Technology and the Lure of the Easy

Since I spent the weekend away with my wife, I decided to revive one of my favorite posts from back in 2012 for today’s article. –David

From the moment of the Fall, when the forbidden fruit promised an earlier and easier entrance into bliss, growth, and knowledge, one of Satan’s favorite strategies has been to take some promised good and offer his own version; easier, simpler, and always, in retrospect, somehow diminished and corrupted. The golden calf offered Israel a safer, less demanding God. As Abraham waited for the promised son, Hagar seemed a simple solution to his wife’s infertility. Even Jesus himself was offered a far easier path to dominion if he would only bow before the Evil One.

It’s not that “easy” is necessarily or even usually bad; merely that the appeal of the easy is a powerful lure into danger. One of the best ways to draw us off the straight and narrow path is with a shortcut.

I bring this up because this feeling of an easier path to a lesser good is a theme of many of the problems and potential problems in our interactions with modern technology. The whole appeal of technology lies in its ability to make things easier, whether in communication, calculation, learning, shopping, or transportation. Of course, as I said, easier isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s often good, allowing us to be wise stewards of our resources by saving time and money for other uses. (I certainly appreciate being able to type these observations on the keyboard of a handy laptop, rather than pounding away on a typewriter or scribbling with a pen.) With technology as with the rest of life, the danger lies in the appeal of the easier path to draw us away from the better.

Take television, for example. It’s hard to imagine a means of entertainment easier than simply flipping on the TV after a long day–and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But what are we losing when the ease of TV watching makes it our habitual answer to moments of quiet? What about the reading and talking and walking and drawing and dancing and simply watching the fire or the rain or the stars that used to occupy a much more prominent place in our lives? The most dangerous thing about the television is not the programming that flows across the screen, but the fact that the programming flows across a screen that sits comfortably close to the couch.

What television does for leisure, video games do for achievement. For most of human history, a young man driven by the urge to achieve, to overcome obstacles and enjoy the satisfaction of hard-won gains, would have to actually do something. He could start a farm or a business, or a nation; he might lead men into battle, study medicine or the law, or simply carve out a good life for a wife and children in a world where mere everyday life has more than its share of challenges. But regardless of what he did, it would be hard.

Video games changed that dynamic. They offer a truly unprecedented opportunity to feel a real sense of achievement from doing… nothing at all. Increasingly realistic virtual worlds are populated with challenges and dangers tailored to generate a feeling of real struggle and genuine victory, creating a triumphant haze of energy and endorphins to obscure the reality that nothing is actually happening. Watching the guns-blazing trailer for the most recent Call of Duty game, the implicit message of the “There’s a soldier in all of us” slogan is clear: It’s easy to be a hero. As a soft-looking Jonah Hill charges into a hail of gunfire in the video’s finale, expertly wielding rifle, knife, and grenade against oncoming attackers, it’s easy to see why the lure of virtual valor is intoxicating. When we wonder aloud where all the good men have gone, at least part of the answer is simple–they’re busy playing Call of Duty, where, thanks to the marvels of modern computing, it’s easy to be a hero.

Even more than video gaming, perhaps the best examples of the sometimes-deceptive shortcuts offered by technology lie in the field of social media. Television makes leisure easy and video games make achievement easy, but Facebook makes relationships easy. It’s convenient, immediate, organized, and thoroughly controllable; always right there, omnipresent yet unobtrusive, providing a neat little window into our friends’ lives and offering them a window into ours.

In many ways, social networks even manage to convey a sense of greater intimacy than we feel in most face-to-face relationships. Our much-satirized tendency to overshare the mundane details of our lives actually makes perfect sense psychologically: what better indicator is there of the closeness between two people than the extent to which they know the boring minutia of each other’s existence? Nearly everyone knows I’m a teacher. Barely anyone knows how I like my eggs cooked. If I know what you had for breakfast this morning, a part of me smiles with companionable pleasure; and when I “like” your status update letting the world know that your hangnail is feeling better, you know that I really care. Sure, it’s not quite the same as actually seeing you, actually talking to you, but at least it’s something in the midst of a busy day. At least Facebook makes it easy to stay in touch.

But what if staying in touch has become so easy that it’s keeping us apart? What if the very ease of superficial connection dulls the desire for something more? Granted, very few people are going to give up an active, meaningful community life in order to become a hermit with a Facebook account, but in a world where we’re all moving too quickly to just stop and actually know someone else, surely there’s a temptation to sustain our need for human connection and companionship on a fast-food diet of mouse clicks and keystrokes.

Every need or desire given to us by God draws us toward some corresponding good. Whether we’re talking about the need for food and water or our hunger for ultimate meaning, mankind was created with a set of desires that match what we most need. The counterintuitive danger posed by technology is that, by too easily fulfilling certain needs on a superficial level, we lose the drive to pursue a deeper good.

But what are we to do about it? Certainly, much technology has eased our lives in entirely unobjectionable ways. (One finds few who rail against the evils of refrigeration, anesthesia, or indoor plumbing.) The answer isn’t to simply reject technology or blame it for failings that ultimately arise from the human heart. Instead, we need a way to accept the good in modern advances without losing anything better in the process.

While that’s a topic far too broad to be adequately considered here, and one which requires different answers for different situations, there is one generally-applicable and foundational principle. This is the rule that the best protection against desire for counterfeit goods is love of the true. Returning to the very beginning of human history, the answer to the serpent’s temptation in the Garden was not a carefully-cultivated distaste for fruit; nor, more seriously, a disdainful attitude toward the wisdom and knowledge which the serpent offered. The only thing that would have saved Adam and Eve was a desire for God so strong that even the genuine good of greater knowledge shone dim in comparison. And when the second Adam rejected Satan’s offers and passed the test which the first had failed, it was by holding fast to the words, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” As creatures created in the image of the God who is love, even false love is too powerful to be defeated by anything but a better love.

How is this relevant to the right use of technology? Simply in this: that our best protection against losing the good in the easy is to so carefully cultivate a love for what is genuinely good that we instinctively recognize and reject its diminution. If we learn to use our time well and to love the good that results, we are relatively inoculated against the danger of TV. If we cultivate a taste for actual work and true achievement, the virtual triumphs of video games will seem so diminished by comparison that we can safely enjoy them for what they are. When we know the joy of true fellowship, Facebook ceases to be an enemy and may even be transformed into a pleasant eddy in the flow of our real relationships. And if we do find ourselves losing something worthwhile in our use of these or other fruits of technology, a healthy love of what is better will make it easier to find a new balance without being drawn away by the lure of the easy.

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2 thoughts on “Technology and the Lure of the Easy”

  1. I think we sometimes mistake new ways of wasting time for idleness itself. I’ve no doubt previous generations were tempted by plenty of idle pastimes, despite the absence of television, video games and Facebook. It’s also important to remark, I think, that the obstacles eliminated by technology were often quite overwhelming, so that the work required of common laborers was crushing and left very little or no room for the cultivation of anything like culture or education. One may read, for example, Orwell’s account of English coal miners in _The Road to Wigan Pier_. On the other hand, many of the greatest achievements of the species have been accomplished by people who possessed the benefit of the ancient “technology” human servitude. That is to say, an idle class has always existed by dint of their ability to employ others to work for them.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree on all counts. Certainly, it’s a mistake to idealize the past and wish to return to an era which contained plenty of its own unique troubles and sins. The fact that the modern age presents us with new and different challenges in no way suggests that previous ages were without their own challenges or that our challenges are worse than theirs. On the other hand, our challenges are *our* challenges, so I think it’s still worthwhile to consider how to live well in the particular environment in which we find ourselves.


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