Faith in the Digital Age

Our lives increasingly are defined by technology.

This is not news. These words are not printed in black ink on folded broadsheets made of mechanical wood pulp and tossed in your driveway or hawked from streetcorners. That era is passing away, but in its time, cheap and efficient printing was a technological, world-changing revolution, able to spread information quickly and cheaply. It altered the course of civilization.

The internet is our moveable type. You are reading these words on a computer or mobile device, and they are appearing on your screen because you are connected to a small piece of hardware that links you to a global network of computers, all of them firing data—words, ideas, pictures, sounds, movies, games–faster than the speed of thought. (And, considering the quality of much of that data, actual “thought” frequently isn’t even part of the equation.)

The acceleration of technological development is outpacing our ability to understand that technology in a moral context. Informational technology is only one frontier. Medical technology, energy, transportation, communication: all of these areas are undergoing, or soon will be undergoing, radical transitions.

Emerging technologies are shaping, reshaping, and sometimes warping, our perception of reality. This cannot happen in moral vacuum. It cannot exist without a moral dimension. Anything that is—anything that can be perceived with the senses or apprehended with the intellect—has a moral quality to it. Technology can be another tool for building up the Kingdom, or for tearing it down, but it cannot be morally neutral. Whether we realize it or not–whether we even use the technology or not–humanity is changed by the mere existence of 3D printing, video games, nanoscale structures, text messages, mobile devices, and myriad other elements of modern life.

Technology, like fire, can create or destroy, and so we need to consider the vast technological landscape from a uniquely Catholic angle. This is what I hope to accomplish with God and the Machine. I want to look at the intersection of technology and faith: not just the way new tech is being used to evangelize and examine the faith, but the way people of faith encounter their world through technology. In short, I’ll examine technology, in all its wonderful, horrible power and potential, and try to answer the singular question: How do we walk with Christ in the digital age?

Much of what I cover will focus on information technology and entertainment, from video games and mobile phones, to internet blocking software and anti-piracy laws. IT brings the entire world right into our homes, for both good and ill. How do we engage that world in a uniquely Catholic way?

I also intend to touch upon other areas of technology that are evolving faster than our ability to understand their moral implications. For example, a biomedical printer capable of printing out skin grafts for burn patients, synthetic bones, and, potentially, organs would seem to be a boon for mankind. Indeed, in many ways it is, and we should welcome it.

But where do we draw the line? It’s not a particularly hard question, but it’s become quite clear that the companies and scientists at the forefront of evolving medical technology are not even pausing to ask it. If we can “print” replacement organs that could extend human life indefinitely, should we?

I put absolutely no credence whatsoever in the outlandish claims some make for the future of transhumanism. The idea that we will one day be able to “download” our consciences is patently absurd, but genetic engineering and “body hacking” are already here in their nascent forms. They are not going away, and they appear to be in the hands of people who believe moral and ethical concerns are irrelevant.

Although technology is at the heart of this blog, Patheos is giving me a pretty broad canvas. “Technology|Culture|Catholicism” covers pretty much everything I know anything about, so expect plenty of digressions on whatever shiny things float into my eyeline while I’m writing, whether it’s about Skyrim, or St. Augustine’s best friend, or Alice Cooper.

I’ll introduce myself in more detail as we go along, but for now you should know that I’m a writer, catechist, revert, theology student, gamer, father and husband. I played with plenty of titles for this blog, from the awful (Catholitech) to the pretentious (imagine lots of Latin).

I settled on God and the Machine as a riff on the phrase “Deus ex Machina,” which means “God from the Machine.” A playwright in ancient Greece who found himself with an irresolvable plot problem might have a pagan god appear to set everything aright. An actor playing Apollo might be lowered onto the stage by a crane (Gk.: “mechane”) as though descending from the clouds.  Thus, the playwright had produced a “god out of the machine,” kind of like the giant foot that stomped things flat in Monty Python.

God is one, and he is not coming out of any machine. But He is with us as we use the gifts He’s provided—imagination, intellect, reason—to find new ways of understanding and interacting with our world.

Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence: The medium is the message.

Neil Postman

When electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer. Technically speaking, the age in which we live is certainly favorable to Antichrist. Just think: each person can instantly be turned to a new Christ and mistake him for the Real Christ.

Marshall McLuhan


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.