WeeklyTech #84

Using Medical Technology as Whole People

In October 2019, my family’s life changed forever. My wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Being so young and healthy, we were both in shock when we heard the news. This week, after two rounds of chemotherapy with a recurrence in between, she will undergo a stem cell transplant and high dose chemotherapy which we hope and pray God will use to heal her completely. We have been in and out of hospitals for a few years now and were quarantining even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores. Needless to say, it has been a difficult few years, but throughout the process we have been reminded of God’s mercy and of the amazing power of medical technologies.

When our society talks about technology, we often revert to visions of the latest gadgets, smartphones, robots, and maybe even artificial intelligence. But we often fail to comprehend that medicine is a form of technological development. My family has seen the power of medical technology firsthand and how it can be harnessed for good in our society. We are thankful for the countless doctors, nurses, and administrators who have served our family so far and for the life-saving innovations and treatments that have been pioneered in cancer research over the last century.

In the early 1900s, a German chemist named Paul Ehrlich set out to develop drugs that could be used to combat infectious diseases. He coined the term “chemotherapy”, even though he was not overly optimistic about the use of these drugs to fight cancer. Especially in the last 50 years, we have seen astronomical growth in the use of chemotherapy and other treatments to combat the devastating effects of cancer, including my wife’s diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But for all of the good of these innovations, there has been a flip side, just as there is with any technical progress in society.

As the french philosopher of technology Jacques Ellul writes in his well-known work The Technological Society, the surge in technique over the last century has been a force that has radically altered every segment of our society and shaped our social fabric toward a pursuit of ever greater efficiency and mechanization in every area of life, including medicine. This same technical force is picked up by Jeffrey P. Bishop in his work The Anticipatory Corpse, where he speaks of the trajectory of medical innovations in the 1950s-1960s toward defining life not in a meaningful sense but by the measure of physiological function (119). For Bishop this meant that “the power of technology renders the practitioner forgetful of meaning and purpose” because we begin to define life solely on physiological traits and as a technical problem, rather than as a holistic account of the entire person—body, mind, and spirit.

One of the tendencies that we must be aware of in our technological society is the way that these tools can cause us to gloss over the fullness of human life and focus on other people as merely technical problems to be solved or bodies to be fixed. If we reduce humanity down to physiological functions, we not only overly simplify our existence but also dehumanize each other and ultimately ourselves in the process. We are not simply bodies to be fixed but embodied souls created with a specific telos or end by God’s design. As bioethicist and theologian Brent Waters has written in his excellent volume This Mortal Flesh, our finitude and the devastating effects of sicknesses and diseases—like my wife’s cancer—are to remind us that “our lives are not our own; they belong to God. Life is not a product we produce or own, but a gift that is entrusted to us, and we are to care for and use this gift in accordance with God’s expectations and commands” (143).

As we begin this next season of our journey with cancer, I would ask that you pray for my wife and family. We long for healing and restoration, but regardless of what comes, we also pray that God would use this season to remind us that our lives are not our own and that we were bought with a price by Christ, who will one day redeem these sinful bodies and resurrect us to newness of life with himself for eternity (1 Cor 6:20). As Christians, we must reject the mechanized view of human life that is so prevalent in this age of technology and embrace the wholeness of humanity as embodied souls, created for the purpose of loving God and loving others as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39).

The Rundown

China will dominate AI unless U.S. invests more, commission warnsAxios 

The U.S., which once had a dominant head start in artificial intelligence, now has just a few years’ lead on China and risks being overtaken unless the government steps in, according to a new report to Congress and the White House.

I’m a philosopher. We can’t think our way out of this mess.Christian Century

When I answered the call to be a philosophical theologian 25 years ago, I imagined the world’s (and the church’s) problems amounted to a failure of analysis. If only we could think more carefully, the truth would come out. Good arguments would save us.

Parler drops federal lawsuit against Amazon — but files another in state courtThe Verge

Parler has withdrawn its antitrust lawsuit against Amazon, ending its two-month effort to legally compel the company to reinstate its hosting account. Parler made the decision in a motion filed late Tuesday night in federal court for the Western District of Washington.

Google’s User-Tracking Crackdown Has Advertisers Bracing for ChangeThe Wall Street Journal

A move by Google to rein in tracking of web users drew mixed reviews in the ad world, with some executives expressing cautious optimism the change will be good for consumers and others worrying it will increase the tech giant’s industry stranglehold.

The Empty Religions of InstagramNew York Times

There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?

Sidewalk robots get legal rights as “pedestrians”Axios

States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin have passed what are considered to be liberal rules permitting robots to operate on sidewalks — prompting pushback from cities like Pittsburgh that fear mishaps.