In my recent article on the legacy of Steve Jobs, the iPhone, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one passage particularly raised some comments and questions. I wrote:

Sometimes, Christians with a sympathetic view of culture (like myself) have a tendency to treat it all—-including technology—-as though it were neutral, but this isn’t the case. Like all of creation, the technological world bears witness to God’s glory and goodness with its undoubted helpfulness, its moments of beauty, and its occasional ability to inspire awe. But also like all of creation, it bears the stain and destructive power of sin, introducing us to whole new ways to destroy relationships, disrupt our lives, and distract from the glory we were created to behold.

Perhaps the statement itself wasn’t appropriately nuanced. The response I received, both via email and comments, made further explanation of this statement worthwhile.

Where to Draw the Line?

Many, it seemed, were concerned with my statement that technology isn’t neutral. Questioning technology, and behavior around technology, immediately elicits a common response from both those who embrace it and also those who are suspicious of it: Where do we draw the line? Suspicious hard-liners would like us to draw clear and safe boundaries, a way to separate the sheep and goats so we can know where we stand in the process. But any such hard-and-fast lines are at best arbitrary, often choosing a period of history in which we can “safely” live, refusing the advances that follow. It’s classic religion at its worst—-mandating behavior that determines whom God will and won’t bless.

On the other hand, some resist asking questions about the embrace of technology. They ask the same question as the hardliners, but ask it rhetorically to make the point that any lines drawn are arbitrary and legalistic. If you reject the smartphone, why not reject the PC too? If you reject email, what about regular mail? Any resistance to or rejection of technology is a slippery slope towards becoming like the Amish. Their response to any critique of technology seems to echo the words of Jesus in the New Testament; no “thing”—-no device, for instance—-defiles us, but what’s in our hearts defiles us (Matt. 15:11, 18). So the iPhone isn’t the problem, it’s our hearts in relation to the iPhone. The internet isn’t the problem, it’s what we put onto the internet, or what we download from it. The thing, in itself, isn’t evil. It’s what we do with the thing.

As a matter of clinical fact, this is true. The heart is the place where our sins find their origin, their grip, and their greatest destructive power. But we are prone to underestimating the power of cultural artifacts and institutions on our hearts. Take, for instance, an assault rifle with armor-piercing bullets. In a cold, bare assessment, it’s a hunk of metal and a bit of engineering brilliance, both of which owe their origins in the brilliance of the Creator. When used as a paperweight, it’s harmless, and probably quite effective. It could function beautifully as a doorstop, or if you had many of them, you could use them to weigh down the back end of a rear-wheel drive car on an icy road, providing better traction. Glory to God.

But none of those examples gets at the purpose of the assault rifle. It’s not meant to be a paperweight, and though it qualifies as mostly harmless when used for such a purpose, this ignores the intended function of the object itself. It’s not merely a hunk of metal; it’s a carefully engineered killing machine, the product of years of development and history.

Taken further: the assault rifle’s purpose is morally murky territory even when it’s used by a godly soldier in a just war. While we can justify its use in this case, we must always admit that such a use is only necessary in the light of a world where the sword is necessary—-a world full of sin. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no need for assault rifles with armor-piercing bullets. So its goodness is limited to an unfortunate but necessary function inside of a sin-shattered world.

The moment you pick up an assault rifle, you’re participating in a cultural and social reality that is much bigger than you. That cultural artifact is part of a lengthy history, and that history has shaped your life in profound ways. To view it as a mere object, as a hunk of metal, or as something wholly neutral, misunderstands the way that we relate to culture and creation. We must also admit that the moment you pick it up, you make a whole world of evil available to you in a new way. To be sure, murder and maiming can take place without the help of an AK-47, but possessing one makes it much simpler and readily available. It is foolish to think that possessing such power has no effect on the soul.

New Phenomena

In the case of weaponry, soldiering, and “just war,” there has been a great deal of theological and biblical reflection that helps us define that relationship. In the case of the internet, smartphones, and connectivity, we are dealing with phenomena only 10 to 20 years old. Nonetheless, these have radically reshaped the way we live and relate to one another, and they’re far more ubiquitous than assault weapons.

As in the case of the rifle, the very act of picking up an iPhone (or a Droid, or any smartphone) means that you are stepping into a cultural history much larger than your relationship to the technology at hand. These cultural objects redefine our relationships in both profound and subtle ways.

Again, the assault rifle serves as a helpful example. In October 2001, when security at airports was still extraordinarily high in the wake of 9/11, I flew cross-country for a conference. As I passed through security, I set off the metal detector. Three times. After the third one, the TSA agent sent me over to an area on the side with a black 2-by-2-foot box. An agent directed me to take off my shoes and stand on the cube. When I stood on the cube and turned around, a Marine in camo fatigues walked up and pointed an M-16 at my chest.

It redefined our relationship immediately.

For all I know, this soldier had nothing but the love of Christ in his heart for me. Perhaps he prayed for me even as he pointed his loaded gun at my vital organs. But there was no way that the hunk of metal in his hands wasn’t going to redefine (in a profoundly complex way) my relationship with him.

I answered his questions, agents patted me down thoroughly, and we went our separate ways.

Cultural objects—-whether weapons or smartphones or T-shirts—-do much to define our relationships and our rhythms of life. The moment we pick them up or incorporate them into our daily living, we step into a history that’s bigger than us, and we begin communicating to those around us something about how we intend to live and relate. The first time you send a text message, you create a new way to relate, communicate, and connect to people. For better or worse, things are now going to be different.

Not Neutral

So when I say that cultural objects aren’t neutral, this is what I mean. This isn’t to say that the moment you pick up an iPhone or an assault rifle that you’re immediately defiled—-that’s legalism. Instead, it’s merely to point out that these objects influence us profoundly because they open possibilities and make easier a whole world of action that was previously unavailable or much more difficult. In the case of the iPhone, the result is that we step into a way of living and relating that is more disruptive, more flooded with information, and ultimately more dependent upon that particular piece of technology.

The challenge, then, is for Christians to discern how to live in this technological milieu in a way that allows for virtue, love, and community to abound. It may be that such a way of life is possible but too difficult. It may be quite simple if we establish appropriate boundaries in our lives. But it most certainly isn’t possible if we simply accept the status quo of disruptive, noisy life in our newly tech-ed up world. (Particularly if we believe that it has no shaping effect upon us.)

There is no doubt that the new world of deeper web connectivity is empowering and has made life and work easier. The question is: Has it made it better?