Monday, November 30, 2020

Book Review: iGods - How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

A major issue faced by Christians is how to think about technology. We often rush to demonize or canonize things about which we understand little. The more acute forms of the technology question usually come from the realm of bioethics. For example, what will more advanced artificial intelligence mean for medical care? There are major questions about what should be done in the interest of disease research (e.g. embryonic stem cells) and treatment (e.g. search and destroy nanobots for cancer).

To a lesser, but highly visible extent, consumer technologies present us with many puzzles. These are the technologies we use in our daily lives. Many are more services than goods and initially stand more in the ‘nice to have’ camp versus ‘need to have’. Yet, we find they quickly move to an essential status for various reasons. 

We often hear that too much screen time on digital devices causes overstimulation and lack of focus, yet these devices are now so ubiquitously integrated into our daily lives that parting with them is conceptually impossible. You might as well tell someone to amputate their right arm (or head).  We feel a little uneasy about how much we rely on Google or our smartphones. Do we really know much of anything anymore? I mean, raise your hand if you can competently use a Rand McNally Atlas. I’m guessing that only people over the age of 40 have their hand up (or maybe even know what I am talking about!). Maybe geography is not a good proxy, but you probably know what I mean. It is hard to unplug. But the pesky why questions come up, and when they do most of us prefer to kick the can down the road. Some answers are just not on a Google search or a Quora post. And it has become quite convenient to leave the "why" and "what for" to someone else while I pull up my DoorDash app and listen to more streaming music on Spotify. 

In this book, Craig Detweiler asks us to take a step back from our devices and…think. Yes, the actual human act of engaging our moribund intellects without outside algorithmic assistance. Yes, to think without first genuflecting to the streaming ticker at the bottom of the news channel, website, app, or push notification. The reader is challenged to carefully consider how consumer technologies act upon us and what spiritual, cognitive, and behavioral changes follow.

Although a book from 2013 can seem outdated in our Jetsons meets 1984 era, I found it to be relevant and beneficial in many respects. Since the dawn of time, technology has shaped the lives of humanity. A major tailwind for this book is the way Detweiler circles the wagons around a working definition of technology (Chapter 1) that holds up well throughout the book and bears close scrutiny. It is more than gadgets and viral videos. Detweiler connects the reader with the techne of the ancient Greek thinkers and those before and after them who created and cultivated things toward the goal of harnessing, predicting, or controlling aspects of the world to facilitate some form of human flourishing.

The author nicely interweaves themes from the Genesis 1 ‘dominion/subdue’ mandate and Genesis 2 work directive. He also brings an important eschatological perspective into the fold, reminding us that there is a telos (end, objective) to technology that is beyond itself, and encouraging us to explore what that might be.

iGods provides helpful profiles on the history and business model(s) of four major consumer technology companies. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Detweiler also briefly covers YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. A return to basics helps us to know more precisely what these companies do that adds sufficient value to command so much web and headspace, not to mention money. If you have ever wondered how Facebook became so popular, you will find some good starting answers here. If you are really interested, you can dig further into some of the abundant source material provided in the endnotes (some of which might be a bit dated).

The personal and theological implications of these technologies in our lives is helpfully explained throughout. I especially appreciated the concluding chapter, which tied the previous analyses together nicely when they seemed to otherwise be quite siloed. It would have been helpful to read more on how a parent might approach technology, offering ideas to handle the constant dilemmas we face about screen time, content filtering, and gaming. The latter of these was a bit of an oversight in its absence from the book. Gaming is of course now an 800 lb. gorilla in the digital world, with Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite and the like gobbling up server space and bandwidth at a breathtaking pace.

Detweiler seems to just barely glance upon some of the issues creeping up from the underbelly of digital consumer technologies. For example, the ease with which illicit content can be made and disseminated is not sufficiently covered as a perilous downside. Perhaps these issues were beyond the scope of the book. From a Christian standpoint, we must acknowledge that sins made easier by technology can be that much more insidious. Further, there is an important question about how much moral culpability a company might have in making such material available and profiting from it, directly or indirectly.

This book is worth reading and would be especially helpful for Christian parents and those in ministry who face the constant dilemma of how to reach more people for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in a digital age. Read it with an open mind, though perhaps not on a Kindle or iPhone.

 iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

By Craig Detweiler

2013. Brazos Press

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