Recently I finished reading Sherry Turkle's fine book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Among other things, her work has caused me to reflect on exactly what we get out of technology, that is, aside from its practical benefits. Or put another way, why are we so powerfully drawn to our devices? Here are a few random (and perhaps rambling) thoughts on the question, I'd love to hear your input.
First, our machines give us a sense of purpose. To be tethered to the network is to feel alive, to feel that we're part of the human family, that we belong, that we have important things to do (or at least seemingly important). This impulse is understandable but it's dangerous, because we were created to get our sense of purpose from being tethered to God and then to one another. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors which means that being "relationally connected" is the key to having true purpose in life. So while our machines give us the illusion of purpose, learning to relate well with God and others brings us to the heart of our purpose.
Second, our machines give us a sense of power. Steve Jobs once said in an interview that computers are "the bicycle of the mind." Scientists had previously done a study of the fastest animals on earth which took into consideration their ability to accelerate relative to their mass. Human beings didn't make the top ten, but when we boarded a bike we rocketed to number one. The bicycle allowed human beings to exert more power than they otherwise could.
"Computers are the bicycle of the mind." They give us the ability to do things that we could not otherwise do; to know things we would not otherwise know; to see things we would not otherwise see (good and bad); to influence others at a level we would not otherwise reach. Tech devices offer us a sense of power we would not otherwise experience, and we're drawn to this. We desire to be more than we are, or at least to seem so, and this is very alluring.
But the key to happiness is being content in God, and then in who he has made us to be. The desire to be more than we are unveils the fact that we are not content with who we are, or with God. It is not illegitimate to use our devices to do things we could not otherwise do, but the problem comes when we look to this new found power for our sense of purpose and identity. We will be content when we are content in God, and then we will use our devices for the glory of God rather than the inflation of the self.
Third, our machines give us a sense of community. When we are connected to the network, we feel connected with people. In truth, this connection is superficial at best and, as Sherry Turkle warns us, it may in fact be warring against our ability to form true connections. The solution is not to ditch our devices, but it is to realize their limitations and give more of our time to forming authentic, face-to-face connections with people. This requires us to turn off our gadgets and give our full attention to God and others which is hard but, in the end, very good. As we prioritize actual human connections, our gadgets will take their proper place in life.
Finally, our machines give us a sense of immortality. Although this movement has yet to infiltrate the mainstream of our culture, there are companies out there like MyLifeBits that enable users to document nearly everything in their lives, including what they see and hear and feel. As the devices required for such "archiving" become smaller and less conspicuous, this movement will gain momentum, and more and more people will seek to archive the everything of their lives.
But why? I think it's because we have a deep fear of death, and a desire for immortality. The inability to remember the past, and to be remembered by others, is a sure sign of our mortality and limitedness, and we have great angst about this. We are not content to be human. We are not content to die. We know that life is meant to live, and therefore, if we cannot live forever we will grasp onto whatever gives us the illusion of immortality.
In conclusion, the reason we are so powerfully drawn to our devices is because we do not turn to God. In other words, we tend to look to our devices as God-substitutes. But God is the only one who can satisfy the human soul. All else will fall short and leave us disappointed and depressed. So may we hear and heed the gracious words of Jesus when he says that the greatest commandments in all of life are to love God with everything in us, and then to love each other as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).
What do you think?