Friday Five – John Dyer

May 6, 2011

John DyerWhat is the effect of technology on our souls? And how do people of faith discern what is good and what is harmful? Today I’ve invited my friend John Dyer for a thoughtful discussion on the intersection of faith and technology.

John Dyer (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) has been a web developer for more than ten years, building tools for Apple, Microsoft, Harley Davidson, and the Department of Defense. He currently serves as the Director of Web Development for Dallas Theological Seminary and lives near Dallas, Texas with his wife Amber and two children, Benjamin and Rebecca. He has written on technology and faith for Christianity Today and Collide MagazineFrom the Garden to the City is his first book.

1) A professor in seminary shocked your thinking by saying, “The worst thing you can believe is that technology is neutral.” I’ve always subscribed to this theory, but why is this not true?

When we say, “technology is neutral,” we usually mean that our tools aren’t themselves morally good or evil, because what matters is how we use them. Computers should be used for Bible study, not porn; phones for calling in pizza orders, not bomb threats; and shovels for building orphanages, not axe-murdering.

But what we often forget is that whether we use a shovel for good (building an orphanage) or evil (axe-murdering) either way we end up with blisters at the end of the day. And as we continue using our shovels, those blisters will turn into calluses and our arms and backs will get more muscular.

In other words, tools and technology are not neutral because whenever we use them to transform the world, they in turn transform us in some way. And they don’t just transform our bodies, they also transform business and culture. We acknowledge as much when we say, “iTunes changed the music industry,” or “Kindle has transformed the way we buy and read books.”

If you buy that, then the bigger question is, “Can technology change my soul?”

2) You say we often consume technology without fully understanding its impact. How is this dangerous?

About 10 years ago when I got my first job as a youth pastor, I bought a video projector so I could show passages of Scripture onscreen for kids who didn’t have Bibles.

After a few months, I noticed that even fewer kids were bringing Bibles, and those who did bring Bibles never opened them. At first I worried that I was the world’s worst youth pastor, until I realized that there was no reason for them to open their Bibles if I was projecting it onscreen.

Clearly, the projector was not “neutral” in the sense that using it transformed the way my kids and I encountered the Word of God.  I’m not saying that I know whether it’s better or worse for kids to read from their own personal copy of the Bible versus reading projected text, but I do think it’s important for us to recognize these kinds of changes that technology brings.

3) Seems technology has given unprecedented opportunities for the church to expand the gospel witness in the world. So has technology has been a net plus?

Since Adam and Even invented clothing (Gen 3:7) and God gave them a free upgrade (Gen. 3:21), humans have shown incredible ingenuity in creating technology that can (partially) overcome the effects of the fall. It’s almost like we were created in the image of someone who himself is really good at creating. Advances in medicine over the last century have greatly reduced infant mortality and significantly increased life expectancies. Communication technology offers tremendous opportunities for spreading the gospel. I am personally involved in writing online education software for a seminary, and Bible software for distributing the Scriptures in closed countries.

But I’m not so concerned with whether or not technology offers us a “net plus” as I am with helping us recognize that technology always brings a “net change.”

Cars have changed where we live, microphones have increased the size of our churches, microwaves alter family meal time, and video projectors reconfigure our experience of the Word. Focusing all our time deciding if technology is “bad” or “good” tends to blind us from all of these other very significant changes that technology brings.

4) Seems there are two types of Christian approaches: those who long and pine for a less cluttered era and those who are in love with tech. Is there a third way that embraces our calling in the 21st century without becoming a slave?

The twentieth century brought the developed world incredible access to the healthiest, most productive, and care-free lifestyle possible. Machines do almost all of our physical labor, and we have access to the fresh, exotic, and tasty foods any time we want.

Yet, the result of the abundance of food has been that Americans are growing increasingly obese. The problem is that we have trouble distinguishing between easy-to-consume food and that which truly nourishes.

A parallel trend appears to be happening with information. We know have access to the greatest sermons, research, and Biblical tools humans have ever created, and yet we spend most of our time updating Facebook and watching cats on YouTube. In other words, we have trouble distinguishing between easy-to-consume information and that which truly nourishes.

This has been a pattern for humanity. Sadly, abundance often leads not to more abundance, but to decay. So there is not silver bullet install-this-software-and-not-that-one-and-you’ll-be-okay solution. Instead, we have to do the hard work of cultivating technological discernment. Part of developing that discernment is understanding how technology both in society at large and at the individual level.

5) What is one piece of advice you would give to bloggers, Christian leaders–anyone seriously engaging the digital world?

It is extremely challenging to both affirm the God-given goodness of technology while also helping people see its downsides.

Thankfully, I think there’s a nice example in the Scriptures of how to do this. 2 John 12 says, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

In this passage, John carefully distinguishes between the communication technology of his day (“pen and ink”) and being face-to-face which he calls “complete.” He seems to recognize the value of writing while also acknowledging that it doesn’t offer the completeness that embodies life alone can offer.

Recognizing a downside or incompleteness of his technology didn’t stop John from using it; rather it ensured that he always used technology in service of and as supplemental to embodied life, not as a replacement for it.

So I’d ask all of us in the digital age – do we agree with John?