Writer Steve Schramm explores the pros and cons of technology and how Christians should engage with it
The compartmentalization of faith is one of the most dangerous ideas to impact Christian thinking in the 20th Century. Even now, well into the 21st Century, the effects can be seen. If a person has been taught to think that living out their Christian convictions is a ‘Sunday’ thing instead of something that affects them every day, in every area of their life, they will naturally gloss over some of the important questions.
This shows up prominently in the arena of technology. In recent years, the overreach of tech companies has become a concern and rightly so. And there is a real question as to whether this overreach would have come on so suddenly had Christians been paying closer attention for the past few decades.
How does technology play a role in the life of a Christian? How should Christians think about ‘big tech’ companies and the measure of control we allow them to have in our daily lives?
Digital natives and the fall of analog
Christians must think carefully and be willing to make distinctions when exploring this issue. For example, it would be tempting for ‘analog natives’ (basically, early millennials and those born before) to long for the ‘good old days’ when children freely roamed throughout their neighbourhood, playing ball and visiting with friends, with little concern whether something could happen to them.
It would be tempting to wish our kids would “put down their darn video games” and go play outside for a while. The reality, however, is that we no longer live in that world. We live in a world where eSports is on the rise—a series of sporting leagues filled with championships, talent scouts, representative agencies and massive contracts—very similar to traditional sports.
We live in a world where the highest paid people with the most leverage are not doctors or lawyers, but software engineers. Case in point, medical technology enables doctors to do more today than ever before. We live in a world where a coder from Bangladesh can be just as vital to the surgical repair of a traumatised patient as the doctor in New York physically performing the surgery. (Never mind the fact that, depending on the surgery, the doctor himself could be in California performing the surgery remotely in New York.)
The important thing to remember is this is still God’s world. God’s Word does not speak to how much screen time we should have, for example, because that was not a concern in the time when the Bible was written. Biblically speaking, insofar as technology helps humanity achieve the dominion mandate, technology is a force for good.
Sadly, some have used technology as a force for evil. And discerning whether any given use of technology is good or evil is necessary, but difficult.
Social media, bricks and cathedrals: a case study in the use of technology
There is an old adage that says a brick is neither moral or amoral, because it can be used to build a cathedral or a hostel. Point being, what a person does with the tool (a brick) is not a reflection of the tool itself, but a reflection of the person using the tool. The same is true of money. Money is amoral, but a person can consume the tool (money) in a way that is generous and good or in a way that is selfish and evil.
Some have attempted to create an analogy with these examples and social media. If social media is just a tool, the logic goes, then the person using the tool has the opportunity to use it for good or for ill.
This is true as far as it goes. However, there is an alarming additional factor in the case of social media that applies to neither bricks or money (at least liquid assets like cash): algorithms.
Algorithms: a (useful) mechanism of manipulation
Algorithms are sophisticated pieces of code that control how data and/or content is manipulated and controlled based on the input factors. If you can believe it, Facebook has nearly two billion active users every single day. That amount of data is difficult to imagine of course, though it’s easy to understand why there is not enough human scale to manipulate it. It requires technology for leverage (in the same way a fulcrum can help a relatively weak individual lift something very heavy).
Thus, algorithms are deployed that serve its users content based on a number of factors, including but not limited to:
- User activity
- Personal information
Many believe, and have evidence to support their case, that political preferences and even collusion with government entities affect social media algorithms as well. To make matters worse, the algorithmic input itself often defies human scale, which means companies deploy AI (Artificial Intelligence) machine learning technology to adjust it ‘on the fly’.
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What this means
There are very important consequences to learn from this case study. First, due to machine learning, you could not simply ask a person working for a large data company the question: “What is your algorithm?” Their answer—legitimately—might be: “We don’t know.” Or: “It changes so fast, it is impossible to know.”
Obviously, there is a measure of human control, but once AI machine learning is deployed, that input varies and evolves on its own.
Second, it means that these companies have the ability to manipulate information according to a particular narrative and serve content that is meant to manipulate. (Note: This author is not taking an accusatory stance, but is rather pointing out the possibilities and concerns given (1) the abilities of the technology and (2) the experience of the user base.)
There are degrees of manipulation, some more controversial than others. For example, many users report evidence of ‘shadow banning’. A shadow-banned user will not be formally banned from the platform for their speech or activity, but instead will notice a sudden, dramatic decrease in reach and/or engagement of content that is not harmful, hateful, or illegal, but nevertheless unfavourable to a particular view or demographic.
Manipulation also comes in the forms of marketing or echo chambering. In these scenarios, users are served content that is meant to increase loyalty and/or hated toward particular persons, groups or brands. Some platforms allow you a measure of control over this. Twitter, for example, allows you to select whether you’d like to see Tweets in the order they were Tweeted (latest) or based on their recommendation engine (home).
Exercising discernment when engaging big tech
Christians are called to discernment (Romans 12:2, Philippians 1:9). This means testing everything we do against the standard set forth by scripture and ensuring that our consumption and use of tools is consistent with it.
‘Big Tech’ companies are the top four or five technology companies which have the most amount of control and influence over humanity, usually as a consequence of sheer data volume. It is probably not inaccurate to say that Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple know more about you than you know—or at least realize—about yourself.
That is a scary thought—but again, there does not seem to be anything inherently wrong with that, and in fact it does seem to be a natural consequence of technological convenience.
By the considering the below three questions and taking a thoughtful position on them, Christians can be sure to safeguard their use of technology and engagement with big tech in a way is both safe and honouring to their Christian commitment.
Question 1. Should Christians stay away from big tech companies altogether?
Here, the Christian should consider Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he addressed the matter of whether all Christians should observe special days, eat particular foods, etc. He had this to say in verses 5-8:
One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honour of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, and he gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. As an addendum to this instruction, consider James’ take on what constituted ‘sin’ for any particular Christian: Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17 KJV)
Any Christian who is persuaded for spiritual or ethical reasons to abstain from engaging with big tech products or services should do so, feeling confident they are pleasing the Lord and doing the right thing. Any Christian who is not persuaded of that should also feel confident they are pleasing the Lord and doing the right thing, insofar as they have carefully thought through the additional questions and implications that arise, such as the below.
Question 2. Are there ways to redeem potentially harmful technology for good?
The answer to this question seems to be yes. Many are principally opposed to companies advertising in their social media feeds, for reasons that the reader can likely identify with. However, this author has a colleague who creates ‘prayer ads’ for churches and helps them reach their community for Christ. This is a way of redeeming technology that was created for questionable purpose for the good.
Another way to redeem potentially harmful technology is to use the technology itself to impose limits. Apple, despite being one of the big tech companies, is quite well-known for their stance on privacy, security, and safety. Apple devices have features which allow you to limit how much time you are allowed to engage with apps, websites and other services.
You may also choose to limit your notifications, so other people and companies do not get to invade your personal time and decide for you what is important. For example, rather than receiving email or text message notifications, you may simply turn those off and check them when you decide to. This is a way of redeeming technology for good (communication) when something potentially harmful (interruption) is the norm.
Finally, as mentioned above with Twitter, some platforms allow you to control what content you see, and when. In this way, one can decrease the odds that the platform is manipulating them and engage with only the content they want to see.
Question 3. Are there some tools, platforms or technologies that are more consistent with a Christian ethic than others?
This is a difficult question to answer since Christianity itself does not have anything specific to say about the use of modern technology. However, if it is fair to say that ‘algorithms’ are the responsible party in terms of data and content manipulation (and this is quite often the case), then it is logical to assume that the best technologies are those which are algorithm-free.
The best example of an algorithm-free technology is the RSS feed. RSS stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’, and that is precisely what it is. RSS feeds use a language called XML to pull data from where it is stored and serve it into the platform of choice. Podcasts, even today, are still mostly based on RSS technology. There is no algorithm on Apple Podcasts that will display a particular podcast for you. You choose what podcasts you listen to and in what order.
Similarly, you could use an RSS feed reader to pull in content from a blog you’d like to follow. Most websites will have an RSS feed for their content by default, and many tools allow you to simply search for RSS feeds and find the ones you want. The content is simply delivered to you in the order it was posted and that’s it. No algorithms serve the data; you just interact with it in your reader as it becomes available.
As a matter of fact, if there’s a Twitter account you like to follow, you can even convert that account into an RSS feed so you can enjoy updates from it without being sucked further into the platform and into their algorithms.
Should we or shouldn’t we?
In the case of Christianity and big tech, Christians should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater or take the unreasonable and biblically unsupported position that technology is not welcome in God’s world.
So long as discernment is exercised, grace is displayed and God’s moral law is not violated by our behaviour, even big tech platforms and companies can be engaged with faithfully and in a way that is consistent with one’s Christian convictions.
Steve Schramm is an autodidactic writer, Bible teacher and host of the Bible Nerd Podcast. He’s authored four books, including Truth Be Told: A Believer’s Guide to Sharing Christianity, Overcoming Objections, and Winning More Souls for Chris.