GOD ON THE CLOUD


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CHRISTIANITY AND TECHNOLOGY

PART ONE

There is growing evidence to suggest that the way we think has been fundamentally altered by the advent of the internet age. As Norman Doidge and others have shown, the human brain is not a static, predetermined thing, but a dynamic, adaptive thing. The technical term for the brain’s adaptability is “neuroplasticity.” Just as the brain will respond to injury in one part of the brain by adapting and repurposing the other, healthy parts of the brain, so too does the brain adapt and repurpose itself in response to external stimuli.  

Technology has proven to be the strongest of these external forces working upon our brains. Each successive technology has changed the structure of how we think. Plato saw that the advent of written language would change the way the brain functioned, with the singular effect of reducing the capacity of our memories. That is, the brain would no longer cling to language, as if it were life and death, if it can offload some of that storage to an external storage unit, like a clay tablet or papyrus. Clearly he was right given that no bard-poets like Homer yet walk the earth, spinning long and complicated tales of precise verbiage by rote memory.

The rise of codex books and the printing press were a further extension of this principle, allowing us to offload our memory to paper, which now became more readily available. And it seems to me that we have now reached the logical conclusion of this millenia-long process with the advent of the internet, which, if it is anything, is a storehouse of information. This would seem a unmitigated boon to human beings if it weren’t for a equal and opposite response in our brains. Again, our brain’s ability to retain information contracts as we offload information to external sources. This process should be familiar: you remember phone numbers when you have to mechanically enter them; you forget them once all the digits are stored in a virtual phonebook.

Now you might be saying, “okay, well, isn’t it a good thing that I no longer have to remember useless details like phone numbers?” The answer would be yes, if I were confident you were using that freed-up “space” for better purposes. But the evidence suggests you aren’t. And haven’t we all heard the refrain uttered by an exasperated student, “why do I have to remember all these facts and figures and dates when I can find them in 1/1000th of a second with the internet?”  

The answers to these questions have been, for the most part unsatisfactory. But let me show how this might be a topic of real concern for someone committed to living as a Christian in the modern world. We now have the Bible, in every possible translation, available at our fingertips; but, as supply increases, demand decreases. The sheer ubiquity of the Bible has diminished its relative value in our eyes. The words on the page of sacred Scripture become indistinguishable from the myriad words and writings we encounter everyday. The vast ocean of ink spilled in the writing of innumerable books have brought about a nihilism in our thinking—an inability to sift the gold from the dirt. Put simply, there is a glut of information, and we have neglected the hard work of determining what’s of value and what isn’t. Our easy-going tolerance doesn’t allow us to make those judgment calls.

But this is just the start of our problems, for it is not merely the reading of the Bible that changes one’s life, but its internalization. Yet, I have been describing all along how technology causes us to externalize information. This does not bode well for us. One can simply look inside themselves and see that we now use the internet as an external hard drive, with our minds no longer storing content, but coordinates. Our minds are like the index cards of old, indicating where one might find a book in a library; except in this metaphor, our mind stores the coordinates for where one might retrieve the content should it become necessary in the future. My students make this evident each and everyday when I ask them to recount an argument from a book and they prove incapable without first flipping through it in order to find the passage that triggers their memory. They have offloaded the content of the argument to the book, retaining merely the coordinates to retrieve the information. But content is the thing of value; the coordinates are merely utilitarian. Isn’t this a profound reversal of the proper order?

If what I have said rings true, and if we do in fact tend to store coordinates rather than content, what does this mean for the study of the Bible? We are commanded to meditate on God’s Word, for its effects on our soul and our life come about through a process of assimilation and internalization. Can the Bible still change lives if we read it, as we do everything else, setting aside its content aside until a later date when it might be useful? Does its content produce a “change of heart” in us if the information passes through our minds and hearts like sand through our fingers? These are the questions that keep me up at night, but they are the questions that any 21st Century Christian must consider and answer. In short, can the Bible change our lives if it never resides in the mind and changes the heart?

Take hope in the fact that neuroplasticity means that changes in one direction mean changes in the other direction are also possible (with considerable and concerted effort). To put it another way, neuroplasticity makes possible, in quite literal terms, Paul’s call to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We can start by cultivating a zone of silence, a time to ponder the depth and worth of Scripture; and then fight with all your might to retain the information in your mind long enough that it might take up residence in your heart.