3D printing leading to global manufacturing on demand, the complete reshaping of the idea of going to school, fleets of driverless cars… these are just some of the innovations Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen describe in their new book, The New Digital Age. In the book, Schmidt and Cohen don their Nostradamian hats and offer a slew of predictions about how emerging technological innovations will dramatically change our lives. The authors are interested in the wide array of impending technological breakthroughs that could significantly change in our lives, but they are particularly interested in communication technology—the Internet, social media, smart phones. These technologies seem poised to alter everything from the nature of states to terrorism, revolution, and reconstruction. Amidst the optimism and warnings, however, something seems missing. Even though The New Digital Age primarily discusses the way that communication technologies will change our world, it largely leaves untouched the question of what kinds of people we are to be and how communication technology will shape and be shaped by our personhood. Schmidt and Cohen’s book cycles through a number of different topics offering a range of predictions for how communication technology will change the landscape. While balancing the optimistic (the introductory chapter reads like a Futurist manifesto) with the pessimistic (the terrorism chapter is deeply unnerving), Schmidt and Cohen betray an obvious faith in the ultimate possibilities of communication technology to unite and to improve.
But which of these possible futures is the one we are likely to see? In telling the digital story, The New Digital Age focuses on the power of the tools and technologies that will become available, yet it ignores the human and moral questions. Schmidt and Cohen seem convinced that merely having the technology to communicate more and more often will act as the spark for a great new future—that if technology is left to the user, we will see a trend toward the various positive possibilities that they outline. But they betray a laissez-faire approach to the moral underpinnings of the New Digital Age. A moral understanding of technology is not something that can be left to figure itself out. Our understanding of personhood shapes our use of technology, and technology can alter how we understand ourselves and our relationship to others.
If we are truly entering a new age—a digital one as distinct from the past as the industrial age was from that which preceded it—then we must not merely allow our progress to become the source of our self-understanding. We run that risk when we view our advancements as automatic improvements on our humanity. Technology and the new ways of thinking they engender present two challenges. The first is that new technologies, if sufficiently widespread, change our interpretation and understanding of the world. The mechanistic metaphors of the industrial age and the computer metaphors of the digital are two great examples of this. By doing so, technologies can alter which worldviews receive emphasis. Second, movements and social actors who are more adept at using those technologies will more successfully influence how those technologies shape our future. What this ultimately means is that any hope that innovations will somehow work themselves out ignores important aspects of social dynamics and how interests, culture, and technology all shape each other.
This returns us to the question that Schmidt and Cohen don’t address. While I share much of the optimism and many of the fears that the authors describe, the question of whether we can remain masters of our own creations is vitally important. In talking about communication technologies, Schmidt and Cohen certainly recognize the role that people play in using technology. However, that technology remains the prime mover in their account of our brave new future. Technology generally, and communication technology in particular, is at its best when it works as an enhancement of human life. But in order for that to be possible, we need a better sense of what we mean by human persons in their fullness as relational, emotional, and spiritual persons. To try and build a technological scaffolding on a vacuous sense of personhood will leave us facing the same disappointment the industrial age encountered when their unmoored belief in technical development brought the world down around them.
People are not the products of their creations but rather actively determine what ends their creations will meet. Much of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith’s recent work has tried to argue for and understand just this point—persons aren’t just statistics or amalgamations of social forces; they are complex creatures with beliefs and values. We are made up of the myriad forces that shape their lives and that we, in return, help shape. And none of this should sound strange to Christian ears. Concepts like the Imago Dei, scripture’s call for love of neighbor, and the profound message of the gospel all provide deep sources for re-imagining the connection between our humanity and our technology.
The growth of communicational technologies certainly fits within a Biblical framework. Improved communication and the understanding and peace that could come from it, opportunities for meeting the needs of the underprivileged or impoverished, and freedom from physical and emotional oppression are all laudable goals and ones that should be at the fore of any understanding of stewardship and grace. But, in the same way Paul calls us to be mastered by nothing save the love of God and the Holy Spirit, we are not to be mastered by our gadgets. Those same arguments that theologians and Christian moral philosophers make about what is the good life are the same that should guide our technological developments and shape how we use the tools of the coming Digital Age.