The Future Belongs To Those Who Build It

A Friendly Response to Kryptos on Technology

The future will not look like the present. At the same time, there is no guarantee that the future will look any particular way. Longing for the past or retreating from the field of activity is retirement. If Christians are going to be in the active life of work, politics, and the marketplace, then they need to be building. The future belongs to those who have a vision for what it will look like and gather together to build that future. And a bad plan is better than no plan at all.

Without getting into the details of Ellul or the other texts cited in the essay Technology, Politics, and Facing the Current Moment published in these pages by Kryptos, the essay itself requires a response. Kryptos is right about several things that don’t require a response. There is, in fact, a utopian theory of technology. This comes in both communistic and capitalistic varieties. So too there is a dystopian theory, ironically in the same varieties. Implicit in technology is the sense of more which gives us theories of progress (or progressive harm). Tech version 1.0 has problems that can be solved by version 2.0. Consider the problem of the too-short battery life of your cell phone, future versions will surely attempt to overcome this. This process is ongoing and more or less constant such that by the time we get to version 87.0 the technological capacities of your cell phone will be virtually unrecognizable and whatever problems there are with that version are hardly visible from where we are back here using version 2.0. 

Without denying any of the goods of technology we can easily see and agree that this sort of thinking can be applied to all sorts of things which it ought not to. For example, one should not want a version 2.0 of one’s children or friends. To do so is not to love the friends one has in front of them. So too, though in a different register, when the state is conceived in purely technical terms it takes on a character that is opposed to human freedom. No citizen wants to be optimized, and if you were optimized by external forces toward predetermined ends you would de facto not be free. Similarly when applied to churches for the sake of growth (or, more rarely, for the sake of achieving some sort of depth or height of spirituality) then the church becomes a mere means for delivering the technical solution to a predetermined problem. I often worry that the preachers I know of highest quality will begin to believe that the response they are getting from their congregation is simply a matter of the linguistic techniques they are deploying. I hear that a similar phenomenon occurs with highly successful comedians who are tempted to grow hatred for both their audience and their craft.

But here we begin seeing differences between Kryptos and myself. Kryptos seems to think these problems are brand new. Meanwhile, it is clear to me that authors at least as ancient as Plato were aware of and wrote about these problems. For example, in his masterpiece, Gorgias Plato directly addresses the issue of whether learning language to manipulate people is a real form of learning. And incidentally, this is why I’m teaching a class on Classical Rhetoric for Preaching this winter. We must never presume that the success of the church relies on our action or skill, it is built on the rock of Jesus, God’s Word, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The logical endpoint and ultimate danger of technological overreach is that it results in our failure to see and to hear. The vision of God is the meaning of our life and is accessible only to those who listen to His word. If everything we see is only ever understood in terms of what we can make and do we may miss being itself when it finally visits us.

There are other points Kryptos makes which puzzle me. 

Kryptos seems to think that the problem of technology is just coming into vision because of where we are in history and that by watching the unfolding of the process of technological progress moving forward we can see that technology was just a sort of grand mistake. It is much more rational, in my mind, to see that technological mistakes are almost as old as humanity. The “almost” is essential because “in the beginning it was not so…” The human heart is a forge for idols, and the idol that takes hold of the heart gets made with hands. When the Israelites want to worship another god in the desert they shortly make a calf of gold. Indeed, idolatry is a spiritual technology that solves an immediate problem but always creates a much larger eternal problem. But this does not mean that there is not a good spiritual technology which can reorient the technological making of man towards good and human ends.

Kryptos reads technology as “always the application of rationality. It is never organic.” He extends this critique to politics in any case where rationality is applied to running governments. Now we can sympathetically agree that there is certainly no technical solution to the problem of governance. But that is not the same as saying we should not have rational governance. Indeed the solution to many of the problems Kryptos runs into can be addressed if he were to wrestle appropriately with the question of what technology is and what humans are. 

Aristotle posits that humans are the rational animal, and also the political animal. Humans are, I am sure Kryptos would agree, also organic. The question is who has a vision that is more consistent with scripture, Kryptos or Aristotle? Well, it comes down to what you think technology means. Technology, etymologically, means making, and reformed people have long read the cultural mandate to “be fruitful” and “take dominion” to imply a commandment to beget and make. The question therefore is not about making as such but about what is made, and after what pattern. Is there a way to make that is consistent with the patterns of creation? A way to make which, knowing the limits of that which is human, also extends the space in which it is possible to be human? Perhaps a way of being human that extends into space itself?

In my latest book Made Like the Maker, I argue that the answer to this is a clear yes. I would welcome Kryptos, if he would like to engage me, to review the work. I share his enthusiasm for Ellul’s work on technology but I come out of that engagement in a radically different place. The human use of technology requires prudence and ultimately a receptivity to the grace of God. It may be a vocation which is fraught with danger (like, perhaps, that of a soldier) but it is one which some believers are called to. 

Perhaps an analogy is helpful. Kryptos, like many in the online Xian right, are highly skeptical of technology. They see technology in what they might consider Tolkienian terms. The Shire is simple and good because it is low-tech. There is a technician who has made a great evil ring and that great evil is about to take over the world if we don’t destroy the technology. But like most readers of Tolkien, Kryptos misses that there are other makers and other made objects. We have the image of the Gondorians who build cities of wonder and who are descended from those who made and preserved the Palantir. These seeing stones are a technical achievement that is being used for evil, but whose making is recoverable by those who have the right, namely the true king Aragorn. When Aragorn takes the Palantir he is righting an ancient wrong, and by resisting evil and using the technology rightly for good he accomplishes great deeds in the land. Perhaps like this, some Christians have an obligation to recover certain technical positions and certain techniques for the sake of the gospel and the world that God loves. There are other images which readers often miss. We can see the elves of the house of Elrond as they reforge Anduril; they are making. And it is this remaking of that which cut the ring from the hand of the evil one and which will lead the armies of light against Mordor. Perhaps some believers should be working away at the forges ensuring that the people of God have the weapons needed for the fights that are inevitably to come. Gandalf too is forging alliances among those who are willing and will listen. Politics and the use of language to persuade, to use stories to gather and inspire, requires a technical skill which is rational and to make alliances, and to make men stand their ground. Such techniques could be used for evil, but it is clearly not itself evil. Indeed by the end of the story we can see Frodo displaying the unity of just such vocal power, like Gandalf, united firmly to wisdom, justice, and mercy. If we were to learn this lesson from Tolkien more thoroughly we may, perhaps, produce coalitions that can not only win battles here or there, but can also govern institutions and lands so that they can be fruitful places for humanity to flourish.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Colin Redemer

Colin Redemer is Director of Education at American Reformer and Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a founder of the Davenant Hall graduate college and co-host of the weekly Ad Fontes Podcast.

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