I was recently asked about my thoughts on how technology functions in China, both positively and negatively, and its impact on the church. These are interesting and timely questions. Rather than citing specific examples, however, I would like to approach the topic a bit differently.
Our Attitudes towards Technology
Before we can evaluate whether technological developments are good or bad, or whether their impact is positive or negative, we have to consider our attitudes towards technological developments. In my response, rather than giving my own conclusions, I would like to raise some issues to help readers arrive at their own conclusions.
When the question of evaluating technology is raised, many people throw up their hands and say,“Whoa! Are you anti-technology?!”
My response is, no, I am not anti-technology, but I am pro-wisdom. I believe there is an abundance of evidence which points to the need to approach contemporary technological developments with greater caution than most people are willing to accept.
Generally speaking, we have become accustomed to accepting, without question, any and every newly developed gadget that comes on the market. We think that it’s either neutral: “it all depends on how you use it!”, or good: “this will transform humanity and raise us to the next level,” or more commonly: “it makes doing XYZ so much easier.”
We have also bought into advertising from technological developers that tells us that these newly developed gadgets are undoubtedly good. This leads people to assume that if you are questioning technology then you are attacking it when you are simply questioning whether or not it is wise to accept each new development.
Just think of the way people have come to hang on every word that comes from Apple’s big developer announcements—Steve Jobs was a master salesman. Of course they pitch their products as revolutionary and life-transforming; they want you to join in the revolution and bring in the revenue! This should give us pause to ask, does it really change my life for the better? We do not ask this question often enough. I come from the position that technological developments are not always good, nor always neutral.
Concerns about Technology
Here are some of my concerns:
In a recent article about internet addiction, including video games and social media, it states this addiction is an identifiable psychological condition, along with addictions to cocaine, alcohol, and pornography. China now has boot camps to help young people break their internet addiction. We may ask, “How are Chinese pastors and lay leaders addressing this issue?”
This may not seem like a Christian issue, and yet it covers important areas of human relationships, intimacy, conflict resolution, and the uncanny way that digital distance tends to twist our ways of relating. This can be carried further by asking:
- How are cross-cultural workers contributing to the problem?
- Do spiritual leaders demonstrate healthy use of internet and social media, or are we ourselves addicted?
- What about third-culture kids, who are very often left to themselves with an abundance of technological resources at their fingertips?
According to official statistics, in 2016 there were approximately 700 million internet users in China. That means more than 600 million people were still not connected. What does that mean for ministry and for bridging the economic and rural/urban divide? With the rise in urban churches, with younger, wealthier congregations, will the church in China become increasingly economically segregated? How will church leaders overcome this barrier? Is Chinese Christianity just for the digitally connected? Perhaps it’s time to consider the risks of technology on the church.
Uses of Social Media— particularly Wechat
Wechat is used for everything in China, at least by those who are connected. It is also an easy means by which many aspects of a person’s life can be tracked and his or her data stored. For example, how one spends money, tracking every single chat sent across its platform, one’s location in real-time, and a host of other data sets. Through technology this data is accessible to government authorities.
Is it worth the risk? In my experience, many Chinese are not even aware of the potential risks. This article titled, "Why China’s tech-savvy millennials are quitting WeChat," addresses the questions: Are we willing to accept the inconvenience of maintaining our personal security? Or is it easier to just go with the flow? Cross-cultural workers should also realize that the risk is generally lower for themselves.
My biggest concern is that new informational technological developments operate on a level far beyond the control of the vast majority of the population. What we are exposed to through these means is governed by algorithms we have little to no control over. Our world of knowledge and experience gradually succumbs to the decisions of a few technocrats who design and develop devices and programs. These developments enable social controls beyond anything that any society has ever faced. The more we acquiesce to these voluntary changes, the fewer voluntary choices we will have.
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