A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow blogger Rosie Perera recommended a book to me with a rather intriguing title: From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer. Let me just say at the outset that this is a great book, and any Christian interested in the topic of technology and culture should read it. As I read through it, I often found myself thinking “dang, this is good. I wish I had written it!” The book is certainly not perfect (what book ever is?), but it is the most articulate, balanced, and nuanced examination of technology written from a Christian perspective that I’ve read so far.
Dyer approaches the topic of technology not only as a practicing software developer, but also as a former youth pastor and seminary-trained theologian who has done quite a bit of reading in “media ecology,” a discipline that studies media as an element of a more complex sociotechnical “ecosystem.” These two sides of his personality allow him to have a much more balanced view of technology, one that can both deconstruct shortsighted critiques of the latest and most feared social media, and acknowledge the ways in which technology is rarely, if ever, neutral.
His stated purpose in the book is to “dismantle the concept of technology, examine it carefully, and then put it back together again” (17). While he does so, he reflects on the Biblical narrative, fitting technology into the four main movements of the Christian story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. His hope is that this will help Christians not only to reflect more deeply on the nature of technology, but also to imagine ways in which the negative consequences of particular technologies might be “redeemed” by new creative uses.
Dyer describes a few examples of technological redemption, but the one that stuck with me the most was a story about his former pastor who was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. A member of the congregation gave the pastor a beeper, a device usually critiqued as intrusive and community-destroying, and told the other members to call the associated number whenever they prayed for the pastor. As the pastor waited to undergo surgery, and all throughout his recovery, the constantly buzzing beeper was a tangible reminder of the prayers his parishioners were offering up, as well as the care and concern they had for him as a person. This creative repurposing, Dyer argues, redeemed the beeper, transforming it “into something that mediated an entirely different set of values” (99).
In the more philosophical parts of the book, Dyer defines the word ‘technology’, and outlines the typical stances one finds in discussions of how technology and culture interact. He interprets the word ‘technology’ fairly broadly, noting its ancient connection with art and creativity, and offering up this concise definition: “the human activity of using tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes” (65). He includes both physical artifacts and methods (techniques) in the term ‘tool’ but emphasizes that for something to be a tool, it must enable the transformation of creation. Strangely, he goes on to argue that art is not a tool since it exists for “its own sake” (66), but this overlooking of art’s often purposeful social influence seems strange given his earlier examination of the greek root téchnē.
In another philosophical chapter, Dyer briefly outlines the stances of technological determinism and instrumentalism. The former sees technology as a separate sphere that “impacts” culture and advances according to its own logic, while the latter sees technology as a neutral tool to be used by us to do either evil or good (or as the NHRA once said it on a bumpersticker: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”). Dyer nicely shows the problems with both of these extreme positions, and guides the reader to a more balanced understanding of the ways in which we both shape our devices and are shaped by them in return.
Despite these philosophical sections, the book is written for a general reader. Dyer’s prose is clear and approachable, and he gently guides the reader through difficult to grasp concepts. This book would make an excellent choice for a book group interested in the subject, or pastors who want to present a more balanced and nuanced view of technology in their sermons. On the whole, I highly recommend it.