I have been plugging away at teaching composition courses this summer, and I am now on the second week of a course in research and argumentation. For the class I am currently teaching, the topic is technology, and how it is transforming the world around us. We kicked off the course last week by viewing the PBS special, Digital_Nation.
What we know for certain is that technology is not just changing what we think about (everything from instant news to an explosion of pornography), it is also changing how we think. We are becoming more visual and more vocal now that anyone with a computer has a tool of mass communication. We have also rapidly adapted to getting information in bits and bytes. With more information to think about, we have ever less time to think deeply.
What we don’t know for certain is how exactly this is going to change us as a society. The Jasmine Revolution suggests that the internet has the power to transform political realities in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation. Among the potentially positive effects is that political apathy will decline as young people recognize the empowerment technology offers when it is used wisely.
Digital_Nation also exposes what the producers might consider the darker side of technology — video game addiction, for example, or sexting. Yet I can’t help thinking that these are not so much the darker side of technology, as they are new expressions of the darker side of human nature. There is the tendency to construct fantasies for ourselves and to cling to them desperately, and the pride that wants to define and enlarge ourselves as individuals at the expense of community. Above all else, there is the repeated denial of dependence – the insistence that we are completely in control even when we are not.
The most striking example of this in Digital_Nation was the discussion of multitasking that came at the beginning of the program. The interviewers asked students at MIT how good they were at multitasking. Everyone insisted that they were effective multitaskers, and most students expressed indignation at the refusal of professors to recognize that they were perfectly capable of performing tasks online while taking in lectures. Yet, the brain scans performed by scientists offered undeniable proof that multitasking doesn’t work. The brain is not designed to do more than one thing at a time. We have plenty of devices designed to boost our productivity, but the more we use them, the less productive we become.
The problem with discussing how technology changes us is that we are so immersed in it on a daily basis that we find it hard to step back and think about how our relationships have changed since they became digital, or how our work changed when we began to work with word processors instead of pens and notebooks. Even this discussion, an online post rather than a conversation around a dinner table, is an exercise in irony. Still, I think that there are two things I can take away from Digital_Nation.
The first is to never take for granted my mastery over the tools I use. The repeated insistence of tech users that they were in complete control even when they were obviously not begs a reference to Psalm 19:12, “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (NLT). Perhaps, we will be wiser in our use of technology if we pay attention to the feedback of others around us. (Such as when my mother sarcastically refers to my laptop as “Anne’s beloved.”) Or, perhaps, we might look to lesson two.
Lesson two is to recognize that our one-task-at-a-time brains are the invention of an all-wise God. Rather than seeing our inability to multitask as a limitation, we should be grateful that God has given it to us as a safety net. We are told by Jesus that our words and actions have deep roots in the thought life (Mt. 12:34). We are also commanded in Scripture to meditate on God’s Word (see Psalms 1, 19, and 119). God has designed us to make Him the single focus of our lives. If we meditate on Scripture and interact with Him more persistently than we IM the people on our buddy list (I Thess. 5:17), we are going to have victory over the things that distract us spiritually and destroy our fruitfulness. Why? Because we can’t multitask spiritually. A mind that is turned toward God can’t be turned toward sin and addiction at the same time. God has made it physically impossible. He has wired us for success if we only embrace the spiritual discipline of God-centeredness.
This is why Paul characterizes victory over sin as “taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). Technology has no power to overthrow the God-centered mind. Rather, those who obey the first commandment to love God with all their minds are in a position to take technology captive to the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom, and that’s something worth plugging into.