The most important writing on technology takes place in the middle of major technological shifts. Before the new trends become so normal that questions are no longer asked and protests no longer raised, we need the perspectives of parents watching their kids adopt technologies barely conceivable in the days of their own childhood.
With the dawn of the digital age, a major technological shift is currently underway. Those of us who can still recall the pre-Internet dark ages need to be making observations and taking notes. If you once brought home a bulky answering machine from Radio Shack, created documents by way of typewriters, or enjoyed nightly entertainments in the glow of a cathode ray, then we need your wisdom: How is digital technology shaping and modifying society and culture?
More importantly, how is this new media culture, so in love with the little letter "i," informing our ideas about God and faith?
Craig Detweiler addresses these questions in his latest book, iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives. Though a tech-savvy communications professor at Pepperdine University, Detweiler remembers life before iPads, iPhones, Google searches, tweets, and status updates. He is among a growing number of Christian writers trying to assay the effects of the digital age by keeping a sharp eye on the technological transitions from clunky machines to gleaming handheld devices, from no Internet to Web 2.0 and beyond.
Detweiler expresses interest in "forging a theology of technology." What iGods provides, however, is not so much a Christian theology of technology but a Christian assessment of technology's theology.
Yes, technology can voice theological agendas. Though our modern scientific era may seem nonreligious (and even anti-religious at times), secular society often appeals to religious language when describing digital technology. Even though much of this spiritualized rhetoric is caricatured and tongue-in-cheek, it has a considerable impact on contemporary discourse. Opening a brand new package from the Apple Store can be portrayed as a sublime experience of worship. Surfing the Web can seem like an out-of-body ascent. Clicking Google's search button feels like consulting an all-knowing oracle. Tweets can be prophetic and status updates confessional. The release of Steve Jobs's "Jesus-Phone" was hailed as apocalyptic, and Jobs himself became iconic even before his untimely death. As Detweiler puts it, "technology has become an alternative religion. It has distinct values, celebrated saints, and rites of passage."
As media users, we need to acknowledge the possibility that these new technologies and their makers can demand an allegiance as totalizing as religious faith. In turn, our enthusiasm over the wonders they produce can translate into pious devotion. For these reasons, an uncritical embrace of digital culture and an unchecked loyalty to its values could constitute idolatry toward the "iGods."
Who (or what) are the iGods? For Detweiler, "a technology, a technologist, or the person bewitched by the power promised by the gadget" can all become deified. His primary interest, however, lies with the august pantheon of digital business magnates and their corporations: Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Apple's Steve Jobs, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. These hallowed names have been accorded godlike status in popular culture because they have engineered solutions to perceived technological problems: Apple made computers user-friendly and more aesthetic in design; Amazon enabled shoppers to sort through the endless products and offered personalized recommendations; Google made the flood of information on the Web searchable and more manageable; Facebook allowed us to connect with friends while we are shopping and searching in a fragmented society.
Detweiler takes us behind the screen and recounts the "creation narrative" of each company. What emerges is a complex description of a new religious system—the cult of technology—and a theological profile of its leading figures.
YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are not left out. Since they have offered no comprehensive solutions to major technological dilemmas, however, they are assigned the subordinate status of "demigods." These online utilities are more concerned with our divine status than with their own. In a participatory culture of user-based media, these companies grant us the means of deification. We can become immortalized, building personal platforms and creating an audience of followers.
Like many of us, Detweiler seems uncomfortable with this religion of technology. But he's certainly no digital iconoclast. Though absolutely clear that "technology cannot save us," he seems to find himself often sitting on the back row pews of technology's temple. At times he even seems inspired to move up a few rows, as when he "sings the praises" and "celebrates the wonders" of technology and social media. After highlighting the suspicious business attitudes and motivations of Apple and Google, he then presents them (to a limited degree) as pattern-shaping for the church.
This is not techno-religious hypocrisy, however, but a complicated honesty arising from the Christian vocation to know and engage one's culture. And to my mind, such tension is actually instructive. Embedded within technological processes are the conflicting dynamics of the human soul, crafted in God's image yet marred by sin. Though it often seems less risky to just reject all this newfangled digital stuff, the technological society is here to stay, and we need to venture into it faithfully.
Yet casting Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon as "iGods," frames an approach to digital technology that leaves us wondering if using and enjoying their products and services renders us de facto idolaters. Though Detweiler is critical of pop-culture's cultic language on technology, he often goes on to adopt that language himself. So we are left wondering if the digital age is inevitably an era of religious compromise. Detweiler's approach reminds readers that technology is so embedded within our lives that bowing to its altar is a real and present danger. But it raises questions of how we can use today's technology without selling our soul.
We are also left without a clearly defined theological vision for technology. The book itself is solidly written from the perspective of a rich theological tradition, but Detweiler does not detail the "robust theology of technology" he calls us to embrace. He does ask a lot of theological questions, though, and asking the right questions is an important way of doing theology. Where he excels most notably is in his careful, well-researched portrayal of the values and motivations behind the digital technologies so tightly woven into the fabric of our lives. By tracing the formation of the iGod institutions, his book constitutes "an active resistance to a thoughtless embrace." We're offered a theologically informed exposé of technological influences and a cautionary reminder that our media gadgets and their makers are far from neutral. Technology shapes us. And the technology of our day is continually insinuating that newer, faster, and sleeker are superior values.
Jesus just might have something counterintuitive to say about that. But in the meantime, Detweiler's book stirs us out of our awed fascination to hear our Lord's holy whisper amidst the techno-religious choirs.
Andrew Byers is a chaplain at St. Mary's College of Durham University. He is the author of TheoMedia: The Media of God and The Digital Age (Wipf & Stock).