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Is Technology Morally Neutral?

The various effects technology has on us and our understanding of what it means to be human — now there’s a topic I find endlessly fascinating.

Which was why I was delighted that my sister, Jenni, and her husband, Liam, both independent of one another, sent me a link to the New York Times article “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain.”

The article is part of the Times’ “Your Brain on Computers” series, which I now have every intention of reading through. In this particular article, five academics, all brain scientists, head off into the wilderness on a rafting trip down the San Juan River of southeast Utah. For most of the trip they’re out of cell phone service, away from computers and left to think about how electronic technology, and the lack thereof, affects the brain and, more broadly, the human experience.

My sister and brother-in-law sent the article to me, I’m sure, because of the conversation we three had just this past weekend.

Interestingly enough, the setting and situation mirrored the article: We were out in the Rocky Mountains, west of Colorado Springs, discussing whether or not technology is morally neutral.

OK, so actually we were driving in my air-conditioned car on our way to Sonic for lunch in the next town over. Which is so much like floating on a river for three days. But we were talking about the moral implications of technology use. Just like professors.

Our conversation really got going when, half believing it, half trying to be provocative, I claimed that technology is not morally neutral. Liam disagreed. How can technology not be morally neutral? he countered.

OK, I granted, no technology has agency unto itself, and therefore — obviously — can’t force its users to make the choices they do while using that technology. But, I counter-countered, technology is developed by flawed humans: Any particular technology has built into it the biases of its builders. And in any case, we often don’t understand the secondary effects technology has on us.

We all agreed that technology necessarily affects, in some decidedly negative ways, how we relate to ourselves, to creation and especially to one another — which is distinctly moral territory.

I bring up this article and this weekend’s discussion to ask some questions: In what ways do technology and electronic gadgets affect us? How might we use technologies like blogging and Facebook in redemptive ways?

Do you find your own use of technology altering how you relate to the world around you?

These are questions I think our generation — we who are accustomed to various electronic technologies, but who can remember life before the ubiquity of cell phones and wireless Internet access — is uniquely suited to answer.

Here’s another question: What about we who interact here on Boundless? I mean, here we are, talking about relationships and spiritual things — on the Internet. Is it possible that our discourse — how we talk to one another and even what we talk about — is different from what it otherwise would be because it’s taking place on a blog?

I understand it sounds like I’m hatin’ on technology. But I don’t think I’m too much of a Luddite. I’m not convinced that we necessarily need to avoid technology altogether. After all, I haven’t abandoned my cell phone, my laptop or my Facebook page.

Or blogging for Boundless, for that matter.

But I do think we need to think much longer and much harder about the theology of technology. Let’s make sure we’re asking the questions — on a river in Utah or on the way to Sonic; any place will do — that our technologies beg of us.

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