The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

To See the Invisible: A Lenten Meditation on Technology

It’s become a thing: to give up a technology for Lent—Facebook, texting, the Interwebs, Twitter, and perhaps new this year, Pinterest. New media like these have blown onto the scene so fast that most of us still know for a fact that there was a time before them, even if we can’t remember what it was like anymore. And we can tell that the Internet is changing something even if we aren’t sure what. So it’s a thing: and so we fast.

We fast because life wasn’t always like this. The Internet has woven itself in, but we’re still conscious of it. We fast from it to keep from being consumed.

But other technologies got here before we did. So we don’t think about them as much as we think about Facebook or cell phones. Older technologies are harder to see. They’re just furniture. They’re kind of invisible.

Think about it. What would you do if you had to give up your wallet, your car keys, and your cell phone for one day? Could you do it? I don’t think I could.

Everyday, before I walk out the door, I have one essential routine. Often out loud, I check, “wallet, keys, cell phone.” I pat my pockets, feeling for each one. I make sure I have them on my person, in my pockets or in my hands. Those three invisible technologies I could not do without. Most people probably feel the same way. Wallet. Keys. Cell phone.

So, while we will choose to fast from Facebook this Lent, we probably won’t fast from our credit cards, our cars, or our communication devices. Why?

One reason is that they’ve become invisible to us. But there’s another reason: they’ve become essential, even assumed. (These two characteristics are linked—necessity and invisibility. The more we use a device, the less we think about our using it. It disappears like a habit, like the rearview mirrors in your car.)

So we can think about our technologies as inhabiting two camps: technologies of necessity and technologies of luxury. Facebook is a technology of luxury, so we still think about fasting from it. Cars are a technology of necessity, so we never give them a second glance.

Yet, today’s necessities were yesterday’s luxuries. 100 years ago, cars we a luxury item. Today it’s a necessity.

Cell phones turned this corner around 2000. Cars perhaps in the 1950s? And our wallets—well using a purse goes far back to ancient Greece or earlier, but at that time the purse may have contained real food, not just cash. Today’s wallet has abstracted food into its monetary equivalent. Our wallets defend us from going hungry.

All that to say, at some point technologies of luxury became technologies of necessity, and none of us exactly intended it to be that way. This trajectory is the norm for technology. One generation’s luxury is the next generation’s necessity. One generation’s pleasure is the next generation’s norm. Giving up the Internet up doesn’t just inconvenience us, but also others. So we might fast from everything but “essential Internet usage.”

Some people depend on technology more than others. If they’re over-dependant, we might say they’re “materialistic.” But materialism is actually a spectrum running from necessity to luxury: we are all on the continuum.

Still we must pay attention to the luxuries that become necessities. We must beware it’s not just the luxuries that can be our idols.

Yesterday’s elusive luxuries are today’s invisible necessities. And the smartphone headlines of today will be tomorrow’s light fixture. Our social networks will be our children’s networked lives. The cars created the suburbs; what is the smartphone making?

Lent is a season of seeing more clearly the things we depend on. It’s a season where we see ourselves more clearly, and God more clearly by contrast. It’s a season of repentance if we have eyes to see, and we are willing to look, really look. To see the invisible.

We can see our technologies of luxury, and it’s good that we want to fast from them. But God calls us to depend on him for all things. Does God want to meet your needs by providing you with technology? Or have we made technology to provide for ourselves? Even the good gifts, when we no longer recognize them and receive them as gifts, or when we no longer honor the giver—even the good gifts can become idols. Idols of wood and aluminum and glass and lithium-ion. We are still in danger of worshipping idols made by our own hands. We are still in danger of depending on them, and of believing that by them we have life.

Lord, have mercy.