Two institutions that have been in the hot seat since the start of the recession are health care and education. Both have out-of-control costs, with comparatively very little to show for those costs, making them targets of reform and political derision. (Consider, for example, how astonished United States-ians were to discover that, despite spending around $7500 for health care, per capita, the highest rate, or one of the highest rates in the world depending on the data you examine, the US comes in at 41st for maternal death rates. In the past 20 years, the maternal death rate has doubled, leading groups like Amnesty International to call on the US to address this injustice.)
These two institutions do not typically get banded together, except on political scorecards – what’s a candidate’s take on health care and education? Many people have weighed in on the causes for these institutions’ exponentially increasing costs, and there is not often much cross over: in education, it is the tenure system and all those old fogies who can’t teach well (apparently), or music, or sports, or an institution’s desire to be nationally-ranked. In health care, it is alternately doctors or insurance companies, or worse, the people who take advantage of the system.
In fact, if there is a connection between the two, it’s the human workers involved in sustaining the institutions. The teachers, the professors, the doctors, the administrators, are all the ones at fault. They’re the ones who need to rein in costs and figure out a way to keep everything afloat. Without compromising either the integrity of health care or education, if you please.
But a couple of essays I’ve read this past week put me in mind of a different connection, and that is our collective social love of technology. This New York Times article suggests that technology use has been proclaimed in schools despite a lack of concerted effort that demonstrates it really makes a difference. And this article on health care suggests that we have a love of and lust for “the new thing” even when it hasn’t demonstrably been proven better than “the old thing” – and so we incorporate the “new thing” into health care practice, and add to ever-increasing health care costs.
Suggest to a random group of your friends that we scale back on the technology in use in schools and hospitals and see what happens. Just use the general word “technology” – don’t even go into specific details of what that would look like. For most people, loss of technology equals a loss of hope. “My grandma with Parkinson’s” won’t find a cure if we scale back the technology. “My kids” won’t be prepared for the twenty-first century if we scale back the technology.
But if the essayists and their sympathizers are right (and I suspect they’re largely right even if it doesn’t end up being the total picture), there are at least two theological problems Christians ought to face in relation to technology use:
1) Technology isn’t God. This may seem obvious – there are all kinds of ways we’ve been making technology out to be our eschatological future, the heaven of our own making.
But of course, it is more complex than that. Just try figuring out how to separate a “technological life” from the “rest of life” in order to “fix” idolatrous notions of technology. We’re not just talking about internet use or cell phones here, but that there’s simply no way to avoid that our cars all have computers, for example. I couldn’t take my car apart to fix it even if I wanted to, because I lack the particular codes for getting into the computer and this is true of much of life. Brian Brock suggests in his book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age that technology is so embedded in our lives, there’s simply no way to see how not to live with technology.
So technology isn’t God, but it does seem to be the air we breathe. How are we going to rightly discern which technologies to use, and how to use them, to avoid make technology into an idol?
2) Technology isn’t human. This, too, seems obvious, except that I think we collectively have been guilty of allowing technology to stand in as humanity. This is not simply in the case of robots in use in some areas of health care (Sherry Turkle describes, hauntingly, the ways robots have been used in elder care because robots seem human and alive – elderly grandparents appreciate these robots on one hand, but also wistfully speak of wanting to see their children and grandchildren)
We also treat technology as human in, for example, the ways we pit humans against humans in the health care and education debates, as I alluded above. I fear that humans become the third wheel in a relationship between humans and technology – such that in nearly any human relationship, some kind of technology takes the place of caring for another human being by reflecting on the other’s needs and wants.
People become pitted against each other in a desire to find and use technology that will provide the cure: a new teacher, one who knows the new tricks and technology, gets seen as better than an older teacher. The difference is not really in experience or education so much as it is in technology – the technology makes the one become a new, better kind of human, able better to teach (or treat) patients and cure them. But this gets combined, weirdly and unhelpfully, with the economic debate I mention above – where it is doctors’ or insurers’ faults for rising health care costs, educators’ and administrators’ faults for rising education costs.
The losers here are humans, at the mercy of technology and technological greed. Here we need better ways of telling the story of technology in human life – so that human agency (and dignity) is preserved.
With both of these points, it is not that I want to deny good use of technology, so much as be able to evaluate technology use well, in terms of how we are able to worship God and care for each other. (Indeed – I think this blog is a great benefit of internet technologies – but still, I find I need to evaluate when and how to make use of it….)
I have no particularly neat conclusion here except to say that I think if we are to be able to make these kinds of discernments, we may need to do what will seem wildly drastic and do a blanket turn-off of some technologies. I’m thinking that technologies that use screens might be a good beginning – because screens so often function as “the other person”. Of course people will say this is impossible – which only serves to demonstrate how embedded we are in a technological age. But I think if we don’t try something, we won’t actually get to the root of some of the problems with health care, education, or the economy.