WeeklyTech #82

Toward a public theology for a technological age

This past week a couple of news stories caught my attention surrounding the way that technology companies interact around the world, often wielding significant power over issues traditionally under the purview of local governments and jurisdictions. First, Facebook made the decision to ban news from being seen or shared in Australia over a controversial new piece of legislation that would require Facebook to pay news publishers for content on their platform. There is significant complexity to this situation—which I hope to dive into in a future piece—but as this story shows, the technology industry plays a significant role not only in our ability to connect with others but also in our public discourse.

Second, I read an insightful article by Shira Ovide from the New York Times on the splintering of the internet and the complexities surrounding digital governance around the world. She writes about how each country around the world has its own car safety regulations and tax codes, but currently there is widespread debate over how online expression should be governed. She highlights how technology companies—many based in the Western world—are essentially governing speech and free expression online which leads to major controversies and dissension as many countries want to retain that power for themselves.

One of the most salient points she makes in the piece concerns the promises of how technology was going to usher in a new world order. She writes, “The utopian idea of the internet was that it would help tear down national boundaries, but technology watchers have been warning for decades that it could instead build those barriers even higher.” Not only are those barriers being built higher around the world, but technological power is also being exerted by powerful governments and leaders to control and manipulate people created in God’s very image. Over the last few years, we have even seen numerous companies shut down the internet to quell protests and dissension among their own people, like that in Iran and most recently in Belarus.

These two stories represent a larger question that is being debated about how technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, and others should do business around the world, especially in areas where there is significant disagreement over the basic freedoms that we enjoy in America. But even in the United States, we have significant differences and major disagreements on the role of the government and third party technology companies in issues like content moderation, free expression, and online governance. These complexities and differences are present even though we have some level of a shared culture and agreement on many basic human freedoms—even though that seems to be fraying with each passing day.

My friend Klon Kitchen, who serves at the American Enterprise Institute as a Resident Fellow, wrote a brilliant essay at National Affairs about the realities that we face in this technological age. He states that “all governments must [now] acknowledge and adapt to the fact that they no longer wield exclusive power and influence on the global stage.” The rise of a technology industry operating transnationally presents a unique challenge to our society but also an opportunity for Christians to engage with these companies as we have historically done with governments, standing for human dignity and religious freedom around the world. The Christian Church has a rich heritage of public theology and engaging with governments, drawn in large part directly from the Scriptural calling to honor the leaders that God has placed in charge and to hold the government accountable to their calling to stand for justice and to honor the God-given freedoms of all as created in God’s image.

While the rise of these transnational entities in the digital age may present unique challenges on issues like online governance, it also presents a unique opportunity for Christians to engage the technology industry with a robust public theology built upon the unchanging understanding of human dignity and freedom. It is far too easy in our technological society to allow ourselves to see other human beings as simply problems to be solved or as pawns in the pursuit of power. But a Christian understanding of humanity is centered in the dignity of all people that transcends our national allegiances and even the technological order itself. 

As Christians engage on these important ethical issues, we must do so from a principled position. Grounded in an understanding of the dignity of all people, we can model for our society how to have these debates from a convictional, yet grace-filled perspective. In a society that prizes efficiency, speed, and at times public contempt for our “enemies,” we should seek to prioritize the dignity of all, including those who disagree with us on these important issues. We can do so by recognizing that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the cosmic powers of darkness (Eph. 6:12). That means that we engage from a position of hope and grace, knowing that we are to seek the right changes in the right way (Romans 3:8).

A second and vitally important principle is understanding the tenets of the debates at hand, rather than simply dropping into debate or speaking to issues without a full understanding of the situation. Just as we seek to gain insight and expertise in other areas of life—especially engagement with government—in order to honestly engage, we must do the same with the technology industry and the complex issues they face doing business around the world. It doesn’t serve the message of the gospel, much less our society well to engage on issues without knowledge or awareness of the issues at stake, even if our society seems to reward hot-takes and social posts over true activism oriented toward lasting change.

Even with the immense complexity of these debates, one thing is clear: the dignity of our neighbor is at stake around the world, especially under repressive authoritarian regimes. We must keep that truth central to this debate over digital governance. Even though these issues may at times seem to be simply about tweets, posts, and even the contours of content moderation, these things are simply expressions of how human beings, created in God’s very image, are able to communicate, express themselves, and do life in an ever increasing digital society.

The Rundown

Parler Says It’s BackWired

Parler.com is getting back online after being  kicked off Amazon’s hosting service, with the controversial social network saying it no longer relies on “Big Tech” for its web infrastructure.

How Countries Amplify COVID DisinformationAxios

China, Russia and Iran — drawing on one another’s online disinformation — amplified false theories that the COVID-19 virus originated in a U.S. bioweapons lab or was designed by Washington to weaken their countries, according to a nine-month investigation by AP and the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

LastPass is about to limit free users to one deviceProtocol

LastPass announced that starting on March 16, LastPass Free will only include access on unlimited devices of one type. Currently, LastPass offers access across two device types — computers and mobile devices — at no cost.

Internet poisoning: Gospel remedies for toxic digital habitsBiblical Recorder

Events in recent months have created a climate that increases the risk of unhealthy content consumption and, subsequently, relational conflict. If Christians seek to engage platforms and evaluate voices in a manner that honors God and their neighbor, discernment and strong communication skills in relationships are indispensable.

On social media, vaccine misinformation mixes with extreme faithThe Washington Post

In an insular world on the social media app TikTok, young Christians act out biblically inspired scenes in which they are forced to take a vaccine for the coronavirus, only to end up splattered in fake blood and on the brink of death.