Reading the Code

These days we can’t get away from stories concerning technology. Perhaps it isn’t surprising. Of course technology fills the media—technology is the media—it is telling us about itself!

The promise of digital technology is that we can use it to write our own story in the world. It is an appealing prospect. But is it too good to be true?  Perhaps the page that follows the flashing cursor isn’t as empty as it might seem. The last few weeks have seen an interesting twist in the write-your-own tale of the digital age and the message is clear: your smartphone is created with a story of its own.   

If you have had an eye on the news, you will know about the battle between Apple and the US government. The FBI wants Apple to help access a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino killers. Apple is refusing to crack the code. They can’t co-operate, they say, without compromising the right to privacy of millions of law-abiding iPhone users.

In a fascinating legal twist Apple has argued that the code used to encrypt their iPhones is a form of speech. Being forced to break that code, the company argues, would be an infringement of rights under the First Amendment. “Apple goes pretty far by saying its software has a viewpoint” said Ryan Calo, assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law. “That’s pretty novel here.”

It’s a new legal argument, but it’s also significant for another reason: it exposes as myth the popular idea that technology is “just a tool”. The implication of Apple’s argument is that your smartphone is not neutral. It is pre-loaded with an opinion about how life should work. You may have suspected it but now you know: iPhone has its own ideas about your life!

The thing is, this message runs in opposition to what tech companies and their gurus have been telling the world. The message of the marketing is that each new smartphone or wearable app allows you to define your own way of living. The story of technology is that life is a blank page. You are the author. Your narrative is your own.

This is the traditional Apple account, summed up by Steve Jobs in his Stanford commencement speech back in 2005:  

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”[1]

Here is the appeal of digital technology. Do you feel inefficient? Get a productivity app and become a new efficient you. Do you feel lonely? Log on to Facebook and be a new “liked” you? Do you feel ill-informed? Do a Google search and become a new knowledgeable you.

There is no doubt that many new technologies have impacted our lives for the better. But equally for every digital virtue we are conscious of a corresponding vice. Am I more efficient, more liked and more knowledgeable or more distracted, more disconnected and more confused?

As Christians there is a feeling that we want to engage in these important discussions. But how? What does the Gospel have to say to the complexities of technological life? We can struggle to know how to move beyond putting a bible verse on our status update.  

An important starting point is to reflect on the idea that life is a blank page and that technology allows you to write your own story. It is interesting that Apple’s legal argument, in claiming that code is speech, stumbles upon a quite different view of the world. A world that is not neutral but saturated with meaning and significance. A page that is not blank but filled with the words of a speaking God and his great story.

To switch metaphors, when a carpenter works with wood, he or she knows that if you cut with the grain then the result will be smooth but cut against the grain and the wood will splinter and crack.  

An important way to engage in our digital age is to reflect on the different technologies and ask in what ways they are cutting with the grain of God’s good order revealed in Scripture and in what ways they are going against the grain and splintering.

The Bible may not comment directly on Facebook but it has a lot to say about how relationships work well. The Scriptures may not condone or condemn search engines but they has a lot to say about how knowledge is to be used in God’s world to bring about lives of wisdom and love.

If Apple are arguing that software is coded with a viewpoint then Christians need to be confident in reading the code. Where are the connections with life as God designed it? Where are the bugs? And how can our world of technology be transformed in line with the life-giving code of God’s kingdom?

[1] Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005;