October 20, 2019

Are We Better Off With Technology?

I drove to work today in a torrential rain. Looking around my car as I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic, I marveled at the notion that having a cell phone next to me, a satellite radio in my car, satellite TV at home and, along with three working computers, a work laptop and three iPads, were not enough to prepare me for the 7 inches of rain we got in my area last night. It seems weather forecasting has become the art of explaining why yesterday’s model, a.k.a. the weather forecast, was wrong. All this technology at our fingertips and my feet sitting under the desk right now are wet from wearing the wrong shoes.

The other day my daughter was lost in eastern Iowa. The GPS in her cell phone was not pointing her to Interstate 80. This happens outside of civilization… 🙂 Her mother relayed her frantic calls about needing a new GPS for her car. Of course, dad spent the entire time wondering why she doesn’t simply look at a map. This is the kid who stops at every visitor’s center and comes back with one from every state. Perhaps she would be better off if she kept them in her car rather than under her bed. Mom wants me to spend $100 getting her a new GPS. Dad thinks the daughter should learn to read a map and use the GPS to complement those directions. Dads are so ancient! It is so old school to basically know where you’re going before relying upon GPS technology. Better yet, why not combine the two: go to MapQuest on the Internet, print out your directions before you go and then use a GPS…. I found in my travels the GPS will eventually get you where you want to go. However, using it may take you through some pretty rough areas and nasty traffic congestion if followed blindly.

Technology has made many aspects of our lives more convenient. It has brought us marvels in every aspect of our lives and medicine. Yet, in many aspects, technology has made us dumber. It can make us lazy and insensitive to the world around us. In many ways it actually makes us worse off.

Many people believe Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, is simply a call to arms to fight global warming. It is actually much more. Laudato Si contains wonderful insight and catechetical gems regarding our lives and faith. Francis caught me off guard when he noted that “ultimately politics and technology have failed to save the earth.” I too have been guilty in being lulled into thinking how wonderful science and technology has made our world. While Francis’ encyclical praises achievements in medicine, science and engineering, he notes that “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

This is such an important point. It’s one of the basic challenges of science and faith. Science can’t go it alone, it needs a heart. As evidenced so often in bioethics, just because “we can” doesn’t mean “we should.” Technology runs at such a fast pace these days that the necessary ethical debates that are needed to go along with it lag too far behind. Technological decisions are being made based on economics more than values and conscience. It is becoming a dangerous precedent. We look for comfort without noting the risk. We take Lipitor at times when sit-ups would often suffice.

The Pope rightly rejects the belief that technology and “current economics” alone will not solve environmental problems. The problem is not in the technology, it is in our failure to apply it to solve human need. It is not thinking with our hearts as well as our brains. Think of all the wonders of the world we miss while paying too much attention to our cell phones. It is as silly as walking through a forest with headphones on. While it might be “exercise,” we miss the sounds of nature and lose the opportunity for contemplation.

Our Pope doesn’t believe “that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” The issue is not economics but one of desire. We are applying the wrong standards to the issues at hand. Economically and technologically we have the means to address poverty in our world. Trillions of dollars have been spent to address this problem. Yet, children are still hungry. Band-Aid solutions yield Band-Aid results.

Technology is a gift from God who allows us to ask why. Many books note that science flourished under Christianity because of its notion that nature is good and understandable. Yet, we have lost our sense of marveling at the physical world. Instead, we now use technology to shield us from it. Technology brought us air-conditioning that keeps us from being too hot and refrigerators to keep our water cold. We would only later discover the damage that the Freon required by this technology was doing to our world. This danger is still vastly ignored because to seriously address this problem would make us uncomfortable.

Our challenge is to heed the Pope’s call. We all need to read and review Laudato Si. It made me uncomfortable to realize my personal contribution to our societal sloth. Problems don’t get solved by denying the truth but by identifying and embracing the problem. Humanity needs to come back to being human. We again need to live our values and stop letting politics and convenience get in our way. A wise instructor noted for me this past summer, that when it comes to addressing the damage we have inflicted upon our earth, there is no “Plan B.”

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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Written by Deacon Gregory Webster
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