Collapsing under its own cleverness

Could technology be our undoing or is it our only hope? A thought-provoking article appeared in Wired a few weeks ago and a hat tip to Professor Koontz for bringing it to our attention. The writer, Steven Levy, tells the tale of a bet made 25 years ago between “neo-Luddite” Kirkpatrick Sale and “techno-optimist” Kevin Kelly. After reading Sale’s doomsday-style pronouncements that no society was immune to collapse, including the USA, Kelly challenged him to a wager: name the day.

In the moment, Sale named 2020 as the year he thought the USA would break down, with a disastrous trifecta of economic depression, environmental catastrophe and a war between rich and poor. This would result in the remaining humans banding together in “small, tribal-style clusters. They wouldn’t be just off the grid. There would be no grid.” And that would be just fine with Sale.

But Kelly would have none of it. He says, “I wanted him to be accountable for that romantic nonsense he was spouting.”  Kelly sees technology as “an enriching force,” a means for society solving problems and progressing towards great things. Technology, in Kelly’s mind, provides choices for people that they would not have had otherwise. People are “leaving villages that have organic food and beautiful scenery, and beautiful architecture and very strong families,” he says. “Why do they do that? Because they have choices. They don’t have to be what their father or mother was, which was basically a farmer or housewife. They could maybe be a mathematician, maybe they could be a ballerina.”

The bet was to be settled this year, with Kelly’s optimism winning by a narrow margin. However, Sale will not accept the verdict. It is strange to read about two educated and thoughtful men, weaving together pieces of evidence, creating completely different myths about what is going on in the world. Do humans have an infinite capacity for improvement and adaptation? Or are we better off shunning technology in favour of a pre-industrial existence? Does technology improve our society or destroy it? 

We have smart phones and Netflix. We’ve sent machines to Mars and banished nasty diseases from the face of the planet. We have supermarkets with food conveniently displayed in plastic. Technology saves and improves the lives of millions every day. 

But it is not too difficult to observe that there are trade offs here. While having cars means we can commute here and there, it is also easier to disengage from the community in which we live. Food and water are easy to come by in the West but our control over what goes into our bodies is reduced. We are connected through the internet to more people than ever, but deep friendships still require work and time. 

Pastor Fisk’s love of Scripture’s wisdom literature will be familiar to Mad Mondays readers and the book of Ecclesiastes has much to bring to this discussion. Solomon would probably hit both Sale and Kelly upside the head: you’re asking the wrong questions – it’s all vanity. The meticulous examination of the toils of life led the Preacher to write that in human endeavour, the “lack is immeasurable”. Whether we think knowledge and greatness are the mark of human flourishing or that philanthropy and self-sacrifice are where it’s at, putting our hope in anything “under the sun” will end in despair. 

Pastor Jeremy Rhode says that the comfort of Ecclesiastes is the “comfort of a correct diagnosis.” Solomon saves us the time of chasing salvation in all these toils and shatters every illusion:  death comes for everyone, great or small. Mad Christians are free to look into the abyss, to consider the futility of life and call it what it is. 

For many of us, life will be a gingerly walk, always seeking God’s wisdom as we engage the technology around us. We walk with care but not without purpose, for we “remember our Creator” who knew us before we were born. Whether we are early adopters of all the latest tech, or like to stay as far away as possible from things that beep, our hope is in Christ and the world he is preparing for us. 

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