Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley may not be a household name, but you definitely know her work. She wrote a novel about a man who tried to create life from nonlife, whose little experiment turned tragic and led to his ultimate demise. The man’s name was Frankenstein, or “Frahnken-steen” if you’re a Gene Wilder fan.
The problem was not with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, but with his negligence toward the monster he created. Though fiction, this story shows us the reality of how frightening thoughtlessly managed technology can be. Technology in and of itself is not the problem; rather, it is our inability to keep it harnessed that threatens to master us.
Mary Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus.” If you remember your Greek mythology, Prometheus was a man who stole fire from the gods to help better the lives of his fellow men, believing that fire would enable them to forge tools as well as warm themselves. The gods punished Prometheus despite his noble intentions, chaining him to a rock where an eagle plucked at his liver every single day. The moral of the story? Only gods, not mere mortals, could handle fire. Postmodern man knows that fire has helped him. No argument there. But when fire surges beyond the realm of our control, the results can be disastrous.
Shelley was prophetically ahead of her time when she warned against abusing the power that comes with increased knowledge—and technology is indeed “increased knowledge.” Movies such as Jurassic Park, War Games, and I, Robot echo this techno-gone-wrong theme. Have we, like poor Victor Frankenstein, created a monster we can no longer control?
Sure, we can clone a sheep, but we can also harness enough nuclear power to blow ourselves up three times over. Yes, the Internet puts a host of enticing factoids at our fingertips, from the early history of outer Mongolia to the subject of the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude.” (I’ll save you the Google time: it was written for John Lennon’s son Julian.) But the World Wide Web can also help an anarchist blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, teach Al-Qaeda terrorists to use commercial airplanes as deadly missiles, or lead a sexual predator directly to your doorstep.
The problem with this monster we call “technology” is that no one is really taking a serious look at its ugly underbelly. Smaller, subtler threats exist outside of the ones I just mentioned. The gadgets we loved have awed us with their speed, clever noises, and instant images, and we have been all too ready to believe that they will improve our lives, help us make more money, and give us more time to spend with those we love.
In reality, truly knowing someone requires spending actual time together—eating, playing, laughing, crying, being silent, and simply experiencing life. (That’s why it’s so hard to make a long distance relationship work—but that’s another blog altogether!) If we rely on the constant buzz of high-tech toys for escape or relationships, or reassurance or validation of our own significance, we’re headed for trouble. The toys can’t deliver. They’re not meant to. Again, we’re not advocating a rejection of all technological progress, but we are suggesting that the answer to our deepest needs lies elsewhere. According to Abraham J. Heschel, “The solution to mankind’s most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it. In regard to external gifts, to outward possessions, there is only one proper attitude—to have them and to be able to do without them.”
We will cease to be controlled by technology and techno-toys when we can live without them. How do we know we can do without? By seeking to balance the appropriating of technology with abstaining from it. In a word: moderation.
We may readily admit the dangers of eating too much or getting drunk, but we let our addictions to technology slide under the radar. It’s time to wake up and realize that all extremes, save the extreme pursuit of God, are an unsatisfying form of idolatry.