This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: The new gods of technology

It’s staggering to think how human communication technologies have changed from the time of the telegraph to the internet. What’s more staggering is to consider how things will change over the next 150 years. Plus, the acceleration of change seems exponential. Is not the brave new world of the future already manifesting itself in our present times?

Braving the Future
Braving the Future

Douglas Estes has given a lot of thought to these issues. In Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech, he engages the way new technologies pose challenges to both practical and philosophical aspects of our lives.

Practically, for instance, how much time should children be allowed to experience interactive game technologies? Philosophically, what does it mean for electronic nanotechnologies to blend into our human brains?

This philosophical realm, for Estes, creates a needed conversation between technology and Christian faith. If, for example, we consider God to be omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, how will our theology be affected when computer-based technologies take on this same triad of divine attributes, making them seemingly limitless? And what about medical advances to extend human life, even toward immortality?

It is important for Christians not to lag behind in discussions about faith and technology but to get a step ahead. Changes will certainly come, sometimes at a mind-boggling pace.

All the more reason, says Estes, for us to make a habit of thinking about cutting-edge technologies through the lens of biblical truth and wisdom.

What are these technologies that are now pressing upon us? Eight serve to structure the book: virtual reality, autonomous machines, gene editing, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, intelligent robots, nanotechnology and cybernetics.

Common reactions to these trends range from complete rejection to a full embrace. Both extremes are problematic for Estes, who promotes a critical engagement that requires trust in God along with a moral framework for measuring the merits of any technology.

I like the way Estes introduces each emergent technology through popular culture. He frequently describes a science fiction movie not only to highlight how a specific technology functions but also to reveal underlying assumptions we carry about that technology.

These assumptions often deal with the interrelationship between people and technology. While we might think we are the main shapers of technology, to what extent does technology shape our humanity?

This gets to a key issue in the book. Are people determined by modern technology, or can people instrumentally use technology in responsible ways? Estes presents an optimistic-leaning realism. He does believe that people can responsibly and proactively “brave the future.” I was struck, however, that the book never engaged the most prominent Christian thinker who prophetically wrote about modern technology: Jacques Ellul. Perhaps Estes considered him too pessimistic about techno-totalitarianism.

If you have heard of “transhumanism” and “singularity” but are not sure what they mean, this book provides a good starting point. This is where Estes’ biblical perspective weighs in the best. He is comfortable comparing — and, more often, contrasting — traditional Christian theology with emergent ideologies of the future. The bottom line is that even as future technologies lead humanity to become more godlike, they will never match the power of God.

At the heart of Braving the Future is a recognition that most Christians feel a deep discomfort about imminent changes approaching us at increasing speed.

Humans typically resist change. Estes, however, expresses a healthy level of comfort with change. He looks forward to the way many technologies will improve the quality of human life.

In this light, he serves as a tour guide on the horizon of the future. At best, he is simply asking Christians to step onto his tour bus and participate in the conversation. He advises that “if we resist future tech, we need to make sure we are resisting because it is wrong, not just because we are uncomfortable.”

Among the many reasons this topic is important is its impact not only on our view of humanity but also of God. If future technologies become “superior to humanity,” as Estes predicts, this will happen because “humanity cannot accept the God who already is superior to us.” The new gods of technology will thus be “built on the half-truth of who we are.” This is definitely worth pondering.

Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant, and runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.

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