Reflections on Technology

Twenty years ago, the Wheaton Alumni magazine began a series of articles, titled “On My Mind”, in which Wheaton faculty told about their thinking, their research, or their favorite books and people. Head of Public Services John Fawcett ’84 (who worked at Wheaton from 1987-2008) was featured in the Winter 1995 issue.

It’s a rare day that I don’t find an announcement of a new electronic product in my pile of morning mail. CD-ROM databases, multimedia encyclopedias, online journals, World Wide Web pages–just watching all that floats by in the deluge could occupy all of my time. Many of these products are familiar to me, old friends in new guises, like information stairways that have become elevators. For example, an announcement just arrived that Historical Abstracts will eventually be available in its entirety on CD-ROM, all the way back to 1955 (we still have to search it in paper before 1982). Another flier offers us the chance (for a fee!) to search the Encyclopedia Britannica on the Internet. Other resources are tantalizingly experimental, not so predictable–information stairways that are turning into Star Trek transporters: such as a multimedia version of Beethoven’s Ninth–you can follow an analysis of the printed score while listening to the recording. Or the chance that because of congressional budget cuts, the Government Printing Office might cease producing some significant documents in printed form at all; instead, we’d have full text online access the very day they are posted.

Yet in the midst of the excitement of technological novelty, I often entertain this nagging doubt: What does it all mean? Is it possible that the glitz of the “new” beguiles us into believing we’re really making “progress”? Certainly we’re more efficient, faster, more easily quantified. But speed alone does not equal quality, nor data wisdom, nor knowledge character. As Americans, we love the pragmatic, the bold and the different, but we sometimes sacrifice our historical consciousness on the altar of innovation. This realization came home clearly to me during a presentation I recently attended by a codicologist–a scholar who studies manuscripts as cultural artifacts for their historical interest. I was amazed as I watched her open a window on the landscape of fifteenth-century France through the details of a single book its paper quality, its binding, its dedicatory page, even the stitching in its spine! Every age embodies its values in its “books,” whether preserved on vellum, parchment, paper, celluloid, or hard drive. And this embodiment means something.

We’re all familiar with the now widely accepted research that demonstrates that television profoundly shapes children’s learning styles. The MTV-generation perceives differently (for better or for worse) from the comic-book generation. If the medium is indeed the message (a la Marshall McLuhan), then the ascendancy of the computer packs quite a message! Scholars will spend years attempting to comprehend its meaning, but I’m already convinced of one thing: We must never let a computer– as great a blessing as it is when used as a tool–persuade us that cyberspace is ultimate reality. Technology has a curious way of taking on a life of its own. It seems to gain power to control our modes of existence and distract us from the fact that it is only a created thing, ephemeral and vulnerable, fragile. Its “needs” can assume near-personal dimensions.

I’ve often wondered about our culture’s subconscious dependency on electricity, for example. In the shadow of events in Sarajevo, it’s a sobering thought to consider what forms our lives would take if the sophisticated machines we take as life-companions were threatened, Would it be as great a disaster as we imagine? Or might it rend the illusory veil of power that our electronic gadgets seem to give us?

If our fundamental Christian understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ tells us anything, it is that God does not despise matter, but rather redeems it through His Son. God is concerned not only with the spiritual and the abstract, but also with the physical and the concrete. He is not as interested in compressing space and time (what computers do best!) as He is with filling them. When we assume that sheerly by gaining more control over information we will become better people, we fall into one of the oldest heretical traps: the gnostic hope for salvation through disembodied knowledge. If computers are at all dangerous (and they could be), it would be in part because they contribute to this false hope. On the other hand, to ignore the potential benefits of computers would be to fall into the opposite trap: a failure to properly value technology as a redeemable aspect of the created order.

But what does all this have to do with the task of education? Much in every way! Because God in His fullest revelation of Himself came to us in person, not as a scanned image or an http:// site, our task as educators has primarily to do with persons. We certainly don’t despise our God-given ability to abstract, but we circumscribe it within the bounds of the larger reality of our souls. For me, that means that technological hard- and soft-wares, and all the skills requisite to using them, have to be placed at the service of something greater than themselves–or better, Someone Greater for Truth is a Person. It means that life in the presence of God can encompass the full range of human experience–from the task of mastering Microsoft’s latest Windows release to times of repentance and refreshing such as we experienced in the revival services on campus last spring. As I teach and work in the library, mediating historical artifacts and cutting-edge data-retrieval systems to students and faculty, that’s my challenge and my prayer.


John Fawcett ’84 was the head of public services at Buswell Memorial Library. He received an M.A. in librarianship from the University of Chicago, and completed an M.A. in theological studies at Wheaton. In addition to his work in the Library John taught an introductory research course for students in the history department. He was also involved in ministries of prayer and healing at the Church of the Resurrection of Illinois, where he served as music coordinator. After a long battle with cancer, John William Fawcett died on May 27, 2008 at age 46.

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