Friday, September 23, 2016

Technology, Us and Two Brilliant, Representative, and Antiphonal Voices

As I’ve written many times, technology can take us in both positive and negative directions. And there are brilliant voices for each.
First of all, consider the work of Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller MauzĂ© Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Now that’s an impressive title!) She wrote one of the definitive early books on Artificial Intelligence, The Second Self and has moved in an more concerned, even at times distressed, direction in her books, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from EachOther (2012) and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talkin a Digital Age (2015). The latter emphasizes how technology invades and prevents true human community and gets in the way of authentic conversation and empathy.
I’m not always sure that technology and education always mix well together. Turkle would agree—she is, for example, fairly relentless, and simultaneously quite thoughtful, about the problems of distance learning. (MIT apparently tried all this out quite early, and she's not impressed.) I suppose I could summarize her by saying that human relationships, and thus teaching, are messy. And that's good—because, through the messiness, we learn invaluable skills. And tech can interrupt education in other ways. In my hometown,
there’s a phone app developed by Chico State grads, PocketPoints, which rewards its users if they turn off the phone during college classes. I have a friend—a younger friend at that—who visited my college classes and cannot help but notice that, during a quick stretch break I usually offer my students in the middle of lectures—the students quietly text their friends or check their social media instead of meeting the people right in their vicinity. He’s rather blunt at this: “Why wouldn’t these guys want to meet some of the beautiful women that surround them?”
Indeed. It’s probably because they feel anxious, more comfortable “connecting” virtually instead of in real time, with real people. And—though I doubt this is true in my classes—they’re probably a bit bored. Boredom and anxiety—that potent combination which together make the German word angst and the French version ennui—propel us toward our cell phones like the proverbial moths to flame. The little shot of dopamine that’s released as we are stimulated by the new scream has addictive qualities. And so we continue. And so it is particularly with emerging adults, who were given screens to quiet them as fussy babies. Such earlier training is sticky and recalcitrant. This persistent use of technology can lead to anxiety—for example, “cell phone addiction”—and emerging adults would seem to be the most vulnerable.
A moment ago I mentioned Turkle’s defense of the messiness of community. (“Messiness,” by the way, is my word, not hers.) Conversations in real time with real people can’t be manipulated to the same degree that virtual interactions can be. “One new manager at HeartTech, the large software company in Silicon Valley, moved there so he could leave engineering and try his hand at management. ‘I left my previous job because it was too predictable. I wanted to work with unpredictable systems [here he means people].’” She summarizes this by asserting that we must
 “Challenge a view of the world as apps”
—that some app on our smart phone leads us toward a seamless solution to all problems. “The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results. But human relationships are unpredictable, chaotic, and complex—that’s what makes them both frustrating and exultant.
This “app thinking” can affect us relationally and spiritually. To take it up a metaphysical notch, our relationship with God is messy and unpredictable. The eternal, sovereign, God of the Bible cannot be managed. As C. S. Lewis put into the mouths of Mrs. Beaver as she describes Aslan the Christ figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, 
“He’s not a tame lion.”
On the other side, I’ve already noted how technology has historically served the Christian
church in its history. It also has broader implications according to its contemporary advocates. Researcher and technologist Jane McGonigal, in her 2010 TED talk “Gaming Can Make a BetterWorld," promotes the theory that computer games can actually lead to human community. (She’s also written SuperBetter: The Power ofLiving Gamefully, which demonstrates, if nothing else, that this tech revolution is going to involve making up new words.) McGonigal reveals that the world spends three billion hours a week playing online games—which shocks the audience—she then doubles down by asserting that we need to do more. How could this be the case? The problem solving skills of those virtual situations could be employed in solving real-world problems.
Naturally, almost all commercial forces see technological use by emerging adults as positive. Because it helps sell products. And generally, the power and material resources of marketing social media particularly and Internet use generally—and the devices that use them—is immense. And don’t we simply enjoy our smart phones? I do.
I know this sounded like I slipped back into the negative side of the ledger with tech. And that’s where my mind was—in addition to channeling my “say yes to no” approach around the time of that book’s publication—when I addressed a group of graduate students from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters of Stanford and Berkeley. My task was to inspire them with how to engage culture, particularly as formed by science, as bright, energetic, promising Christians. These people could change the world. That indeed sounds like a clichĂ©. But the more I came to know these students, the more I thought it might be true.
I began my talks on Christian spirituality in today’s world with a scene from the film NachoLibre where Nacho, a cook at a Mexican monastery, is partnering with Stephen in a tag team free wrestling, or “luchador libre.” Nacho is naturally a man of faith, but Stephen denies any belief in God and declares, “I’m a man of science.” So this is a point of contention, about which Nacho feels fearful just before I fight against the team of “Satan’s Cavemen.” So, while Stephen is looking another direction, Nacho baptizes him. And my point (yes, I had one) is that often we often baptize science with our faith when scientists aren’t looking. And let’s not do that.
In later talks, I took on the problems of tech and the reasons to resist it. In and out of Ultimate frisbee games on a field nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains and around meals, some of the students quietly and thoughtfully resisted. Many, in fact, were involved in Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford or the Center for Social Sector Leadershipat U.C. Berkeley. Or they were just making the world a better place. They indeed were the first people to introduce to me to information and communication technologies for development (or ICT4D). “Did you know that cell phones can help farmers find the best price—so they can survive—in poor African countries? Let me tell you about it.” “Have you heard about using solar power to help with hospitals in rural Nigeria?” “I’m working on a project to bring training to the poorest 1% of the world through media players and I think Pico projectors can offered training to stem the tide of pandemics. (Actually, that’s my friend Matt York’s mission and what his organization One Media Player Per Teacher, or OMPT, did to fight Ebola, but he could have been there too.) 
That retreat may have helped those IV grad students spiritually, but it was a game changer for me. Though tech can often be negative for rich people in the northern hemisphere, it can often make the difference between life and death for the poor in the southern hemisphere.

I close with my paraphrase, or perhaps adaption, of a saying from Jesus (see Mark 2:27), "Tech was made for us, not us for tech." Let's learn how to use it well.