Technology As Discipline
by Johnny Wei-Bing Lin
We are used to thinking of each different kind of technology—the tools and techniques by which we create, shape, and analyze the world around us—as a discipline, that is to say, as an area of study. Thus, the various kinds of engineering and applied sciences are considered “technical fields.” But technology is not only a discipline, it also disciplines. That is, just as parental discipline shapes the character of a child, and spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting shape our souls, the discipline meted out by technology also helps form who we are and how we behave, including how we behave as the body of Christ, the church. In this article, we consider the nature of technology as discipline and why the church should care about such discipline.
When a parent disciplines a child, the discipline usually occurs as an isolatable event. Whether in the form of a time out, a spanking, or revocation of some privilege, the discipline occurs at a specific (and hopefully not to be repeated) moment in time. In contrast, the discipline of technology is often diffuse, because the role and presence of technology is diffuse. We use technology for nearly all our life activities, for cooking and cleaning, getting from one place to another, getting well when we’re sick, and, of course, we use technology in communicating. The latter technologically influenced activities include writing and reading, telling a friend we “Like” their photo, texting our spouse that we’re running late, or snapping a quick selfie while on vacation.
While the technology we use is often in the background, this does not mean it is something passive—for instance, that communications technology is merely a conduit for information. Yet, we often think this way: People are the actors while technology merely provides channels through which that activity can flow, like water flowing through a stream. Thus, text messaging is just a means by which words and brief messages are transmitted from one person to another. Thinking of technology as passive, however, hides the real and active role technology plays in shaping not only what is being transmitted but also the relationships between the people involved in the transmission and the people themselves. To extend our channel analogy, the water that flows through a stream not only is guided by the stream bed but also shapes the stream bed, through erosion and inundation.
Of course, we should not be surprised that technology disciplines us. It disciplines us because of the sacramental nature of the universe. We do not merely live in a world of forms. Through the material, God channels the spiritual. They are inextricably linked. We live in a universe where, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt 25:40) and where we are admonished, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Heb 13:2) And technology disciplines us because as human beings, we are creatures who need and ultimately thrive under discipline. We are not creatures designed to live aimless lives guided only by our whims; we are beings made to follow the Apostle Paul when he says, “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor 9:26–27) And we are children of a Father whose discipline marks us as His: “If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.” (Heb 12:8)
What kind of discipline does technology exert? In what ways does technology shape us? First, technology shapes us through affecting our capabilities. By giving us new or augmented abilities, technology alters our skill set. Certain skills atrophy or never develop, others strengthen, and new ones appear that did not exist before. As a former college physics professor, I saw this in the decrease in mathematical reasoning abilities that incoming students display. Today’s students, having always had a graphing calculator available, seem to have a weaker grasp of what those graphs represent—the relationship between the x and y variables. At the same time, technology gives us abilities in using and incorporating technologies that previous generations would not have imagined. I remember my first experience with social digital photography in the early 2000’s. One of my friends at a dinner party, who was much younger than me, had a digital camera, and throughout the evening, he kept continuously taking pictures. For someone bred on roll film, that was weird enough, but even stranger, I found the camera wasn’t merely recording the event but had become a part of the event. It was a catalyst for funny poses, silly pictures, and laughter that would probably never have happened if the camera was not there. Technology here enabled new and strange forms of social interaction. People who use these technologies, in turn, learn new ways of behaving and new skills, both social and otherwise.
Second, technology shapes us by shaping our environment. This is, perhaps, most obvious with regards to our physical environment. The invention of the personal automobile and concrete/asphalt roads has changed the relationship between cities and the surrounding countryside. Without these inventions, suburbs and exurbs as we know them today would not be possible. The invention of the elevator has permanently changed city skylines. Technology, however, also changes our social and cultural environments. As a small but everyday example, consider how today we expect people to always be online, to be constantly connected and immediately present. We have this expectation of connectivity because smartphones and ubiquitous Internet have given us the skills and habits of communicating in 140 character snippets and continually updated text and image feeds. The development of those capabilities has changed our social environment. I remember before cell phones became common that if someone did not arrive on time for a lunch appointment, I would wait 15 minutes and then get lunch on my own, content to ask my friend later if they had forgotten our lunch appointment. Today, we expect the person to call us wherever they are and tell us they’re running late; the failure to do so is seen as rude.
Third, technology shapes us by affecting our understanding of the nature of the world. “Nature of the world” is somewhat broad, so let’s consider one specific example: the nature of healthy relationships. We said earlier that technology alters our skill set, but it would be a mistake to assume that we can change our skill set and leave unaffected our understanding of what those skills accomplish. If our relational skill set includes the ability to engage in long, thoughtful discussions, we will tend to see healthy relationships as including what results from long, thoughtful discussions. If our relational skill set changes, our conception of healthy relationships will also likely change. Likewise, if our environment supports long-term, patient development of relationships, it also supports an understanding of healthy relationships as being characterized by the traits that come from such long-term, patient development. In contrast, if our environment supports short-term, rapid development of relationships, our understanding of healthy relationships would likely exhibit the relational characteristics associated with such an environment. In sum, our abilities and environment will tend to color our understanding of what the world is like.
Why does the discipline exerted by technology matter to the church? Most of the time, our answers to this question focus on the new ways technology enables us to do the work of the church. Instead of using hymnals, we now use Powerpoint slides to display lyrics on a screen. Instead of communicating through mailings and bulletins, we now also use email and Facebook postings. Viral social media multiplies the impact of a single post and virtual social networks connect people in ways previously unimaginable. Certainly, technology does give us new ways of doing ministry, but these answers focus on the first two ways of understanding how technology disciplines us (by shaping our capabilities and shaping our environments). More consequentially, the church should care about how technology disciplines us because technology reshapes our understanding of the nature of fundamental elements of our life as the body of Christ.
Preeminent amongst these elements is our understanding of the nature of love. By changing how we love each other, and the environment in which we love one another, technology changes what we understand loving our brothers and sisters and loving the world means. And by changing what we understand as the nature of human love, technology changes what we understand as the nature of loving God and God’s love for us.
As an example, consider how technology alters the role of the presence of persons in the activity of loving another person. Through social media, we are able to build relationships not only with those we have never met, and likely never will meet, but even those whose voice we have never heard. We are, perhaps, so used to this state of affairs that we forget how incredibly unique this is. For most of human history, the only people you knew were those you met. Few people ever traveled away from the place where they were born. Thus, human understanding of the nature of love was connected to the presence of the other person. Today, acts of love unrelated to physical proximity are par for the course. This does not necessarily mean we love those who are physically absent any less, but it does mean we love them, and understand what love means, differently.
Our understanding and experience of human love colors our understanding of God’s love. Jesus told us that, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn 15:15), but if what we mean by “friends” in a human context has changed, will this not affect our understanding of what Jesus means when He calls us friends? Of course, we know this side of heaven we see but dimly (1 Cor 13:12) and God’s love is greater than human love, so our understanding of God’s love (and human love) will fall short. We know too that while our understanding of the love of God may change, His love shall always endure (Ps 136). But for today, it remains that how we see human love affects how we see God’s love.
In saying that technology disciplines us, it does not necessarily mean we should be wary of technology. First, in all eras, our techniques and technologies discipline us. Whether the technology was the discovery of fire or the creation of the Internet, our abilities, environment, and understanding of the world changed as those technologies helped shape us. While change is accelerated because today’s technologies enable the actions of a few to impact millions, if not billions, of people, our situation today is, in principle, no different than any other time in history. The ways that technology disciplines us may also be beneficial. Our past ways of understanding, for instance, may be deficient and new ways may better reflect aspects of the nature of human love and God’s love. We must, however, not pretend technology is merely a tool we control. The discipline exerted by technology will change us. It remains for us to discern with wisdom and prayer, as individuals, families, and the body of Christ, how we will engage with those changes.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Karen Lin for discussion.
Johnny Wei-Bing Lin graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Civil Engineering-Water Resources. His Ph.D. is in Atmospheric Sciences from UCLA. He has chaired the American Meteorological Society (AMS)'s Python Symposiums and has taught or co-taught some of the AMS Python short courses.
Currently, Johnny Lin is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Computing Education in the Computing and Software Systems Division of the University of Washington Bothell and an Affiliate Professor of Physics and Engineering at North Park University in Chicago.
Johnny is also current President of the ASA. He is married to the former Karen Tsang, and they have two sons, Timothy and James, and one daughter, Christianne.