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COVID-19 and the Dilemma of Technology

In Psalm 135, the Psalmist writes: ‘The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them’ (vv 15-18 [NRSV]).

We might think that the problem of idolatry was a problem for the ancients, with their primitive tendency to worship a statue or a graven image, and not so much a problem for us today. I would argue that this season of Coronavirus reminds us that we – like the early readers of Psalm 135 – are equally prone to making idols, to putting our trust and faith in things and ideas instead of putting our trust in God.

One of the contemporary idols with which we have problems is the idol of Technology, and perhaps no more so than at this moment. We have faith that technology will produce a much-needed vaccine that will ‘save’ us and allow us to return to life as we knew it; we are tempted to think that technologies like Zoom replicate the same experience and the same significance as face-to-face interaction. Both of these assumptions are far from certain and perhaps even somewhat dubious.

And in our idolisation of Technology, we may think that technology, particularly new technologies, bring only benefits. The late philosopher of technology, Neil Postman (d. 2003), argued in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) that ‘[e]very technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that’ (p. 5). Culture, he said, always pays a price for technological change. For every advantage that a new technology brings, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. Yes, we should ask ‘What will a new technology do?’ But we also need ask the important question ‘What will a new technology undo?’ As a result, Postman could argue (I think rightly) that ‘the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally. There are, as it were, winners and losers’ (p. 9). Thus, every new technology benefits some and harms others.

Now, don’t get me wrong – like most of us, I benefit from (and sometimes even relish in) technological innovation. But let’s not forget that there are both gains and losses that new technology can bring. Take just one example: Modern antibiotics have a certain technological paradox – yes, antibiotics can rid the body of disease. But they also weaken our immune systems and make medical diagnosis more difficult in ways the pioneers of this technology could not have predicted.

So during this season of Coronavirus, let us remember that Technology is something that brings both gains and losses, or to put it more Biblically, blessings and curses. There are always winners and losers with any technological innovation. As such, let us also resist the temptation to make Technology an idol, trusting it will provide the means for us to interact with each other humanly, or even ‘save’ us from this pandemic. For when our faith shifts away from our trust in God to trust in a thing like Technology, we will become lifeless, as the Psalmist predicts, just like the idols we worship.

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