Darren Wright on Technology and God

Looking for God, Neighbors, and Ourselves
Psalm 8, Luke 19:1-6, 21:1-2

I want to begin today by playing a little game. I’m going to read some
quotes and I want to see if you can guess what they are about.
A very well respected philosopher claimed this will surely “create
forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their
memories…they will be hearers of many things and will have learned
nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know
nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom
without the reality.”
-Socrates and Plato on writing

A Swiss scientist argued This new modern world will overwhelm people
with data confusing and harming minds with more than they are
capable of processing…it’s information overload
-Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner on the printing press in the 16th
century

A report in a medical journal feared this will “exhaust the children’s
brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and
ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” If done too often it
might even lead to madness.
-1883 article in a popular medical journal about the development of
formal schools and study

Another article in a magazine reports that children have “developed the
habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their
school assignments and this “compelling excitement” that will disturb
“the balance of their excitable minds.”
In 1936, the music magazine the Gramophone

If you guessed writing, the printing press, education, and the radio
congratulations. And the technophobia continues into the 21st century
as with the emergence of personal computers and smartphones we
were getting some of these lovely headlines:

CNN reported that “Email ‘hurts IQ more than pot’,” the Telegraph that
“Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values” and the “Facebook
and MySpace generation ‘cannot form relationships’,”

In the Atlantic the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” suggested the
Internet was sapping our attention and stunting our reasoning;
a Times of London article titled “Warning: brain overload” said digital
technology is damaging our ability to empathize; and a piece in
the New York Times titled “The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive?” raised the
question of whether technology could be causing attention deficit
disorder. 1

When Paul asked me to preach this Sunday he said he wanted to
continue our field guide for traveling through creation with a focus on
technology and how it might be impacting our lives and faith journeys.
He said I could use whatever text I wanted which initially sounded great
and quickly became a disaster because, unlike the shelf full of parenting
books sitting at our house, the Biblical text doesn’t have a lot to say
about screen time, or cell phones, or technology in general. I mean,
sure there’s those passages in Deuteronomy and the gospels about the
technology of the millstone but a sermon about millstones wasn’t quite
cutting it for me.

I thought about preaching from Exodus and Isaiah or maybe Romans
and talking about idols and all the ways technology and smart phones
have become idols, because that’s the easy route right…we all know we get caught up in these devices and sometimes want to throw them across the room…
but I crowdsourced the sermon with a group of youth at All Church
retreat and they very quick to point out how tired they are of hearing
how bad smartphones are and that they wished people would
remember all the ways smartphones and devices and technology
enable them, and all of us, to encounter God on a daily basis. And
they’re right.
So I landed on these passages from Psalm 8 and Luke,
the Psalmist writes “when I look at your skies, at what your fingers
made”…when I look and see what’s around me I see you God, I see you
in myself, I see you in others, I see you in all of creation…when I look
and pay attention I can’t help but see your beauty and glory and mercy
and grace, and it changes me

And in Luke 19 we find Zaccheus in a tree and Jesus is passing by and
the text says “he looked” and sees this man who others have
overlooked in this tree and invites him down so they can spend some
time together and Jesus comes away recognizing the image of God in a
man others had dismissed as a sinner

And in Luke 21 the text begins with Jesus looking and noticing people
offering their gifts and he sees a poor woman put in two small copper
coins and in that moment of humility and generosity he encounters a
holy glimpse of the kindom of God.

Each of these passages and so many more throughout the biblical
narrative highlight this way of noticing and interacting with the world
that looks more deeply and sees more clearly. A recognition that God is
constantly looking to break through into our world through the image  of God we see in ourselves, in our neighbors, and in creation all around us. God is looking to give us glimpses of who we are created to be and what we are created to do…those fundamental questions that give our lives meaning and we just have to find ways to look, and see, and notice. And our devices and technology often help us do just that.

When I was talking with the youth about this at all church retreat Anna
shared how just this past week her phone enabled her to connect with
Jimmy, a friend from a church in Florida who she met 2 years ago on a
trip working on homes through Appalachia Service Project and she
reminded me how a couple weeks after our ASP trip a pizza showed up
for her and Ethan at their house because Jimmy wanted to surprise
them. Jimmy used his smartphone to look up the closest pizza place,
then he used his phone to order the pizza and pay for it. Anna’s phone
and Jimmy’s phone, providing a way for them to see God in each other.
Looking more broadly smartphones are providing economically
impoverished and marginalized folks who don’t have a computer or
internet, access to jobs, social services, and social networks and care.

Smartwatches with built in heart rate monitors are showing
irregularities in heartbeats and saving lives like Austin Hardison, a 13
year old in Arizona, whose watch detected an irregular heart rate that
led his mom to take him to the hospital where we learned he had a rare
heart condition that needed immediate treatment. Smartphones and
computers are allowing doctors and nurses to provide remote care for
folks in rural areas. 2 Technology has empowered young people to
mobilize and organize around gun violence, climate change, and more.
It has empowered women to mobilize around the me too movement.
This device right here has a calendar that allows me to track all of our
youth birthdays and then I can use it to send them obnoxious birthday messages, it allows me to take photos and videos to capture and remember precious moments with loved ones, It’s a compass , a map, a method of payment, a video game system, a tv, a computer with internet access, an alarm clock, a radio, an emergency beacon, a
weather radar, a flashlight, a book, a calculator, a teacher, a tuner for
instruments, and that’s really just scratching the surface. When used
with intention and thoughtfulness these devices are part of bringing us
closer together…helping us see each other more clearly and care for
each other more deeply, helping us discover what makes us and the
world around us tick and providing us with myriad ways to be a part of
making the kindom of God a reality here and now each and every day.

And yet, it’s also important to recognize technology and computers and
smartphones, while holding tremendous capacity for doing amazing
things and adding value and meaning to our lives, also have the
capacity to cause tremendous harm and keep us from looking for and
seeing the image of God in the world around us and keep us from
discovering who we are created to be and what we are created to do.
We measure ourselves and others by views and likes. The average
person in the U.S. reaches for their phone over 110 times each day and
is looking at screens for 5 hours each day, not including their time at
work. Phones are the cause of 1 out of every 4 car accidents. Pictures
and messages that can cause harm for a lifetime can be sent in an
instant. The light from screens disrupts our sleep rhythms keeping us
from falling asleep and diminishing the quality of our sleep. Early
studies are showing prolonged activity on social media is directly linked
to increased depression and anxiety. Immediate exposure to the
negativity of news cycles and information is also linked to heightened
anxiety levels.

And while we can certainly use technology and computers and
smartphones in ways that mitigate and avoid these possibilities, we also would be wise to remember programmers and companies are creating content and using advanced analytics to create synapses and responses in our brains that directly lead to some of these negative consequences. Programmers are paid to create content and user
experience that releases endorphins and provides “jolts of pleasure in
some ways similar to the effects of drugs and gambling.”
And again looking more broadly, Tristan Harris, the co-founder and
director of the Center for Human Technology and a former design
ethicist at Google, explains the culture of google and other tech
companies operates in an attention economy where attention is money
and so, the goal is that at any moment, if reality gets dull or boring or if
people get hard to deal with or frustrate us, our phone or other
technology offers something more pleasurable, more productive and
even more educational than whatever reality gives
us…Our phone offers 5-second choices like “checking email” that
feel better than seeing and talking to the people next to you in line.
And it offers 30-minute choices like a podcast that will teach you
that thing you’ve been dying to learn, which feels better, or at least
easier, than that phone call or conversation you’ve been putting off.
And the hope and operative belief of tech companies is that this also
changes us on the inside as we grow less and less patient for people
and reality and it drives us to escape to our devices and screens where
we have the illusion of control and we can experience what we want
when we want and we miss out on what God might want for us and
where Got might be trying to show up in our lives.

Harris explains while the technology is not inherently bad what is at
stake with our use of it is our fundamental human agency as it is designed to direct our choices from persuasive menus driven by companies who have different goals than ours.  And he argues all of this that begs the question, “what are our goals?”
and how do we want to spend our time? And from an existential and
theological perspective I would extend that to say who are we created
to be and what are we created to do…and how and where does
technology align with and amplify or disrupt and diminish God’s dream
for us as creation and what impact might it have on our capacity to be
co-creators bringing about the kindom of God here and now?

Those are great questions, and perhaps a hard truth in the midst of all
of this is, all too often throughout history and continuing today we
devolve into righteous indignation and fear about technology and it
becomes what a clergy colleague of mind called a shame filled
scapegoat, in that blaming technology for our selfishness keeps us from
having to examine ourselves more deeply and see who God is calling us
to be and what God is calling us to do.

Those quotes from earlier show we are great at living in fear of
technology and blaming it for our individual and social ills.
But while it’s easy to blame technology the truth is the likes and views
and the escape and self-gratification we chase in social media and
technology are just a newer version of the likes and views and escape
and self-gratification Cain chased in his sacrifices to God and Joseph’s
brothers chased as they sold him into slavery and Samson chased as he
gave away the secret to his strength and Pilate chased in ordering the
execution of Jesus

But the good news for today in our field guide for navigating creation
with technology is the reality we don’t have to separate God from technology because in this attention economy we encounter a God who is present and crying out for our attention in whatever spaces we are willing to look for her. We find a God who knows they will be found whenever we are seeking to grow in love of God, and neighbor, and
ourselves, be it through Daniel and Michelle Lin, a brother and sister from our
Golden Triangle Fellowship who sat next to each other during our
closing worship last weekend and Daniel had his arm around his sister
and played with her hair throughout the service, or through Tish and I on vacation a couple weeks ago escaping some anxiety we were feeling and finding space to relax and enjoy creation by listening to an audiobook together while we hiked through the
White Mountains, or Nori a few weeks ago at youth telling me she needed to have her
phone with her because her friend was going through a crisis and she
was trying to be there for her, or the friends I sat with here in the church yesterday afternoon, 3 of us sitting in an office with another 3 conferenced in on a computer from
across the country and the world, participating in a Quaker practice
that helps someone discern clearness and calling or the circles gathered around several of our youth at all church retreat last weekend looking at them, calling out their gifts, laying hands on them and praying for them or a couple weeks ago sitting on the living room floor at our house enjoying a brief moment of quiet while Rowan and Finley played together I was looking at my phone reading the news and checking my
e-mail and trying to hold some semblance of adulthood and sleep deprived sanity and in the background I start to hear daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy look at this, daddy, daddy, and then Rowan comes up to me and puts her hands on my cheeks and pulls my face up from the phone and says daddy, look at me. And then she went over to
Finley who had the glass door opened on our tv stand and was playing
with our dvd player pressing the open button and smiling when the dvd
tray popped out and then watching with wonder as she pushed it and it
slid back in. And Rowan got on the other side of the glass door and put
her face against the glass…and then Finley looked over and smiled and
put her face against the other side of the glass and before long all 3 of
us couldn’t stop giggling as they made faces at each other through the
glass.
Maybe sometimes our technology and devices are just what we need to
help us live into who God has created us to be and what God has
created us to do, and maybe sometimes we need God to put their
hands on our cheeks and pull our faces up and say look at me…
so as we go out from this place today and throughout the next week
may we look, and pay attention, and notice, be it face to face or be it
seeing each other through our devices and technology, may we see the
divine spark that resides in ourselves and in our neighbors and in
creation, may we look for and find God and when we see that holy
presence may we be open to the ways it calls us closer to who we have
been created to be and what we have been created to do.

 

  1. Bell, Vaughn “Don’t Touch That Dial: A History of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook” Slate 2/15/2010 https://slate.com/technology/2010/02/a-history-of-media-technology-scares-from-the-printing-press-to-facebook.html
  2. https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/
  3. 3 https://online.king.edu/news/cell-phone-addiction/

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