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"Technology - blessing or the ultimate curse?"

Posted on: September 20, 1999 10:00 AM
Related Categories: ACC, ACC11

"Technology is not simply the practice of using tools, but rather a way of looking at the world, a way of framing questions and analysing problems," the Rev Eric Beresford, who occupies the ethics desk for the Anglican Church of Canada, said. He was presenting the major paper in the Hearing on Ethics and Technology at the Anglican Consultative Meeting in Dundee, Scotland.

His paper was an important contribution to the ACC meeting, and could bear fruit in Anglican circles when it is circulated and discussed throughout the provinces of the Anglican Communion. In response to last year's Lambeth Conference resolution on technology, Eric Beresford will soon commence secondment from the Anglican Church of Canada to the Anglican Communion Secretariat on a part-time basis to work on ethics issues.

In his discussion he explained that technological issues that must be engaged with theologically, for they are issues for the community of the church, the wider communities of which we are a part, and indeed the whole created order. He argued that questions of unity and communion do not have matters related to emergent technologies and to ecological disintegration as mere adjuncts. "In a world divided around the impacts of these changes....they are likely to become crucial points of tension. At the same time they are therefore practical opportunities to show what it means to live in local communities as part of a global communion," he said. "Given the reality of our life as 'communion' as reflected in the Virginia Report, we are in a strong position to bring together particular local experience and reflective global analysis in a way that will meet the needs of the church and provide a creative and productive addition to the wider discussions that are beginning to take place about these problems around the world."

The paper set out three ways of looking at technology that have been predominant in Western culture, and which appear in different guises elsewhere. They are 'technology as saviour - unqualifiedly good', a view that is based on Francis Bacon's dictum 'knowledge is power'. "Implicit in this perspective," Eric Beresford said, "is the assumption that technology equals progress and anyone who slows down the rate of technological development impedes progress. It also assumes that technology itself is infallible and tat when problems occur they are due to human error or a foolish or malicious choice of the purposes for which technology is used."

The second view sees 'technology as oppressor/ demonic'. This understands technology 'as basically destructive of human persons and of human freedom' and providing an experience of profound alienation.

The third view, which is the most widespread in Western society, sees technology as neutral and value free, that is, 'technology as neutral - tool' so technology and technologies are, in and of themselves, neither good nor bad, it all depends on the manner in which they are used. So the problem is not technology in itself, but the responsible use of technology.

Following his examination of these perspectives he mentioned two characteristics common to technological societies that lay a basis for comprehending why a proper understanding of the nature of technological change is an issue for Christians generally as well as representatives of the Anglican Church globally through the work of the ACC.

"A technological society will be one that will look at problems in terms of technology. It may sound like a truism, but what I am saying is that the interpenetration of knowing and doing means that a technological consciousness will proceed by asking what technique must I employ to deal with this or that problem? No problem will appear in principle insoluble to technique, and this means that a society will be unable to see a decision to do nothing as anything other than a disguised action," he said. Secondly, "the goal of the technological revolution is in many ways freedom. Freedom from the necessities that nature imposes on us. We can now go further and faster, live longer and more healthily than we could without technology." But people are not all beneficiaries of these new freedoms. "A second problem turns out to be a freedom of consumers rather than participants. It is a freedom which is defined in terms of freedom from constraint. We are given freedom from, but it is not clear whether this can also be freedom for, or for what. Yet when St Paul talks about freedom it is surely the latter which is his primary concern."

In a reflective response, Bishop Richard Holloway agreed that technology is both "curse and blessing" saying that technology is not neutral and value free, though it is not leaded with difficulties. It is, rather, human beings who are. He raised questions about the 'ownership' of technology by the powerful and said that the recent advances in "the biotechnological revolution will make the industrial revolution look like a Sunday picnic."

Bishop Holloway told the ACC members that we must not be Luddites to technology, but that we must be discriminating and recognise it as both curse and blessing. "It is a blessing," he said, "it may also be the ultimate curse."

In response, Mrs Maureen Sithole from the Province of Southern Africa raised the practice of Western scientists experimenting to create life saving drugs on victims in the developing world, but then producing their results in forms of medicine which are extremely expensive by developing world standards, and are therefore outside the purchasing capacity of developing world medicine.