Google wants to help your family “create healthy digital habits.” The company recently launched its Family Link app, which promises to help parents control what their children see online, monitor or limit how much time their children spend on their devices, and even track their children’s location when they are away from home. Facebook, too, wants to help users take control of their time online. Pummeled by wave after wave of withering and well-deserved criticism, the social media giant has launched a suite of new tools to let users better monitor how much time they spend on Facebook and Instagram. It was, the company explained, just another example of how they were working “to create experiences that help people connect and build relationships.”
These are just two recent, high-profile examples of what we might think of as technological fixes to technological problems. From one angle, this won’t appear very surprising or alarming. When Melvin Kranzberg, a pioneering historian of technology, formulated his six laws of technology, the second law inverted an old saying. “Invention,” Kranzberg observed, “is the mother of necessity.” “Every technical innovation,” he went on to clarify, “seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective.”
Considered from another perspective, we can discern a disordered relationship with technology that reflects a deeper, spiritual disorder. What we see is an inescapable instinct to turn to technology for help even when technology has been the source of the problem. We see an inability to imagine alternatives to the ever-expanding technological apparatus that weaves itself further and deeper into our lives. In short, we are guilty of misplacing our hopes. When we are confronted with a problem, we instinctively look to our tools for help. When we are confronted with the vicissitudes and frustrations of the fallen human condition, we look for a technique to apply or a method to deploy. It is in human ingenuity that we trust, and it is to the power of technology that we turn. We do so in our personal lives, and we do so collectively as a society. This is why, when our tools fail us, we do not question our initial faith in their efficacy; rather, we simply turn to newer, ostensibly better tools. But we are hardly the first to do this. Indeed, the temptation to seek salvation in the works of our hands is as old as sin.
To see this, we need only go back to the opening chapters of Genesis. After he murdered his brother, Cain was cursed by God to “be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:12). We do not have to read very far before we find Cain refusing to accept his sentence: after Cain’s wife bore him a son named Enoch, Cain built a city, which he named after his son (vv. 17–18). Refusing to wander, he built. As we continue to read, we learn as well that it is in the line of Cain—the line of pride, bigamy, sexual abuse, violence, and disproportionate vengeance—that Genesis locates the flourishing of technological culture. In a pattern that recurs throughout Genesis, Cain’s genealogy draws to a close by breaking into three branches. Lamech has three sons, each son identified as the father of a form of technē: Jabal, the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock; Jubal, the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe; and Tubal-cain, the forger of instruments of bronze and iron. Technology, we may minimally conclude, is given a disreputable family connection.
The story of Cain the city builder anticipates the story that draws the primeval history to a close. Once again, men decided that they would contravene God’s command by building. This time, it was a tower that was to reach into the heavens (11:1–9). The project differed, but the spirit remained the same. We know how their story turned out, and we know, as well, that Cain was frustrated in his efforts. Genesis tells us that he built his city in the land of Nod (Gen. 4:16). Nod is the Hebrew root from which is derived the Hebrew word for “wandering.” Cain settled in the land of wandering. And so the Bible assures us that, for all his making, Cain could not escape his curse. He remained a wanderer, alienated from God. The problem Cain was trying to fix did not admit of technical solutions.
From its earliest pages, then, Scripture warns us against the fallen instinct to overcome our alienation and heal our brokenness through the work of our own hands, a temptation that has only grown stronger as our tools have grown in power. Along with these warnings, however, we are presented with an alternative. Alongside the line of Cain we read about the line of Seth, among whom were those who first called on the name of the Lord (4:26). Immediately after the judgment of Babel, we read of the call of Abram, who responds to the promise of God in faith (12:1–9). It is Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who, in his night vision, sees the anti-Babel, a staircase built not by human hands that bridges the gap between heaven and earth (28:10–22). Later, in John’s gospel, we learn the full significance of this vision. It anticipates the saving work of Christ on whom we would see angels ascending and descending (John 1:51). Our hope must not be in what we make but in what we receive.