Worship » Sermons » The Technology Paradox

The Technology Paradox

with Rev. Alex Lang

September 18, 2022

Technology is supposed to solve problems and enhance our lives. The problem is that the advent of new technology often comes with unintended consequences. This Sunday, for our first series in our Come to Jesus Moments series, we examine how modern technology is isolating and fracturing our society.

The Scripture

Matthew 8:1-4

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

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Now that you’ve heard all about my trip, we can get down to business and start our new fall sermon series, which is entitled Come to Jesus Moments. In the common vernacular, we use the phrase “come to Jesus talk” to indicate when we need to have a hard conversation about something really important. I developed this sermon series because there are a lot of things happening in our world where we need to have some hard conversations.

Some of these conversations will revolve around personal issues we all face, some will revolve around the future of the church, and some will revolve around larger issues of culture and society. Often we avoid these topics because we don’t want to offend anyone or cause anyone to be upset. However, we are doing a disservice to ourselves by not addressing these issues because, in doing so, we prevent ourselves from doing anything about them.

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We are doing this because Jesus was the kind of man who had hard conversations with his disciples. Jesus would confront issues of moral ambiguity. He would force people to examine their hypocrisy. Jesus wants us to live a life of consistency where our internal world matches our external world. Perhaps one of the most challenging ways he does this is by asking us to examine our role in the larger fabric of society. We are but one thread that makes up the whole tapestry, but our presence in the tapestry matters and we need to make sure that we understand how our choices, both conscious and unconscious, impact the people in the world around us.

To begin this series, I want to discuss an issue that has huge implications for our world because it personally impacts every single person in this room. We are going to be discussing what is known as the technology paradox. The technology paradox is actually quite simple. Technology is designed to make our lives easier, but very often it makes our lives harder in ways that can be hard to predict. For instance, when e-mail first came out, everyone said how the ability to quickly and easily send mail electronically would streamline our businesses and cut down on the amount of time we spent in the office. At the time, some people were talking about how e-mail would allow us to adopt a 20-hour work week because it would make business so efficient.

Instead, what happened with electronic messages is that people ended up working more. What we didn’t anticipate is how the speed of the communication created an expectation of receiving a rapid response. Now we understand that humans will adapt to work at the speed of their communication. With the advent of cell phones where you could read your mail anywhere, the pace only accelerated further. Now many businesses expect their employees to be on call 24/7.

Another example of the technology paradox would be robots. Eighty years ago, robots were not super reliable and were used sparsely, mostly in manufacturing jobs. As the technology improved over the decades, robots were used as an aid to help human workers complete their jobs. Today, robots are not only reliable, but they are so precise and good at their jobs that when a company has the option to utilize robots for labor, they will often choose robots over humans.

Robots never complain. They never ask for a day off. They don’t require insurance or a paycheck. From a business standpoint, robots are the perfect employees. Again, the technology paradox is at play. The unintended consequence of creating robotics is, rather than helping humans to do their jobs, those same robots are now causing people to lose their jobs.

However, the technology paradox we are going to be examining today is about social media. The goal of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit are to bring people closer together. You can live anywhere in the world and through these programs you can hear about your friend’s lives in real time. On the surface this technology would seem to be a godsend. People from all eras of your life connected together in one place. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, a lot.

I want to show you a clip from a Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma. This is a documentary where they interview the people who were responsible for creating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In this scene, they are going to explain how the technology works to determine exactly what you should be seeing when you log onto these networks. [show clip from Social Dilemma]

So, this is one of the biggest revelations to come out of this documentary. The way many of us think about these platforms is that we are grouped together and we’re seeing what everyone else is seeing, when in fact, each of us has our own AI algorithms that curates content specifically catered to our likes and desires. In effect, this creates an echo chamber where we are constantly being fed data from a narrower and narrower stream of information.

The end of result of these algorithms shaping the content we ingest is that our country is the most divided it has been since the Civil War. This didn’t just happen all by itself. The rise of social media correlates directly with this massive chasm in how we view each other. As more and more people signed onto social media, our realities began to splinter into these opposing factions.

Here the technology paradox comes back into play. The goal of social media was to connect us all together from anywhere in the world. This, indeed, happened. We are more connected than we have ever been. However, the unintended consequence of how social media algorithms operate is that it has literally created a splintered society, so the effects of social media are the exact opposite of what was intended. We are now the most disconnected we’ve ever been.

Interestingly, the Bible anticipated this 3000 years ago. Indeed, this is what the story of the Tower of Babel is really all about. On the surface, this story is trying to explain why humans speak so many different languages. However, when you dig down a little bit into the story, it’s a parable about the dangers of technology for the human race.

So the story starts with a large group of people gathered together in one place who all speak the same language. Because they can communicate, the people in the story are able to figure out how to engineer the construction of a very large tower. Every major city in the Middle East had large, tower-like structures, known as ziggurats, which were essentially stepped pyramids that could be upwards of 300 feet tall.

Ziggurats were used for worshiping the gods. The height of these buildings is important because the Hebrews believed that if you could get high enough in the sky, you would literally find stairs that would allow you to step into heaven. The idea being that, through technology, human beings are able to do things that were once only reserved for God. A good example of this is our medical technology, which gives us the power to heal ourselves. This was a power once only reserved for God.

According to the story, God confuses the language of people to stop them from being able to enter into heaven and scatters them all over the face of the earth. Isn’t it interesting how the story ends with the people being scattered and isolated? It’s as if the people who wrote this story understood the technology paradox long before we did. This great piece of technology, which is supposed to enhance the lives of humans, ends up destroying their relationships.

This story is a parable for how technology gives us the ability to have godlike powers, but the problem is that we can’t handle those powers. We have created something in social media that we thought would enhance our ability to communicate, but then it has slowly destroyed us from the inside out. And this doesn’t just apply to our political divisions. This also applies to our basic relationships and how we view ourselves as people.

We all know that what most people post to social media is going to be the best version of themselves. The pictures and stories shared tend to make other people’s lives look much better than they are. How often have you been shocked to find out that a couple is getting divorced when, based on their social media posts, you would think they were the happiest couple in the world. But presenting a biased view of your social life is only the tip of the iceberg.

In 2021, it became known through a company leak that Facebook has kept internal research secret for two years that suggests its Instagram app makes body image issues worse for its users. Since at least 2019, staff at Facebook have been studying the impact of Instagram on its younger users’ states of mind. Their research has repeatedly found it is harmful for a large proportion, particularly teenage girls.

A slide from a 2019 internal presentation seen by the Wall Street Journal said, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” A report from March 2020 indicated that “Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Another slide said: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

But you know what the real irony is about social media? The people who consume social media the most actually feel the loneliest. A study from 2017 found that the people who spend more than two hours a day on social media are twice as likely to feel socially isolated compared to someone who spends a half hour per day or less on those sites. Those who visit social media 58 times per week or more (which is defined as a heavy user), were more than three times likely to feel social isolation compared to those who visited fewer than nine times per week.

In other words, social media is not only fracturing our society, but makes us feel horrible about ourselves. This brings me to my come to Jesus moment for the day: The truth is that we need to get off of social media and reinvest in our in-person relationships. This is true for adults, but it is especially true for our children whose minds are literally being shaped by social media. We are literally setting up our society for a massive failure down the road.

The fact is that humans evolved over 10s of thousands of years to thrive when we are spending time together. We are designed to be in community with one another where we can see and feel each other’s presence. What the research shows is that connecting with people online is no substitute for that in-person interaction. Indeed, the connections we form through social media make us feel as though we are locked in a solitary confinement cell.

I think the story we read this morning of Jesus healing the lepers is where we need to start if we are going to overcome this problem. In this story, a leper comes and bows before Jesus. Unfortunately, in Jesus’ day, there was no cure for leprosy. If you somehow contracted the disease, it was like being given a death sentence. Not only would the disease slowly cause you to lose parts of your extremities due to infection and repeated injuries, but you would be ostracized from society. Since people were so afraid of contracting the disease from you, they would ask you to leave your family home or village.

It’s hard to imagine the level of isolation and loneliness felt by people in these circumstances. Your family, your friends, your entire community disowned you. You were pretty much cut off from all human contact, except for those who were suffering like yourself. And then Jesus comes along, but unlike other healers, he’s willing to be the in the presence of lepers. He’s not scared of their disease. And the scripture tells us that Jesus cures leprosy in the most remarkable ways: he cures the leper with touch.

Look at what the text says: There was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Do you see that little detail right there? He stretched out his hand and touched him. Jesus touched the untouchable. Personally, I think the most healing aspect of this story is the human-to-human contact. That’s what we need right now more than ever because, as a society, we have become like lepers to each other.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. The reason why social media exploded over the last 12 years is because of the way globalization has impacted our world. People now move for their jobs more than ever before. Whereas in the past, families would stay in the same town for generations, now we move wherever the job is located. With most people staying at a job for 2-5 years, the reality is that we are not going to take the time to really invest in the community forming deep relationships.

In this way, the technology of social media is really a reflection of how our society has changed. But that shift means we need to adapt our behaviors and make sure we are putting down our devices and making human-to-human contact a priority. This is where the church is actually the greatest cure to our problems of isolation. The church provides community and social outlets that don’t really exist anywhere else in our society.

As much as the church is struggling in this new world of people moving all the time, the church is one of the last places where we can discover social outlets that we might not otherwise be able to create on our own. Also, in the church there are such a variety of people from such a diversity of backgrounds that there is always somebody with whom you can connect.

The key to us being a place where people seek us out really comes down to you all. Our church has to be more than smiles and handshakes. We need to be willing to get into the mess of each other’s lives and to really welcome each other with love and open arms. And I hope I’ve made the case that the alternative to us being a welcoming community is embracing a world that is literally collapsing in on itself.

So if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World. is more than a tagline. It’s a way of life and if you truly embrace the tenets of that phrase, we can truly be that healing touch that our world needs so desperately right now! Amen.