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.