Technology, Knowledge, and Mystery

The News Magazine of HBU

By Dr. Russell Hemati, Associate Professor of Philosophy

Technology is a mystery hidden in plain sight. It has an oft-repeated definition: applying scientific knowledge to solve practical problems, but this simple definition does not reveal what technology truly is. In order to glimpse the technological as it is, consider the complexity of a modern computer. This level of complexity would be unmanageable if it were not for well-defined interfaces between each component. The designers of a motherboard need not concern themselves with the inner workings of each different kind of storage device since each of those devices conforms to an interface standard. Likewise, the designers of the storage devices need not concern themselves with the variety of motherboard types and manufacturers. Interfaces like these create interoperability, and interoperability creates a “black box” effect. What is important here is that the designer gains nothing from knowing what exactly is contained in that box as long as its inputs and outputs conform to the interface specification. While it is true that the black box makes it possible to create things that work without knowing how they work, the effect is actually much stronger: the black box effect is such that knowledge of the how and why becomes superfluous – a mere curiosity. It is here, in the carefully managed complexity of the computer, that the essence of technology is most clear: Technology transforms the way we understand the world into a collection of inputs, outputs and expected behaviors.

The technological gives us so many advantages. Since humans are creatures with limited abilities to learn and remember, it would be impossible to do almost anything without being able to “ignore” what happens inside the mechanisms we use. For example, an automobile driver need not know how the car works, an auto mechanic need not know exactly how an alternator works (only that it has a rotating input and a voltage output), and the electrical engineer need not know exactly how electrons function – but in each case, knowledge terminates in black boxes with their inputs, outputs and expected behavior. As a result, each person engages with a black box appropriate to their needs, allowing the rest to remain hidden. We cloak the unknown, wrap it in a usable skin, and give it levers and handles. By doing so we can bake bread, develop machines and navigate the sea. Interacting with the unknown is a human specialty.

Technology brings with it disadvantages also. We endanger ourselves when we apply the input/output/ behavior paradigm to human interaction. Technology is so effective that as we use it to solve more and more problems we are tempted to see everything as nothing more than technology.

Consider democratic government: why bother engaging in carefully reasoned political discourse when public opinion can be molded through the use of trigger phrases, media stunts and branding exercises? As these tools are refined to the greatest possible degree, we may find it the case that they are in fact more powerful than reasoned discourse could ever hope to be. The black box effect on human interaction is not limited to politics. This effect is equally apparent in the advice in child-rearing books, the practiced mannerisms of the pick-up artist, and the techniques of psychological counseling. Discovering inputs and outputs on other people can be useful, yet the humane is lost when the input/output/behavior paradigm comes to dominate human interaction.

Unlike human relationships where technology must be used sparingly and cautiously, there is one arena in which technology must be resisted at all costs – our relationship to the supernatural. If the extra-sensory world, the world of God and the angels, can be accessed with its own set of handles and levers, then technology (as a kind of magic) will come to dominate the spiritual. Since technology is, at its root, a method for interacting with the unknown and the mysterious, perhaps the siren song of technology is irresistible when thinking about the great mystery of the divine and the afterlife. Faced with an unknown that cannot be explained, all our human ingenuity can muster is a set of handles and levers. Thus, our natural tendency is to pay our tithes as though they were an investment in a financial instrument, recite the sinner’s prayer as though it were an incantation, and offer evangelism lessons by way of a flowchart.

Yet the life and teachings of Jesus run counter to our technological instincts. There are no inputs and outputs for repentance or loving one’s neighbor. The sinner who prostrated himself at the temple and begged for mercy grasped no handles and pulled no levers. Faith is the inversion of the technological since there are no inputs and no outputs. In stark contrast to the technological, by teaching us to love, Jesus opens a new and different way to connect to the unknown. We can no longer engineer our behavior to ensure an expected result. Instead, Jesus asks us to trust him, to be confident that he loves us and is preparing a place for us so that where he is, we may be also.

This article is an abridged version from one in The City at https://hbu.edu/news-and-events/2017/05/24/technology-knowledge-mystery/