Ever since the scientific revolution, technology has been increasingly seen as the answer to almost all our problems.
We live in an age of technology. Technology is everywhere, and in almost every field, instant technological innovation is heralded as the way to gain an edge over one’s competitors.
We’ve seen this for decades in the corporate world, where companies have been replacing human workers with machines for a long time. Even in the field of education, researchers are seeking how to automate tasks like teaching and paper-grading.
This is nothing new.
But I would argue that technology, although useful, is not the answer to all our problems. We are human beings, and being human means we have inherent dignity and purpose that technology cannot provide.
From the myths of the early Greeks to the latest Godzilla movie, human beings have used stories to explore our relationship to technology. Some of these stories have shown that technology can be helpful, but others have warned us that technology can be destructive, or at least that we must use technology carefully if we are to retain a sense of our humanity. Or, as Wendell Berry asked with good reason, if technology can do everything, then what are humans for?
Here are five great stories that question whether technology is always the answer to our problems.
#1: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
In this classic Gothic novel, Victor Frankenstein is essentially a bio-technologist who fails to think through all the consequences of his innovations. He creates a life—but he fails to consider the moral implications of his creation. As a result, Frankenstein’s creature is left to himself, getting out of control and causing all kinds of problems.
Through this novel, Shelley shows us that just because we can use technology in certain ways, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should.
#2: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
This novel is set in a dystopian future in which people have been saturated by technology for so long that they have become non-reflective beings, disconnected from nature, from others, and from themselves. In this society, no one has deep, enduring relationships with other people. They would rather be listening to their earbuds or watching their flat-screens, which fill the walls of every room in their houses.
The people in Bradbury’s future live in concrete cities. They never take a simple walk, and they travel at such high speeds that trees are “green blurs” and cows are “brown blurs.” No one slows down to reflect on the beauty of the natural world. They are constantly bombarded by advertising, propaganda, and the saturation of technology.
Because no one ever slows down enough to think, the government has banned books, and dominates individuals with mind-control.
#3: “2001: A Space Odyssey”
This is a deeply thought-provoking film that explores the place of human beings in a world dominated by technology. The film’s villain is HAL, a supercomputer who wants to eliminate “human error” from a space mission. As a result, HAL tries to kill the two astronauts.
Director Stanley Kubrick seems to warn us in this story: If technology never makes any mistakes, what are humans for? Why not exterminate them? Through this film, Kubrick powerfully shows us our need to re-assert control over technology.
#4: Pixar’s “Wall-E”
In this hilarious and subtly complex film (which draws on 2001: A Space Odyssey), the human race has been forced to leave Earth because our planet has become so polluted that it is uninhabitable. The humans live in space with nothing to do except exist because technology does everything for them. Their lives are pointless—all they do is consume products. There is little personal interaction, no real love, and no purpose.
But this story reminds us of what it means to be human. In one scene, the captain of the Axiom asks a computer to define terms such as “farming,” “hoe-down,” and “dancing,” allowing him—and the audience—to rediscover the wonder of life on this earth.
This film also shows us that one reason we exist is, as the Book of Genesis says, to “be fruitful and multiply,” to “fill the earth and subdue it.” In fact, the story has several connections to Genesis: Wall E is an Adam figure—a lonely steward of the whole earth—who falls in love with Eve; the Axiom is symbolic of Noah’s Ark, returning the human race to re-create a destroyed world.
#5: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien was no fan of the idea that technology can solve all our problems. He hated what machines were doing to England’s countryside during his lifetime. So it’s not difficult to see the Ring—a metallic object that holds great destructive power—as symbolic, at least on some level, of the dangers of technology. (And this is such a great series that you should read it anyway.)
The Human Response
In each of these stories, we have powerful lessons to learn: Technology is not always the answer. We must learn to use it for good. And as we use technology, we must never forget that it is not an end in itself, but a tool to be used by creatures who have a sense of their dignity and purpose.
First, we should ask what the moral implications are for any new form of technology. Many technological developments are neutral, but others wade into deeply problematic ethical territory. Like Victor Frankenstein, many researchers have sought to find how to do something without considering whether we should, and they have unthinkingly pressed on to ethical disaster.
Second, we should ask what positive aspects of our personal lives we lose through the use of a new form of technology. As Fahrenheit 451 shows, people who are immersed in technology tend to lose a sense of real connection to other people, to nature, and even to themselves. If we’re always focusing on our smartphones, we’re missing the incarnated life that we were created to live, and we’re failing to reflect on our lives as we ought to.
Finally, we should ask whether the use of technology causes us to lose some of the positive aspects of our culture.
New technologies can (and do) destroy the cultural habits and customs that form a stable society. For just one example, we can look at the decline of rural communities and the family farm in the last seventy years as a result of new farming technologies. Has the higher efficiency provided by factory farms really been worth the loss of all these close-knit communities, each with its own history, network of social connections, and local culture?
As Neal Postman points out,
The question, ‘What will a new technology do?’ is no more important than the question, ‘What will a new technology undo?’
Finally, we should remember the things that make us human: a sense of the wonder of nature and of life itself, a sense of morality, and real, flesh-and-blood relationships with our families and friends.
We need to take time for the activities that make us human:
- art and music
- time spent enjoying nature
- good meals with friends
- good books
We can never replace the sense of fulfillment we find in these activities by immersing ourselves in the latest gadget. Instead, we should follow Wendell Berry’s advice: “Live a three-dimensioned life.”
Technology is not an evil in itself. It can be used for good. But as these stories show, it’s up to each of us to use it with wisdom.
Nathan Huffstutler lives in Watertown, Wisconsin, where he teaches writing and literature at Maranatha Baptist University.