Deus ex Machina: How to Think About Technology

“Think of it as dancing with Captain Trips.” I had just asked a younger colleague how to think about technology. I ask a lot of people a lot of questions. It’s low tech, but it works. It’s a good way to learn.

“Captain Trips?”

“Yeah, like in the Stephen King novel.”

Captain Trips, it turns out, is the sardonic nickname for a virus that wipes out most of humanity in The Stand, King’s 1978 magnum opus. Genetically engineered in a U.S. biowarfare lab, it gets loose in an accident, kills everyone in the compound, then escapes into the general populace. It spreads quickly, mutating too rapidly for anyone to develop a vaccine. Within six weeks, it knocks out 90 percent of the global population, and civilization shuts down.

My colleague was being humorous, of course: Technology is usually more benign than a killer microbe. Most technological advances in this century have had positive applications, and our toasters and telephones are unlikely to turn on us. Nonetheless, the image of technology-as-virus is a useful one. New tools, once invented, have the habit of spreading in unintended ways throughout a culture. They change much more than expected. Fire changed everything. Iron changed everything. Gunpowder, electricity, television— each in its turn changed everything, reordering our thoughts and behavior according to the new possibilities it presented. Or to put it another way: For an ideology like Marxism, locked in 19th century mechanical assumptions about production and society, the transistor was especially bad news.

America, of course, is a market economy. And to succeed in such economies, companies must convince average folks like you and me that we need all sorts of products. This is why you and I need—in fact, urgently need—computers, cell phones, pagers, Internet access, PDAs (personal digital assistants), scanners, DVD drives, call waiting, call forwarding, call screening, call blocking, and those little “global locator” gadgets that tell us, within a few hundred yards, where we stand on the face of the planet … gadgets, by the way, that use the same basic targeting techniques as some of our megaweapons. Most of us can’t surf the tidal wave of gizmos engulfing our daily lives, and so we find ourselves drowning in features meant to save us time. But surely the worst quality about today’s technological revolution is its utopian boosterism. Otherwise serious thinkers routinely suggest that, in the glittering future, students will no longer be forced to endure the drudgery of research with books. They’ll simply hop online at any hour to speak directly with high level scientists and political leaders on the other side of the world.

To my current audience of stubborn print-lovers, this may sound implausible—but it’s just plausible enough to appeal to America’s relentless hunger for the new, the better, and the easier. And I might add: the redemptive. Americans have a deep and genuine religious sense and a great Judeo-Christian heritage as a people. For many millions of us, God is a personal, vital presence in our daily lives. But we are also the preeminent toolmakers in history. That’s what we do best. We’re pragmatists. We see a problem; we create the tool to fix it; we market the tool; then we use the profits to make the tool better … or to find and fix other problems. As a result, we have a hard streak of practical materialism. We certainly want salvation, and we acknowledge that salvation is of the Lord—but for many of us, our tools function as a pretty good insurance policy, just in case. This is one of the reasons we’re so good at technology. We’ve learned, not unreasonably, to trust our own ingenuity because it works.

Unfortunately, the construction crew at Babel felt the same. That’s why learning how to think prudently about technology is so important. Scripture teaches us that human will and intelligence are gifts from God. It also repeatedly warns us about the consequences of pride. It’s easy to make fun of the hucksterism behind today’s culture of consumer electronics. But no one can argue with the astonishing revenues it generates, or how rapidly these new technologies are penetrating and transforming family life and the workplace.

Something dramatic is happening. What we’re witnessing is a seachange in society as radical as the one wrought 500 years ago by the printing press. And just as the printing press became, in an unintended but powerful way, the engine of the Protestant Reformation—spreading tracts and vernacular Scripture throughout Europe on an unprecedented popular scale—so too will today’s new technologies in communications and other key fields change our vocabulary, our habits of thought, and the way we organize our commerce, education, and social institutions. It’s already taking place. By the year 2000, Americans may make $3 billion in online purchases every year, a figure that will continue to grow. But the revenue impact on traditional stores and marketing is only the most obvious side-effect. New types of data collection, lifestyle monitoring, advertising, and fraud emerge and increase. And the war between government and corporate encryptors, on the one hand, and hackers, on the other, is now fought twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The posture of the Church toward these new developments is best summed up in the 1992 Pontifical Council for Social Communications document, Aetatis Novae (Dawn of a New Era), which notes that “… today’s revolution in social communications involves a fundamental reshaping of the elements by which people comprehend the world around them and verify and express what they comprehend…. All this has striking pastoral implications…. [T]he power of the media extends to defining not only what people will think, but even what they will think about. Reality, for many, is what the media recognize as real.” The council goes on to stress that the Church sees today’s new tools of communication as enormous opportunities to serve persons and cultures; to conduct fruitful dialogue with the world; to enhance human community and progress; to serve ecclesial communion; and to advance the New Evangelization.

But the stakes in all this, from the Catholic point of view, remain pretty simple: human souls. The Church has the task to preach the Gospel and teach the faith, and in the process, to lead women and men home to eternal life. In other words, to save souls. For all of the tremendous benefit found in today’s new technologies, they also come with a shadow in the shape of Captain Trips. Nothing captures the peril of our age better than a recent comment by one of the young geniuses of the current newtech revolution. “Since we are going to be gods,” he said, “we might as well start acting like ones.”

I suggest we carefully ponder those words—and the consequences for all of us if they ever become the credo of our genetic and biological research.

Have I Got a Deal for You

Knowledge is power. —Francis Bacon

Business guru Peter Drucker likes to describe the United States as the first genuine “knowledge society” in history, a nation where “knowledge is becoming the true capital and the premier wealth-producing resource” of its people. Few would dispute that American dominance of the mass entertainment and news media, telecommunications, and the computer and software industries accounts for much of the power which the United States exerts globally. Carrier battle groups make good news footage, but the real weapon of mass coercion is Happy Days in syndication.

America is living proof of Francis Bacon’s 500-year-old dictum that knowledge is power. In an age of information—an age when, according to one Adobe Systems software executive, we’re doubling the volume of information we produce annually—it’s certainly good for business that most of the information is made in, or at least shaped by, the U.S.

But before we get too satisfied with ourselves, we should remember that every benefit has a cost. All knowledge comes with strings attached. Knowledge may be power, but it’s not the same as moral character. Today’s science and technology, after all, have an ambiguous family history. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis reminds us that, “The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: One was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.” He continues that, “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: The solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious….”

Lewis goes on to compare Bacon, the earliest spokesman for today’s “knowledge societies,” with Marlowe’s bargain-hunting Doctor Faustus. He finds the resemblance striking. “You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge,” Lewis writes. “In reality, he hardly mentions it. It’s not truth he wants from his devils, but gold and guns and girls….”

“In the same spirit,” Lewis adds, “Bacon condemns those who value knowledge in itself: This, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work, but his goal is that of the magician.”

Unfortunately, as we never seem to learn, “extend[ing] Man’s power” can lead in some brutal directions. Recently the New York Times reported that Dutch police had discovered a ring of traders in child pornography “whose images of abuse of even babies and infants were peddled over the Internet” to clients around the world. According to a psychologist consulting with police on the case, “For professional reasons, I have seen a lot of such porn, but this left me speechless. It looks like the perpetrators are not dealing with human beings but with objects.” Cyberspace has already become a vehicle for pornography that is unrivaled for its volume, diversity, and shock. Smut, however, is only one of the problems with the new technologies we’ve created. It’s also not the only way these tools can turn human beings into objects.

Technology now enables government, business, and just plain snoops to acquire more information about each of us than ever before in history. In a nation that justifies abortion on demand with a “right to privacy” cult, we now have almost nowhere to hide from electronic and other forms of monitoring. As privacy erodes, so do silence and rest. A recent cover story in one of the major Sunday magazines bore the title: “Business class as a way of life.” Advances in transportation and communications have drastically speeded up the pace of corporate life, it reported, with the result that “[t]he borderless economy has created a new elite of glazed nomads with all their needs catered to—except those that really matter.”

In abolishing distance, however, technology has also impacted our sense of time, place, personal identity, and perspective—and not just for business executives, but for everyone. Within the last year we’ve seen the first reported cases of Internet adultery leading to divorce. Sherry Turkle, in her disconcerting book Life on the Screen, chronicles how the “windows” metaphor of our computer screens—where multiple projects can be pursued at the same time—subtly fractures our sense of the unitary self. In addition to RL (real life), I can now be two, three, or twenty different identities of either sex or any species, depending on how I want to present myself online in any of a thousand MUDs (multi-user domains; i.e., alternative cyber-realities).

The newtech revolution also raises serious new justice questions. In an information society, those who have access to the right information at the right time with the right tools, win. Those who don’t, lose. As a result, the poor risk being marginalized even further, because they frequently can’t afford the computers and other educational tools needed to gain entry to vital knowledge.

Especially troubling, however, is the hostility for the organic that so much of today’s “culture of simulation” seems to harbor. The body isn’t good enough. Nature isn’t good enough. And pretty soon the human person won’t be good enough. It’s a time of curious contradictions. Catholics, who so often get caricatured for being “against the body,” believe in a God who became flesh and redeemed creation by living and then dying on a rough wooden cross for us. It doesn’t get more material than that. God made the physical world, and it’s good. Christians aren’t the ones fleeing it.

Or to put it a different way: It’s enough for me to know that the “Mona Lisa” exists, is beautiful, and has been loved for its artistry for centuries—even though it’s housed 6,000 miles away in a museum I may visit only once or twice in my lifetime. I’m grateful that it’s “greater” than me; more memorable than me; older than me; and likely to be around and revered long after I’m gone. I could buy it on CD-ROM, call it up in Photoshop anytime, and manipulate it a hundred different ways on my computer. That would certainly demonstrate the new “democracy of information.” But it would miss the point.

Esau Redux: Hanging on to Our Birthright

Technological optimism means, in practice, the ability to recognize bad surprises early enough to do something about them. —Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back

So, here we are at the end of the millennium. We’re beginning to glimpse some of the significant problems that tag along with the new technologies. The question is: What are we going to do about them? One thing we can’t do, I suggest, is run. We can’t get away from today’s technology revolution, because it’s part of the very fabric of our world—and anyway, we shouldn’t try. I observed earlier that every benefit has a cost. But in tallying up the cost, we mustn’t lose sight of the benefits, and there are many.

Anyone familiar with children who have Down syndrome—or other people with physical or developmental challenges—soon sees that technology can have a transforming effect on the way they learn and communicate. Sometimes these people are literally powerless, immobile, or speechless until they encounter computers and other electronic assistive tools. Nothing gives more glory to God than human ingenuity in the service of others.

Moreover, despite today’s information overload, we should acknowledge that the new communications tools have increased public discussion and access to knowledge in dozens of ways. More and more parents have, in fact, watched their children do marvelous research assignments through the Internet. Global online friendships and work collaborations are now routine. International online “communities” grow up around issues and common experiences, like home-schooling. Anyone can publish anything at any time—and while this clearly has a downside, it also has great potential for evangelization and catechesis.

In a geographically huge diocese like Denver, for example, which runs from Utah to Kansas, why can’t we deliver at least some of our biblical school, catechetical school, and diaconal formation coursework online? For that matter, why doesn’t the Lateran or Angelicum offer some form of distance-education on the Net? (It might even generate revenue.) Dario Cardinal Castrillon—prefect of the Congregation for Clergy and one of the Vatican’s own newtech visionaries—has even suggested a global electronic library to assist in the education of priests and seminarians. It’s still true that coursework delivered at 28.8 kps can be laborious—but the bandwidth available to the masses is growing rapidly and exponentially. Two years from now, 28.8 modems may very well be Dark Ages artifacts.

Finally, we can’t overlook the fact that some elements of this revolution have the capacity for genuine beauty. DaVinci and Michelangelo used oil and brushes. Today those brushes are software programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, PageMaker, and Acrobat, and the preferred canvas is charged electrons. But the results—ingenious beauty—can often be the same. And there are many, many more young artists who are enabled to create beauty, or at least to try, because of these astonishing electronic tools.

During the last days of the Nixon administration, the satirical magazine National Lampoon published a phony news story in which President Nixon admitted he knew about the Watergate break-in, but claimed he didn’t know he knew. It was a joke of course, but twenty-five years later, in the midst of an information tsunami, most of us know all sorts of things we “don’t know we know.” And we don’t want to know what we “don’t know we know”… because we can barely handle what we know we know.

Confused? If so, take heart, because in that confusion is a lesson about the danger and the opportunity that lie before us. God made the human person for the dignity of freedom. Americans built a great nation on freedom, and we still love freedom’s vocabulary. Our marketing campaigns are filled with it. But freedom is hard. It implies responsibility. In our fascination with technology and the comfort and power it brings, we risk gradually replacing substance with fantasy; principles with products; real freedom with an idolatry of choices—choices that become distractions, and then become our chains.

As I write these words, I have on my desk a full-page Cobalt Microserver advertisement from the July 13 issue of the Internet newspaper Inter@ctive Week. A fetching young woman holds some sort of computer in her hands over the headline, “Lust for power.” The text reads, in part: “It’s no sin to crave the pleasure of extreme performance…. Free yourself from the bonds of human compromise. Visit our web site to win your heart’s desire.”

This sounds like a Doctor Faustus deal to me. Or one for Esau, who sold his birthright to feed an appetite—with a bowl of stew. We can’t afford that. The Church can’t afford that. It would be easy to end this article with a call to bishops, priests, Catholic schoolteachers, and catechists to become more technologically literate (not a bad idea); or for parents to show more vigilance over how their children use these new tools (also not bad); or for all of us to reflect, discuss, and pray more deeply about how these new tools will influence what we think and how we think (maybe the best idea of all). But ultimately the noise and confusion of our age aren’t so new. They’re a smokescreen to turn us away from the same simple task that has always faced the Church: bringing Christ to the world, and the world to Christ. The world today, as in every age, urgently needs to hear the Gospel. It urgently needs us to hang onto to our birthright as missionary sons and daughters of the God who made us all.

Only God is God. We won’t find our deliverance in machines. Tools won’t give us meaning. We need to understand them and respect them for what they can accomplish. But as a people—and especially as a people of faith—we will either use them to preach and teach Jesus Christ. Or they will use us.


Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the Archbishop of Philadelphia.

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