Why you should read old books on technology

In our digital first world, it is far too easy to focus on the things right in front of us. Our social media feeds are designed to constantly barrage us with new information and updates. Online resources are often written in ways to boost engagement and interaction. As writer Alan Jacobs puts it, “navigating daily life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage.” Reality is that we are often overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information to process so we often default to shallow engagement and forego deep reflection on the important things of life.

This fall in my doctoral work, I set out to research and write on a Christian philosophy of technology. For many readers, that may not be a familiar concept, and that is okay. Essentially the philosophy of technology is the study of the nature and purpose of technology in our society and daily lives. Given my focus over the last few years on the ethics of technology, taking this step back into the philosophy of technology has been an eye-opening experience.

One thing that was surprising to me (and it honestly shouldn’t have been) was the breadth of resources published in the latter half of the 20th century on the very questions we are dealing with as a society today. Writers such as Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Ursula Franklin, Neil Postman, Albert Borgmann, and Marshall McLuhan are just a few of those who have come before us with deep reflections on the nature and purpose of technology. While I don’t agree with everything they say and they surely do not agree with one another on much of anything, it is refreshing to put down the constant information overload of social media and online content to have conversations with a generation of great thinkers who seem to have foreshadowed so many of our modern questions on the nature of technology, ethics, and paths forward as a society.

Here are a few volumes that I have been enjoying lately:​

This week is bound to be a long one with a national election tomorrow and the likely continued controversy of 2020. I encourage you, as much as you can, to log off and be okay with not knowing about the latest controversy online this week. This is not to say that these issues are not important, but that they are important enough to step back from the constant overload of information online these days to think deeply about some of the pressing issues of our day through the lens of some older thinkers.

These old books on technology are more applicable to today’s issues than we often think because these thinkers did not have to have the latest iPhone or social media application to understand how technology is shaping us—often toward to increased consumerism, outrage, and efficiency—instead of focusing on the people right in front of us who are made like us in God’s very likeness. In the battlefield triage of social media, it is too easy to react to an avatar online and forget that we are called to love God and love our neighbor while engaging in our digital first world.