Review: From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology
A little story at the very beginning of this book is the one that has stuck with me:
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.