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Technology, Culture, and Christianity

The commercial success of the Matrix franchise is em- blematic of a pervasive cultural curiosity about the nature and future of the relationship between technology and humanity. In The Matrix: Reloaded, the savior-figure Neo has a conversation with Councillor Hamman, one of the leaders of the last human city Zion. Neo and Councillor Hamman travel to the engineering level of the city, where Hamman observes, “Almost no one comes down here, unless of course there’s a problem. That’s how it is with people. Nobody cares how it works, as long as it works .… I like it down here. I like to be reminded this city survives because of these machines.”

Albert Borgmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, picks up on the heart of Hamman’s observation, that the central characteristic of contemporary culture is its technological nature. As a Christian, Borgmann wonders about the future of the Gospel within such a technological culture. “Perhaps underneath the surface of technological liberty and prosperity there is a sense of captivity and deprivation, and we may hope that once we understand technology more incisively and clearly, there will be good news once again” (8). Borgmann contends that the industrial and post-industrial culture pervasive in the First World represent a unique threat to Christianity, and that “making room for Christianity is in fact the most promising response to technology” (8). This is the task to which Borgmann turns in the body of his book Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology.

Borgmann is searching for the “heart of contemporary culture,” which he finds to be technology, and he therefore seeks to articulate the “philosophy of technology” (14). Borgmann sees the pervasiveness of high technology in the advanced industrialized nations as their defining cultural characteristic. It is the invisibility and opacity of such technology, its clean integration into all aspects of life in the industrialized nation, that Borgmann takes special notice of, as “nearly everything that surrounds a citizen of such a society … rests on a sophisticated and unintelligible machinery” (16).

Borgmann critiques the technological culture contending that the culture of technology has aggravated and enhanced a malaise of the human spirit, or at least has effectively concealed the reality of such a failing. “In the Gospels, poverty is the manifestation of human frailty. In poverty it is apparent that humans cannot through a sheer act of the will, through an effort that would owe nothing to anyone, secure their welfare” (103).

The situation of the biblical poor stands in direct contrast to the situation of the biblical rich. The rich “are favored with food and physical health and seem to possess and control the conditions of their wholeness” (103). Their apparent “self-sufficient security secludes them from real life, which is celebrated in gratitude and sharing, in the gladly accepted dependence on others, and in the willingness to have others take part in one’s gifts” (103). It is because of this situation that “it is difficult for the rich to be saved. They must, against their wealth, recognize their fundamental frailty and so become poor” (103).

The reality of human frailty that biblical poverty signifies is no less present in the modern technological culture, but its signification has become less clear and more fragmented. The great success of technological innovation is that “poverty as material deprivation and physical suffering is no longer a frequent human condition” in technologically advanced countries (103). It is this situation that Borgmann calls “advanced poverty,” the “concealed” spiritual poverty of the technological nations.

“Technology is the systematic eradication of profound poverty, and it is just that success that gives rise to advanced poverty. It is the accomplishment of unquestionable comfort and security that has all but paralyzed our capacity to help and to be helped and so to have part in the fullness of life” (106). This poverty is related to the situation of the biblical rich, as “advanced poverty, one might say, is a radically aggravated and universalized form of the condition of the rich of which the Bible speaks” (106).

Is the way then to make room for the Gospel to be found among the contemporary poor? Borgmann answers that it is not, because “the misery of the developing countries has lost its biblical profoundness too” (104). Because of the state of the technological countries, “global misery is no longer an essential sign of human frailty but a scandal, a cruel and unnecessary misfortune since the elimination of that misery is clearly possible, not only conceptually but in fact” (104). Because the elimination of poverty is technologically possible, “global poverty has attained, necessarily, I believe, a bitterness and brutality that make such poverty a difficult and contradictory setting for the promise of salvation” (104). This is in direct contrast to the theological approach, for example, of liberation theologians, who find direct parallels between what Borgmann calls biblical poverty and modern brute poverty.

The answer is not to decry all technological advances, therefore, and to pine for a pristine state of biblical pre-modern affairs. Technology that has a direct impact on alleviating human suffering should be celebrated and affirmed, although not necessarily unconditionally. “Surely God does not want us to court and suffer preventable harms. Our morally crucial circumstances are the exact mirror image of those that made for martyrs. Where theirs were overt, ours are concealed; where theirs were mortal to their bodies, ours are lethal to the soul; and where theirs tore them out of their normal life, ours channel our lives within the unquestioned banks of the technological culture” (114). The reform of the technological culture must therefore come in our everyday lives and the seemingly mundane choices we make daily.

Borgmann effectively uses an illustration of a person coming home from a long day’s work, “frazzled and spent” (114). The rest of the evening is spent engaging in a variety of technological distractions, from television, to e-mail, to video games. A scant few words are exchanged between family members as everyone eats at different times, engages in different diversions, and heads off to bed to prepare for a repetition of the same process the next day. Borgmann asks incisively, “has this been an un-Christian evening?” (114). He concludes that although no sins of commission have occurred, such an evening is rife with sins of omission. He concludes that “a life without grace or gratitude is un-Christian, not in this failing or that, but from the ground up. It has become incapable of redemption. This is not an all-or-nothing affair, of course. But the rising specter of irredeemability is stalking all of us” (115).

The positive and Christian course of action would be to engage the world of “focal things,” for all around us is “the world of personal engagements and engaging things ….” (115). Borgmann notes the possibilities for real personal engagement and fellowship are endless and critical to our well-being. “The things I have in mind are good books, musical instruments, athletic equipment, works of art, and treasures of nature. The practices I am thinking of are those of dining, running, fishing, gardening, playing instruments, and reciting poetry” (124). Such are the activities and things that contribute to the health and prosperity of the vital human person.

Borgmann does not take an uninterrupted path to this point, however. At the beginning he tends to emphasize the negative aspects of technology rather than also seeing human innovation as a good manifestation of the cultural blessing in Genesis 1:26. This can give the impression that Borgmann is working from some sort of romanticist, neo-Luddite conception of technology. In the end, this is not really the case at all, but his largely negative view of technology results from the nature of this book. It is a reactionary critique against the prevailing cultural mores, and it is difficult to write such a critique, constructive though it may be, without erring at some point on the opposite extreme.

Some of his conclusions, too, are highly problematic. For example, a community that embodies such emphasis on focal things and practices is called a community of celebration. Borgmann finds that “without public support, genuine communities of celebration will be impossible, and to secure such support appropriately is the task of communal politics” (58). Borgmann is all too ready to place the task of reforming technological culture within the purview of governmental legislation and oversight. This statement is representative of Borgmann’s general tendency to trust in a pervasively tolerant, politically correct notion of popular religious engagement.

Nevertheless, Borgmann’s analysis of the culture of technology is helpful insofar as it seeks neither to “demolish technology nor run away from it” (8). Instead, he attempts to displace the worship of technology from its idolatrous throne in industrial and post-industrial nations. Borgmann raises issues that often are not explicitly dealt with in contemporary public discourse, but tend to remain unexpressed and unarticulated by many Christians. Technology is not an unmixed blessing nor is it completely evil. Relegating the use of technology within its proper sphere and keeping technology from dominating every aspect of our lives is the right path to “restrain it and redeem it” (8).