Monday, December 7, 2009

Cathy says, “Technology’s great, when it works…”

Help me polish this article before it gets published: I've been asked for a 'feature' article on technology and spirituality, a maximum of 750 words. Here are 675 words as my first draft. How can I make it better?

Cathy says, “Technology’s great, when it works…”

Sometimes I find it hard to argue my wife’s point! In the house we have computers, phones, DVDs and a DVR that’s almost as hard to program as the VHS used to be… And I sometimes think that the greatest contribution of technology to my spiritual life is to give me practice at considering it pure joy when I face trials of many kinds in getting it all to work! (James 1:2)

However, those of us, of all ages, who are part of the Facebook generation, can see the potential of technology to break down barriers: across geography, time zone, class, and all the other artificial divisions between people.

Some fear that technology could become a modern-day Tower of Babel, inviting God’s wrath. But surely the problem in Genesis 11 was that the Tower was built to bring glory to mankind and not to God. There’s nothing wrong with people working together, especially if it’s to love God and to love other people.

We’re living in a technology revolution, letting people connect together around the world; we can communicate more easily with each other and collaborate together on new projects, across time and space.

I’m an optimist where all this is concerned. When I left IBM to study theology it was to try to encourage the equipping of those around me to “do the work of ministry,” as it says in Ephesians 4:12, and it seems to me that some of the technology tools we’re building really make that possible on a huge scale.

The phone company doesn’t tell you what to talk about; you just use the phone and the line and get on with what you want. We’ve begun to see what text messages, emails and social networks can accomplish in the cause of freedom of speech and human rights in countries and elections around the world.

Of course, the dictators don’t like this, whether they’re a totalitarian government or a church hierarchy! Technology can be used to oppress as well as to free, and there’s an argument that George Orwell’s Big Brother is not the ‘telescreen’ fixed to the wall but the laptop or smartphone we carry round and which captures the words we think out loud and the photos we broadcast for the search engines. Mobile phones can be used to plot our location; and the social networks record the links we make with our online friends so a threat to our liberty can come from those we know, not just what we say or do.

But, as I said, I’m an optimist. In the conflict between light and dark, good and evil, it’s the light that wins! If one part of a vine gets chopped back and pruned, other branches can still flourish and grow, provided they remain connected to the vine.

I believe that technology tools will continue to grow up and, ironically, it was in 1984 that Stewart Brand coined the phrase that “information wants to be free.” If one set of tools gets closed down, another will rise in its place. In The Starfish and the Spider authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom argued that ‘leaderless’ starfish organizations are taking society and the business world by storm.

It seems to me that the church of Jesus Christ is the original and most successful starfish, based on shared vision and values under the pervasive leadership of the indwelling Holy Spirit. At each stage of church history the church has grown with the use of the available technology, whether street preaching, small group leaders, pulpits and Bibles, radio and television.

Now, though, mobile phones, email and Internet software equip grass roots publishers with the tools for making disciples and we’re poised to see the spread of the good news of the gospel into the farthest reaches of the world. Technology not only tells people about Jesus Christ, but can equip them with tools to live out a faith in relationship with Jesus Christ, finding practical ways to love God and each other.