There’s an idea going around that technologies like Facebook are morally neutral. The problems we see in them arise from how people choose to use them. In the words of William Gibson:
“[T]echnologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It’s only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil.”
I am familiar with this argument because I’ve been a strong proponent.
In conversations about new technologies, as others spouted dire warnings about how this or that gadget or gizmo would fundamentally alter human relationships, I’d step in with the diplomatic and balanced view that technologies are tools, with capacity for great good or great evil, depending on how we use them.
The thing is, I’ve changed my mind.
I realized I needed to reevaluate my position. And if you’ve bought into the “technology is neutral” argument, I’d like you to hear me out.
Here are three reasons technology can’t be neutral:
1) Technologies are made by people.
Last time I checked, people aren’t morally neutral. Yet somehow we think that sinful people can produce morally neutral technologies.
Movies aren’t morally neutral.
Novels aren’t morally neutral.
Multinational corporations aren’t morally neutral. Why? Because they are created/guided/made up of people.
People can make good things, bad things, and morally ambiguous things — but they can’t make morally neutral things.
Just as every purpose and intention of our hearts is either good, bad, or mixed — the tools we create to accomplish those purposes are either good, bad, or mixed as well.
“How is it that sinful people can produce morally neutral technology? We would not say that about art. ‘Oh! All art is morally neutral! It is all a matter of how you use it!’ Yet the same creative forces go into producing technology as art. Is there anything neutral about the works of Caravaggio, Da Vinci or Picasso? Why then should there be anything neutral about Facebook or MX missiles?” — Dr. Lawrence Terlizzese
2) Technologies shape our behavior.
We like to think we have complete control over how we use technology, but we really don’t.
Most often, we exercise our “free will” by picking between a smattering of pre-packaged choices our technologies afford us.
They seem to expand our options, but they actually pre-package the means by which we interact with others. This is the hidden curriculum of technology.
Facebook, for example, fails to discriminate between relationships.
You engage with friends, family members, and your favorite companies in exactly the same pre-packaged way.
You can identify someone as a sibling, spouse, or parent, but you can’t have a family profile (without looking weird).
On Facebook we are networked individuals studying a hidden curriculum of flattened relationships.
Our choices are governed by how the people behind Facebook chose to structure it.
And their choices make certain ways of relating easy, and others impossible. This may not be morally evil — it may not even be deliberate — but it is certainly not morally neutral.
“The argument goes, ‘We choose how we use these technologies.’ But this is dangerous because it implies that they are neutral. To believe they are only tools is to be naive to the shaping influence of our technological structures; how some choices of how to use them are structured to be easier to make than others.” — Dr. Felicia Song
3) Technologies provide opportunities for sin.
Read that carefully.
I’m not saying technologies cause us to sin, just that they make it easier to sin.
Internet-enabled smartphones don’t make us view pornography, but they do put porn access in our pockets.
Facebook doesn’t make us compare ourselves to others, but it does make it easy to do so.
Technologies can dramatically lower the barriers that prevent us from expressing the sin in our hearts. When we don’t recognize their ability to do so, we’re flying blind and asking for trouble.
That doesn’t mean we can never use them, but we should do so with appropriate safeguards in place.
“The Internet […] seems to be creating a new group of people engaged in compulsive sexual behavior, say psychologists and clinicians. The accessibility, anonymity and affordability — what one researcher calls the “triple A engine” — are reeling in people who would otherwise have never engaged in such behavior.” — Los Angeles Times
Studies show that passively browsing Facebook causes envy and dissatisfaction with life. Now, as Christians we know that envy comes from our own hearts. Facebook doesn’t really cause us to envy another person’s life — it just provides dozens of tempting opportunities to do so every time we log in.
In the Bible these opportunities to sin are called “provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14).
We are not only commanded to avoid sinning, but to avoid putting ourselves in tempting situations.
At least in my translation, there’s no exception clause for popular social media sites or must-have gadgets.
If your iPhone is providing opportunities for sin (and you are taking them), get rid of it (Matthew 5:29).
Just because technologies don’t cause sin, doesn’t make them morally neutral.
Help a criminal commit a crime and you’ll serve time.
Let them use your car, or stay at your house, or help cover their tracks, and you are guilty, even if you didn’t cause them to do it.
What Does This Mean?
If technologies are not morally neutral, does that mean they are morally evil?
Should we all become technophobes?
Of course not.
Technologies are rarely all bad and are never all good.
They usually reflect human nature — glorious, but fallen. And just as with human companions, our engagement with technology requires discernment to keep the good and discard the rest.
The problem with the “technology is neutral” argument is that it blinds us to the agendas of human creators, to the shaping influence of technologies on our behavior, and to the various temptations they present for sin.
We run the risk of being used by technology, rather than using it for productive ends.
The solution is not to shun technology entirely, but to use it purposefully, carefully, and with our eyes wide open. To be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).
[W]e are delivered over to [technology] in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularity like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.” — Martin Heidegger
For more on this topic, check out my wife’s article, What Facebook Tells Us About Human Nature, and Dr. Felicia Song’s lecture, Facebook, Friendship, and the Search for Real Community.
Brilliant and insightful. Thanks for sharing. One thought I would add: There are many who do make the argument that all art is morally neutral, though they’re usually the ones arguing that morality itself is obsolete. There are many, as you point out, that would distinguish between the morality of art and the amorality of technology – a dangerous distinction.
Thanks for the comment, Scott. I haven’t run across people saying that all art is morally neutral, but maybe they just don’t use those words. Perhaps they might say something like, “Art is subjective. It means whatever you want it to mean.” Is this what you’re referring to?
Thanks for sharing, Glory! We certainly believe that technology has many wonderful uses. We love the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, and countless other technologies for the ways they make us more effective and allow us to connect with other people and spread our message.
The point of this article is that technologies are not morally neutral. As we use them (and use them we should) we must try to be aware of the agendas of their creators, the ways they shape our behavior, and any temptations for sin they provide. Does that make sense?
Yes, that makes sense:) And the internet allows for me to talk to the author of the books we read! Thanks for your work & writings. We were introduced to your books through the Do Hard Things book that we own.
You’re very welcome. I hope our books have been an encouragement to you and your family. =)
Just to clarify: There is room for arguing that certain tools (e.g. a spoon) are so morally ambiguous that they approach moral neutrality. The danger comes when we make sweeping assumptions (e.g. all technology is morally neutral) and no longer evaluate each new technology or tool for it’s hidden curriculum.
We need to ask ourselves: Do the creators of this technology have an agenda? How does this technology shape my behavior for good or ill? Does this technology provide opportunities for sin that I need to avoid?
Alex and I have thought through these questions and decided to use Facebook, Twitter, and own iPhones — but we’ve limited and modified our uses of those technologies, rather than just passively accept the pre-packaged user-experience the creators intended.
I don’t have the Internet on my iPhone. I don’t have Facebook on my iPhone. I try not to go on Facebook without a particular purpose. I avoid passive browsing. I try to limit Internet use after dinner. These are just a few examples of how I’ve applied these observations personally.
Feel free to ask questions!
May I ask for some examples of “particular purpose” you go on Facebook for? Other than the very general “to encourage people”, etc.
I think setting a time limit on leisure internet use is good too.
I mostly go on Facebook to do ministry work (e.g. posting updates on The Rebelution and Do Hard Things pages, etc.).
However, if I’m going to go on Facebook to interact with people, I like to go on with a specific person in mind and purposefully connect with them.
For example, I might think of an out-of-state friend and wonder how they are, so I’ll go onto Facebook, check their profile, and then send them a message, or comment on their wall, or shoot them a text to let them know I was thinking of them.
I think Facebook tends to let us consume large amounts of information about a large number of people, without actually connecting with any of them (besides perhaps “liking” something they posted). So I want to try to purposefully connect with one or two people each time I go on Facebook to socialize.
I am not legalistic about this (and I certainly don’t do a perfect job of it) — but I try to come up with strategies to avoid just passively browsing and consuming information about people. I want to actually connect with them — and sometimes I use Facebook as a means of finding information, and then I use that information as an opportunity to call them, or text them, or even write them an old-fashioned letter.
Again, I don’t follow these strategies perfectly. It’s hard to avoid just browsing my news feed mindlessly! But these are my goals for how to use Facebook — at least for now. =)
I hope that helps!
Thanks Brett! It sure helps!
With 4822 friends, it may take you a while to get to them all at a rate of two a day (if that). On the topic of uses for Facebook, I have found so much that is done with it that it often feels like it should never be off. It has become such a common thing to have a Facebook account that my employees/employers use it exclusively to talk to me, my groups at school use it for conferences, and invitations to events sometimes circulate ONLY on Facebook. Also, in addition to the many temptations which inspire envy, there is always an endless stream of adds on the side asking you to date this person or to kill zombies with that person which, even though I set my age to ninety, provide an endless flow of shameful pictures and suggestions which can never do any good.
Definitely food for thought. I’ve always thought of technology as being something that is “neutral,” and that it is the operator’s decisions that turn the technology into something good or bad. Perhaps it’s time for a reevaluation…
However, while I can’t refute the first two points, I think the third is rather weak as far as supporting the main thesis of this post goes. Just because something provides opportunities for sin doesn’t mean that it can’t be “morally neutral” (though it might fail that test on the merits of the first two points).
Just my $0.02 worth 🙂
Thanks Brett, this is so true!
There are two things that I think might be a little helpful to clarify though. One is this: “morally neutral” is NOT the same as “amoral”. Facebook is amoral. However, it is not morally neutral. Amoral simply means that the given object does not have morals of its own. Facebook has no morals *by itself*, but it reflects the morals of the creator/users – thus, it is *not* morally neutral. A lot of times we mix up those two definitions.
Another point that you lightly mentioned in the article is that just because something is not morally neutral does NOT mean that it is evil; nor does it mean it is good. We tend to think black-and-white about these kinds of things, but most of the time they are a mix of both evil AND good. Just as you mentioned in the second to last paragraph, we have to be discerning to discard what IS evil and to keep what is actually good.
Altogether, only humans can have morals (meaning all technology amoral), but these morals (good or bad) are always *reflected* in technology, making them far from morally neutral. And this imbalance in morality needs to be discerned by every Christian.
I thought it might be helpful to clarify those points. Thanks so much for the article! It is extremely helpful, even if I don’t have Facebook.
Thanks so much, Nathan. I should have had you write the article! Thanks for those excellent clarifications. I hope everyone reads them.
I’m slightly confused–what do you mean by “neutral”? Maybe I’m not reading correctly, but when I think neutral, I think it means it is neither good nor bad. And just because it is made by people doesn’t mean it is sinful–as the first point seems to imply.
Please forgive me if I seem nit-picky. I’m honestly not trying to be. And usually, I enjoy everything you post. Just this seems a little . . . . I don’t know . . . one-sided?
I agree with Nathan (previous commenter). Nothing can be morally neutral (point of the post) when we are using it. However, if a computer just sitting at a desk is amoral–even when we use it, it is neither sinning nor doing right. It cannot. It can help us either do right or wrong.
Just because people create something doesn’t not mean it is neutral morally. (i.e. asphalt). Technology, though, does give us more opportunity to either do right or wrong.
I guess I’m rambling. And not really making sense. I totally agree with the idea you are trying to convey. I just got a little confused.
Thanks for all you do!
I’m travelling through the weekend, but I’ll try to remember to come back and respond to your comment next week. God bless you!
In Christ Alone,
I mostly agree with your “What does it mean?” point. I disagree with how you got there, mostly because it is too specific.
The problem is that, by your criteria, NOTHING is morally neutral. Snail mail isn’t morally neutral. Mac’n’Cheese isn’t morally neutral. Chairs aren’t morally neutral. They are all made by people, shape our behavior, and provide opportunities to sin (hey, you can bash somebody over the head with that chair! Or worse, make that one friend you kind of don’t like sit in the uncomfortable one!).
Face-to-face conversations aren’t morally neutral either, and they are probably the most natural things in the world. After all, face-to-face conversations encourage judgment, insecurities, lashing out, and all sorts of other problems (including good ol’ fashioned physical violence!). Face-to-face conversations aren’t technology, but they are created by people, shape our behavior, and provide ample opportunities to sin, especially for those of us with unruly tongues (i.e. me).
The point is that we should have our eyes open about everything if we use your criteria. Nothing in the world is absolutely good except God.
However, I’d suggest that because everything can provide opportunities to sin, we can feel fairly safe assuming some things are neutral within acceptable standards.
Otherwise we start looking crosswise at everything, including celery. In other words, I don’t worry about misusing brick technology, or worry that my Mac’n’Cheese will lead me down a dark road of gluttony. They are real problems for some people though. Some people throw bricks at other people. Some people struggle with weight. I don’t struggle with either. That’s just me.
The real danger of Facebook is that it is yet another medium that people use to interact with each other. And yeah, a whole lot of sin stems from interaction with other people. Most of the Ten Commandments would be irrelevant if I was the Only Man On Earth.
So yes, use technology, including Facebook, with your eyes wide open, but don’t start applying your criteria to everything. Everything man-made fits all three. Everything else fits the last two.
As a member of a family with a lot of rules ( all for my own good!) I am not allowed on Facebook, full stop. Nor am I allowed on instagram, twitter, Google+, pixlr, vine, or other social media. As a fairly remotely located homeschooler, I quite often feel disadvantaged, as many of my freinds, who I see a maximum of once a week at church, use it rather than email to communicate. This quite often leaves me as the ‘quiet kid in the background’, which can be a good thing sometimes, but not all the time! I understand my parents thinking, but it can be annoying at times!! I belive that facebook can be used as a powerfull tool, in both good and bad ways, but I also think, there are advantages to not having facebook, as it leads you to communicate in a more in depth manner, either face to face or through email, phone or other
I’m curious how you would apply this to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument…. I’m not against guns by any means, but some types of guns aren’t meant for deer hunting.
Thank you! Someone else who finally agrees! 😄
Great Article! I don’t think Facebook is bad in and of itself, but like other people have said, how you use it can be. Does anyone really care what you eat for breakfast? People put on a good front on Facebook. They post the good things in their life (I just went on a great vacation to Hawaii.) Not the bad (I just yelled at my sister.) It seems that people who are on Facebook are on it because they want to see how many likes they have, or how many people have viewed their stuff. Or they will post something spiritual to make it look like they have a deep relationship with God even when they don’t. Facebook gives you shallow relationships, not deep ones. And it takes time away from God, family, real friends, and real life. Facebook won’t be there for you when you are struggling, you’re closest friends and family will. It can also easily become an addiction. If you don’t think you’re addicted, stay off of it for a week and and see how it affects you! Talking on the phone or face to face with someone is the best way to communicate! I don’t think Facebook is bad, just the way 99% of people (even Christians) use it is.