Religion and Technology Paper: Modern Technology as a Substitute and Complement to Technology
"This is your brain on technology." According to author Jerry Mander, scientists have shown that when individuals are watching television, or are "zoned out," as watchers frequently refer to themselves, they are in a less active mental state. This would seem to be even more so when watching media on an iPhone or iPad. And, unlike a television screen, which can only be watched during fixed points of time during the day, a phone screen is virtually always available, tantalizing the viewer. This is not simple rudeness. Rather it takes the individual out of the real world. Mander argues that technology, specifically distancing television, has become a numbing substance in an increasingly impersonal world. Technology, critics like Mander suggest, has come to function as a religious substitute, in a world where a sacred connection to others and to nature has been lost.
Of course, one could argue that sacred space likewise distance us from the real, mundane world through rituals. But Mander argues that technology merely provides the illusion of connection, not real connection. Rituals that used to connect people to nature and to others have been replaced with private, distancing devices that do real, neurological harm. Mander believes that television is a uniquely isolating medium, versus the collective experience of going to a film or live theater. Radio only provides a voice, so the brain is required to create images in the mind. Television, he suggests, is uniquely passive. However, Mander advanced his ideas before the era of the iPhone. Social media may have an interactive component which is more stimulating, but it is also more pervasive. His concerns about the perceptual over-stimulation of television and modern social media likewise seem similar.
Furthermore, social media, even more so than television, encourages dissatisfaction with one's life. Unlike many religions, which encourage contemplation and satisfaction with the simple things of this world, like Buddhist meditation, or self-scrutiny about the soul as in the case of the Christian confessional, social media focuses on the superficial, and generating Instagram-worthy snippets for friends to consume and digest. While Mander focuses on the conspicuous consumption fostered by television advertisements and on social media, the line between advertising and actual entertainment is even blurrier. Social media thus provides a new kind of way of measuring people's worth, particularly since consumers are often comparing themselves to their friends, not merely celebrities.
Social media has also had a more pervasive influence in questioning what is true, much more so than television, in the past, a function which was also once more likely to be relegated to religion. Media critic Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that intelligence and social status are measured by one's ability to how what is considered factual. This used to mean reading credible print sources. The printing press, he notes, "makes rather stringent demands on our bodies" (Postman 25). Print demands stillness, concentration, and precision. But fewer and fewer people are reading actual, print sources as the main source of their information. Instead, they are focusing on social media, even more so than television, as the main source of news. Social media's sense of truth is far more impermanent and subjective. Even an article by a major, credible news source like the New York Times or the Washington Post can be altered by an editor at a moment's notice. It can also be very easily published, without much review and consideration, to cover a breaking event. People are less likely to trust news, even mainstream news sources, as a result.
This partially explains the rise of so-called fake or unreliable news. There are many blog posts and websites that look as though they are producing credible news, even though they are simply written by someone in the privacy of their rooms and are not fact-checked like conventional journalistic publications. Modern technology enables a personal website to look very credible in the manner of a traditional news source. Furthermore, people's innate cognitive biases may them more apt to believe such slanted sources. A liberal is more likely to believe liberal news sources; a conservative is more likely to believe conservative news sources. Reading biased sources becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of bias. Also, consuming Internet sources of information does not demand the stillness and concentration of print but unlike television, a medium which Postman calls very explicitly a form of junk food for the mind, news consumed online can feel like consuming an actual, print source.
Again, this is arguably a superficial similarity between social media and religion, or how social media can replace religion as an affirmation of the self, in an emptier way. Social media news only presents one limited version of the truth, with no pretense of objectivity. This is not unlike how religion presents truth. On the other hand, there is no attempt to encourage compassion and understanding of the other. Sensational headlines are what get people to read. The type of stillness, concentration, and focus on the truth does not draw the eye of a busy commuter who is scanning the news as he or she reads a cellphone while coming home on the train.
Yet technology also poses the ability to disseminate religion in modern society. Kenneth Wozniak speculated in 1985 that the pervasiveness of computers would have a seismic impact upon the inner lives of evangelicals, given that even believers that wished to isolate themselves from technology would still have to confront its effects in the workplace. While Wozniak was primarily concerned about technology as a rival to faith, even in the 1980s, technology was being used to disseminate religious ideas to evangelical groups. Today, online technology has been used to spread faith-based viewpoints. Although technology can be viewed as a rival to traditional religion, it can also advance a moral point of view. Ironically, science even can be used to advance anti-science arguments (as witnessed by the pervasiveness of anti-vaccine propaganda online).
The idea of scientific understanding as a rival to faith has ironically been hidden to some degree because science is so ubiquitous in modern life, people do not question it. Wi-Fi and iPhones are part of the air everyone breathes, not an alternative worldview to religion. The reverence with which people use social media and technology may have a religious aspect but the degree to which it may replace religion may be in the eye of the beholder. For people who view science as a challenge to faith, their reliance upon social media technology may indeed be seen as a replacement or social media may offer consumerist or political viewpoints with faith-like intensity that act as a substitute for religion. But for people seeking to justify religion, technology may merely provide the means. Technology clearly has an influence on belief, but it is always filtered through human perceptions.
EssayScam. Technology and Modern Use. Online: essayscam.org/forum/fe/response-paper-technology-modern-use-6260/
Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1991.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Wozniack, Kenneth. "Evangelicals and the Ethics of Information Technology." JETS, 28.3 ' (1985), 335-342.