Technology as Tool and as World: Response to “The Question Concerning Technology and Religion”

[1] There is no single question concerning technology and religion; the variety of technologies, their vast phenomena require attention to each and every instance to discern and evaluate their significance. A. K. M. Adam’s essay urges caution; it also charges communities to carefully evaluate technology from the various teachings and orientations that arise from the adherent’s specific tradition and practices. His position encourages communities to evaluate technologies case-by-case. This moderation depends upon an idea that technologies are tools. Though this is largely the case, there are other ways of considering technology as a world that need to be considered in order to fully develop Adam’s orientation. My brief response extends it to consider how this proposal might engage technology that is world-creating and not merely a tool.

Greogory Walter[2] Adam frequently invokes technology as a tool. This means that technology is a way to increase or extend the agency of the human using the tool. Adam’s thought experiment to consider religion subtracted all forms of technology shows how much of human life is mixed in with human tools. The telephone enables us to extend our range of communication just as a mobile phone enables us to do so while not tethered to a wall in a building. This extension or expansion of the human being’s actions may also be a way to extend and build upon the individual’s identity – thus, Adam points out that one’s digital persona in social and online media are not necessarily alien to the individual but may be considered an extension of the person.

[3] To move from technology as a tool to extend agency to the expansion or concentration of personal identity has a host of implications for evaluating online persona (toons or avatars), the major implication of which is the possible fetishization of the persona and subsequent alienation of the self from the self in the investment of personhood in the persona. This extension is no longer a tool in a simple sense since it does not merely represent the possibility that we may treat it as a fetish of our identity. Our treasured kitchen instruments can, of course, become crucial pieces of our identity just as other implements may. In contrast to other sorts of tools, the online persona invites such a fetishization because it is our self online, our representation or form in action in this other media or digital construct. The problem with the online persona and its relationship to ordinary tools indicates that when we stop at the threshold of the digital we not only are extending our identity, we arrive at media that may change us and our world, the very parameters and givens that enable our agency and identity in the first place.

[4] Martin Heidegger was one of the first to identify the problem of technology that is no longer merely a tool. Heidegger’s deep criticism of technology did not just arise from his love of archaism, though he was certainly subject to that. His practice of phenomenology made him aware that not only do phenomena occur within a world, governed by the horizon in which they dwell, there are ways that human accomplishment, human technological change can short-circuit that world, and though the modern highway seems to merely be a tool, in Heidegger’s analysis it shatters the world in which humans dwell.

[5] For Heidegger, the crucial difference in kind of technology is the moment when a technology ceases to function as a tool and instead reaches to the very framing of the world to create a new one. These are technologies that not only extend agency but also change the very basis and field in which agents operate.

[6] World-changing or world-creating technologies are not necessarily alien to Christian hopes and practice since the Eucharist itself gives a foretaste of a coming Reign of God. It, too, is a world-changing technology after a fashion. Any world on offer by a new technology, whether it is a virtual world or enabled by a material tool, may be itself analogous to or contribute to this coming Reign of God. And, it should be noted, that the kinds of worlds created by fiction—such as those of Middle Earth—have long been considered a just means by which to express the kind of hope and love that Christians long to practice and communicate to the world. But that returns us to the basic point of Adams’ essay: each technology has to be evaluated moment by moment for its suitability according to religious teaching.

[7] Adam’s proposal rightly exercises caution. But it would do well to expand our abilities to evaluate technologies by using the crucial category of world-changing or world-creating alongside of the technology as tool. Christian reflection may have more interest in the later kind since its main business is opening up a new world in the everyday.

Gregory Walter

Gregory Walter is Associate Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.