Thursday, July 21, 2011

Technological Narcissism

Many people assume that theology and technology are about as far apart as two things could be. In reality, however, in a broad sense the two are always influencing one another and always have been. Without Romans roads and military technology the early spread of Christianity would have been very different. Likewise the predominance of the Greek language in both East and West which allowed rapid dissemination and use of the New Testament owes much to certain technological advantages of the Greeks and Macedonians in earlier generations. The theological revolution of the Reformation would be difficult to imagine if it were not for the introduction of the printing press and there is no doubt that modern technologies such as voice amplification have had a noticeable impact on the way church is done. Additional examples are virtually inexhaustible.

Since technological developments have a fundamental impact on how people interact and communicate they likewise have an impact on how theological ideas and positions develop and spread. We live in a time of great technological upheaval with regard to how information is processed and disseminated (you are reading a blog after all). We as Christians should therefore be careful about how the technological revolution around us is shaping our spiritual lives and the communities of faith of which we are a part. There are a number of important subsets to this that could (and should) be examined but I would like to focus on just one for now. Technological developments are encouraging a subtle but dangerous narcissism in our culture both inside and outside of the church.

There have been a series of changes to the way that information and entertainment are consumed in the past decades and it is having an impact on how people process the world around them. The changes I am referring to is the trend of ubiquitous customization. Normally we think about an individualized experience as being a good thing and I agree that in many ways it is. The problem, however, is that if not balanced it can be a dangerous thing for us emotionally and spiritually.

Consider for a moment how much has changed. Although there have always been informational and entertainment (infotainment) subcultures the broader culture, at least on a regional level, was more communal. The shared informational and entertainment influences were a more important factor in peoples lives than they are now. One of the reasons was that choices were more limited. Everyone basically watched the same news programs and got the same perspective on what was happening. There were always targeted newspapers but the big regional papers still dominated the news flow. Murrow, Brinkley, Cronkite, and others like them were the gatekeepers for a common set of facts. There were only a few radio and TV options for music and entertainment.

Today each person has the ability to pre-load their ipod with only the music they like or they can stream customized play lists that cater to their preferences. We can get all of our news exclusively from people that agree with our social, economic, and political views without ever having to really be challenged with a strong presentation of facts from an opposing viewpoint. As much as we like to assume that the internet opens up to us a world of unfiltered information that allows us to access our own assemblage of information from the sea of knowledge that is not the case. The websites and search engines we use are continually building a profile of each of us and the search results, advertisements, and options that appear on the internet are increasingly customized to what it is assumed we will want to see based upon our past choices (click here for more on this).

I am not arguing that this kind of customization is always bad. My point is only that it is subtle and develops an almost unconscious bent toward self centeredness. Instead of actually linking people together much of the new technology actually isolates people allowing them to set the terms of their interactions with other people, information, and ideas forcing those interactions through a self-focused grid. Almost without realizing it we become the center of our own little universe. Even though we may be connected to more people than before natural unstructured interaction is actually reduced.

The reason that this is spiritually and emotionally dangerous is because intentionally or not it reinforces a self-centered approach to the world around us. This is antithetical to Christianity at a crucial point. Many other religious and philosophical traditions encourage us to “find ourselves”. They teach that we should “follow our heart”, “seek peace within our inner being”, “get in touch with our true self” etc. The thought is that subjectivism is the key to structuring our experience of the world around us. What really matters is our own self-image, attitude, and contentment.

In contradistinction to this inward, self seeking, approach the bible tells us that apart from grace “the heart is desperately wicked” and “that nothing good dwells within me”. One of the great offences of Christianity is that it boldly overturns any notion that we are at the center of the universe. The scriptures show us that there is a spiritual reality that transcends our “self” and that there is a God who is central to all things and we are not Him. There is therefore an objective truth that is not dependent in any way on our subjective apprehension of it. We are called to determine truth and relevance by a scale completely different than our instincts would lead us to. One of the results of this Truth is that we are to die to self and to serve others. We are called to esteem others as better than ourselves and to forsake our own comforts and even our lives so that others might be blessed.

The information revolution has created many blessings and many useful tools. However, as Christians we need to be aware of the influence that these things have on the culture, the people around us, and on ourselves. We need to recognize that we cannot use these tools without them also shaping us in the process. I pray that we would be sensitive to the fact that our message is likely to be jarring to those who are accustomed to feeding back to themselves their own ideas about themselves and the world around them. I pray that we do not ignore the fact that we are commanded to pour our lives into others so that Christ, who died for us, might be glorified. Let us pray that we would not neglect the means that God has provided for us to build a community of faith, interacting with one another in the Lord and growing in the community of Christ. 


  1. I can think of no communication system, no effort to digest that given information that does not result in individual focus/interpretation/"inward self seeking." This is an observation born of my own interpersonal experiences. I can't say that I recognize intrinsic evil in the subtle internalizing of information, or the self feeding of motives. I can see man as not capable of altruistic behavior. What he does, he does for himself. If a person saves a life by risking their life, have they truly done more for the one that for themselves? That's a question. If you lead another soul to Christ for whom have you done more? Would you say the lost soul, or cold you say yourself, for the fruit and awards in heaven.

  2. I don't disagree that all processing of information involves some subjective processes. My point was not about interpretive processes but rather about the selection of the information to begin with. I also do not see any of this as intrinsically evil. The point is that we are shaped by our use of information technologies and we need to be aware of that.

    Your comments about Christian hedonism involve much larger issues than we can deal with here but those are good questions.