Battling with technopoly
A couple of years ago I asked my wife for a portable Global Positioning System device, also known as a ‘GPS’. A GPS device allows you to identify your exact location by means of satellite system. It prevents you getting lost when hiking, camping, hunting or fishing. It allows you to mark your beginning point and then electronically retrace your steps back to that point. In other words, it’s really neat!
The humorous thing, however, is that I have absolutely no need of this device! I don’t hike, camp, hunt or fish. So why did I want it? I wanted it because it’s really neat! Like many people in our culture, I suffer from ‘technophilia’- the love of technology.
Now there’s nothing wrong with technology per se. In fact, there are many things right about technology. Technology has brought tremendous blessings to our world, such as vaccines, agricultural advances and indoor plumbing.
Even Neil Postman, a critic of the effects of technology, noted that it would be ‘stupid to be anti-technology. That would be something like being anti-food. We need technology to live, as we need food to live’.1
But Postman also qualified that statement by cautioning, ‘But, of course, if we eat too much food, or eat food that has no nutritional value, or eat food that is infected with disease, we turn a means of survival into its opposite. The same may be said of our technology’.2 Therefore, what I am confronting in this guest column series is not technology itself, but the harmful effects resulting from the misuse and overuse of technology.
What I am confronting is what Neil Postman referred to as ‘technopoly’.3 Postman defined technopoly as a ‘state of culture’ and a ‘state of mind’ which ‘consists in the deification of technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology’.4 Technopoly occurs when technology dominates and controls our lives, when it becomes an idol.
Let’s take a look at technopoly in the Bible.
At first, we might think the Bible doesn’t address the topic of technology at all. After all, technology is part of our modern world. When we think of technology, we think of computers, cell phones and the like. Of course, none of these devices existed in biblical times. However, that does not mean technology did not exist in the age of the Bible.
Even the most ancient and primitive cultures developed some form of technology. Just because these ancient cultures did not have IPods does not mean they did not face the threat of technopoly. For instance, the early chapters of the book of Genesis provide us with two examples of cultures which succumbed to technopoly.
The first example of a technology-dominated culture emerges immediately after the Fall. In Genesis 4, a contrast is set forth between the two remaining sons of Adam – Cain and Seth.
Seth and his descendants served the Lord; they worshipped God, calling ‘on the name of the Lord’ (Genesis 4:26). However, Cain and his descendants were known for something entirely different.
They were known for their technological prowess. Instead of worshipping God, they built cities (Genesis 4:17), developed musical instruments (Genesis 4:21) and forged a variety of tools (Genesis 4:22).
The sons of Cain were masters of technology, but their culture was devoid of God. Bruce Waltke notes that the sons of Cain are, ‘symbolic of human culture with great civilizations and no God’.5
For the sons of Cain, technology became an idol. They overvalued their technology and relied on it rather than on God. Remember, it was the wickedness produced by the technologically dominated culture of the sons of Cain which eventually led God to destroy the world with a flood.
A second biblical example of technopoly stemmed from the Babelites. After the Flood, evil once again began to prosper in the world, particularly through the descendants of Noah’s son Ham. Ham’s descendants, like those of Cain, became known for their technological prowess in building cities and making war (Genesis 10:8-12).
In Genesis 11, we learn that most of mankind came to embrace the ways of the descendants of Ham. They allowed technology to become a tool of godlessness, a means of opposing the rule of God. In Genesis 11:4, we learn that the Babelites decided to build a massive tower which ‘would reach to the heavens’.
The reason they desired to build this tower was to ‘make a name’ for themselves (Genesis 11:4). In other words, they wanted to climb into the heavens to dethrone God and become gods themselves. This is why God came down and confused their efforts.
He recognized that their construction project represented a direct attack on his kingship. For the Babelites, technology became a means of undermining God’s rule of the universe.
Once again, my point is not that the Bible teaches technology is inherently evil. After all, in Genesis 6 we learn that Noah saved the world by building a massive ark – a Herculean exhibition of technological capability. The problem for the sons of Cain and the Babelites was that they misused technology to advance the plans of Satan and undermine a God-centred world view. Both cultures fell victim to the evils of technopoly.
The author is visiting professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA, and a teaching elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. He is the author of several books including, The24/7 Christian: Practical help from the Book of James(EP Books).
1. Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (NY, NY: Alfred Knopf, 2001), p.44.
3. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (NY, NY: Vintage Books, 1993).
4. Ibid., p.71
5. Bruce Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p.99.