When we were kids, 2010 seemed like a far off world full of “rad” new technology like holo- graphic TVs, atomic cars, hoverboards, and the most awesome of all—personal jetpacks.
Well it’s 2010, and the best jetpack out there costs $100,000, can fly for only 60 seconds, and is the size of a tractor (check it out at www.martinjetpack.com). Personally, I’m pretty disappointed, but I’m not the only one. There are a bunch of blogs titled, “Where’s my jetpack?,” a 2007 book titled, Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived, and even snarky T-shirts with slogans such as, “The future is now, and we are not impressed.”
We may not have jetpacks, but we are surrounded by a dizzying array of technology that would have amazed us just a few decades ago. However, since these devices have become so integral to our daily lives we often miss just how much change they have brought to our world. To help people understand the changes technology can bring, Neil Postman gave a lecture in which he outlined five things that happen when we start using a new technology. Instead of looking back at past technology, let’s take his observations and imagine what a future with jetpacks would look like.
1. Jetpacks will have trade-offs. Our new jetpacks will be the new awesome. No need to worry about traffic or parking spots at Walmart. Just fly on over, walk in, get some Oatmeal Creme Pies, and then take off. But along with all the awesomeness, jetpacks will come with some downsides just like every previous invention. There will, of course, be some sad accidents and crimes committed with jetpacks, but jetpacks will also bring more subtle cultural changes. Public places will likely become quite a bit noisier, and the skies will be more polluted with exhaust fumes and flying mullets. One of the difficult things about technology is that the greater the benefits a new device brings, the more negative the possible trade-offs.
2. Jetpacks will create winners and losers. Another observation Postman made about technology is that its benefits don’t usually get shared equally among people. For example, computers and the Internet have created a world where churches now hire programmers, designers, and videographers. This is great for guys like me (and most readers of this magazine), but it uniquely advantages us over other skilled workers. If we choose to have a jetpack ministries we might do some incredible outreach, but we’ll also be choosing to favor one group over another. That’s not necessarily bad if that’s our calling, but it is easy to get so excited about a new technology that we end up leaving some people in the dust.
3. Jetpacks will contain a “powerful idea.” Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, the tools we use tend to color the way we see the world and the situations we encounter. Photographers tend to see the world in images, and pastors often see events as sermon illustrations. What idea or way of looking at the world does a jetpack have? I know that if I had a jetpack, I would feel invincible, as if I could go anywhere at any time without help from anyone or anything. Hmm, maybe the jetpack has a bit of embedded individualism? I would probably have to work hard to make sure that I used it in community rather than always going off on my own.
4. Jetpacks are ecological, not additive. What happens to a fish tank when you drop in a baby shark? The shark won’t just exist alongside the other fish; it will change the makeup of the fish tank in a big way. That kind of change is ecological, not just additive. Though not quite as dramatic, technological change is also ecological. The auto industry “ate” all the blacksmiths, digital downloads are eating into CD sales, and projectors pushed hymnals out of churches. Jetpacks will probably result in altered recreational habits and, sadly, they might put a halt on research into hoverboards (because who would want a hoverboard when you could have a jetpack?). Whenever we choose to use a new technology, something else will get pushed out.
5. Jetpacks will eventually become “normal.” In 1989, when I was 10 years old, my dad let me build my first computer—a shiny, new, top of the line 486 processor running at 25 MHz. Twenty years later, my phone runs at somewhere around 500 MHz, and my laptop is in the 3,000 MHz range. But you know what? Even with those insane speed increases, my phone and my computer seem soooo slow to me. The problem isn’t with RAM or my OS, it’s that we’re very quick to forget how cool things are. Over time, special effects don’t seem very special, beautiful people seem flawed, and one day, even jetpacks will seem pretty boring. It is at this point—when we forget how powerful, influential, and life-changing technology is—that technology has truly reshaped us.
What new technology are you considering adding to your life, your family, or your church? It might not be as cool as the mythical jetpack, but it will likely bring some change to your life and the life of those around you. It might be helpful to run your new stuff through these five questions:
- For all its pros, what cons will it bring?
- Which groups of people will benefit from this and which groups will not?
- What subtle influences will it have on me?
- What older tools and trends will it push out?
- And finally, what happens when I stop noticing it
John Dyer is a web developer in Dallas, Texas, and he writes about issues related to faith and technology at www.donteatthefruit.com.