By Thaddeus Hughes, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
The following essay won third place, as well as Best Moral Essay, in the Summer 2022 Clarifying Catholicism Theology Essay contest. To view other category winners, click here.
The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.(Veritatis Splendor 1, John Paul II, 1993)
There is no more defining aspect of modern life than technology’s prevalence in it, yet how little we have figured out how to use it to aid the spiritual life or, at least, not to hinder it. In lieu of such guidance, technological progress moves at an unprecedented rate, displacing traditional ways of life unknowingly and unquestioningly. It encroaches on all fronts, often rending our eyes from holy things and towards the secular. We all know that the Church once played a key role in architecture and mediation of scientific discussion, but the Church no longer serves this role. She has not shirked this responsibility because spirituality contradicts scientific understanding or cannot bear the changes that technologies demand. Rather, it is because of our own impatience, our own desire to worship “progress” – rather than take the time to plan how technology should be used in our lives.
In all of scripture, there is nothing that decries technology outright. Technology is capable of having its right place as an aid to man in his journey towards virtue. Indeed, things of a worldly nature can help us in that goal, for our faith is an incarnate one. Just as the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us, rosaries, prayer ropes, icons, and all manner of liturgical implements open windows into the divine – inviting and entreating us to grow closer to God and in virtue.
The story of technological development is rather the story of how we have chosen to systematize and structure the created world. It is a reflection of our spirit. We can develop technology according to worldly principles, or according to divine ones. We can build the machines of man, or the Machinae Ex Deo; the Machines of God.
But just as you can only lead a horse to water, technology cannot supplant the effort required of man to become virtuous. We do not place our hope for salvation in material goods, but in our own spirits. With our renewed spirits, the works we perform are changed and given new life.
Yet many people consider technology to be amoral. Clearly, how we utilize it is laden with moral responsibility, but what is developed is also morally charged. All tools have a telos, a unique purpose or end they are created for: a hammer is good for hitting – a spoon for stirring, a saw for cutting. And within these are many varieties of each tool: different sized wrenches, wood saws versus metal saws, bandsaws, rigging axes versus ball peen hammers, teaspoons, tablespoons, and so forth.
Thus, the furnisher of a workshop dictates what a workshop can do. Those who create and furnish tools not only open possibilities for what can be made next, they invite them in – and should be careful. They also usher old forms out, as there is only so much room in the world for them to be stored – or at least, to be used. And if the lives and work of craftsmen is shaped by the toolmakers that came before them, how much more are the lives of those who receive from these craftsmen! C.S. Lewis came to the same conclusion much more elegantly and generally:
What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.(The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, 1943)
Every time we choose to develop one tool rather than another, we alter the lives of those who come after us. Every technology we build nudges the world towards virtue – or towards sin.
Man is alienated in … nonrecognition of others, where he does not see the possibility of benefitting from or to others.(Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II, 1991)
Modern technology has fundamentally changed the economic system, and in the process, has drawn new class lines – both social and economic. In our modern world, there exists somewhat of a divide between producers of technologies (manufacturers, corporations, developers) and users (often relegated to the dirty word ‘consumer’). Within tech, there can be a tendency to view users of technology as stupid and brutish – or at least, those are who we’re supposed to build technology for.
To view yourself as better than those you help is pride.
Humility is to deem all humankind better than you, being certain in your heart that you are more sinful than all.(Saint Anthony the Great)
Technologists, especially with their pivotal role in modern society, need humility to listen to their users: to work with them, tailor to them, and gather their input.
Software developers in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement have come across how valuable this virtue of humility is, and take it to wonderful conclusions:
6. Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.
10. If you treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.(Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond, 1999)
Now, not all technologists will have the pleasure of treating all their users as complete equals (or even superiors) who will fully understand and be able to improve upon their designs. But technologists should design with the intent that users could be co-developers.
This is a reflection of the same pattern we find in the garden, where Adam is charged with naming the creatures and toiling to arrange it according to God’s will.
This nature is shared by all men, not just a select technocratic caste.
Some technologists deny this equal nature when they remove schematics from appliances, when they put tamper-proof seals on devices, or any other time they prevent users from servicing their own equipment. We should rather invite our fellow man to tinker and to learn more about the wonderful application of God’s creation that we technologists have made – rather than cast him out for daring to question a superior caste of engineers and technocrats.
The Machines of God invite man to be co-developer with God. Accordingly, they invite their users to be co-developers with their inventors.
Gluttony / Temperance
Man is alienated … in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications.(Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II, 1991)
Gluttony – the desire of earthly material to find temporal fulfillment – is rampant in our day as we chase luxuries. It tears our passions from the divine and towards these earthly things.
In their greed and solicitude, the gluttons seem absolutely to sweep the world with a dragnet to gratify their luxurious tastes. These gluttons, surrounded with the sound of hissing frying-pans, and wearing their whole life away at the pestle and mortar, cling to matter like fire.(The Instructor, Book II, Clement of Alexandria)
How common overeating is in the modern developed world, especially America! Even our poorest overeat. Even our slim overeat. Obesity has always been a near-sure sign of gluttony. But nowadays we can be gluttonous and still slim, as we strip calories and nutrition from our food we try (and fail) to make it ‘filling’ rather than acknowledge what is, for many, an underlying spiritual ill.
More than that, they emasculate plain food, namely bread, by straining off the nourishing part of the grain, so that the necessary part of food becomes matter of reproach to luxury. There is no limit to epicurism (pleasure-seeking) among men. For it has driven them to sweetmeats, and honey-cakes, and sugar-plums, inventing a multitude of desserts, hunting after all manner of dishes. A man like this seems to me to be all jaw, and nothing else. “Desire not,” says the Scripture, “rich men’s dainties;” for they belong to a false and base life. They partake of luxurious dishes, which a little after go to the dunghill.(The Instructor, Book II, Clement of Alexandria, emphasis added)
This emasculation is rampant in our food today, from skim milk to anything marked as ‘diet’. How telling is it that we have put so much effort into making food that is less, rather than more nourishing! We have developed technologies and foods that allow us to eat without being fed. Technology facilitates sinful separation of nourishment from food, thereby perverting our relationship to food.
Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires.(St. Basil the Great)
Just as good, nourishing food is hard to indulge in, so too is well-developed technology. I do not mean phones with timers that prevent us from wasting too much time playing mindless games. I mean utilizing the technology itself should satiate us and still allow us to give thanks and remember that God is the ultimate creator and source of all things.
Our technology can follow this same principle, yet frequently do not. So much of the technology we have built requires enormous amounts of scaffolding – or is pyramid-scheme-like, even cancerous.
The most striking thing about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little. Modern industry seems to be inefficient to a degree that surpasses one’s ordinary powers of imagination. Its inefficiency therefore remains unnoticed.(Small is Beautiful, page 118, E.F. Schumacher 1973)
All technologies require supporting technology; this is the fundamental issue of technological scaling. A simple example of rocket science exemplifies the pattern. Tsiolkovsky’s equation states that for a rocket, when payload mass is added, additional fuel must be added – not only to offset the payload, but the additional fuel itself. In order for most technology to scale, it requires an exponential amount of support.
We must then be careful: if we place technology as its own end, it will necessarily spiral out of control, consuming all in the process.
The Machines of God satiate and remind us of our dependence on God; they do not self-reproduce to a point where they encompass and intertwine with everything.
We must also be wary to pursue marginal material gains at great spiritual expense. Periodic technological fasting can also help rein in our pursuit of these gains.
You would surely agree that the pilot of a merchant ship is better able to safely guide it to port if it is not fully loaded, when it is in excellent condition and light. The ship completely loaded down is sunk by a minor swell in the waters. But the boat that has a captain smart enough to toss overboard the extra weight will ride high above even surging waves. That’s like people in burdened down bodies. A person gets absorbed with filling up, getting weighed down until finally falling into ill health. But those who are well-equipped, light, and truly nourished, avoid the prospect of serious disease. They are like the board in stormy weather that goes right over a dangerous rock.(On Fasting, St. Basil the Great)
Acedia / Diligence
[Acedia] makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour, to look this way and that … And further he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labor, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him.(Evagrius of Pontus)
Our ancient father, millennia ago, has described the modern office job. Perhaps in this, we should take heart that such a spirit of sloth is timeless. But it is always worth wondering if our technological landscape invites this spirit. We have done much to reduce the amount of physical labor men need to survive – but work is still necessary to thrive and acquire virtue. All of the spiritual giants throughout time have attested to this reality.
Someone said to blessed Arsenius, ‘How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.’(from Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
Man matures through work that inspires him to do difficult good.(Pope John Paul II)
When we do not persist, when we are despondent and slothful, – when we are satisfied with material prosperity – we are unfaithful to God’s call for us. We must be spiritually if not physically alert and vigilant lest we fall into other sins.
We can also go too far with our work and become stubborn rather than diligent. The spirit of diligence opens eyes and wishes to incite other virtues, but if we stubbornly persist in sinful ways. Technology, in the most basic idea of analyzing and meditating on craft, has much to offer in attaining this virtue.
Technologies that allow better bodily use, such as more ergonomic tools, aids in man’s journey towards virtue. To persist in truly back-breaking labor is not diligence but stubbornness as it hurts the human body – the temples of God we are all naturally given responsibility over.
Proper development and use of tools reflects an appreciation bodily goods both physical and spiritual. It appreciates the body both as a productive thing capable of producing material prosperity, and a divine temple that ought be cared for.
Good technology refines life so that it more closely follows the Logos. When we pick up a tool, we should appreciate the purpose it was made for and how that purpose would glorify God. Our tools should
For the sages say that it is impossible for rational knowledge (Logos) of God to coexist with the direct experience of God, or for conceptual knowledge of God to coexist with immediate perception of God… This may very well be what the great Apostle is secretly teaching when he says, ‘As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will disappear (1 Cor 13:8)’. Clearly he is referring here to that knowledge which is found in knowledge and ideas.(Ad Thalassium 60, St. Maximus the Confessor)
This participative wisdom, the kind of which ‘cannot be described,’ is of a superior kind than that which is merely lectured. If God had desired us to learn about Him by words alone, He would have made life a disembodied conversation. He did not. He gave us bodies to work and know his creation – we should not shirk them and their potential.
The Machines of God perfect, not replace, difficult and edifying labor of man.
Greed / Charity
Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labor, grows or diminishes as a person.(Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II, 1991)
Technology enables increased labor efficiency. But, if the pursuit of increased efficiency causes us to look down upon some of our brethren as unproductive and thus less worthy of love, we cannot justify it. In charity we must look to the material well being of a person. But even more so, we must be mindful of how the material things affect their soul.
True charity does not consist in simply removing the need for one to labor to earn one’s daily bread. To do so would actually be to deprive each of work by which he would advance in virtue.
It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.(Quadragesimo Anno 79, Pope Pius XI, 1931)
While generally applied to economics and politics, this principle of subsidiarity applies to any system. The smallest, lowest, and least centralized authority capable should solve problems. Not only does subsidiarity often work from a practical standpoint, it is the only way to preserve the fullness of charity by not denying the rightful agency that we have over our own lot. Again, Pope Leo XIII invokes this subtly when referring to the church’s mission to the poor:
[The Church’s] desire is that the poor, for example, should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and better their condition in life…(Rerum Novarum 28, Pope Leo XIII, 1891)
It would be one thing to say simply ‘the poor should not be wretched.’ it is another to desire that they should better their condition, not some outside force. The betterment of their condition should be derived from their own works, not imposed from outside – inasmuch as possible.
By developing technologies that maintain agency, virtue enters the picture as a viable answer to problems. The problem of what workers, whose jobs have been displaced by machinery, should do is increasingly pressing today. One suggestion – subsidizing these workers through welfare or ‘universal basic income’ – ignores the underlying spiritual problem: the deprivation of agency in how they earn their daily bread. True charity not only desires the wellbeing of another, but refuses to infantilize and coddle them – strip them of their dignity.
Technology as a whole is not inherently opposed to this – only some forms of it are. The Catholic economist and businessman E.F. Schumacher argued that there can be such forms of technology compatible with this vision of charity:
Technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate technology to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the super-technology of the rich. One can also call it self-help technology, or democratic or people’s technology – a technology to which everybody can gain admittance and which is not reserved to those already rich and powerful.(Small is Beautiful pages 112-113, E.F. Schumacher, 1973)
Or more simply,
We need methods and equipment which are cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone: suitable for small-scale application, and compatible with man’s need for creativity.(Small is Beautiful page 20, E.F. Schumacher, 1973)
A technological landscape that is truly charitable sees all as capable of partaking.
The Machines of God do not merely give what man needs; they call him to greater responsibility and charity.
Wrath / Patience
Modern man is capable of all sorts of noise, all sorts of wars, and so many solemn false statements, in an infernal chaos, because he has excluded God from his life, from his battles, and from his gargantuan ambition to transform the world for his selfish benefit alone.(The Power of Silence 34, Robert Cardinal Sarah, 2016)
Since we have, on the whole, put ourselves in a poor relationship with God and His creation, it is no surprise that we create devices with little concern on how they impact the landscape. We extract resources from the bowels of the earth at a tremendous rate.
Scientific or technological ‘solutions’ which poison the environment or degrade the social structure and man himself are of no benefit, no matter how brilliantly conceived or how great their superficial attraction. Even bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. […] Peace, as has often been said, is indivisible – how then could peace be built on a foundation of reckless science and violent technology?(Small is Beautiful 20, E.F. Schumacher 1973)
Why do we do this, even those who mean well?
We impatiently seek to immanentize the eschaton; to have heaven on earth – right now. We want quick development in order to minimize our time investment because we fear ‘progress’ won’t work out. We want to enjoy the material fruits of technological progress in our lifetimes. When we don’t achieve this progress, we become bitter and wrathful. But God’s ways are not our own.
So is patience set over the things of God, that one can obey no precept, fulfill no work well-pleasing to the Lord, if estranged from it.(Of Patience, Tertullian)
With so much pain in the world, we are quick to journey and try to save it. However, additional time in prayer and reflection gives us renewed mind and spirit — and a sense of what is truly pressing.
Our technology will do thus should not alert us to every waking problem as if it is urgent and needs resolved immediately. It should give us buffers to deal with problems in their appropriate time.
The Machines of God aid in peaceful contemplation and communion with God.
Lust / Chastity
A society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production, and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people.(Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II, 1991)
The last century has seen a drastic loosening of sexual mores, to the point where this vice is seen as a virtue. While it is true that certain philosophical attitudes brought about this change, technology has played key roles in numbing the pains wisely instated by our creator to encourage us away from sin. The risk of conception and childbirth, the risk of emotional attachment, even the risk of sexually transmitted disease: all these could be considered natural deterrents. As Pope Paul VI writes in his encyclical on the topic,
Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings – and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation – need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.(Humanae Vitae, 17, Pope Paul VI, 1968)
Man is a sensual being, experiencing the world through sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. These senses inform and affect our moral desires. Man also feels pain, and we do not deny this is a useful and important sensation. The pain of being burned by a hot pan encourages us to not hold onto it and ruin our bodies (which are wonderful temples of God). The pains associated with sexual perversion, then, should not be numbed.
Modern materialism sees tangible objects as ultimate good, and has posited a ‘problem of pain’. Of course when we have our eyes set upon the world, pain is a problem – but the ways of God are not our own. With our eyes set upon virtue, pain does not present itself as a problem but as an aid. Indeed, this is what our forefathers recognized:
At the instant when he was created, the first man, by use of his senses, squandered this spiritual capacity [for pleasure] — the natural desire of the mind for God — on sensible things. In this, his very first movement, he activated an unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses. Being, in his providence, concerned for our salvation, God therefore affixed pain alongside this sensible pleasure as a kind of punitive faculty, whereby the law of death was wisely implanted in our corporeal nature to curb the foolish mind in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensible things.(Ad Thalassium, 61, St. Maximus the Confessor)
Technology has also expanded sexual experience. High-speed, digital, online proliferation of pornography allows young children to see more genitals in an evening than our ancestors could have in a lifetime if they tried. Noisy imaging and flashy media – such sensations also shape our passions and pervert what we desire.
For some years now there has been a constant onslaught of images, lights, and colors that blind man. His interior dwelling is violated by the unhealthy, provocative images of pornography, bestial violence, and all sorts of worldly obscenities that assault purity of heart and infiltrate through the door of sight.(The Power of Silence, 43, Robert Cardinal Sarah, 2016)
This is no small alteration. Pope Paul VI writes that our modern culture of sexual gratification ‘reduces human beings to mere instruments for satisfaction of desires’. This breakdown in how we view others – as mere instruments rather than as other humans we also want to entice into the kingdom of God – breaks our capacity to bond properly and establish solidarity.
We must cleanse our hearts so that we can truly love our brethren for their own good.
The Machines of God do not stifle justly ordained pain. Instead, they help to reveal and address the underlying sin so that the Body of Christ may be healed.
It is one thing to have stated these principles, but it is another to embody them, digest them, and enact them. E.F. Schumacher reminds us of this as he harkens back to many of the principles developed in this essay:
It is my experience that it is rather more difficult to capture directness and simplicity than to advance in the direction of ever more sophistication and complexity. Any third-rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity; it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again. This insight does not come easily to people who have alienated themselves from real, productive work and from the self-balancing system of nature, which never fails to recognize measure and limitation. Any activity which fails to recognize a self-limiting principle is of the devil.(Small is Beautiful 154, Schumacher, 1973)
Though not exhaustive, we can say that the Machines of God:
… invite man to be co-developer with God. Accordingly, Machines that men invent invite their users to be co-developers with their inventors.
… satiate and remind us of our dependence on God; they do not self-reproduce to a point where they encompass and intertwine with everything.
… perfect – not replace – difficult and edifying labor of man.
… do not merely give what man needs; they call him to greater responsibility and charity.
… aid in peaceful contemplation and communion with God.
… do not stifle justly ordained pain. Instead, they help to reveal and address the underlying sin so that the Body of Christ may be healed.