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Deus ex machina: How to think about technology 

In March 1998, Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput hosted and co-chaired Newtech ‘98, an international conference on “The New Technologies and the Human Person:

Communicating the Faith in the New Millennium.” As a follow up, he examines some of technology’s opportunities and challenges in the October 1998 issue of Crisis magazine.  An advance excerpt follows.

BY MOST REV. CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP.

I. DANCING WITH CAPTAIN TRIPS

““A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?” — Neil Postman, Technopoly  “Think of it as dancing with Captain Trips.”  I had just asked a younger colleague how to think about technology. I ask a lot of people a lot of questions. It’s low tech, but it works. It’s a good way to learn.

“Captain Trips?”

“Yeah, like in the Stephen King novel.”

Captain Trips, it turns out, is the sardonic nickname for a virus that wipes out most of humanity in The Stand, King’s 1978 magnum opus. Genetically engineered in a U.S. biowarfare lab, it gets loose in an accident, kills everyone in the compound, then escapes into the general populace. It spreads too quickly to be contained. It mutates too rapidly for anyone to develop a vaccine. Within six weeks, it knocks out 90 percent of the global population, and civilization shuts down.

My colleague was being humorous, of course.

Technology is usually more benign than a killer microbe.  Most technological advances in this century have had positive applications, and our toasters and telephones are unlikely to turn on us. Nonetheless, the image of technology-as-virus is a useful one. New tools, once invented, have the habit of spreading in unintended ways throughout a culture. They change much more than the jobs they were created to do. Fire changed everything. Iron changed everything. Gunpowder, electricity, television — each in its turn changed everything, re-ordering our thoughts and behavior according to the new possibilities it presented. Or to put it another way: For an ideology like Marxism, locked in 19th-century mechanical assumptions about production and society, the transistor was especially bad news.

America, of course, is a market economy. And to succeed in such economies, companies must convince average folks like you and me that we need — in fact, urgently need — all sorts of products. This is why you and I need — in fact, urgently need — computers, cell phones, pagers, internet access, PDAs (personal digital assistants), scanners, DVD drives, call-waiting, call-forwarding, call-screening, call-blocking and those little “global locator” gadgets that tell us, within a few hundred yards, exactly where we stand on the face of the planet . . .gadgets, by the way, which use the same basic targeting techniques as some of our megaweapons. Most of us can’t surf the tidal wave of gizmos engulfing our daily lives, and so we find ourselves drowning in features meant to save us time.  But surely the worst quality about today’s technological revolution is its utopian boosterism. Otherwise serious thinkers routinely suggest that, in the glittering future, students will no longer be forced to endure the drudgery of research with books. They’ll simply hop on‑line at any hour to speak directly with scientists and political leaders on the other side of the world.

To my current audience of stubborn print-lovers, this may sound implausible — but it’s just plausible enough to appeal to Americans’ relentless hunger for the new, the better and the easier. And I might add: the redemptive. Americans have a deep and genuine religious sense, and a great Judeo-Christian heritage as a people. For many millions of us, God is a personal, vital presence in our daily lives. But we are also the pre-eminent toolmakers in history. That’s what we do best. We’re pragmatists. We see a problem; we create the tool to fix it; we market the tool; then we use the profits to make the tool better . . . or to find and fix other problems. As a result, we have a hard streak of practical materialism. We certainly want salvation, and we acknowledge that salvation is of the Lord — but for many of us, our tools function as a pretty good insurance policy, just in case. This is one of the reasons we’re so good at technology. We’ve learned, not unreasonably, to trust our own ingenuity, because it works.

Unfortunately, the construction crew at Babel felt the same. . .

 

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