The Aim of Technology from a Christian Perspective

Have you ever asked why create new technologies? Every year, companies and governments around the globe spend billions of dollars on the research and development of new technologies. The most common answer to the question will invariably be “technology makes life easier”, and it does that very well in most cases.  However, is ease a sufficient base motivation? Is it truly our primary motivator for innovation? Certainly not. I find it hard to imagine that strapping a few brave men to a rocket of questionable integrity and blasting them to the Moon was all in the pursuit of doing something easy. There are three primary aims of innovation, each of which supplies its own motivation for the pursuit of technology. However, each of these three aims of technology possess extremes or perversions that undermine our purpose and meaning if pursued recklessly.

1. Maximizing Human Biological Life

The first aim is to preserve or extend human life. A primary goal of much scientific study and engineering development is to make as many humans live as long as possible by protecting our feeble carbon-based bodies from disease, age, accident, and violence. Most of these technological developments support a universal care for humanity, such as the development of medicines, bike helmets, and bullet-proof vests. These technologies aim to preserve human life from disease, accident, and danger.

However, some futurists believe mankind is nearing an age of undying bliss – where medical technology will progress so quickly as to increase human longevity to infinity. This may sound good on the surface, but, aside from many practical issues, there are existential questions facing a life with no end. Immortality is a natural goal for medical technology, whose aim is, generally, to extend human life as much as possible. But, the first questions to ask are entirely philosophical. Should humans live forever? These are the kind of questions which technological innovators only seem to ponder after the fact. Lamentably, these kinds of questions will always play second fiddle to the economic allure of transformational technology.

2. New Capabilities and Exploration

Nonetheless, extending human life is not the only aim of technology. I am not writing this on a laptop because I believe the laptop will extend my human life (quite the opposite). Rather, I write on this computer because it enables new capabilities that previous technologies (e.g. pen and paper) did not provide. A clear aim of technological progress is this enablement of new knowledge and capabilities. The rocket ship is a perfect example of a technology that allowed humans to both 1) gain the function of travelling into space, and 2) acquire tools in which to learn about space and space objects. Many purely scientific endeavors fall into this category of technologies, such as particle accelerators, deep sea submarines, and any technology that enabled something previously thought impossible, like flying with the airplane or creating energy through nuclear fission. The development of these technologies did not aim to extend life or to necessarily make life easier, but to introduce a novel function into the hands of man.

While technological and scientific progress in this respect is exciting, we must be wary of not pursuing capabilities where man is not meant to go. The common depiction of scientists by popular media is a group of people willing to do whatever man can do, regardless of whether it is worth doing. There appears no net gain to growing humans outside a mother’s womb, for example.

Some atheist scientists and futurists romanticize the idea of man’s ultimate meaning being found in unending exploration and discovery. Putting one’s total sense of meaning in such a framework may be useful for motivating a select number of scientists in their own work, but it hardly provides any meaning for the common man . Further, it is not evident that scientific discovery will always be unending, and even if it is, it may well end up feeling like running on a treadmill.

3. Ease and Efficiency

Lastly, and most prevalently, technological progress aims for human ease and efficiency, which are innately linked since energy and time required for a task are inversely related for a machine (or creature) with fixed power. The TV remote is a trivial example, created such that we don’t have to move from our comfortable couches every time we wish to view another channel or listen at a different volume. On the other end of the spectrum,  machines like tractors were developed to reduce the overall manpower and manhours required to produce necessities like food. While everyone will agree that the tractor is a much more useful and good invention for society than the TV remote , both aim toward ease and efficiency. It is easier and more efficient for someone to configure the TV from afar, just as it is easier and more efficient for a farmer to till an acre of land with a tractor than with a mule.

When it comes to ease and efficiency particularly, most of the human race assumes there is no end to how easy or efficient life can get, as long as technology progresses. But few ever stop to consider whether ease and efficiency are limitless goals worth pursuing. If we assume total human happiness is the simple sum of a number of factors (e.g. sense of meaning, health, friendships, responsibility, security, leisure, etc.), does ever increasing the “leisure” factor via technological progress ever cause a flatline or even a reduction in total happiness? I think it probably does, and I think society as a whole must be close to that limit. Take the newly retired senior citizen, for example. Some do great things in their time of leisure: volunteering, travelling, working on projects, spending quality time with family, etc. However, many spend their retirement in a virtual coma in front of the TV, often unhappily because they have lost a sense of purpose in their life through work and responsibility. They have achieved ease, but not happiness.

While easing the burdens of many is a noble goal, pursuing ease in itself is not a recipe for increasing happiness, neither in our personal lives nor as a society. Ease and leisure are desserts, meant to be tasted only after a satisfying day, week, or lifetime of meaningful work. Hence, technological progress must not aim for ever greater ease, but instead for those burdens of the human condition that truly need solutions.

To What End?

In each of these motivations, the Christian and other religious will rightfully ask “so what?” What does it matter if we live 100 or 150 years on this earth if we do not first consider our eternal fate? How does the accumulation of worldly knowledge and capabilities affect our divine purpose? What is ease and efficiency to an eternal soul? Does the pursuit of any of these aims of technology better position us for heaven? The inevitable answer is no, the desert nomad ignorant of the internet is just as likely a saintly candidate as the man who walks on the Moon. Is anything worth doing that does not bring us closer to God? I suppose not.

Now that we are deep in a pit of confusion and wondering whether any action is worth doing, we must carefully dig our way out by reminding ourselves that all things must be done for the glory of God.  However, it’s an easy first assumption that it doesn’t matter what we do, but how we do it. Of course, that’s just a silly platitude to avoid offending anyone. There are some jobs that are inherently immoral, such as prostitution,  abortion procedures, and the vast majority of criminal activity. Hence, we should not shy away from considering whether certain tech jobs and inventions might also be immoral. An example of an immoral invention is any of the medieval or modern novelties of torture, e.g. the stretching rack, since its aim (torture) is a grave evil. These inventions, we can assert, are antithetical to our heavenly purpose, and participating in them in any way is an evil. The difficulty for most of technology is its perceived neutrality. The status quo assumption is that all technology can be used for good or evil. As we see with the stretching rack, that is not necessarily true. 

I believe most technologies are fundamentally good, as so far, most satisfy a real need. However, we may be fast approaching a day where technological development is not driven by need, but by greed. If it can be sold, it will be invented, even if it serves no positive good. Instagram, in my opinion, is an example of this: a highly addictive app whose sole purpose is to keep you on the app longer through larger-than-life pictures. Whether a thing makes money or not is no indicator of whether it is a blessing or a scourge to humanity. Of course, any solution to a real need will be lucrative, but I’m afraid we (as a society) have discovered that highly addictive media is even more lucrative.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. All this is to say, our technologies must be developed intentionally with an aim toward a real good. Our creations are a reflection of ourselves; we should not participate in anything that we do not believe is ultimately significant.

Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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