The challenge of technology and individualism
In this excerpt from the Two Ways News, Tony Payne and Philip Jensen discuss individualism and the Christian idea of fellowship.
"TP: Phillip, I want to talk about the fact that the other day you accused me of being a coffee snob.
PJ: Which you are.
TP: Well, of course. But what's wrong with being a coffee snob? I like my coffee a certain way. So what's wrong with loving my coffee just the way I like it?
PJ: Well, because it's antisocial. You're not drinking coffee with me. You just happen to be drinking coffee at the same time as me.
TP: But you can have your coffee and I can have my coffee.
PJ: Yes, we can do that if we like but wouldn't it be better to share our coffee?
TP: You mean like from the one pot or something?
PJ: Yes, exactly like that. That is how traditionally our community drank tea and coffee; we had things called pots, and you had a teapot and everybody shared because no one was more important than anybody else. And nobody's taste was held as so significant; it was good just to drink the common drink of everybody.
TP: So you're saying that something has changed in the way that we drink coffee now from how you remember us drinking coffee?
PJ: Well, I still drink coffee from a pot. But yes if you go to a shop, you see this huge queue waiting for the coffee because everybody has to wait for the barista to make it separately for each individual. And we all stand around waiting in our isolated frustration, waiting to be able to drink our own coffee our own way. It's terribly antisocial.
TP: And I guess just to defend the coffee snobs from being no different from the tea snobs, we always used to drink tea from a pot as well. And sometimes still occasionally do, but now we have 37 different varieties of tea bags. And we all have our own particular lemon ginger with a twist of cranberry in much the same fashion.
PJ: Yes, that's right. It's got to do with wealth and affluence. It's got to do with snobbery.
TP: So what's wrong with each individual person having what each individual person wants? Surely that's just the essence of freedom?
PJ: Not quite, when you say it like that—“essence of freedom”—it's not so different from the word ‘autonomy’, which is a word for sin.
TP: So you're saying the individualism of how we consume our coffee and spend a lot of money on machines and individual coffee, indicates a fracturing of our culture and society into an individualism that's different from when you all shared coffee from a pot. Although in one sense it has also resulted in vastly superior coffee than the ones that used to be served out of pots.
PJ: Yes. Here’s another illustration: why do we eat meals? A teenage boy who is grazing from the fridge is doing so to satisfy his hunger. But the reason for a meal has to do with fellowship. But now when we have a meal, we all sit down, and I read my newspaper and you read your phone, and we at the same time have the television in the background. And so the very essence of sharing a meal together has been lost. Yes, food is consumed, but that can be done by the teenager in front of the refrigerator.
TP: So the point you're making, if I understand it, is that our technological progress and the explosion of options that result from it—products and services that we can individually choose and adapt to our personal preferences and wants—actually drives us apart and destroys something valuable, which is community and relationship. So individualism plus technology is pulling us apart.
PJ: You could put it that way, yes, that's part of it. The economists call it opportunity cost: you choose one thing, but in the choosing of it, you forego several other things that you don't even notice necessarily. And so when I choose to watch this particular show on my streaming service, at the same time, I'm choosing not to sit with other people and watch their show, or go out with the whole society to a picture theater and watch it together. But it's not against technology itself. Technology has improved our lives in just so many ways. The world we live in is already different from the world I grew up in, different to the world my parents or my grandparents lived in.
I can still remember the dial up, when you dialled into the bulletin board with your modem and it made a funny, squeaky noise. But that's just 20-30 years ago. And now the fantasy of a Dick Tracy cartoon, where he had on his wrist a watch that could communicate with the world, is simply something people take for granted.
TP: It's interesting though, that the rise of technologically driven consumerist society, the kind of society we live in, is part of the whole Enlightenment liberal project. It's what the last 150 or 200 years of Western culture has been like and about: freeing the individual to be healthy and to have enough to eat to pursue personal happiness.
PJ: And I don't think it has been to free the individual. I think it's been to give to humanity those things that you're mentioning, but the side consequence of it is individualism. So we want more people to be fed, we want fewer people to die of starvation, we want all people to be able to live out their threescore years and 10. But the process of doing it has focused on individualism.
TP: I think the two are closely connected. I don't think the modern technological project started with a group of people in a room saying, “How can we feed more people? How can we feed the world? How can we do some great thing for humanity?” Rather it started with people seeing opportunities to make more money by providing something that people wanted or needed, in a way that they couldn’t do before, and in so doing make profit. And the whole modern free market liberal economy works by having incentives for people to invest, to innovate, to compete with each other to find better ways of doing things or to solve problems, but in the process, you concentrate on the individual, and it funnels down to meet ever more precise individual needs and wants and find new markets by persuading people that you now need your own teabag.
Now, it's good that we recognize the growth in technology is tied up with individualism, but it also has been of enormous benefit to countless individuals. The statistics are extraordinary. In the year 1800, there were about 1 billion people in the world, more than 90% of which lived on less than $1 a day, which is almost nothing. It's hard for us to imagine how utterly impoverished the world was in the year 1800. A lot of people starved in the world, and life expectancy was something like half of what it is now! But in the last 200 years, the change in those statistics is mind boggling—one calculation estimated that the world is 25,000% better off in the year 2000 than it was in the year 1800. And what's more, in the 1000 years before 1800, it hadn't changed much at all. Life was nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes said. It's hard sometimes to comprehend the scale of the improvement over the past two centuries, and we shouldn't underestimate or downplay that, but at the same time, the negative corollary of that project is massive as well. And we don't notice it, because we're swimming in the improvement all the time and don't see the things that we're losing.
PJ: Yes, and I don’t want to stand against progress, or like Lord Ludd and the Luddites objecting to every technological change that has happened. I'm the beneficiary of those kinds of technologies. My older brother had polio. I had diphtheria. Most people have never heard of these diseases today, but they were a terrible curse, both of them life-threatening diseases. Either of us could have died with them, but by the wonders of modern technology, we don't have those particularly around anymore. So I don't want to stand in any way against those. But I am saying every advance comes with hidden opportunity costs and with values being changed. And that's not necessarily wrong, because some of those costs are worth paying. But if they're hidden, then we change without realizing we have changed. And some of the changes are detrimental to us. I think there's something really nice about sitting with people and sharing the same pot of coffee and drinking together in a commonality. Now I know it's only symbolic. The reading of the phone at the table is a little bit more than symbolic.
TP: Quite right. In fact, we have them with us everywhere at all times so that we can be communicated with individually at any moment.
PJ: Yes. Which is fascinating, because we're not really communicating; we've just got electronic personnel that we are in touch with and we take them everywhere. I haven't needed to take a telephone to a football match for nearly all of my life. Now that I have this incredible piece of equipment whereby I've got the libraries of the world in my pocket, why do I need that at a football game? Why do I need it at church? I've gone to church for 70 years without one. Why do I now feel kind of naked and feel as though I've left something behind if I haven't got my phone? As soon as I arrive at church, they say, “Make sure you turn your phone off.” What's worse is when I get home, I forget to turn it back on again. Well actually, that's not worse; that gives me some peace.
TP: So I guess the question is, what should we do about this, about how technology enables us great convenience but is driven by individualism, which is also part of the reason for its success? In our current culture, one of the reactions to the prevailing intense individualism is to flip to a kind of collectivism, such as the rise of identity politics, tribal group identities, social justice movements.
PJ: I think that Christians should be as opposed to that kind of communalism as we are to individualism. I think those two alternatives are both failures to be Christian.
TP: Indeed, and it's funny how we tend to flip to one side or the other. So what's the Christian response then, if it's not to flip to collectivism?
PJ: How about this: relationalism. We should be relationalists.
TP: Define ‘relationalist’?
PJ: We are created and born into the context of relationships; we are made for relationship with God, we are made for relationship with each other. We find our identity, our purposes, our morality, our meanings in the context of relationships. But relationships need to be nourished as reality. A community that never communes—that never meets with each other—is not a community. The nature of meeting with people and relating to people, befriending people, loving people and being loved by people—that is what life is about. But so much of our technologically-driven individualism is anti-relationship. Indeed, we could also say much of communalism these days is like that too. But like you said, that's another podcast for another day.
Nowadays, we don't sit at the table in order to relate to each other. We sit at the table to watch television together…
TP: Or to scroll our social media page and see what the latest funny thing is that somebody is has put up there.
PJ: Yes, and we don't necessarily even wait for each other when we come to the meal table. When you talk about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 10, waiting for one another and not one person being hungry while one another person's eating too much, or one being thirsty while another is drinking too much, you see that the nature of love comes in a meal expressed by people sharing together.
TP: Because relationalism in biblical New Testament terms is the expression of love for the other person that wants what is best for them, that sees and seeks all that is good for them and in them. And therefore it is always looking outward from myself to others. As you read 1 Corinthians, especially about the imagery of the body where every part is concerned for the other, it shows that we’re not just a set of units in a big collective. We're actually all different; we're an elbow, we're a nose, we're different things. And we are all seeking the good of the other and the common good as both individuals and as a related community of people who are all caring for each other. And the way the church functions is a great picture of what's different about Christianity.
So now what we're really discussing is an approach to all of life that prioritizes what my old ethics lecturer Michael Hill used to call ‘mutual love relationships’. In fact, he used to go on about relationalism—or rather inter-relationalism, as he called it—as the distinctive Christian approach to how we think about all of life. Do that which promotes a relationship of love with other people. And if that's your ethic, then you won't go too far wrong as a general principle, and I think he's onto something. And so it's not as if, in this conversation, we're wanting to just critique eating habits and TV viewing habits, and so on. But they're examples of an approach to life, that show how things have changed and how we've lost or stopped focusing on relating and loving other people and have become victims of an unspoken individualism that's being promoted to us all the time.
PJ: Yes. And this has happened even in church-going—the idea that I go to church to get something private, rather than going to church to see my brothers and sisters and give something to it. And when I just want to spend my time going away to my holiday house up the coast or something; that’s a failure to actually be committed to other people in their walk with the Lord. In one sense, nothing's changed. Hebrews 10 talks about “Do not forsake the gathering together and all the more as you see the day coming.” So you can't just stop technology, but you do need to keep adapting to the usage of it, so that you make the important things—our relationship with God and our relationship with each other—priorities. And you can always tell people's priorities by what they choose not to do. If we choose to follow individual satisfaction, we're choosing not to spend our time with other people. But if we choose other people and their needs, and our fellowship with them, well, then that means sometimes we won't have the latest technological improvement.
TP: Or we'll choose to use it very differently. We'll be thoughtful in the way we adapt and adopt new technologies, because we'll see that there's something about the ideology of technology, and the way that works in our society that constantly drives us towards seeking to satisfy an individual want. And so we'll be wary about that effect having its way in our lives, and we’ll respond and use the technology differently, because that's what holiness is. It's living in this world differently according to how this world really is and according to our relationship with Christ.
PJ: Yes. So for example, instead of driving our children to school, we can walk with them to school. It can take half an hour or an hour longer, but you'll never know what your children think about school if you don't walk home with them from school. The freedom of spending inefficient time with other people is an important part of being human.
TP: That's very true with children. If you ask your child, “What did you learn at school today? How was school today?” You get nothing or else a very brusque answer. They'll only tell you about their school day when you're with them long enough for it just to come out, when they’re ready to speak. It's one small example of how prioritizing relationships and love does change the way you make all sorts of little choices in your relationships with other people.
Well, dear listener, thanks once again for being with us as we’ve explored this interesting topic. I hope you will get in touch with us about and tell us how in your life and in the relationships and struggles you have, how you could adapt and use the technology that comes our way and all the opportunities and options that are constantly thrown at us constantly, in a way that prioritizes and builds relationships, as opposed to breaking them down."