My grandfather had a bad back. It’s something I’ve inherited, and I mark it an honor despite the pain and weakness. In the last decade of his life, his back grew so disjointed that he relied heavily on a cane to walk. And when he faced long distances or experienced a flare-up, he needed a wheelchair. Once, this included a trek to a mountain lake in Colorado. Our family isn’t one to leave people behind. We transport the party—even using a wheelchair on a gravel path if necessary.
His cane eventually became second nature. We perceive it as disability and weakness. You could spot it from a good distance, along with his limp. But my grandfather’s handshake would have surprised you. His bear hugs were sudden—eye-popping and deflating in a manner of speaking. Perhaps it was as much a matter of clutching you for balance as it was an embrace. Nonetheless, he had surprising strength. His wheelchair once went backward down some stairs. He was in it. But he caught himself on the handrail with that same strong grip.
So often the disabilities are apparent, while the strengths are hidden. The weaknesses can be identified at 50 yards, but the strengths are unknown outside a handshake or an embrace. The strengths, sometimes, can’t be seen at all.
Like a cane, technologies make up for our weaknesses. In my grandfather's case, a weak leg. The cane extended the strength in his arms, making one into another leg. But in doing so, it actually strengthened his arms too. And simultaneously, it probably weakened what muscle his leg did still have. Technologies work in a similar way, extending a strength to accommodate for a weakness, but probably amplifying those strengths and weaknesses at the same time.
In other words, technologies don't only magnify strengths, but they also magnify weaknesses. New technologies are rarely discussed in terms of what weaknesses they might incur. Because most technologies involve money, mentioning weakness is bad for business. But the more probable reason is that we don't yet know what their weaknesses will be. The weaknesses created or exaggerated by technologies aren't usually apparent at first. It's not usually as straightforward as a cane. Weakness happens over time.
The way technologies draw attention to strength and downplay weakness sounds familiar. It sounds like something I do. That's how I maintain my public image.
Yet, just a few paragraphs back I said it's often our weaknesses that are most apparent and our strengths that are hidden. Now I’m contradicting myself and I wonder which it is.
Or perhaps weaknesses are apparent in the natural man, while strengths are apparent in the technological man. So does technology run counter to nature in this sense? Do men cloak themselves in their technologies while underneath they are still weak men? Does weakness cloaked in strength really make a man stronger? Doesn't it only give him the power to make bigger mistakes?
The reason technological deficits are so hard to identify anymore is that most of our technologies extend mental capacities instead of physical ones. The electronic age isn't about shovels or guns or airplanes. It's about ideas and influence and intelligence. Technologies of the electronic age extend our neurons and synapses. They magnify some capacities and make them stronger. But they also shuffle strength away from other capacities, diminishing their strength. It's not only the electronic age that's done this, but the electronic age will be more thorough in it. It happened much earlier too, most notably when sounds became letters and we started using our eyes as ears.
As we sheath ourselves in technologies, continually shifting the proportions between eyes and ears, arms and legs—as an old strength becomes a new weakness and an old weakness is armed with new power—Jacob the patriarch comes to mind. When he met God and struggled with him and won, God didn't clothe Jacob in power and strength. He gave him a limp. Jacob could no longer run. He probably needed a cane to lean on.
And it was bad timing. Jacob would, that day, face his brother, Esau, whom he had betrayed. If ever there was a day to be ready to run, it was that day. He approached fearfully. But there was no recourse. Jacob might have been limping to his own execution.
For that day, God saw fit that Jacob should be weak. Maybe because weakness is humbling. Or maybe because weakness demanded that Jacob trust in God for the outcome. Maybe in weakness, God's power is seen more clearly. Or maybe God intended that Jacob be a sitting duck, that Esau be vindicated, and that Jacob's betrayal finally be brought to justice.
Jacob didn't know.
And like Jacob, we don't know what value there might be in our weaknesses—the weaknesses we cloak with technology. Technology has the lure of eliminating weakness. Fortunate for us, with all our armor, God can still disconnect the power.