I recently had the opportunity to hear Tim Challies speak at one of our local churches here in Winona Lake, IN. Challies is a (Neo-Calvinist) pastor, writer, and a keen thinker who has helped his audiences wrestle with issues related to faith, technology, and our ubiquitous digital devices.
Many of Challies’ points were what one would expect… the tendency for our digital devices and social media to mold for us a “distracted life” rather than one that is “directed” toward God, or the fact that we can create our lives in the image of our digital world, that is, ever faster and ever busier. Challies’ call was to foster a deep and reflective existence. These are profound observations, mind you, and like most of us, I need these sorts of challenges often. But what I really appreciated was the fact that Tim was historically informed.
I have grown accustomed to listening to Christians who assume we are somehow the first generation of humans to wrestle with the effects of intrusive technology and innovation. There is a sense that we are living in unique times and our situation is exceptional. Now granted, certainly there are aspects of today’s technological innovations that present new and unique challenges to living a reflective and God-honoring life. Yet, as Tim reminded the audience, technological innovation is as old as human beings. Technology always changes daily life. Even technology that seems ancient or rudimentary to us — manipulating bronze, stone, or even the landscape — all have had profound effects on past civilizations and the individuals who lived through them. Challies reminded listeners to consider the profound cultural shifts that took place though the development of written language, and later, of movable type and printing. Sometimes its hard for us to remember, but these innovations created the same tensions, feelings, and questions that innovation prompts us to consider today.
To take a more recent example, I am in the middle of teaching a class that bridges the Progressive Era in America and the age of the World Wars — a period of time that produced tremendous change in American society. In class this week, we spent time discussing a textbook that I often assign for this class: David Kyvig’s Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. With a focus on the everyday lives of Americans, it delves into the changes that took place as a result of the application of electrical devices to housekeeping tasks, artificial lighting, and communications that gained momentum in the 1920s. According to Kyvig, “Electrified life not only had a different look than pre-electric life, it also had a different rhythm, feel, and even aroma.” He quotes historian David Nye, “The farmhouse had a lower noise level, and not just because there was no television; it had no humming refrigerators, no flushing toilet, no whirring appliance motors. Things did not make noises; the only sound came from people, animals, and natural forces, like the wind.” Of course all this changed with electrification.
There were more tangible changes as well, such as a shift in daily schedules, common perceptions about how time should be managed, and even the pursuit of leisure. These were most profound in the growing industrial centers. “The shift of daily schedules and the expansion of the productive hours of those with access to electricity were profoundly important.” says Kyvig, “Growing industries and bureaucracies were able to manipulate their operations. Outside the work environment, electrified society gained more opportunity to devote time to nonproductive, pleasurable pursuits. Nothing more rapidly and notably differentiated urban from rural life.” Consider a popular “Businessman’s Prayer” from the 1920s, in which one is encouraged to thank God “for telephones and telegrams that link me with home and office, no matter where I am.” (italics mine)
What’s the point of all this? Technologically-induced change is inevitable. The challenge, no matter the era, is to think “Christianly” about both the opportunities and risks of technology and its impact on the health of our souls. Kudos to Tim Challies, for broaching the subject with an eye toward historical context.