging. After some time we put the shovel down, wipe our brow, and survey the work we have done. Proudly, we see the world is quite different than it was a few hours ago. We, dear friends, are now standing on holey ground.

But if we stop for a moment more and look down, turning our palms toward our eyes, we’ll see that our hands, too, have been changed by the shovel. They will be rubbed raw, exposing the first signs of the blisters that are sure to develop while we sleep.

Over time, as we dig hole after hole, reshaping the world as we see fit, our hands, arms, and backs will be changed as well. Those blisters will turn into calluses, and our once weak arms will grow stronger and more muscular. Our minds too will develop a sense of the land and how best to approach it. When the job is completed, the tool will have transformed both the creator and the creation. Indeed as John Culkin, a student of Marshall McLuhan wrote, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

In this sense, technology sits between us and the world, changing and molding both at once. Our primary connection then is

with the tool, not the creation itself, giving the tool the opportunity to simultaneously shape both the world and its user.

But notice that the transformation technology brings happens regardless of why a person uses a tool. One person might use a shovel to break ground on a new orphanage, while another might use it to conceal stolen goods. Clearly, one is morally superior to the other, but the moral intent does not change the fact that both the righteous and the wicked end up with blisters and aching backs.

Though most of us don’t approach technology in this way, we actually do this purposefully all the time: we regularly use tools expressly designed to transform our bodies. Treadmills, for example, are engineered to help us become more physically fit. The more we use a treadmill, the longer and leaner our leg muscles become, and the stronger and more powerful our hearts grow.

Of course, if we choose a different tool of physical transformation, such as a leg press, our legs will take on a different shape. The more leg presses we do, the larger and stronger our quadriceps will become. Over time we can build up incredible leg strength and muscle mass, transforming our ability as well as our appearance.

It is important to recognize that the more we master these two tools—the treadmill and the leg press—the further they take us in one direction, but not the other. Marathon runners usually cannot lift 600 pounds with their legs, and those who can perform such a feat usually cannot run marathons. One tool transforms us in one area, while a different tool changes us into something else. This is certainly a rather extreme example, but it highlights how important it is to be aware of the ways in which our tools shape us.

From radio to television to the Internet, scientists and cultural critics have long contended that our communication and information technologies influence the way we think in the same way that shoes affect the way we run. Most recently, Nicholas Carr argues in his book The Shallows that our brains work just like our muscles; when we perform a mental task repeatedly, our neural pathways rewire themselves to become better at that task.

For example, people who spend long hours reading books with complex ideas tend to become good at that activity. Likewise, people who spend their days consuming small pieces of information such as text messages or status updates tend to have minds particularly suited to performing that task. But just as it is difficult to master both running long distances and lifting heavy weights with our legs, these two mental tasks are mutually exclusive to a degree. Those who have developed the ability to consume complex arguments in books tend to feel overwhelmed by the rush of data online, while those who do most of their reading online and on small mobile screens tend to lose concentration when they attempt to focus on a single idea for long periods of time.

Again, as with the blisters and calluses from a shovel, these mental transformations happen without reference to morality. Whether a person spends long periods of time reading Christian apologetics or spends that time reading atheist literature, the reader will increase the ability to understand complex arguments. And whether a person reads thousands of tweets from Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears or thousands of tweets from John Piper and a C. S. Lewis robot, the skill of consuming massive amounts of small information bites will increase.

Of course, the content we consume is important, but often we focus so much on the content that we miss the importance of the medium through which we consume it.

Psalm 1 tells us that we are molded and shaped by the company we keep, but when we connect with people through technology, the medium becomes part of the equation in how that molding and shaping take place.

In fact, sometimes the effects of a medium are more important than any content transmitted through that medium.

Marshall McLuhan coined the now famous phrase, “The medium is the message,” to describe this phenomenon, saying, “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves or by any new technology.”

What he meant was that the transformative effect of a technology is so powerful that it often overshadows what we say or do with that medium. In the exercise examples above, the treadmill is the medium and its transformative message is increasing our ability to run. With the medium of Twitter, the message is increasing our ability to consume short, disconnected sentences.

But McLuhan’s main interest was not the blisters individuals receive from the shovel, but rather the social and cultural transformation that happens in a group of people who have shovels. When we use tools to transform the world into the one we imagine, everyone around us is forced to respond and adapt to those changes. For example, when music moved from CDs to digital downloads, we were transported to a world where music was easier to find and purchase. But this technological change also changed the relationships between bands, labels, producers, and consumers. It doesn’t matter if we buy classical music, Christian music, or music with explicit lyrics; the medium of digital downloads sends a message to the music industry.

This happens because technology is not only situated between us and the world, but also between one human and another. When one person is reading another’s thoughts, those two people cannot be fully present to one other. Just as a builder accesses the dirt through the medium of the shovel, we access the minds of others through our various communication mediums. Builders don’t have direct access to dirt, and you and I don’t have direct access to one another.

And so it is with cell phones, email, video chat, and all of the communication tools we use today. They both connect us and put something between us. Psalm 1 tells us that we are molded and shaped by the company we keep, but when we connect with people through technology, the medium becomes part of the equation in how that molding and shaping take place.

Souls shaped by technology

The third and final story we tell with technology happens when all that transforming we do to the world and ourselves finds its way into our souls. We know that shovels transform the earth and reshape our hands, but—taking a step back—we must wonder why humans dig at all. Computers help us compute things, but what is the big question we are trying to answer? Cars take us from here to there, but where exactly are we going? In other words, why are we doing all of this technology?

One obvious answer might be that we are trying to reduce suffering in the world, and thankfully technology has in fact accomplished that to some degree. In 1850, the average life expectancy of someone living in North America or Europe was around 38 years. But today, the average life expectancy is well over 70 years. That means that in less than two centuries, technology advanced to a point where it doubled the length of our lives. Much of this increase is due to advances in obstetrics, which led to a drop in the infant mortality rate from 300 deaths per thousand births in 1850 to just 20 deaths per thousand births in 2000.

Certainly, then, I would consider medical technology to be a good and even redemptive thing, and I see this world as better and more advanced than the one of the 1900s. But what do I really mean when I say, “more advanced?” What are we advancing toward? Where are we going? One day, both my wife and my children will die, as will I. Would a world with technology that allowed us to live indefinitely—free from disease and even death—be a “better” world than this one?

How we answer these kinds of questions leads us to one of two ways of understanding technology and describing life. In one story, there is a God who is moving humanity along a timeline. He has a purpose and a plan, and there is an end point toward which he is moving all of history. Technology plays a role in this story, but it is a subservient role, not an ultimate one. The only true salvation offered to humanity comes from God himself, through his Son Jesus Christ.

In the other story, there is no God. There is only the advancement of life itself from simple to more complex. If there is any salvation or any hope for the future, it will come through the advancement of technology. In biological terms humanity is known as homo sapiens (“knowing man” or “wise man”), but our true nature is that of homo faber (“making man” or “skilled man”), because we advance our kind through the things we make. A recent article on prehistoric technology begins with, “Long before the BlackBerry, primates were obsessed with gadgets,” implying that we are just the next stage in a long line of ever-evolving, tool-using animals with no design or purpose other than survival. Our ultimate destiny, the posthumanists contend, is to transcend our weak biological bodies and be born again into eternal machines.

In one story, there is a God who is moving humanity along a timeline. Technology plays a role in this story, but it is a subservient role, not an ultimate one.

Obviously, these two stories are at odds. In one story, God is our savior, while in the other, technology is what saves. In one story, God is the source of our resurrection and eternal life; in the other, technology becomes our god who enables our ascension into eternal life. And although the idea that technology can save us has become increasingly popular in the past few centuries, the origin of that story actually began long ago. From the moment Adam and Eve first sinned, and continuing with the life of their son Cain, technology has played a powerful role in the lives and identity of those who reject God. What we see today is the continuation of an unbroken line of humanity that consciously or unconsciously views technology as a god and savior.

But what about us, the people of God? How are we to view technology? If God is our savior and he wins in the end, does technology even matter? Obviously, we should use technology for good and not for evil, but does anything more need to be said? If it is true that technology has the capacity to shape the world that God made, as well as shape our bodies, minds, and souls, then it seems we should care deeply about our tools. Moreover, if technology plays some role in the story of God redeeming his people, we should care all the more.

 


John DyerJohn Dyer (http://j.hn/) has been a web developer for more than 10 years, working for companies like Apple, Microsoft, Crossway Publishers, and Exxon. He currently serves as the director of web development for Dallas Theological Seminary, and writes on issues of technology and faith for Christianity Today, at donteatthefruit.com, and in his new book From the Garden to the City (http://fromthegardentothecity.com).

 

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  1. […] Author John Dyer reflects on how the technology we create to change the world also changes us. […]

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