It’s the age of the tattoo, isn’t it? It has become something of a rite of passage for older teenagers or younger adults to get inked. Whatever we parents think about this trend, I expect we’re unanimous in at least wanting our children to wait until they are old enough to count the cost—to grow up enough to have some sense of what it will mean to permanently mark their bodies. We want our kids to wait because we know that in this area, as in all of life, they are prone to seeing the benefits but not the drawbacks, the opportunity but not the risk.
What is true of teens and tattoos is true of many other demographics and many other areas of life, perhaps especially when it comes to technology. We human beings are famous for inventing, accepting, and integrating new technologies without thoroughly assessing how they will impact us for good and for ill. We tend to see the benefits immediately but only grow wise to the risks much later on. And, in a world like this, it’s a sure thing that there will be both. Let me offer just a few examples of times we failed to count the cost.
Pornography. In the 1980s everyone told families they just had to have a computer, so parents went out and dutifully bought their first family PC. Then in the 1990s, everyone told these same families they just had to get the internet. So parents signed up with AOL or a local service provider and connected their family computer to the internet. And an entire generation of boys got hooked on internet pornography. Parents saw the opportunity that would come with computers and connectivity but failed to see the risk. What is so obvious today—that boys + computers + connectivity = pornography—was missed by a billion parents. They failed to count the cost.
Live streaming. As the internet matured and wormed its way into every part of our lives, we saw the opportunities that would come with livestreaming video. YouTube, Facebook, and a host of lesser platforms began to offer it to their users as a primary feature. We came to appreciate and crave the opportunities it presented. But we failed to see the risk of live-streamed murders, rapes, suicides, even massacres. Streaming has had benefits, as many churches have discovered through lockdowns, but it has also come with terrible risks, significant drawbacks. But we only learned about those as time went on when it was already too late.
PowerPoint. A couple of decades ago churches began to migrate away from hymnals in favor of PowerPoint. Instead of having songs printed in books, we began to project them on screens. This allowed churches to reduce costs, to rid themselves of unwieldy books, to easily add new songs to their repertoire. But it came at the cost of removing the sheet music and singing the parts; of allowing people to have their own copies to sing at home; of making it possible to add new songs so quickly that we stopped singing any song long enough to memorize it, to make it our own possession.
Time would fail me to speak of email and the way it has utterly eradicated our ability to concentrate for more than a few minutes without checking our inboxes, or social media and the way it has polarized everything from politics to theology. In every case there are benefits and there are drawbacks—benefits that we embrace quickly and drawbacks we awaken to slowly.
I am often asked, “What technology is next? What’s the next big thing?” I don’t know what it is, though it seems likely that it will offer even tighter integration between our bodies and our devices, between our physical selves and our technological selves. Whatever it is, our past and current experiences with technology should warn us of the likelihood that we will be quick to see all its wonderful benefits but slow, too slow, to see its inevitable drawbacks. Whatever it is, I’m skeptical that we will see it problems before they’ve already made a deep impact upon us.