The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Love Letters and the Unabomber

“Can technology be redeemed?” 

Orthodox Christians hold that the world is broken. But relatively few Christians consider how this brokenness extends to the technologies we use everyday. If they do, they’ll eventually begin to wonder, “Can technology be redeemed?” The answer, it seems, would be Yes. But, if we try to explain how, it gets tricky.

Most Christians tend to argue that redeeming technology means using technology for good and not ill. It means achieving positive outcomes and not negative ones. It means harnessing nuclear energy to power our homes, not to bomb our enemies. It means using the Internet to spread the Gospel, not pornography. This strategy is right and good—using technology for good and not ill—and it may in fact be part of what “redeeming technology” could look like. However, it cannot stop there. A more holistic approach must include a deeper understanding of technology’s impact.

Whether we use the Internet for the Gospel or for porn, we are still using the same technology. Apart from whatever outcomes we achieve, the practice itself changes us and our societies.

Take email for example. At one time, you sent letters by post. You could write love letters, or you could be the Unabomber. Good outcomes and bad. But it was the same technology. Now you use email instead, and you can likewise send love letters or computer viruses. Again, both good and bad.

But surely you’ve noticed that the letters we send have changed too. Some say the quality has gone down. What do we mean by quality? It could partly be quality of writing. It could also be quality of subject matter.

But it’s not merely a matter of quality. In quantity, the number of letters has increased. And this quantity may be linked to quality. Because we have more emails to write, we have less time to devote to each letter. We don’t have time to re-read them or edit them. Just type stream of consciousness and click Send.

And in terms of quality of subject matter, part of it may have to do with the immediacy of email. There’s no more waiting for news to arrive. No delays in information. With postal mail, you might update a friend about significant events since your last letter. With email, little thought is given to recent news anymore—only what is at hand is mentioned, if at all.

Thus, the practicesof letter-writing changed the contentof the letters we write. More letters means less time to write. More frequent letters means less time for worthwhile to accumulate. (The same dynamics are at work in the 24-hour cable news.)

Or consider group emails. With postal mail, an email thread would have been virtually impossible—to the point that no one really did it.

So even though we see email as the direct descendant of postal mail, their qualities are actually very different. They are hardly related at all. The style has changed. The content has changed. The sending and receiving has changed. All this before even getting to love letters and computer viruses. There’s a lot to talk about before we can even use words like “good” and “bad” to describe technology’s outcomes.

When we look at out habits first, we are better able to answer the real questions of good and bad. Is it good that we can “reply all” to one email thread? Is it good that we can forward a private letter with one impulsive click? Is it good that our letters are shorter, less thought out, less newsworthy? Is it good that our letters are always typed and never handwritten?

Those questions are harder to answer clearly. The changes are sort of good and also sort of bad. We kind of like these changes. And we kind of regret them. All in all, our society is changing for better and also for worse because of these changes. And these changes are changes in our habits, first and foremost, and our habits are changing because of our new technologies. So the Christian idea of “redeeming technology” isn’t as straightforward as we initially had hoped. It’s not a question of love letters versus the Unabomber. That’s only a lazy glance at the question. It does not look at the deeper habits and social impacts of the daily use of technology.

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