Balancing Acts


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The Sounds of Silence

by Tom Beutel

October 2013

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear … Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.

Psalms 115:4-6,8 (NRSV)

In  February 1964, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy three months earlier, Paul Simon wrote the lyrics to the song that “propelled the group [Simon and Garfunkel] to mainstream popularity.” (Wikipedia) He called it “The Sounds of Silence.” Some of the lyrics are hauntingly similar to the Psalmist’s observations in Psalm 115.

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

http://www.lyricsdepot.com/simon-garfunkel/sounds-of-silence.html

Both the Psalmist and Paul Simon seemed to understand that our relationship to the things we make can become idolatrous. In the case of “The Sounds of Silence,” Paul Simon brings this issue into the current day; our relationship with technology – the “neon god we made.”

This is a difficult issue to address for several reasons. First, because we are immersed in and surrounded by techology in virtually everything we do. Even the writing and distribution of this article through Peace Signs is so wrapped up in various forms of technology that to write about possible problems with technolgy seems hypocritical. It is difficult to stand back and take an objective look at our use of and dependence on technology.

Second, it is undeniable that techology brings many benefits: warm homes, improved health, access to knowledge and information, and much more. Specific instances are endless. It is the existance of undeniable benefits that is at the heart of our “problem” with technology. We easily see the benefits, but, as should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for very long, there are drawbacks, or costs, as well.

As we examine technology in light of faith, several relevant scriptures suggest themselves in addition to the excerpt from Psalms 115. The first is the story of the fall in Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” According to the story of the fall it has been the human tendency from the beginning of creation to focus on benefits rather than costs. In the story, God had previously cautioned Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” There will be a cost. Nevertheless, because the benefits were plain to see and desirable, Adam and Eve chose to eat.

While it may be debated what God meant when He cautioned that “you shall die,” the immediate consequences are clear. The relationships between the couple and God, with each other and with the rest of creation were damaged. When God later appears in the garden, Adam and Eve hide from Him. Adam tries to blame Eve for their joint action. And God proclaims, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3: 17b,18, NRSV)

A second scripture, I think, provides the key to understanding how to approach this issue of technology. Paul writes in I Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” It is important to notice here that Paul does not say that money is the root of all evil, but it is the love of money , in other words, our relationship to money.

This idea can help us get a handle on the topic of technology. It is not technology, with all of its benefits and costs, that is the problem, but it is our relationship with technology, our love of technology that is the problem.

In the same vein, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” In the same way, we cannot serve both technology and God.  When we “serve”  technology, it becomes our god. (And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.) In his book The End of Education the late Neil Postman addresses head on the fact that we do tend to make technology into a “god.”

..at some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology – in the sense that people believe that technology works,that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for       most people it works in mysterious ways, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-  again, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a form of religious belief, what is?”

It is interesting that in the past couple of weeks at least three news stories have focused on problems with technology: the healthcare.gov website, US spying on allies, and the use of technology by children

Since its launch on October 1, the website for the Affordable Care Act – http://www.healthcare.gov – has been plagued with problems. Both the volume of users and software problems are being blamed. Because of these problems, the benefits of extending insurance to those who cannot afford it and to those with pre-existing conditions, have been, to some degree, jeopardized. The lesson here is, perhaps, that we tend to put too much trust in technology and underestimate both its complexity and the consequences that will occur if it does not work as planned.

One of the major questions raised relating to the US using electronic surveillance on citizens and leaders of allies was “should we do it just because we can?” This is a critical question when it comes to technology. Just because something is possible does not mean that we should do it, that its the benefits will outweigh the costs. To make this determination, we need to have as complete and as honest an understanding of benefits and costs as possible. The problem with new things is that we don’t usually know all of the implications – positive or negative – and as we are dazzled by immediate benefits (“good for food, and … a delight to the eyes”) we don’t necessarily want to. We have “eyes, but do not see.”

In the third story, just a brief news clip on the PBS News Hour, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its latest guidelines relating the the use of technology by children. The Academy asserts that, “unrestricted media use [has] been linked with violence, cyberbullying, school woes, obesity, lack of sleep and a host of other problems.” They recommend limiting the use of electronic media including smart phones, computers, and other electronic devices (television, video game consoles, etc.) to a total of two hours per day. (http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/10/american-academy-of-pediatrics-unrestricted-media-is-bad-for-kids-96035.html )

There is much we could look at with respect to the problems associated with our overuse of and overdependence on technology, especially electronic technology. But, to wrap up for this month, consider the problem of electronic addiction. According to helpguide.org “compulsive Internet use can interfere with daily life, work, and relationships.” A small leaflet in the Close to Home Series by MennoMedia describes electronic addiction and give practical suggestions and sources of information. (http://store.mennomedia.org/Close-to-Home-Pamphlets-C1363.aspx )

Among the suggestions presented in the Close to Home Electronic Addiction leaflet are:

  • Log on to the Internet only once a day and limit your stay to fiftenn minutes or less.
  • Schedule more face-to-face time with friends and family.
  • Read a real book.
  • Go outside for a walk.

If you are concerned about possible electronic addiction for yourself or a friend or family member, consider the following resources:

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