It has been just over a week since the death of Apple’s founder and innovation genius, Steve Jobs. Almost immediately Twitter, facebook, youTube and the blogosphere blew up as mourning people wrote epitaphs of his legacy. I was struck at how many people, Christians included, applauded him for “changing the world.” I use and value many of the products he introduced but I wonder how much we have thought about the cost of merely accepting and using every new machine thrown our way. In a discussion about the impact and place of technology I think it is valuable to know the story of the Greek god, Prometheus.
In the early days of the human race the essential characteristic of the human being was that each person knew the day of his or her death. That is to say, we knew our limits. Mortality was not a vague apprehension but a fixed date on the calendar. In such a condition and with such knowledge there was no incentive to do much more than exist. On top of that, the gods were capricious and brutal. They had the knowledge of how things worked and the means to accomplish them, they shared neither their knowledge nor their means. They were neither generous nor fair. They held all the significant cards on their own hands. So what is the use of trying? The basic human experience is of mortality and tyranny.
Prometheus, one of the gods, somehow became compassionately concerned about our plight and correspondingly angry at Zeus, the chief of the gods. He took it upon himself to do something about changing the human condition for the better. He did three things that would make a difference. First, he “caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.” That is, he took away the knowledge of the day of death, the sense of limits. The awareness of mortality. Freed from a debilitating sense of doom, the human now could attempt anything. Second, he “placed in them blind hopes.” Prometheus instilled incentive in men and women to be more than they were, to reach out, to stretch themselves, to be ambitious. But the incentives were blind and directionless, unrelated to any reality. And third, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. With this gift, people were able to cook food, make weapons, fire pottery. The entire world of technology opened up.
By this act, Prometheus set us on the way we have continued: unmindful of limits, setting goals unrelated to the actual conditions of our humanity, and possessing the technical means to change the conditions under which we live. We don’t have to put up with things as they are. Things can be better; we have the means to accomplish whatever we want to do. Consequently, we humans don’t know that we are human; rather, we think we are gods and act like gods. The awareness of our mortality is lost to us. That would not be so bad if we did not have fire, the technological means to act out our illusions of divinity. As it is we have the technology of the gods without the wisdom of the gods.
Zeus, of course, was furious. He punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock in a remote mountain, exposed to the scorching sun and the cold moon. Every day vultures attacked him, tearing at his innards, eating his liver. Each night the liver would grow back, ready for the next day’s rapacious assault. Prometheus is unrepentant.
This is the story of Western civilization: incredible progress in things, defiantly unmindful of the nature of our humanity.*
The Apple technology that Steve Jobs created is both aesthetically pleasing and intuitively helpful, but does it give a transcendent sense of power and ultimately contribute to a false hope? I am not advocating for the elimination or avoidance of technology but rather a thoughtful recognition of where we can find real hope for from the world's problems.
Is it possible that by embracing all technology without limits or applied wisdom that our insides may be at risk? Might our souls be eroding while we feel powerful on the outside? Is being connected to what others are doing and thinking at all times conditioning our hearts to avoid silence? Does the ability to communicate with many instantly neglect the personal and contribute to the depersonalization of humanity?
My hope is that we all would think critically about the means we use to live as Kingdom people. As followers of Jesus, the way we do things is equally important as what we are doing. Our motives are great – to help others – but are we then free to justify the means?
So with appreciation and sadness, thank you Steve Jobs. And with prayerfulness and thoughtfulness let’s keep everything in perspective.
*This retelling of the Promethean story is from Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 1987, pp. 27-29.