12 July 2012

Of Tools and Grace

This is an article I wrote that appeared in Conspire (Spring 2012).

As the sole technology worker at a seminary, I am responsible for researching, recommending, implementing, and supporting technological answers to institutional questions. Since a primary task of the seminary is to educate students, part of my job is to pay attention to developments in the field of educational technology.

One way I do this is by attending conferences. At every educational technology conference I’ve attended, someone will say “But it [education] is not about the technology.”

This mantra is a good and healthy reminder. It also reveals something of the easy way that we (technology-workers specifically, but also people in general) can deceive ourselves. The statement is usually made as a corrective, long after it has become abundantly clear to the interlocutors that “it” is, in fact, precisely about the technology. In “Educational Technology,” technology is the noun, yet we persist in claiming otherwise. Why?

I think part of the denial is because most people think of technology as something neutral that can be used for good or ill. If this is true, then we are free to use it as we see fit. We are free to talk about technology and propose technological solutions to, say, pedagogical problems, secure in the knowledge that we’re only using the tools available to us to accomplish some greater end.

Part of our denial is because we have come to accept that most questions and dilemmas can be answered with a tool. This belief not only changes the nature of the solution, but it actually alters the problem as well. We stop asking: “How can we do this?” or even “Should we do this?”and start asking: “How can we use said tool to do this?” By answering that last, easier, question, we assume that we have answered the first two as well.

This shift has troubling implications for any community, including the seminary community of which I am a part. Consider a few examples.

When I want to contact someone at work, my first inclination is to send an email message, not to walk down the hall. Pre-email, I would probably have called. I know, rationally, that the instantaneity offered by technology is not the same as the intimacy of the office visit, but, practically, I’ve come to equate the two--or at least to settle for the instantaneous. Instantaneity can be realized with a tool (email); intimacy cannot.

When I hear about neighbors who are in need, my first inclination (after I wring my hands feeling generally powerless) is to provide some sort of financial support. I know, rationally, that alleviating a financial burden is not the same as true support, but, practically, I’ve come to equate the two--or at least to settle for the financial unburdening. Unburdening can be realized with a tool (money); supporting one another in love cannot.

When my congregation discusses how to be more hospitable and welcoming, one recurring suggestion is for everyone to wear name tags. We equate knowing each others names to knowing one another better. Rationally, I know that collegiality is not the full extent of fellowship, but, practically, I’ve come to equate the two--or at least to settle for the collegial. Collegiality can be approximated with a tool (name tag); fellowship cannot.

The problem in these examples is not instantaneity, financial aid, or collegiality, which may not be bad things within themselves. The problem is when we come to see them as tantamount to something greater: fellowship, support, or intimacy. Technology, often seen as a neutral tool, leads us to make this false equivalence.

So as the director of information technology at a seminary (which I take to mean a community marked by traits like fellowship, support, and intimacy, among others), my job is to recommend, implement, and support those very things that over time work against becoming that sort of community. So I take it as my responsibility, though it isn’t written into my job description, to ask questions like: Do we need technology to accomplish this particular task? Do we need this particular piece of technology? What does it cost to use (not just a financial consideration)? What will it cost to stop using it?

Except that most days, I don’t actively ask myself those questions. I stuff them in the background, or hang them on the wall of my peripheral vision. Then I create processes and procedures that let me purchase, upgrade, and install without needing to ask questions about any particular technology. Because the “technology” of processes and policies answers these questions—the questions that seek a technological answer--I never need to ask the bigger, more demanding, questions. 

I justify this by telling myself that there are some things that institutions require; and that the nature of my job is such that I do not have the luxury of actively wrestling with the bigger questions. After all, my job is about helping the seminary fulfill its mission. It’s the seminary’s mission which is about the reign of God, so I am therefore freed to deal exclusively with technology-as-tool.

And so we come full circle, and I fall into the same behaviors that so frustrate me at educational technology conferences or nametag discussions or office communications across the hall. I, too, find myself using technological tools to address the questions that technology poses, and, in so doing, rest in my own little deception.

Yet grace abounds.

Grace abounds when I get interrupted in some way that wrenches me out of my technological patterns. When a co-worker stops by my office, that more intimate visit makes demands of me that the instantaneity of email does not. When my neighbor suggests that I can help her by babysitting her children so she can have some time alone; that demands of me things that donating to the local food bank does not. When a visitor to my church starts to spill his life story in my lap, that fellowship requires what simply “knowing” his name does not.

Sometimes this grace makes me bold. In such moments, I seek technology that is good enough to do what needs to be done most of the time, but not so capable that it leaves no room for our human messiness—failure, interruption, and intimacy. And on especially rare days, I suggest to others at the seminary that problems with our email provider give us a chance to reflect on how reliant we’ve become on email, what that might say about us, and whether it’s good.

Those moments are relatively few and far between, though, so if you visit me at work you will be hard-pressed to find how the nice story I’ve written above plays out concretely. This is because, more honestly, most of the time I wish grace wouldn’t abound quite so much.