Who and what to read on technology?


(Lucas Weeks) #1

I spend a lot of time thinking about technology, and it’s a topic I’d like to devote some more careful attention to this year. (Maybe even write a little? We’ll see.) I’d be very grateful if you’d chime in and help me out with some reading recommendations.

The best book I’ve read on technology from a Christian perspective is From the Garden to the City by John Dyer. But it’s a short book, and I’ve been very frustrated that I haven’t seen much else written by Christians beyond it. Does anyone have any further recommendations?

Moving on from that, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the free software movement, and I believe the question of free software is something that should be considered carefully by Christians. I’ve never seen a long-form, serious treatment of the free software movement, though, and there’s a lot to consider. Here’s my working thesis on this question:

Our information technology gives those who write the software we use every day an enormous amount of power to spy on us, harm us, trick us, steal from us and generally do stuff we don’t like. That power cannot be properly diminished and controlled so long as the software we use is non-free.

I’d be happy to debate this here if you have any thoughts about it, but I’d also be very grateful for reading recommendations for this topic. Most of the blog posts and YouTube videos I’ve seen on this topic have been produced by people with very anti-Christian beliefs and assumptions. So even when I take the time to wade through their stuff, many of the questions I have aren’t dealt with at all.

I’m also interested in the question of privacy. There is a great deal of talk about privacy in our culture today, but I’m not sure I’ve seen much from a distinctly Christian perspective.

There are certainly many more topics to consider, of course, but I suspect that’s a good start. I know @michaelfoster and @jtbayly think about this one, also. Maybe they’ll have something to suggest?


Want to discuss "The Technological Society", by Jaques Ellul?
2019 Reading List
(Tim Bayly) #2

When I was a young man, I read a transformative book called “The False Presence of the Kingdom” by the French Christian prophet Jacques Ellul. In essence, the book warned that every time the church gets in cahoots with the civil magistrate, the church loses and compromise of the Gospel is inevitable. I have long opposed the cowardly and shameful Two-Kingdom gagging of the church’s prophetic voice while wishing they would recognize the sympathy Ellul would have for some of their legitimate concerns. On the other hand, no one could be more opposite Darryl Hart and acolytes such as Van Druningen than Ellul who was always taking personal responsibility and action in defense of true social justice—and doing so from and because of his Christian faith.

I mention Ellul here because I suspect his work “The Technological Society” would be helpful as a starting point for anyone seeking to understand our present bondage. I’ve meant to read it for years. Maybe others will be more disciplined and do so? Here’s a good starting place for learning more about Ellul and his work.

Also, I highly recommend Roman Catholics on this issue. Protestants rarely rise above sectarian bickering, seeming to be incapable of doing anything other than serving as the willing dupes of the barbarians at the gates. If I had not spent my life reading men like E. Michael Jones, Joe Sobran, and G. K. Chesterton, I would be a twittering fool. Love,


(Joseph Bayly) #3

Great topic for debate. I think @themast would be interested in this conversation as well.

It seems like there are a lot of assumptions underlying your thesis. For starters, aren’t there always people who have power over us? Is that automatically bad, or just in a context of persecution/wicked authority?

Then, I also wonder what has convinced you that such power to harm can be mitigated by non-free software. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I’m doubtful about it for a few reasons.

  1. Firefox is open-source, but that hasn’t stopped them from implementing DRM, which is (I think) impossible with free software.
  2. Firefox is open-source, but that doesn’t stop big corporations from tracking us, and that’s true even though most of the software the big corporations started with, such as PHP and Mysql, are open source as well.
  3. Several open-source software packages recently went closed-source (while trying to claim they were still open-source).
  4. I use a lot of open-source software. I like the fact that I can file a bug report and follow it. But let’s be real. I don’t have the foggiest clue whether the software is malicious or not. The fact that I could learn to code well enough to then start to audit the code means nothing in reality. :wink:

Many more thoughts, but I’m curious what you’d say to this.

Thanks for the recommendation. Will order it. But that’s different from reading it. lol


(Lucas Weeks) #4

Thank you very much for the book recommendation, Tim. And… wow. I’m about halfway through the article, and I came across this passage:

As part of this chapter, Ellul exposes the naïveté of scientists and techno-utopians who predicted the kinds of radical transformations by the year 2000 that in retrospect we can see were gross exaggerations, even if there have been important steps in the projected direction, for instance in genetic engineering, artificial reproduction, and the field we now know as neuroscience. But their naïveté, Ellul writes, has less to do with their technical predictions than with their failure to consider the immense social transformation that would be necessary to accommodate the new inventions. Ellul urges us to ask the question “how, socially, politically, morally, and humanly, shall we contrive to get there?” The only answer possible — the only one that would correspond to the promise of the radical technological change — is a totalitarian dictatorship, Ellul says. In other words, these scientists’ and futurists’ platitudes about the golden age ahead are empty of all moral and political wisdom. “Particularly disquieting is the gap between the enormous power they wield and their critical ability, which must be estimated as null.”

Neil Postman has written much about how technology shapes and forms us, and it’s clear, as the article indicates, that Postman was a disciple of Ellul. But the way that Ellul jumped immediately to totalitarian dictatorship was striking and terrifying to me.

I plan to order his book right away.


(Michael Foster) #5

Everything I’ve read on the subject tends towards extremes. They are either lamenting the lost of a simpler time and the resulting descent into a dystopian hell or proclaiming the dawn of a new utopian age. Neither are right and both are obnoxious.

I think that both Postman and Turkle lean dystopian. However, they are mainly concern with how technology changes essential aspects of human nature (i.e. how we communicate). In Postman, I learned that a visual medium tends to reduce communication to mere memes. In Turkle, I learned that a digital means of communication tends to make electronically mediated communication the norm. Both insights have been helpful but neither deal much with the why questions.


(Lucas Weeks) #6

I think the question of authority and power is precisely the kind of question that needs to be addressed carefully by Christians. I do not at all assume that government authority and power is a bad thing – Scripture plainly teaches otherwise. In fact, I was recently in a conversation with a man in my church about whether the kind of censorship, surveillance, and social manipulation carried out by the Chinese government now would be OK if it were a Christian government in power. My current thoughts on that:

  1. of course the government should be involved in censorship at some level. All governments censor things, and it’s just a question of their reasons for doing so. The US government censors child pornography, and rightly so. Governments have a responsibility to censor: they have been given power to silence the wicked and the oppressor. Of course, these days, non-governmental tech businesses have immense power of censorship. This website owes it’s existence, at least partly, to that fact. It makes sense to me that anyone posting content on someone else’s platform should have to play by their rules… but I’m also not convinced that Facebook should have the power of censorship they do simply because of their technical and business savvy.

  2. The question of surveillance and privacy is also a challenge. “Privacy” is the purported reason why we have Roe vs. Wade, and I abominate it. Furthermore, it seems that we have an expectation of privacy in our modern day that would have been laughable in most places at most other times in history. What kind of privacy could a person expect living in close-knit communities as we have in most times in history? That said, however, I do think that total, 100% government surveillance is wicked. It makes government too much into a god. We have a power now that must be limited by both technology and by new cultural assumptions and new laws.

  3. China has recently implemented a system of social engineering that explicitly aims to shape and direct the behavior of its entire population, and it’s no joke. Again, I don’t think this should be dismissed out of hand (to your point about authority, Joseph). Would we find such a system acceptable given a Christian government in a Christian nation? I think not, and my current reasoning is that it, again, gives the government too much of a god-like power.

That’s all to your first question, Joseph. I’ll follow up about non-free software in the next post.


(Lucas Weeks) #7

Joseph, you say:

  1. Firefox is open-source, but that hasn’t stopped them from implementing DRM, which is (I think) impossible with free software.

I think it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between open-source and free software. I don’t mean to be pedantic. I think it’s a distinction one has to learn and keep in mind in this discussion. Again, here is a good article about it, but here’s a good summary:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

I don’t know the exact story of Firefox, though I do know that they have implemented the ability to run DRM software in their browser, as you’ve stated. But it accurately highlights the distinction between open-source software and free software: just because it’s open-source is not enough for it to be free. The Free Software Foundation has released their own browser based on the Mozilla suite (the makers of Firefox) called IceCat. It is made entirely of free software, according to their definition.

I do think DRM is harmful to consumers, and I think it’s good on the Free Software Foundation for release a browser that does not include it. (Of course, I haven’t downloaded and tried it out yet… but maybe I will now. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:) I admit that I’m somewhat of a hypocrite, since I do purchase content from time to time that has DRM. But I also make sure that I can remove the DRM before I purchase it. I don’t give the content away or post it on my blog, but I believe that it’s still illegal for me to do it in the United States. That’s wrong, and harmful to me, the consumer.

  1. Firefox is open-source, but that doesn’t stop big corporations from tracking us, and that’s true even though most of the software the big corporations started with, such as PHP and Mysql, are open source as well.

Using free software is not a panacea, and it cannot prevent this kind of behavior. The tracking that is ubiquitous on the internet has to be dealt with using other tools. I’ve really enjoyed using Firefox for the past month, since it has a neat concept of “containers”: every time I open Facebook on Firefox, it’s automatically in it’s own “container” within my browser. I think tools like that will have to address the tracking question.

  1. Several open-source software packages recently went closed-source (while trying to claim they were still open-source).

Nothing is to prevent non-free, open source software from going closed-source. But that’s precisely what the free software licenses were created to prevent.

  1. I use a lot of open-source software. I like the fact that I can file a bug report and follow it. But let’s be real. I don’t have the foggiest clue whether the software is malicious or not. The fact that I could learn to code well enough to then start to audit the code means nothing in reality. :wink:

Of course I realize that most people won’t have the foggiest idea what the code means even they study it carefully. Shoot, even experienced programmers won’t necessarily be able to understand what the code means if it’s in a language or if it’s a large project that they are unfamiliar with. But that’s no argument against free software. Free software at least gives me the ability to find someone I do trust, whether its an individual or an agency that certifies software, and lean on them to tell me whether I can trust a certain software package or not.

This makes me think of another, very related issue. Major bugs like Heartbleed occur in all software, free or not. But is it a “bug”, or is it a “back door” implemented by some government or agency wanting access to private information? Heartbleed was a bug in some software that was licensed under the Apache License 2.0, a license certified by the Free Software Foundation as truly free software. According to the Heartbleed website,

The Heartbleed bug allows anyone on the Internet to read the memory of the systems protected by the vulnerable versions of the OpenSSL software. This compromises the secret keys used to identify the service providers and to encrypt the traffic, the names and passwords of the users and the actual content. This allows attackers to eavesdrop on communications, steal data directly from the services and users and to impersonate services and users.

Heartbleed was a huge security vulnerability that went unnoticed (or perhaps was hidden?) for years. It may or may not have ever been discovered in non-free software – we would never know.

But here’s my basic premise: software should be for humans. It should help humans. It should never attack them or make them more vulnerable. The fact that OpenSSL is free software meant that the problem could be address, regardless of whether the “bug” was malicious or not.


(Lucas Weeks) #8

I just finished up that Ellul article, @michaelfoster, and it’s fantastic. Here’s a spoiler:

Neither of these two options — wholeheartedly embracing the technological imperative or shunning it with anti-civilizational escapism à la Rousseau — is a fitting response to the warning of The Technological Society . We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.

Read the article, and I think you’ll want to check out Ellul.


(b3k) #9

I don’t know that any of the following are Christian, nor would I endorse their politics, but they write, think, and speak well about current technology issues, even when wrong. These are more contemporary, not as broad in scope as some others recommended, but it’s good to know what’s going on around you so you can apply those big ideas.

The first person I’d recommend is security expert Bruce Schneier, apart from his regular blogging Data and Goliath is a good book about the current state of data collection, privacy, and how it got this way that is technically accurate but readable by non-CompSci people.

For more of a hacker’s perspective on hacking and security, look at former FBI Most Wanted Kevin Mitnick, perhaps starting with his book The Art of Invisibility. In this book, you’ll learn what it takes to achieve hard anonymity against Three Letter Agencies. Teaser, one step involves paying cash to a homeless person to buy you a prepaid cell phone.

On the Free Software side, Stallman always comes off as too nuts for me, even when he’s right. I prefer the more lawyerly types, such as Columbia law professor Eben Moglen and Harvard law professor (and failed Democratic presidential candidate) Lawrence Lessig and the Electronic Frontier Foundation


(Chris Connell) #10

Thank you Pastor Tim for the reference.

I’ll make a New Year’s Resolution to read Ellul’s The Technological Society. It is a bit disturbing that another mathematician, the Unabomber, drew heavily from this book in writing his manifesto. So I’ll read cautiously!

On a serious note, I’m most specifically interested in how he can help us formulate a Christian view of the machine learning revolution (cyclone?) that is just beginning. More broadly, I’m interested in how to properly wield his uber-category of “technique” as a tool and filter for perceiving the dangers (and benefits) of our society’s drive for ever greater efficiency.


(Joseph Bayly) #11

Yes, I read him regularly and recommend him as well. Thanks for the other recommendations.

Yes, please do. lol

Agreed, but I think the power is in technology, and that fighting it by technology is just a cat and mouse game, destined to be lost by those seeking to break things being accomplished by technology. I used to jailbreak my iPhone. Now it’s too much of a hassle (or even impossible) to bother. Bruce Schneier says we have to turn to government regulation to solve these sorts of problems. I suspect he’s right. And he is constantly fighting to push cultural assumptions in the right direction, too.


(Eric Eagle) #12

As a guy who has worked for the DoD for over 20 years (ok, disclaimer - I’m not speaking FOR the DoD here, just from that perspective) I’ve given all this a lot of thought. In fact, in my day job, I’m responsible for steering acquisition resources toward open or proprietary technologies to accomplish our mission; and we execute on both. Here are a few random thoughts that I hope will be useful.

Chances are good that nobody (corporate, government, etc) cares about your email or digital life. The signal to noise ratio is such that it would take an army of individuals operating at a ridiculously sophisticated level to even do anything with any of it. If you have reason to believe you are seriously at risk of targeting, you should be using something like Librem’s Purism laptops, using a throwawayVM, and running everything through TOR or cryptostorm and that through a trustworthy VPN that you’ve paid for with a false name via money order or something. Most consumer-focused “security” “best practices” are little more than security theater. But it really doesn’t matter, because again, nobody cares.

Saying FOSS/FLOSS is too broad. One can hardly put something like RHEL in the same category as Joey Joe Joe’s Open Source Android Keyboard. So you have to define your domain before FOSS/FLOSS and proprietary comparisons can be made.

Hybrid approaches are great (e.g., Google’s support of the Chromium project as well as their adoption of AOSP - Google as a company contributes a very large amount of code into the open source community) because they ensure sustainment. In the real world one would like to have some assurance that the software they have today will be given TLC tomorrow.

There is a hidden cost to open source. If you are a downstream user, have fun trying to get anything matured or supported. If you are an organization who depends on it to do a mission, you simply can’t live on dreams of how everyone’s going to hold hands and sing kumbaya and write up wonderful code and it’s all going to work. I pay a dump truck of money to a particular vendor who writes a particularly powerful bit of geographic management software, because it is less (in time and money) than employing a developer(s) to implement my requirements.

Anyway, just some thoughts to toss into the mix. This is all from the perspective of project management and mission use; I have my own strong opinions on things like CCLI and “copyrighting” of Bible translations, etc. :slight_smile:


(b3k) #13

I’m responsible for steering acquisition resources toward open or proprietary technologies to accomplish our mission

Neat. I bet we know people who know some of the same people.

Most consumer-focused “security” “best practices” are little more than security theater.

It depends. Most consumer-focused security advice is the computer equivalent of “lock your doors and windows” and “don’t give your housekey to random strangers”. It’s not going to stop a targeted raid, but it will make someone less of a drive-by target, which drive-bys are the most common kind of incident.


(Greg Ladd) #14

As a systems engineer with more than 35 years in the business I wanted to contribute to this discussion. I would also second the recommendation on Jacques Ellul as well as Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman’s book raises a lot of interesting issues about how the media impacts the message (i.e., the problem of context). As someone else noted both of these authors do have a somewhat pessimistic view, but I think they lay a very good groundwork for understanding the impact of technology on society. I would also suggest reading Bernay’s book on Propaganda (he is considered the father of modern propaganda - and was related to Sigmund Freud) and then reading Ellul’s book on Propaganda. This gives you a very good understanding of the on-going wars about “fake news” and the use of Internet memes to push ideas (and not facts).

Technology - the great god Techne - is a two-edged sword. Consider the following:

Google - I have used Google to perform very efficient searches on technical topics for research. However, one must remember the Google’s Page Rank algorithm really tracks popularity, not content. Furthermore, we know that Google is updating their search results for use in China - a subtle reminder that the power of this technology can be used to accomplish both good and evil.

Wikipedia - I have always been fascinated by the dedicated amateurs who wrote very informative articles for Wikipedia. I have used Wikipedia to get a “quick read” on technical topics like classic software algorithms or discussions about inductive motors. However, many topics cause “page wars” leading to information that is heavily slanted to a particular view. “Community curation” often leads to very stringent censorship.

Twitter - Generally I have been disappointed in Twitter. The tendency is to focus on feelings over facts and to reduce complex ideas to overly simplistic tweets. I do find it useful for getting notifications of new content, however.

So, I see technology as being like the humans who create it - flawed by sin. The problem is that heavy reliance on this technology can impact how we think about things by emphasizing emotions and feelings over reason and becoming a channel for propaganda. Think of Paul’s admonition to think on whatever is true, lovely, etc.


(Tim Bayly) #15

Christians must face the reality that the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is diametrically opposed to Western liberalism. American nationalism has become inclusivity, tolerance, and pluralism, so we cannot consider ourselves simple citizens any longer. Thus we no longer have the same vulnerabilities as simple citizens. We are and cannot avoid being revolutionary. No one wants to recognize this. It seems to me that discussions of security and technology need to start with the foundation of Workman’s “Persecution in the Early Church.” The second we realize that, like believers in the Roman Empire, we will be tried for treason and atheism, we’ll come to see how vulnerable we are because of how easy it is to pull true Christian faith out of the “noise.” This is the success of Mohler, Moore, Keller, and the rest. They have parlayed sophisticated rhetoric into a return into the noise on the most vulnerable front of our day. Anyhow, excellent contributions, brothers. Just ordered Bernays. Love in Christ


(Lucas Weeks) #16

Thanks very much for the comments, everyone. Very helpful.

I just came across this list from Purism: https://puri.sm/posts/holiday-reading-list/

It includes a new book by Schneier that might be of interest.


(Aaron) #17

Lucas, Thanks for maintaining the distinction between free and open source software. It’s an important distinction and often overlooked.

The biggest indictment against the Free Software movement is that from their perspective, the four freedoms are axioms, not derived. The four freedoms cannot act as axioms for Christians, and this is where the conundrum starts. Accepting their axioms and reasoning from them is fraught with frustration and errors.

To me, the most idiomatic part of Richard Stallman’s rhetoric is a continual use of words like “ethical” and “just”. Coming from a man who normally wears an “Impeach God” pin, I’m always left wondering what he means by this. Not having seen any explanation, it seems that he’s appealing to the general sense of these words as popularly understood. (This reminds me of the tenor of the Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens debates wherein Hitchens attempts to inflame listeners by describing acts of God as wicked and Wilson repeatedly asks him by what standard he indicts God.)

Some quotes from the Free Software Foundation:

While we can distinguish various nonfree distribution schemes in terms of how far they fall short of being free, we consider them all equally unethical.

The nonfree program controls the users, and the developer controls the program; this makes the program an instrument of unjust power.

I think we cannot maintain that these four freedoms as outlined by the Free Software Foundation are demanded by Biblical exegesis. On the other hand, the results when these four freedoms are respected are very good.

This is as far as I have gotten on this issue. What’s left is to find out to what degree if any the bible supports or demands these freedoms. Maybe free software isn’t necessarily the answer at all, but rather some honest, transparent handling of the data collected and used by any software? (Obviously, the first objection raised here is: how can honesty be enforced when non-free software is employed? I don’t know.)

@jtbayly, Free software and Digital Rights Management are at odds because DRM relies on hiding secret keys from users of the software. If the DRM software is free, those secret keys can be revealed (more) easily. For what it’s worth, “Mozilla Firefox” the web browser doesn’t implement DRM. It incorporates the Google Chrome widevine plugin (non-free software) to accomplish the necessary hiding of data to make it difficult for end users to duplicate the data coming through or use the data in any other way than that intended.

Thank you, brothers, for thinking through this and taking the time to post and argue here.


(Paul Ojanen) #19

A jab from the translator’s introduction to Ellul’s The Technological Society,

…in an essentially dramatic work such as the present book must be deemed to be, the transitions and turns of thought must have a character entirely different from those to be encountered in the ultra-respectable academic texts which have taken over from mathematics certain linear and deductive modes of presentation; modes, which, whatever their pedagogic value may be, serve, even in mathematics, only to obscure the way in which truth comes into being.


(Paul Ojanen) #20

The translator’s introduction to Ellul’s The Technological Society also discusses authors who aren’t so pessimistic about technology, first mentioning Ellul’s extremism, @michaelfoster

One of the great merits of Ellul’s book arises from the fact that he alone has pushed such analysis to the limit in all spheres of human activity and in the totality of their interrelatedness. It may be added that what some authors feel to be the book’s demerits arise from the same source; they maintain that society more often than not refuses to be pushed to that reductio ad absurdum which is the inevitable end point of every thoroughgoing analysis.

This reminds me of the most common accusations I receive from my atheistic college buddies, all engineers, that I’m irrationally afraid of the slippery slope. They don’t remember claiming they’d never try to take away my bathrooms. Thankfully, Sanityville is here to help us deal with progressivism’s reduction to insanity.

The translator continues, mentioning optimists’ “too efficacious” technical solutions, @jtbayly

The books of such authors generally end on a note of optimism. A final chapter always asks: “What is to be done?” Unfortunately, their answers to the question are either inefficacious myths which confront reality with slogans, or only too efficacious technical solutions to technical problems which end only in subjecting man the more thoroughly to technology. The former are exemplified by most modern religions, philosophical systems, and political doctrines; the latter by schemes for mass education or mass cultivation of leisure, which, in Ellul’s analysis, are themselves highly impersonal and technicized structures having much more in common with the assembly line than with what mankind has traditionally designated by these names.

The introductory material emphasizes a technological outcome of impersonality: technology not serving man and also trying to supplant God. The impersonality part is really ringing for me.

Thanks, all, for the recommendations. I’m obviously starting with Ellul.

There’s much to learn from pessimists. Thoreau made fun of people’s excitement over telegraph lines and their overuse of railroads. In Hamlet’s Blackberry, I read about Plato’s denigration of writing. Since then, I’ve begun traveling without the digicam. It’s been refreshing.


(Ken Lamb) #21

This is all pretty high brow discussion for me, but I will say that I had a classmate in high school who developed a very successful shareware back in 1996 or thereabouts. He eventually sold it to AOL Time Warner a couple years later at the height of the technology bubble. The app was called WinAmp and he sold it for ~$72MIL. Today, WinAmp is obsolete and AOL pretty much shut it down.

Sorrry to not contribute more significantly to this techno-philosophical discussion, but I though this tidbit might be interesting to someone.