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Taking Our Lives Back from Big Tech, a Step at a Time

If we don’t have the time to stop and reflect because we are too busy checking our social media…

In a recent podcast, “Weaving the Technology of Our Lives” (July 14, 2022), Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed tech and culture writer Andrew McDiarmid on the deep ways Big Tech governs our lives — ways of which we are often unaware — and concrete steps for taking control back:

Here’s a partial transcript and notes. Additional Resources follow:

Robert J. Marks: We have been talking about Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique…

Andrew McDiarmid: Well, Jacques Ellul was a French sociologist, theologian, and philosopher of technology … Ellul’s lifetime spanned almost the entire 20th century, 1911 to 1994. He wrote books and articles throughout his career on how he saw technology impacting the “human adventure,” as he calls it.

He came up with this concept in the 1954 book The Technological Society and he called it technique. At the heart of it, technique is just the practical methods we apply to do tasks. There’s nothing controversial about it.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans were shaping these techniques. The techniques were part of their work. It moved slowly, at the pace of humankind as they did their craftsmanship and their workmanship. It was localized. It was various. It developed slowly. It was to do with beauty as well as function, not so much with efficiency.

The Industrial Revolution changed that. As we started replacing human muscle and mind as a source of energy and information, it became less to do with the pace of humanity, and how we wanted our tools to look and be, and more pursuing with efficiency and the best way to do something. Then machines started coming into the picture.

Note: Political philosopher Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) observed, “No longer are we surrounded by fields, woods, and rivers, but by signs, signals, billboards, screens, labels, and trademarks: this is our universe.” He is best known today for his books that aimed to “warn the reader of the dangers of human loss of control over the state, technology, and the modern world.” – Britannica

Ellul opened my eyes to this concept of technique, which I think is a great way to look at the problems we’re having with technology today. Who controls technique in the modern age? Who controls these methods by which we access things and get things done in the modern age?

Well, the short answer is Big Tech with capital letters…

Robert J. Marks: I have a cousin who’s incredibly conservative. He just gets so upset at some of the things happening. He will talk for hours about why this is bad and why that’s bad. I get to the point where I get tired of listening to it. I tell him, “Look. There’s probably not a lot that you can do about this stuff you’re complaining about. So maybe you shouldn’t spend your time bathing in that information which gets you upset, if there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Robert J. Marks

Now, there’s always something you can do, right? But a lot of these things — like at the national level — you have to invest yourself totally into the process, in order to be effective at all. Are there times when you should just stay away and fast from some of these different disturbing things?

Andrew McDiarmid: Indeed. Really, the first person that you’re trying to help is yourself. A lot of people forget that these days. They run out into the streets and they join these parades, and they join these online social media driven mob processes. And forget that they’re trying to help themselves — or they should be. If we don’t address the problems with our self and get to a better place our self, how are we going to help anybody?

So yeah. That power button really becomes our friend, Bob. The ability to just turn something off, and turn inside and say, “Okay. All right, Andrew. What are you thinking here? What are you doing? … You got to give yourself time to look inside before you can help others. It’s like what they tell you on airplanes: In case of an emergency, put your own mask on first, and then help your children.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. How does Big Tech influence us through the power of technique? We touched on it a little bit…

Realizing that you’re the boss and the tech isn’t

Andrew McDiarmid: The people that have made these screens and these modern gadgets, they’ve studied human psychology. They’ve gotten tips from casinos. They know how humans tick. They know what causes people to come back for more on a regular basis. They know what hooks us. They have used these ideas to create this addictive, immersive technology.

What I’m encouraging people to do is become a tech boss here.

Andrew McDiarmid

Robert J. Marks: Okay. Suppose I want to do that, and I do want to reset my life. I want to quit worrying about things that there’s nothing I can do about them. I want to quit worrying about things that are, in the long run, non-consequential. How do we go about resetting our relationship with technology? What are the techniques? What are the steps?

Andrew McDiarmid: Yeah. Once we’ve renewed our understanding of technology, we understand that it’s about us, it’s about our art and skill, and it’s what we can do to weave something useful, good and beautiful in the world… Unfortunately, it doesn’t take just a second. This is the lengthier part of the process.

Robert J. Marks: That, by the way, is your second step. The first one is renew. Then there is reset. You have to hit that reset button, right?

Andrew McDiarmid: Yeah. You do that by first addressing the big questions. Why am I here? Who or what is responsible for life in the universe? What do I want to do with my time on earth? What is my vision? What is my purpose in that vision?

You got to start there because, if you just start by saying, “Well, do I need this gadget or that one?”, that’s really not addressing the main thing, which is, “What do I actually want to do?” not, “What am I caught up in doing because I’m not thinking and just acting reflexively?” No. It’s, “What do I want to do with my life?” Address the big questions first. Then you start to survey your gadgets and ask questions about them.

Here’s an example. “Does this technology positively or negatively affect my __” and then you can fill that in: my time, my energy, my relationships, my potential, my memory, my attitude, my outlook, my finances, my marriage, my kids? There’s a lot you can unpack with that as you start to ask about each gadget.

I’m not just talking about gadgets. I’m talking about platforms, whole tech platforms. I’m talking about subscriptions. I’m talking about the tech companies themselves. It’s all up for grabs as far as what we decide to get rid of and keep.

Connecting our view of technology with the meaning of our lives

Robert J. Marks: In terms of this resetting, both you and I are Christians. We’re followers of Christ. One of the things that one needs to do is go to our fundamental ideology in order to choose these steps that you’re talking about. What do you believe the Christian should do in such a case?

Andrew McDiarmid: Well, thanks for asking about that, Bob. I was recently rereading Psalm 139 over the Mother’s Day period this year. I got to verse 13 and 14. “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” I started unpacking that. I got to the Hebrew word which means to “hem in,” but it also has this understanding of “to weave.”

Beni Hassan tomb nearly 4000 years ago/
Public Domain

There it is. That is the same word as technology.

Note: The “tech” part of the word “technology” comes from a Greek word originating in the idea of weaving. Weaving looms were among the first technologies.

So I think it’s fair to say that when you’re a believer, you are believing in a God of technology, a God that put you together with amazing technology — and the ability to then go and create technology of your own.

Andrew McDiarmid: If you start there, Bob, then you’re thinking, “Well, okay. I can do technology because my maker produced me, created me, wove me together in my mother’s womb. So what do I do with that?”

Andrew McDiarmid: The Bible promises us that He knows the plans He has for us. (Ephesians 2:10) He planned good works for us to do in advance. So then you’re looking at what you can do, building a vision fueled by God that can inform your purpose. That’s really where you start with the resetting step.

The (real) Great Reset: Reasserting our control over technology

Robert J. Marks: This is the third step, if you will. Could you unpack that a little bit and maybe elaborate on how we do it?

Andrew McDiarmid: This is not a process for “getting rid of” your gadgets necessarily. That’s not really the focus…

After you’ve surveyed your gadgets and your platforms and all your tech, and then made the purge, which is getting rid of, severing ties with, selling anything that isn’t going to be useful to you and help you serve your vision and your purpose, then we’re into releasing our potential.

To me, it’s the most exciting part of it. This is where we practice keeping our tech in check, as I like to say. This is where we apply what we’ve just applied to our current tech to any future tech.

Apple and all these other big tech companies, they’re never satisfied. They don’t close up shop, because there’s always something to innovate. There’s always a new version of whatever they have out. There’s always the next new thing around the corner.

We have to decide how much of that “next new” we need. “How much is enough?” I’ve heard in a popular song recently.

Lately, I’ve been asking, “Well, what is enough? Do I have a powerful enough computer? Has my phone got enough gigabytes of memory and storage? Or am I always going to have to look at the next thing?” That’s part of practicing keeping your tech in check.

What will we DO without our Big Tech bosses?

Then, I think, really just filling in your life with the human adventure, really addressing what it means to be human. Because that, after all, is the natural antidote to dependence on machinery, dependence on technology, dependence on gadgets and subscriptions and big tech. It is living human.

Andrew McDiarmid: The places that I would encourage you to think about that would be relationships, learning and discovery, producing more than you consume, raising healthy, happy families, being inspired and inspiring others. And then honoring the designer of the universe, if you see that there is one that is the designer. These are all parts of the human adventure. Filling your time with those things is going to automatically give you less time to dwell on the tech gadgets that are taking up our time and attention.

What’s life like when Big Tech is never questioned?

Robert J. Marks: I have a son that teaches high school from a low income demographic. A lot of these kids come in and they’re spending all of their time on Twitter. They don’t have relationships. They have very difficult parenthood. They’re developing into social misfits. They’re not sure how to relate to people.

As a result of this, things materially become very, very important to them, like what kind of tennis shoes they wear, if anybody is liking them on Facebook, and things of that sort.

It’s very frustrating, because they’re very empty. They’re not the sort of people that God intended them to be because they’re spending too much time being distracted by this other thing. Not realizing that if they did spend this time, they would be fulfilled. They would be more happy, and they would lead a much better life.

Andrew McDiarmid: Yeah. This was Jacques Ellul’s fear as he was writing in the mid-20th century. He saw what was to come. He saw how these techniques would be shaped by technology companies, the state, and other factors. He just saw this coming. I enjoy so much reading his work, because I can relay it today in a way that he can’t.

Robert J. Marks: I think Marshall McLuhan made a famous statement: “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m sure it wasn’t a fish.” You’re swimming around in all of this stuff and all of this technology, and it isn’t healthy, especially because you’re being steered by these Big Tech hub companies. You’re no longer in control yourself.

Authentic technology: Regaining control of the steering wheel

Andrew McDiarmid: Right. Yeah. I think we are now at the point where we can all realize that we can’t trust companies with different values and different visions than us to dictate the best methods for us in life. I just think that’s a foolish thing to do and to continue to allow yourself to do so.

That’s where I’m coming from with this authentic technology approach. It’s helping people to wake up to this, helping them to understand what technology really means and who it’s really about, and then, like you said, having them take the steering wheel.

Robert J. Marks: When’s your book coming out?

Andrew McDiarmid: Well, I wish I could tell you, Bob, but all these ideas are swirling … I really want to put some of these ideas together and put it out as a book just to help people in that way.


You may also wish to read Andrew McDiarmid’s interviews with Doug Smith, author of [Un]Intentional: How Screens Secretly Shape Your Desires, and How You Can Break Free (2018):

How social media are ruining our lives. If we can’t stand five minutes in a lineup without checking our phones, we have a problem. And we all know people with what we would call, maybe, “digital courage.” They say stuff online they’d never say in person. That’s a problem

and

Doug Smith on How to get off Big Tech’s screen drug The most powerful technologies the world has ever seen manipulate us into spending more time than a typical full-time job looking at our screens. Smith, author of [Un]Intentional explains, Big Tech firms are some of the most intentional companies in the world. The intentions are not good for you.

Additional Resources

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Taking Our Lives Back from Big Tech, a Step at a Time