Yesterday I killed a big, shiny, black widow spider in her nest in a rotten tree stump. A beautiful spider, more beautiful than most other kinds. But I though I had better kill her, for I myself had sat down right next to the stump before I saw her there. Someone else might do the same and get bitten.
It is strange to be so very close to something that can kill you, and not be defended by some kind on an invention. As if, wherever there was a problem in life, some machine would have to get there before you to negotiate it. As if we could not deal with the serious things of life except through the intermediary of these angels, our inventions. As if life were nothing, death were nothing. As if the whole of reality were in the inventions that stand between us and the world: the inventions which have become our world.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 16-17
Ironically, I read this quote while sitting on a rotting tree stump at Heron Lake, one of many small ponds that dots the landscape of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky’s heartland, the land where Thomas Merton lived and wrote for most of his life. And I read it on the day that Steve Jobs, the creative genius of Apple computers, died of cancer.
I didn’t find out about Jobs’s death until several days later. I was spending the week at the abbey on a personal retreat, enjoying the silence of the abbey to pray and reflect as a reprieve from the stress of ministry. Not only does the abbey lack wifi service, but the cellular service there is also terrible, requiring me to climb a nearby hill to get enough service to call home.
As I returned to ordinary civilization in the days after my retreat, I saw the many stories about his life and death. There is no doubt that his legacy is significant, and I count myself as one who is thankful for both Jobs and Apple. I type these thoughts on a MacBook Air, and I am rarely without an Apple device nearby—-an iPhone or an iPad or an iMac.
But there is another element of Jobs’s legacy that is worth noting, and Merton’s thoughts above illuminate it beautifully. We live in an age where technology is omnipresent, and between the iPhone and Google, information is available at incredible rates and volumes. In many ways, the iPhone has fulfilled Douglas Adams’s vision of a Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an electronic companion that is able to answer our questions, give us directions, and get us out of a bind. The bitten apple on the back is not unlike the guide’s inscription—-“Don’t Panic”—-a calming, peaceful presence that assures us that we have help at hand when we need it. How often have we found ourselves saying, “What did we do before the iPhone? How did we travel? How did we go out to dinner? How did we get any work done?”
On the other hand, the ubiquitous nature of information and technology has a numbing and insulating effect that creates as much distance for community and relationships as it bridges. Part of Jobs’s legacy is in making this distance, this intermediary presence, a friendly and beautiful one.
Now, with Apple’s voice recognition technology called “Siri,” technology has taken on an even deeper sense of incarnation. We no longer need to clumsily type inquiries with our thumbs. We merely need to ask questions. Ask Siri where pizza is, and it tells us. Ask it to text a family member, and it does. A friend of mine asked it where to hide a body, and it responded with a question of its own: “Would you like a lake, a dump, or a metal foundry.” Creepy, to say the least.
Jobs had a vision for seamlessly integrating technology into our lives, and Apple (in my opinion) has had a knack for doing so better than anyone else. But what has been lost in the process? During a recent counseling session with a member at my church, she lamented how her father acknowledged a life-milestone by sending her a text. “He should have called,” she said. Technology has quietly increased the relational gaps between people. Let’s not forget that even a phone call is a connection through a technological intermediary—-one that we now view as more of a hassle than emailing or texting. The gap is growing.
Social media, as has often been pointed out, has effectively increased the distance between us. It present a false picture to the world, a place where we can highlight how wonderful and perfect our lives are, which is alienating to those who are hurting and broken. (Russell Moore has written helpfully on this reality.)
And while attempting to make our lives simpler, technology has actually made it more complex. Passing thoughts and random questions that pop up in conversations (“I wonder if Clint Eastwood ever starred in a musical…”) become interjections to our lives because technology has provided near-instant answers to those questions. (Yes he has.) Conversations, meetings, and worship services are perpetually interrupted by the beeps, buzzes, and vibrations of alerts that tell us that we have a new text, email, or message via Twitter or Facebook.
It’s precisely because of Apple’s brilliant design, its artfulness and beauty, its seamlessness and ease-of-use that it has become so ubiquitous. The user-friendly, “Don’t Panic” pathos of it makes it feel less like an interruption or a distraction than a good friend. Like anything that becomes habitual, we lose sight of ourselves as we continually check it, read it, respond to it throughout the rhythms of our days, unaware of the ways that it has hindered us from connecting to the people, places, and objects around us. At a recent concert, I marveled at how many people spent significant chunks of the show viewing the events through the screen of their iPhones as they captured video to share with their online “friends.”
It should be said that this is deeply incongruous with Jobs’s religious beliefs. Enlightenment in Buddhism is the product of a quieted and stilled mind. But the seemingly inevitable result of exposure to technology is a busying of the mind, a weakening of it that leaves us dependent upon technology for both its answers and its entertainment value.
This too is the undeniable legacy of Jobs; not that he has made technology more sinister, more poisonous to the already frayed and tired minds of the world, but that he has masked the sinister qualities inherent in technology in the guise of Apple’s clean, simple, “Think Different” aesthetic.
It’s quite a haunting mix. Apple excels at what they do by appealing to our love for form—-a love for beauty that has its roots in the imago dei. This is the part of Jobs’s legacy that so many have praised in recent days. But nonetheless, they create a world that is less simple, more busy, more noisy, more disruptive to community and relationships, more dependent on a technological intermediary.
To be sure, I’m not a luddite. I’m one of those caught in what Jaques Ellul calls the “technological milieau.” I don’t know how I’d do my job as a leader in a large church without Apple, Google, and host of others who provide the technology we rely on daily. I’m also not without thankfulness for the fact that in the case of Apple in particular, there is at least some attention given to beauty in the midst of that milieu.
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.