Relaymedia

More than Duct Tape

Mar 05, 2003 10:32 AM EST

Two years ago, a woman stood in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, courtroom awaiting sentencing for murdering her husband. Her grief-stricken son struggled to find the words to express his feelings: "Delete. Delete. . . . Consider yourself deleted from our lives."

His use of computer language was not only sad and oddly humorous. It was also an example of how technology shapes the way we think and live.

Most Christians regard a technology’s morality as a function of its use. For example, using the Internet to download pornography or spread Nazi propaganda is evil. But absent immoral uses, the thinking goes, the Internet has no moral or spiritual impact.

Quentin Schultze, a very able professor of communication at Calvin College, begs to differ. He has written a very interesting new book titled Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. In it he writes, "Information technologies are not just tools but also value-laden techniques." We not only use them to help us organize our lives, but we also increasingly "rely on them to understand nearly every aspect of our lives."

Stated another way, these technologies and the culture that springs from their use answer the question, "How now shall we live?" And, Schultze says, if we are not careful, technology’s answers will become ours.

If this sounds alarmist, consider what one industry executive told Schultze: The goal is for technology not only to change how we do things, such as writing and editing, but actually to change the kind of things we do.

Avoiding this worldview trap begins with understanding what Schultze calls "cyberculture," the "values, practices, and beliefs of people who spend a lot of time online."

For example, cyberculture places a premium on efficiency and control. In the words of a Business Week cover story: "Efficiency Rules!" That’s okay for a data retrieval system. The problem comes when people apply that reasoning to their own lives and "assume that doing things quickly and effectively is more important than doing them carefully, thoughtfully, and ethically."

Another troubling aspect is what Schultze calls cyberculture’s "libertinism." This refers to the online world’s "strident individualism" and lack of respect for any moral order. On the Internet, Schultze says, "the individual alone [is] the only arbiter of truth and justice."

The most obvious example of this libertinism is Internet pornography. Attempts to restrict or regulate even the most explicit material are categorically rejected as infringing on the rights of the individual. Attempts to balance those rights with the good of society go nowhere because cyberculture recognizes only individual rights—no other authority.

Even if this ethos were limited to geeks, it still would be a problem. But Schultze warns that as the rest of us use information technologies, we assimilate some of cyberculture’s values.

Schultze does not advocate giving up information technologies. He says, instead, we must make a self-conscious effort to cultivate Christian ideas about virtue and community. And only then can we avoid the cyberculture trap.

The place to start, of course, is by being aware of the problem. Today’s technologies come with their own worldview—one that seeks to delete your worldview and take its place.

By Charles Colson, Breakpoint.org