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August 8, 2002

Habits of the High-Tech Heart
 
Habits

Forgive Calvin professor Quentin Schultze if he sounds anti-technology in his forthcoming book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart. He's not. But he is sounding a warning about society's fascination (he might even call it a fixation) with technology, especially when it comes to communication. His concerns are plain in the preface.

"This book is partly a personal journey," he says, "to find my way in an era when many human beings seem, like me, to have wandered off the trail that leads to what Socrates called the 'good life.' I enjoy the Internet and other communication and informational technologies, but I must admit that they do not satisfy my need for moral coherence and spiritual direction. If anything, such machines seem to divert my attention from the central concerns of life — such as love, gratitude and responsibility — to relatively trivial pursuits with little redeeming value.

"Moreover, as I talk with colleagues, students, relatives and neighbors, I find that they generally feel a similar tyranny of the informationally urgent. My own uneasiness about the information age seems to reflect a widespread disquiet about the technologizing of everyday life."

Strong words from a man who not only has his own polished website and humming e-mail accounts on a high-speed cable modem, but who is also one of the founders of the Gospel Communications Network, the most popular religious website in the world.

"Helping to build that alliance of over 300 ministries has been one of the joys of my life," he admits. "Gospelcom.net has a good worthy purpose, which you cannot say about a lot the noise and nonsense that masquerades as evidence of the so-called 'information revolution'."

He has seen first-hand the power of wise use of the web to touch and change lives. Yet, he worries if truly authentic communication is increasingly rare in today's high-tech world. His new book is a working out of that wondering. And he concludes that authentic communication is still possible. But it will take some effort and some new ways of looking at technology and communication, new ways that have their foundation in the old ways of such thinkers as Alexis de Tocqueville, Václav Havel and St. Augustine—to name only a few.

Schultze"My goal" in this book, he says, "is not so much to discard database and messaging technologies as much as to adapt them to venerable ways of life anchored in age-old virtues. History shows that every technological advance also delivers us to new moral quandaries. If we do not address such moral dilemmas, we will lose our capacity to act responsibly."

Schultze says new technologies like the Internet and cell phones can provide communication bridges among people, but often they simultaneously weaken the moral fabric of existing relationships. He believes that cyberspace is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, even though the medium purports to be and we often attempt to make it so. "There is no online equivalent to Sunday dinner among friends and families," he suggests. "Nor can cell phones magically revive the decline of hospitality and neighborliness in our communities," Schultze warns. "In most cases, distance education is a poor substitute for classroom learning or even living-room and café learning."

Schultze approaches the issue from his perspective as a Christian, but says that his book cuts across religious boundaries in its recommendations for appropriate use of technology (the book's subtitle is "living virtuously in the information age"). "My biases flow from my commitment to the wisdom found in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, which speak volumes about the important of living virtuously rather than technologically. Silicon Valley is something like the ancient Tower of Babel — an enormous and elaborate arena where overly self-confident people are trying to make a name for themselves through intellect, wealth and acclaim. Sooner or later it had to start unraveling under the strain of its own arrogance. "

"I believe," he says, "that God made us to be primarily face-to-face communicators. We use speech to forge bonds of intimacy and trust and our online communication can supplement this 'communion,' but it can't substitute effectively for it. Excessive technological pursuits will weaken our communities, congregations, business and families. Dialogue, especially listening to each other, infuses our relationships with empathy, compassion and civility."

Read an interview with Schultze on EthicsDaily.com

Schultze says such in-person communication is increasingly difficult to foster in the information age. We need strong, non-technological relationships as moral leaven for our high-tech endeavors. That's one of the reasons Schultze sees problems with things like weblogs (blogs).

"Years from now," he recently told FaithWorks (the magazine of Associated Baptist Press), "anthropologists will probably conclude that our society was media-rich and communication-poor. No society ever had more means of communication, yet no members of a society ever felt so out of touch with one another. Blogging, like personal web pages and live web cams, is one way that individuals can speak out and feel like they matter in this impersonal world."

The solution, Schultze argues, is not to dismantle our growing technologies but to pay more attention to what de Tocqueville called the "habits of the heart." Schultze's book emphasizes six such habits (discernment, moderation, wisdom, humility, authenticity, and diversity) as particularly important in the information age.

"These habits, which embody the wisdom of the past and the virtue and morality of the Hebrew and Christian traditions, must reshape our understanding of digital technology," he says. "Otherwise we all will see ourselves more and more like machines rather than like responsible creatures made in the image and likeness of God to be caretakers of the Creation."

Apparently Schultze's book is already hitting a chord with a wide range of observers of contemporary culture. U-Cal Berkeley physicist Clifford Stoll say, "What a delight. On every page I found insight, depth and compelling thought." Theologian Lew Smedes says that the book "is likely to be one of the most important published in the year 2002." Calvin College has already tapped Schultze to lead off the January Series in 2003.

The book is from Baker Book House.

Read an interview with Schultze and a review of the book on Ethics Daily.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
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