“All of a sudden, we’ve lost a lot of control,’ he said. ‘We can’t turn off our internet; we can’t turn off our smartphones; we can’t turn off our computers. You used to ask a smart person a question. Now, who do you ask? It starts with g-o, and it’s not God…” ― Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak
Almost two decades ago, during construction of our first home, my husband and I decided to document the construction process with photos. We bought a Kodak DC 20, one of the earliest digital cameras on the consumer market. The DC 20 could only hold 8 pictures at a time. We made countless trips; home to download the images to a computer and back to the construction site to take new ones. Now, we marvel at the stupidity brought on by our techno-lust! Why didn’t we just use the film camera we had?
Techno-lust is the desire to have the newest electronics, even if the one you have is still working well. Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) used it more generally, to mean acceptance of technology, without reflection. Sometimes, we rationalize techno-lust – the intoxicating feelings of wonder and fulfillment that the latest iPad, iPhone or Samsung, and wearables, give – in this way: “I don’t indulge in food, shopping, alcohol, sex or drugs. I don’t have debt. Electronics are my one indulgence. My techno-lust doesn’t hurt anybody.”
The common Biblical use of the word lust is usually negative, a sinful longing that leads us away from God (Isa. 57:5, I Thess. 4: 5, 2 Peter 2: 10). Techno-lust that is triggered by our desire for pleasure, profit or status, leads to people being hurt. Saddled with e-waste, the material by-product of techno-lust, poor communities in other parts of the world are being harmed. American industry and Congress resist efforts to stem the “effluent of the affluent” according to Elizabeth Grossman in a Salon article. E-waste from developed countries is often dumped in places like China, India, Malaysia, and Kenya where people harvest parts, illegally and unsafely, in order to earn a living.
The city of Guiyu in China has become one of the biggest e-waste disposal sites in the world. An estimated 150,000 people work 16-hour long days disassembling old computers and other electronics. Guiyu’s environment is poisoned. Guiyu’s residents have toxic levels of lead and cancer dioxins in their blood, and the women have high miscarriage rates. In India, despite a ban, an estimated 50,000 tons of e-waste are dumped from abroad. Roughly 80,000 people, including destitute children, make up the workforce in Seelampur, an underground recycling market near New Delhi. The workers strip toxic parts with bare hands and breathe in poisonous fumes; they dip their hands into poisonous chemicals for long hours to separate precious metals from plastic. Asthma and bronchitis are common. These people are slowly dying from this poisoning. Guiyu and Seelampur are examples of the unintended consequences of techno-lust.
Alternatively, a different kind of desire – a desire to do God’s will – can lead us, individually and collectively as God’s people, to apply or restrain technology in ways that exhibit God’s Kingdom. Our fascination with technology, ordered by this holy desire, can lead us to sustainable technological practices that reveal God among us. It can be channeled, in fact, for the well being of all God’s children, especially the poor and vulnerable. For example, when I upgraded to the iPhone 5S, last year, I gave my first smartphone, the iPhone 4, to my son. He still uses it. I donate my digital expertise to my church and Presbytery so that technology can be used to strengthen connections and facilitate our efforts in world mission, community engagement, and new worshiping fellowships. I have regained control and engage my techno-lust through the distinctive lens of our faith.
So, the next time you find yourself wanting to upgrade your still working electronics, ask the Holy Spirit why. As you wait for an answer, reflect on Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
“Digital Damage” first appeared in Presbyterians Today, May 2015 (p.9). Reprinted with permission from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation.