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January 25, 2024

Technology and Epistemology

S. M. Gollmer

The first step in avoiding technology’s negative impact is to recognize that it does change us.  Any of us who lived part of our adult lives before the smartphone can attest to this fact.  However, our children who know nothing different, being disengaged from their phone is seen as privation, not a benefit.  It is only now, through long-term studies, that the impact of screen time on mental health is being seen.  But the issue isn’t of recent origins.  When I was growing up, the question was not the phone or computer, but the time spent in front of the television set.  We could discuss its effects on cognitive and social development, but one often overlooked effect is on how we perceive the world.  Neal Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death states, “Television is the command center of the new epistemology.  There is no audience so young that it is barred from television.  There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television.  There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television” (p. 78).  Although written in 1985 his observations can be applied equally to our current sources of media.

The word epistemology, as defined by a retired Cedarville professor, is, “How I know that I know that I know.”  It comes down to the process of knowing something to be true and the authorities I accept.  When living in small, isolated communities, the process of knowing is through personal experience and social interaction.  Authorities are parents, elders, and religious leaders.  Due to the impact of technology, it is hard to find any community that is truly isolated from the diversity of cultures and ideas in the world.  Replacing personal with vicarious experience and socializing virtually, children and adults alike are caught up in a fluid culture that has many authorities and yet no authority.  Instead of discerning good from evil (Hebrews 5:14), which requires maturity and deliberate evaluation, we adopt the zeitgeist of our environment.  This ‘spirit of the age’ is a combination of pop culture and worldview, which are not always compatible.

Consider our postmodern technological society of the Western world.  Herbert Marcuse is seen as an influential postmodern voice as he critiques the repressive nature of modern technology.  Leszek Kolakowski in Main Currents of Marxism observes that Marcuse’s ideal society “is to be ruled despotically by an enlightened group [who] have realized in themselves the unity of Logos and Eros, and thrown off the vexatious authority of logic, mathematics, and the empirical sciences” (p. 416).  Paradoxically, it is logic, mathematics, and the empirical sciences that make technology possible.  Taken to its logical end, a postmodern society, which rejects the objective nature of the physical world and the ability to know objective truth, undermines the existence of technology.  It is understandable to critique the dehumanizing impact of modernism, but swinging the pendulum to the dialectical opposite is not the solution.  If we are to properly evaluate technology, we need to develop and exercise the ability to discern both good and evil.  This entails knowing what authority to trust and integrating technology in such a way that it does not undermine what it means to be human both experientially and socially.

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