The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Technology Changes Us

Been meditating on a series of Os Guinness lectures from the early '70s I listened to a month ago; my favorite was an hour and a half devoted to Marshall McLuhan and his contribution to the intellectual milieu of the last century.

One of McLuhan's seminal ideas is that while man creates technology and uses it to change the world, he is also changed by it at the same time. Inventing the automobile enabled us to cross great distances more quickly and more easily, but using automobiles has changed our ideas about distance, and brought the destination to the fore and relegated the the journey itself to the backgound. Guinness says, "The invention of the electric light bulb abolished the distinction between night and day, the distinction between indoors and outdoors, and completely changed the face of Western culture." That is the "message" of the "medium" (to McLuhan, technology is media) of the lightbulb, quite apart from specific day-to-day uses of it.

I experienced this when I could finally afford to buy a CD player. Using a CD player changed the way I listen to music. When all my music was delivered to me from cassette tape, it was annoying to have to hit the fast-forward button to skip a song I didn't want to hear. I sometimes declined to purchase an album if there were only two or three songs on it I wanted to hear, because I didn't want to be bothered having to dub the wanted songs to another tape (resulting in loss of sound quality). With CD technology, it's much simpler, just a press of the button to skip a song; I now will buy an album for the sake of a couple of songs. Plus I found that I could shuffle and randomize the songs, to increase the surprise factor, thus increasing the pleasure of the musical experience. And now thanks to MP3 technology I can put most of my music on one CD and shuffle the whole bunch.

I've always been interested in this idea, and I wonder what changes have been made in the way we see the world, as we use our most commonplace technologies. Sit on the couch and channel-surf; what training are you giving your brain as you do so? See; want; buy; pay later: the credit card becomes another nail in the coffin for the endangered species of virtue known as delayed gratification. Read an email, hit Reply, dash off a scathing rejoinder, hit Send, wake up with regrets the next morning... there was something to be said for the process of getting out paper, sharpening the quill, dipping it into the inkwell, and scratching out a reply, which could be reworked or p.s.'d before the postman came for it.

And the other thing that interests me about this--what is the Devil's role in all this? I'm sure he's not just sitting by idly. After all, he really hasn't forsworn his original temptation, which was to upgrade. He is not very original that way. And what is a Christian to do? I think we can all agree that the Luddite answer is not the way. How do we use our wealth, our power, our knowledge, without in turn being corrupted by them?

First approximation: The world says, "Use people, love things." God says, "Love people, use things." The Devil says, "Upgrade, and you will be as gods." God has cursed the upgrades so that they don't work as grandly as advertised, and that is a mercy, because we are not in fact gods; thus in our frustration we cry out for help, and "get back from exile, and grow man," as C.S. Lewis put it in "As The Ruin Falls:"
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.


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