First, I am thankful to John Dyer, the author of this book, for sending me the Mobi file of "From the Garden to the City" a couple of months before it was released. I'm indebted to his generosity. I only wish I would have been more disciplined to have written this review at the time when the book released. However, I imagine that this is also a timely moment to release this review, since we are all too quick to forget and set aside important books to read with the new and most urgent read that has released. So, if this book has become lost on your shelf or in your Amazon wish list, I urge you to pick it up or purchase it and read it this month. You will not regret having done so.
"From the Garden to the City" is more than just a book about technology and theology. It is about the story of John Dyer. As I read this book, I discovered a very personal testimony of how John's knack for technology and love for theology has driven him to study how the two fit together.
As I read this book I also discovered how deeply technology has shaped and influenced my own life. One of the arguments of this book is that technology not only shapes the convenience of how we live, but it also shapes how we think and function in a world that is more than ever being driven by technology.
Dyer first traces through the historical development of technology and communication. He identifies clear shifts where the world has become smaller and smaller. Because of the rate at which information now travels, people are able to understand in the same day events that transpire on the other side of the globe. News itself over the past century has become more global by nature.
Not only has the size of our world changed but the orientation of our friendships have changed. In many way, the convenience of the web, texting, and mobile phones has caused some friendships to be more superficial in nature. Communication occurs in small soundbites. Lack of face to face encounters eliminates the medium of body language. People are more casual and sometimes more vocal through the impersonal medium of their phone or the web then how they would behave in a face to face conversation. All of these examples led Dyer to ask questions about the ethic of technology, especially in the realm of worship. Dyer writes, "While God's words are eternal and unchanging, the tools we use to access those words do change, and those changes in technology also bring subtle changes to the practice of worship. When we fail to recognize the impact of such technological change, we run the risk of allowing our tools to dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values." These many observations that Dyer makes about how the world has changed because of technology are complemented with his own anecdotes from life that illustrate these changes.
Dyer not only utilizes his own life to illustrate these points about technology, but he also demonstrates his expertise in technology and communication through his use of scholarly and expert resource material from the world of technology. Quoting such experts as Neil Postman, "technology tends to become mythic," John Culkin, "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us," and Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is the message," Dyer applies these observations from these experts in the field of technology to his own study on technology and theology. This is a demonstration of Dyer's own theological grasp that not all revelation of God's truth is necessarily special revelation, that which is revealed explicitly by God through His spoken word or His written word. Rather, God does reveal truth through general revelation, that which humanity can observe, test, and learn from God's sustaining, revealing, and orderly work of creation. Science has observed God's natural law in which he abides unless for some "special" reason He decides to supersede. Much truth can be gleaned and leveraged from experts in the field of technology, and Dyer has expertly discerned and utilized these observations for his own study on technology and theology.
Dyer frames his study on technology using three stories that technology tells:
"The first story tells how humans shape the world using tools."
"The second story is how those tools in turn shape us."
"The third story and final story we tell with technology happens when all that transforming we do to the world and ourselves finds its way in our soul...In other words, why are we doing all of this technology?"
Based on these three stories, Dyer argues that there are two vantage points built off of a singular presupposition of which the story can be told. One vantage point to the story of technology involves a personal God who is guiding the use of technology according to his plan and purpose along the timeline of history. The other vantage point presupposes that there is no God involved in the story line. Dyer points out that only one of the vantage points can be true because the two are contrary. In one story God is savior, in the other story human ingenuity through technology becomes the savior. Ultimately, if we choose the vantage point that includes God, then we must then discern how technology is meant to be used.
Dyer then begins the journey of discerning how we ought to think about technology. He starts by reflecting on the purpose of creation to reflect God's image. He then weighs the importance of the first technology, which is the human capacity to communicate. He develops an understanding of the purpose of language and communication, which colors the world in a code so that it is understandable. Information is then transferable in order to accomplish something. Without communication the world would not be discernible, according to Dyer "...language works like a pair of sunglasses; it colors the way we see everything..." and "Cultures develop and modify language so that it reflects the culture's needs, that is, what they want from the world."
Next, Dyer develops a definition of technology by tracing the history and development of the term. In the process one learns much about technology and its influence upon humanity. He also conveys the four layers of technology, technology as hardware, manufacturing, methodology, and social usage. The most basic layer of technology is hardware. This is the physical pieces of hardware that make up a technology. The second layer of technology is manufacturing. This layer involves the tools or systems implemented to create technology. The third layer is methodology. This is the knowledge and know-how necessary for making products. The final layer is the social usage of technology. This is the customs and rules around how we use the hardware. After examining the layers of technology, Dyer presents his definition of technology, "the human activity of using tools to transform God's creation for practical purposes."
Throughout Dyer's study of technology he interweaves a wonderfully written biblical theology of technology. Essentially he tells the story of how man was created to reflect God's image. Man's ability to communicate and develop technology reflects humanity's capacity to reflect God's creative ability.
Dyer goes on to tell the story of man's rebellion against God. As a result of man's rebellion, God gives Adam and Eve clothing. Their first technology meant to protect them from the environment and represent their need to cover their nakedness. Dyer observes, "So in this first human invention, we find that technology can at the same time be both a reflection of the image of God and a subtle rebellion against him and his authority. Today nearly every tool available to us enables us to perpetuate the myth that we can live apart from dependence upon God."
Dyer also notes, "In some sense, all of our technology can be understood as an attempt to overcome the effects of the fall." Man uses his tools to subdue the earth which is now difficult to manage as a result of the curse. Man builds a city because he has been displaced from the peaceful garden. Man in his own strength tries to build an impenetrable water proof tower that rises to the heights of heaven not to meet with God, but to exhibit his superiority and independence from God. This city of Babel becomes in a sense humankind's first idol. It is meant to displace God's preeminence and his status as the sustainer of life. Dyer says, "We use our idols fundamentally as a way of meeting our needs apart from God, and this is our greatest temptation with technology--to use it as a substitute for God."
Dyer then addresses our approach to handling technology. He cautions the reader to realize that since technology is not necessarily black and white, nevertheless it may not be necessarily gray. Though cell phone are not necessarily morally good or evil, this does not make them necessarily neutral. He explains this proposition by examining three philosophies of technology.
There is the philosophy of instrumentalism. This is where technology is an instrument of the person using it. "The tool itself is neutral in that it is interchangeable with any other tool with no effect." He uses the illustration of the T-shirt slogan, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people," to demonstrate this philosophy. He then goes on to explain how though a gun in itself is not bad it influences how we live. A gun owner has a gun as protection for his family, but he also has to protect his family from his gun. The gun is kept locked away from small hands to play with. How the gun owner thinks about his or her own safety is transformed because of the presence of the gun.
Dyer then explain another philosophy of technology, technological determinism. This philosophy says that, "technology is an unstoppable power that has become the driving force in society." Usually, this philosophy emphasizes the ills of technology. People go around blaming technology for all sorts of issues in society. Yet, others emphasize that technology may be used for a greater good like eliminating famine or poverty.
The final philosophy is a middle-ground philosophy, which is where Dyer lands. He says, "We don't want to say that technology is inert like the instrumentalist, and we don't want to claim that technology is responsible for everything like the determinists. Instead we want to acknowledge that individuals and cultures interact with technology in a complex way. Both determinism and instrumentalism have elements of truth to them, but we cannot reduce all discussions about technology in either direction." Dyer charts a middle course between the first two philosophies by arguing, "people are free to choose how they will use their tools, but that the tools themselves are oriented toward a particular set of uses that will emerge when a large number of people use them." Dyer proceeds to unpack this observation by using anecdote after anecdote of ways in which technology shapes culture and culture shapes technology.
As Dyer continues through his examination of technology he explores humanities quest for redemption and restoration from the fall. He examines the varied mediums of technology and how they affect worship and ministry in the church. He analyzes the concept of technicism, the idea that technology will solve all our problems. He agrees that there are great feats accomplished with technology, but also argues that technology can also increase our problems. Marketing and advertising tell us that there is always something more that we need. Satisfaction becomes unattainable because media is leveraged to tell us we need more. As past problems become eliminated, new problems arise. Cars help us get from point A to point B faster, but now we have to protect the environment from the pollution combustible engines cause. The problems become endless.
In another chapter Dyer addresses the virtualization of the world and the implication of virtual reality. Dyer discusses the nature of the internet, which weds all the major mediums of communication together. Through the web we can experience print, auditory and visual communication. The web brings together images both still and moving with sound and print communication to produce a virtual reality. Dyer writes, "Computers and the internet blur the lines between medium and content..." According to Dyer this can be good and bad. Good because a child can develop socially and educationally. Bad because media such as porn can be delivered to he or she through this medium. Unlimited and often times unfiltered content can be accessed via this powerful machine. Dyer observes, "If all we do is access information rather than acquire it, then our capacity for true wisdom is diminished." Because of the implications of access Dyer observes that the internet is as real as any other reality. We do not have to question the reality of this virtual reality. "The better question is, what are the rules of the medium and what are the underlying messages and patterns that emerge from those rules?"
Dyer closes by discussing how through virtual reality we develop an extension of our identity, presence, and our self-orientation. Through this reality we can not only have an extension of our persona but we can develop different and alter-egoistic personas. In fact there may be those who are virtual schizophrenics. They behave entirely different via the web then they do in real life.
Another observation is that with the access and abundance of information, one might become saturated with the "sweetness of food" rather than having "nourishing food." He says, "...The abundance of virtual connection can drown out the kind of life-giving, table-oriented life that Jesus cultivated among his disciples."
Overall, Dyer accomplishes an incredible feat of examining technology, its effect on humanity, and presenting a theology of technology. I highly recommend this work to you. I have merely given a sampling of the incredible content of this book. Page after page provide excellent illustrations and winsome anecdotes from real life. In addition, the quality of research and skill of writing on this topic is unparalleled. This is a seminal work in this unique niche of study. I can imagine that humanity's fascination for this topic will only grow as technology continues to shape the world that we live. I sincerely believe that this book will inform your understanding of how you use technology and will raise awareness of how you are shaped by its use.From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology