Article Mar 8, 2017

Losing our humanity: Technology's increasing authority in our lives

As February came to a close, there was a far-reaching event that few noticed. It wasn’t the Oscars, or even the President’s first address to Congress. Amazon S3 web servers went down, which is a much bigger deal than might be expected. These server outages primarily affected the East Coast, but the implications reached farther.

Amazon S3 web servers host many websites and services including ERLC.com, Wix, Apple’s iCloud.com, Netflix and Hulu. These same servers also run many popular and increasingly critical apps like IFTTT, Slack and YNAB. They also help control Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, Google’s Nest thermostat and other home automation functions. While the servers were only down for a few hours, it caused lingering headaches.

As we increasingly become tied to the internet by utilizing tools like social media, cloud-based storage and control, the Internet of Things (IoT) and online entertainment, this outage is a needed reminder of our increasing dependency on technology. As a result, it’s important that we think critically about how to engage with technology. Here are a few thoughts to get us started:

1. Technology is a good gift from God

Modern advancements in technology have contributed great things to our culture and society. For example, countless lives have been saved through the use of medical technologies, such as the ability of an ultrasound to show us life within the womb and light bulbs that can disinfect and kill bacteria in hospital rooms. These advances are just the beginning. In just 50 years, we are able to do things and connect with people across the world in ways that our grandparents never would have dreamed.

The development of technology is a good gift from God and is one of the many hallmarks of being created in the image of God. Human beings alone are given the ability to reflect our Creator by using the things around us to cultivate and create technologies for the good of society. We are able to take dominion over creation and cultivate it for the advancement of society. For example, humans have learned how to harness the power of water to create electrical energy, channel that electricity through power grids that light up our homes and businesses, then use that electricity to automate our homes using the Internet of Things (IoT) through devices like smart thermostats. Moreover, we use technology to monitor our homes on our smartphones from almost any location.

These advances should remind us how richly blessed we are as a people. We should try to take a step back, remember how amazing it is to be part of the technological revolution and worship God for his creativity and provision. After all, he’s the one who has given us the intellectual faculties that are able to create for the benefit of society.

2. Our dependency on technology comes with dangers

While technological advances are a great gift from God, they can and will be abused because we are broken and sinful. We have the innate ability to take the good that God gives us and manipulate it in an attempt to glorify and set ourselves as gods over our lives.

As a society, we are increasingly becoming dependent on these technologies to the extent that we aren't able to live without them. Our addiction to social media and our smart phones isn’t the only area of temptation. With the rise of the IoT and smart devices, we now have the option to set things and forget about them. We can automate simple things like turning on/off lights at certain times of the day or have our news curated for us by our digital assistants. When some of the Amazon S3 servers went down, some people complained about not being able to get into their houses or workplaces. While some of the situations are comical, I think, in many ways, we have become so dependent on technology that we don’t even see the dangers.

Yuval Harari sheds light on the implications of technology and our dependence on it in his new work, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He was recently interviewed in Wired magazine about this new book and gave the example of someone using Google Maps or Waze for directions. He states, “On the one hand they amplify human ability—you are able to reach your destination faster and more easily. But at the same time you are shifting the authority to the algorithm and losing your ability to find your own way.”

For the first time in human history, we have created things that have the ability to usurp the authority and dominion given to us by our Creator. Whether it's big data or technology with human characteristics like the ability to learn, we are facing the temptation to give over our authority to our creation and lose part of what it means to be human. Technology, while a great gift from God, can easily devalue and dehumanize us.

Not only are we becoming so dependent on technology that we lose the ability to do things for ourselves, but we are also becoming so connected to our technology that a server glitch can wreak havoc on our lives to a great extent.

So, what should be our response when faced with these truths about the goodness and dangers of technology?

Recognize limitations: We need to acknowledge the limitations of technology and guard ourselves from making them our own demi-gods that control various aspects of our lives and take away part of our human identity. We must keep our minds set on the fact that God is our Creator and Sustainer. Technology should not control us or take away our ability to do things for ourselves, unless it’s something vital to our protection or health. One practical way of remembering this is to take a technology break every once and awhile—totally disconnecting from our phones, IoT and watches. Take an afternoon to go for an extended walk with friends or family, making it a point to remember who you are in light of who God is as you enjoy the display of his majesty in nature. These breaks can help reset our hearts and minds and help us to keep things in perspective.

Seek accountability: Talk with friends or your spouse about how you engage with technology and ways that you can live a more balanced God-honoring lifestyle in regards to technology. These simple conversations can open up areas that you might have been blind to and allows you to have real human interaction undeterred by technology.

As one who loves technology, I’m keenly aware of the need to be wise and think through the pitfalls and dangers that we’ll increasingly face in this age of technology. Internet outages and downed servers are not common, but they provides us with an opportunity to think about how to prepare ourselves—ethically and relationally—to navigate the increasingly complex technological days ahead. Our technology will fail us. It’s not infallible or permanent. We must seek to maintain a proper relationship with it, lest it take over areas of our lives and take away, little by little, what it means for us to be human.