Review: From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology

by Oct 28, 2011Books, Uncategorized

From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology
From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little story at the very beginning of this book is the one that has stuck with me:

Throughout my years in seminary, I continued to study and work hard in both theological studies and programming. I spent as much time learning Greek and Hebrew as I did learning languages like PHP, C#, Python, HTML, and JavaScript. But in my final semester of seminary, a professor, who was known both for his brilliance and shocking, out-of-nowhere statements, said something that changed everything for me. In the middle of addressing a variety of current issues in society and culture, he looked straight at all of us and said, “One of the most dangerous things you can believe in this world is that technology is neutral.” Wait, what? I thought. Surely, he must have misspoken. After all, nothing could be more obvious than the fact that technology is neutral. What matters is that we use technology for good, right?

Dyer brings up this issue later in the book, and he helpfully frames a question that far too few people are asking: is technology a neutral instrument or does it in some measure determine the ends to which it is put?

Dyer’s answer is no: technology is not neutral. Neither is it fully determinist, making anyone do anything. But we have to recognize that, as media ecologists have pointed out, technologies tend to “play themselves out” within a culture. They do what they were designed to do (even if the designer isn’t always aware how choices he’s making in the design will influence that play). A great example is cellphones:

The presence of a cell phone in my pocket means that my conceptions of space, time, and limits are radically different than a world without cell phones…. When people have cell phones, they tend to answer them when a call comes in. A person is free to use a phone as a paperweight, doorstop, or hammer, but people will tend to use phones to accomplish what they were designed to do—communicate with people. The longer a tool has been around and the more often we use it, the more ingrained and culturally acceptable its tendencies become. Individuals are still free to discard it or use it in some way other than its original design, but the tool has a specific tendency that will usually prevail among the masses. For example, when mobile phones first came on the market, most people bought them only for emergency or business use. Yet, it seems that mobile phones have the built-in tendency to be used much more often, especially as they continue to gain features far beyond making calls. Instrumentalism is partially true in the sense that individuals are free to use phones however they please, but determinism also has an element of truth in that society at large tends to use the technology in a certain way.

Dyer has done better than Challies, for example, in bringing in the insights of media ecology for Christian discussion of technology. He also used Andy Crouch’s work helpfully, speaking of a given piece of technology as a “cultural good.”

I believe I agree with several reviewers that this is the Christian book to read about technology.

View all my reviews

Read More 

Review: Comanche Empire

The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen This excellent book does what modern history is supposed to do nowadays: it gives a voice to the voiceless and the marginalized; it gives agency to the victims. And yet you can’t always predict what will happen when you go...

Review: Means of Ascent

Means of Ascent by Robert A. CaroMy rating: 5 of 5 stars This book is positively monumental. How does Caro do it? Well, I know how he does it. I read his book on the topic. He does it with a lot of hard and humble work (and some excellent help from his wife). I was...

Review: Think Again by Stanley Fish

Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education by Stanley FishMy rating: 5 of 5 stars I have read multiple Stanley Fish books; I read quite a number of these columns when they were originally published in the New York...

Review: Why I Preach from the Received Text

Review: Why I Preach from the Received Text

Why I Preach from the Received Text is an anthology of personal testimonies more than it is a collection of careful arguments. It is not intended to be academic, and I see nothing necessarily wrong with that. But it does make countless properly academic claims, and...

Leave a comment.