The Coming Tech Boom... Or Babel
There’s a technological transformation coming that will revolutionize this century the way the telephone, electricity and automobiles altered the one before.
According to Mark Mills, a physicist and founder of the Digital Power Group who writes for the Forbes Intelligence column, and Julio Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Northwestern University, we sit “on the cusp of three grand technological transformations.” And what are those three?
Big data, smart manufacturing and the wireless revolution.
These are big.
Here’s a quick summary of their significance:
1. Big Data. Processing power and data storage are not only virtually free, but becoming virtually unlimited. The iPhone alone has computing power that puts the 1970s-era IBM mainframe to shame. “The internet is evolving into the “cloud” – a network of thousands of data centers any one of which makes a 1990 supercomputer look antediluvian.
2. Smart Manufacturing. In what is called the “first structural shift” since Henry Ford launched mass production, engineers will soon “design and build from the molecular level…even creating new materials.” This era of “new materials” will explode when combined with 3-D printing (also known as direct-digital manufacturing). Imagine “literally ‘printing’ parts and devices using computational power, lasers and basic powdered metals and plastics.” Then one day, the Holy Grail: “'desktop' printing of entire final products from wheels to even washing machines.”
3. Wireless Revolution. Soon, most humans on the planet will be connected wirelessly. “Never before have a billion people – soon billions more – been able to communicate, socialize and trade in real time.” As the authors of the article note, this introduces both rapid change (e.g., the Arab Spring), as well as great opportunity.
And great danger, if not stewarded with humility.
As I wrote in my book Serious Times, it was this same spirit that erected the infamous tower of Babel, and one could argue is leading to its rebuilding today. Only this time we are not building with bricks and mortar, but silicon chips and genetic engineering. We live in a technological age, and have embraced technological advance with abandon, creating what Neil Postman termed a “technopoly” where technology of every kind is cheerfully granted sovereignty. Or, as Jacques Ellul has written, at least the process of technique designed to serve our ends.
Ironically, within the word “technology” itself lies the new philosophical mooring that marks our intent. The word is built from such Greek words as “technites” (craftsman) and “techne” (art, skill, trade), which speak to the idea of either the person who shapes or molds something, or to the task of shaping and molding itself.
But it is the Greek word “logos,” to which “technites” is joined, that makes our term “technology” so provocative. “Logos” is a reference within Greek thought to divine reason, or the organizing principle of the world. In John’s gospel “logos” was used to communicate to those familiar with the Greek worldview the idea of the divinity of Jesus.
Moderns have put together two words that the ancients would not have dared to combine, for the joining of the words intimates that mere humans can shape the very order of the world. Though technology itself may be neutral in its enterprise, there can be no doubt that within the word itself are the seeds for the presumption that would seek to cast God from His throne and assert humanity in His place as the conduit of divine power.
It reminds me of an interview I read celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first test-tube baby. Robert Edwards, who along with his partner, Patrick Steptoe, pioneered the procedure, graced the occasion with a rare but candid interview with The Times of London. “It was a fantastic achievement but it was about more than infertility,” said Edwards, then 77 and emeritus professor of human reproduction at Cambridge University. “I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God Himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory.”
Smiling triumphantly at the reporter, he said, “It was us.”
James Emery White
“The Coming Tech-led Boom” by Mark P. Mills and Julio M. Ottino, The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2012. Read online.
James Emery White, Serious Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press).
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, translated from the French by John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).
On the meaning of the words “techne” and “technites”, see the article on “Carpenter, Builder, Workman, Craftsman, Trade” by J.I. Packer in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, editor (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library/Zondervan, 1975/1986), p. 279.
Anjana Ahuja, “God Is Not In Charge, We Are,” T2-The Times, 24 July 2003, p. 6.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.