by John Dyer (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011, 192 pages)
John Dyer is Executive Director of Communications and Educational Technology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has published articles in Collide Magazine and Christianity Today and authors the blog donteatthefruit.com.
Book review by Dr. David Stearns
Technology and Culture
“One of the most dangerous things you can believe in this world is that technology is neutral.” This rather provocative statement, made by one of John Dyer’s seminary professors, set him on an intellectual quest to better understand the relationship between technology and culture. This book summarizes what he learned on that quest, and sketches out a new Biblically-based perspective on technology that tries to find a middle ground between short-sighted critique and triumphal, utopian praise.
Dyer turns out to be especially suited for this task: in addition to his seminary training, he also brings a strong background in software development, and a great love of all things technological. This enables him not only to handle philosophical concepts and scripture well, but also to cut through some of the conflations commonly made by social critics who lack a detailed understanding of the devices and systems they criticize. His time spent as a youth leader is also apparent in the way he communicates complex topics with helpful examples.
As a technological practitioner, Dyer speaks from a position of redemptive engagement, not retreat; his mission is to “understand how to live faithfully in this technologically-saturated world” (29), not apart from it. This stance makes his book especially helpful to those of us who want to remain engaged with our current culture, either because we feel vocationally called to work with technology, or simply because we enjoy the benefits modern technology affords.
For the more philosophical parts of the book, Dyer draws upon literature from the field of “media ecology” as well as the philosophy of technology. He offers a broad and encompassing definition for the word ‘technology’; he clearly explains the theoretical positions of technological determinism and instrumentalism (the former sees technology as a separate sphere that “impacts” culture and advances according to its own logic, while the latter sees technology as a neutral tool to be used by us to do either evil or good); and he provides an introduction to some of the key concepts from the study of media. These philosophical sections are written for the general reader so they are not terribly detailed or deep, but they do provide a helpful introduction for those not already familiar with the topics.
Technology and the Biblical Narrative
The other sections of the book examine how technology functions in the Biblical narrative, and is organized by the four main movements in the Christian story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. His desire here is to show not only that technology plays an important role in all four movements, but also that the negative and unintended consequences we experience from our modern technologies might one day be “redeemed” along with all of creation.
This idea of “technological redemption” is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, and Dyer illustrates it with a compelling story. A few years ago, his pastor was diagnosed with colon cancer, and one of the other members of the congregation came up with a rather unique way of showing his concern. The member gave the pastor a beeper and then gave the associated phone number out to the rest of the congregation, telling them to call the number whenever they prayed for the pastor. As the pastor waited to undergo surgery, and all throughout his recovery, the constantly-buzzing beeper became a tangible reminder of the prayers his parishioners were offering up, as well as the care and concern they had for him as a person. This creative repurposing of the beeper, a device more commonly associated with intrusion and division, transformed it “into something that mediated an entirely different set of values” (99).
Not Without Its Flaws
Although this book is an excellent introduction to the topic of technology and culture, it is not without its flaws. His historical claims are often overstated, and he would benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of technology. His discussion of the causal relationship between technology and culture could be improved by including some of the ideas from the sociology of technology. His concept of technological redemption also needs more development, especially as it might apply to technologies we currently use. Lastly, the “technology tetrad” he offers as a tool for reflecting on new technologies might be helpful to some, but I found it to be analytically confusing.
Despite these weaknesses, I still think this is an excellent book for Christians who want to start thinking more deeply about the interaction of technology and culture. The writing style is approachable and easily understandable, and the book’s organization makes it easy to consume in short reading sessions.
Dr. David Stearns is a part-time lecturer in history at Seattle Pacific University. He is a historian of technology and culture, and you can follow his writings on this subject via his blog at techsoulculture.org.