Appropriate technology

A while back I wrote about viewing technology in ecological terms (Greenflame: Information ecologies). The outworking of this might be called appropriate technology. Ian Barbour, in Ethics in an Age of Technology puts it like this when he says “the welfare of humankind requires a creative technology that is economically productive, ecologically sound, socially just, and personally fulfilling.”

Barbour argues for engagement in all of the following four areas briefly summarized below:

Defense of the personal
To represent human values that stand against materialistic and mechanistic views of the world through:

  1. Adopting personal and community life-styles more consistent with human and environmental values.
  2. Protesting strongly against unbalanced technological optimism and affluent society’s disproportionate resource consumption.
  3. Defending of individuality and choice in the face of standardisation and bureaucracy.
  4. Upholding of personal relationships and a vision of personal fulfillment that goes beyond material affluence.
  5. Affirming importance of a spiritual life.
The key here is not rejection of all technology but rather identifying what is the “right” technology for the task at hand.
The role of politics
Technology is not only a cultural influence, but is also part of culture. (Similar to Stephen Monsma’s claim that technology is the air we breathe). In recognizing this he rejects both the ideas that:

  1. Technology is basically good and should be unregulated (free market approach).
  2. Technology is always dehumanizing and uncontrollable, and shapes all the world including politics, leaving individuals and communities powerless (technological determinism).
Rather, by recognizing that technology is an instrument of power to those that wield it, its engagement with culture and as part of culture needs robust political engagement at all levels of society.
The redirection of technology
The past trajectory of technological development should not be totally rejected. Instead we need to look beyond narrow economic agendas and evaluate technology more before deploying it. If we do this then we can work to redirect technology, through decision-making processes and social policies, toward the realization of technological values that affirm a rich and life-giving existence for human beings and the environment.
The scale of technology
A critical key to this is the development of appropriate technology for particular local contexts and situations. The aim being to:

  1. Achieve some of the material benefits of technology (optimist),
  2. Without destructive human costs (pessimist) – which come, he argues, mostly from large-scale implementations of technology.
Instead, a better way is to create intermediate scale systems that allow decentralization and greater local participation, as well as the use of local materials and the reduction of environmental impact.

This latter point of scale is similar to Joel Garreau’s contention that human values can and do shape our future through the choices available to us. We don’t always pick the best choice technologically but we should not capitulate to technological determinism based on either overly optimistic or pessimistic perspectives of technology.

For the individual Christian, and Christian communities, the questions that arise include:

  1. What is “appropriate technology” within the context of loving and serving God and neighbour?
  2. If technology is our environment, and is part of the value system we live within, how then has that shaped our theology and praxis in areas such as mission, social concern and ecclesiology?
  3. How does that shape ethics and practices in the workplace, the church and engagement with politics?
  4. How do Christians work with others in the community to find common values that can undergird technological engagement?