New technologies are marketed to us in terms of what they can do for us, yet they commonly generate anxieties about what they are doing to us.
What at first looks like a tool has a habit of gradually turning into an environment in which our lives are refashioned.
We invent the automobile and transform not only our ability to go places but the layout of our cities, where we worship, our air quality, health, likely ways of dying, displays of status and pride, storytelling, and much more. We invent the portable phone and transform not only how we talk to grandma but how we sleep, navigate, remember life experiences, interact in public and private, gauge our self-esteem, and so on.
We have only the vaguest idea of the tree that will grow from the seed.
Anxiety about this process is hardly new. Listen to the education reformer John Amos Comenius worrying about how new technologies of his time were going to disrupt learning:
Finally, by what means do we transmit learning to our fellow-men? There was a time when wisdom was carried in men’s hearts, but today it has begun to be put into print, and hence it is confined to books and libraries and is rarely found in the thoughts, words, and actions of men. So many books are now available that no student could read one thousandth part of them in his lifetime, and they are so diverse as to put the steadiest of heads into a spin. Bookshelves are therefore more decorative than useful, becoming objects of vanity or sources of confusion if the reader persists in poring over all the contents. This accounts for the increase in badly-taught scholars or clever men who talk nonsense. The fact is that books are taught instead of people, or at least if people are taught, they are confused.
The disruptive technological innovation that worried Comenius was the invention of printing and the rapid proliferation of the hand-held devices known as books. He vigorously embraced the possibilities of books but also worried that they might actually undermine the pursuit of wisdom.
The fact that books now seem like the safe, traditional option, the bastion against shallowness, might serve as a reminder that prognosis of the ills and benefits of technology is tricky and that our formation, like our technological environment, is dynamic and complex. Even as we try to join the dots of what’s forming us, we find ourselves in the midst of a vast pointillist painting, with more dots than we can count.
Perhaps, then, our reflections on how technology is affecting our formation should be closer to hypotheses than calls to the barricades for or against each new thing.
Some colleagues and I spent several years engaged in close study of how digital technology was changing the culture and practices of a Christian school system. One major finding was the sense that the questions being asked by teachers and parents in their attempts to be responsible with technology choices often captured only part of the picture.
When we talked with parents, for instance, the concerns about school devices that dominated the conversation were familiar from wider public debate.
They worried about their children’s exposure to “internet bad things” — like pornography, violence, hate speech or harmful ideologies. In fact, our research suggested that the students in these schools, which were working hard to actively disciple students as responsible technology users, were doing better than their peers nationally, including their Christian peers, when it came to avoiding these things online.
Yet there was little mention of another, more ubiquitous behavior that we saw in classrooms and heard openly described by students in focus groups. As one administrator explained:
I was always surprised — every time we’d get a complaint about porn or that kind of stuff, I was always shocked that … I don’t think I one time fielded a complaint about materialism. And if the laptop truly degrades the Christian walk, I think materialism is a far greater danger to the vast majority of the Christian school crowd. And I caught — I don’t know how to say this right — we literally, in my time there, what, one time caught a kid with porn at school? The porn incidences almost always happen at off-site, off-campus. But catching kids shopping during class, all the time. Right? All the time.
Pornography was relatively easy to identify as a danger; the connection between digital devices, materialism and spiritual formation seemed less visible, perhaps because it builds in a more continuous way on existing trends in our own formation that are more socially acceptable.
Shopping sites show up less readily on our radar as “internet bad things,” yet we might wonder what kind of formation is happening when students in, say, Bible class are distracting themselves with shopping sites while the teacher is talking.
Another less visible but troubling trend between technology and formation had to do with efficiency.
Students and teachers alike named efficiency gains as a major reason for embracing new technologies. Laptops enabled faster writing and note taking, more efficient storage, and automation of time-consuming calculations.
At the same time, there were clear signs that the focus on digital efficiency strengthened a trend toward a task completion mentality that has been noted by past researchers in schools.
School culture all too easily fosters the sense that what teachers really care about is task completion — getting the task checked off rather than deep engagement and careful thought. This can undercut learning as shortcuts start to seem rational. Digital technology provides powerful shortcuts.
Many of the students surveyed said that school use of technology had encouraged them to copy answers from the internet without understanding them, to look for quick and easy answers to problems, and to skim texts when they knew they should be reading them.
They also indicated that the same devices had enabled them to research topics in more depth and go beyond what the teacher knew; positive and negative responses to the devices coexisted.
Here again, since efficiency presents itself to us as a positive value, we leap less instinctively from the promise of efficiency to concern about how we are being shaped by the way we use our devices.
Older technologies tend to be abandoned over time, seem obviously inadequate or harmful, or become invisible as we form practices that fully integrate them into our life patterns. New technological developments are more disorienting and therefore an opportunity for fresh reflection.
As we try to think about how our current technologies are contributing to our formation as human beings, as believers, as members of communities, focusing too firmly on some single point of alarm is likely to leave too much out of focus.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is noticing when technological change is not so much bringing some foul new enemy against the ramparts of our supposed virtue as it is reinforcing and amplifying the frailties and vices that have already become second nature to us.