Derek Schuurman’s “Shaping a Digital World”: A Review

Shaping a Digital World final

Writing about technology is difficult. Writing well about technology is more difficult and writing well about technology from an authentically Christian perspective is especially difficult. The problems are numerous: a multiplicity of definitions of technology, a lack of a robust vocabulary to dissect and explore technology, bad theology, an easy temptation to black and white evaluations of whether a technology is good or bad or towards a heavy abstraction that lends little practical help, to name a few.

In Shaping a Digital World, Derek Schuurman, an associate professor of computer science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, manages to write a lot about technology in a surprisingly short volume. Mixing his theological studies with his background in computer science, Schuurman develops a compelling toolset for Christians to use when thinking about and using technology. Along the way, he synthesizes the significant works of 20th century media and technology writers, meditates on the Christian meaning of work, and avoids simplistic good/bad judgments on computer technology, setting the stage for similar meditations on other realms of technology.

Schuurman opens his discussion with a twist on a famous question: “What does Silicon Valley have to do with Jerusalem?” As someone whose livelihood depended on computer technology, Schuurman wondered to what extent his faith should play a role in his work—an increasingly important question in a culture that continues to grow the sacred/secular dichotomy. He starts this discussion with a taxonomy of technology, drawing heavily from Carl Mitcham’s Thinking Through Technology in describing technology as all “humanly fabricated material artifacts whose function depends on a specific materiality as such.” Within this definition, we may pinpoint more specific classes of technology: structures, apparatus, tools, machines, and automata. Schuurman develops his classification of computer technology out of these categories, layering in a helpful synthesis of Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, and Jacques Ellul to arrive at a satisfyingly complex definition of computer technology:

“A distinct cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God, to unfold the hardware and software possibilities in creation with the aid of tools and procedures for practical ends or purposes.”

The robustness of his definition allows Schuurman to explore each part of his definition in light of four theological categories: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. The rest of the book unfolds as an exploration and explication of the grammar of computer technology in light of the Christian faith. Schuurman is able to discuss the original role humanity was to play in creation and how our development of technology allows us to exercise the power of co-creation granted to us by the Creator.

Similarly, he can examine how the disobedience of humankind in the Fall infects the ability of humans to exercise both freedom and responsibility in the realm of computer technology. He notes that “the good possibilities that computer technology brings to creation are intertwined with the effects of sin.” He employs Wolters’ distinction between structure (the order of creation, to the constant creational constitution of any thing) and direction (the distortion or perversion of creation through the fall) to help parse how sin and the Fall infect computer technology. For Schuurman, the “structure of things in creation continues despite their misdirections…but misdirected technology reminds us of the reality of the fall and how things can be distorted or perverted.” He attributes the good of computer technology to the good structure of creation instituted by God and the bad to humans directing the technology in disobedience to God’s law. Schuurman’s answer to the question of whether computer technology may be inherently bad is interesting:

“Computer technology is not neutral; it can either be directed in ways that comport well with God’s intentions for his world or in rebellious ways. As humans, we have freedom and responsibility in response to God as to how we direct our technical activities.”

Here Schuurman is able to provide some insightful comments for the classic “is technology good or bad” question. By looking at technology with the structure/direction lens, Schuurman is able to acknowledge the morality inherent in technology as well as morality surrounding its use while avoiding the technology and content debate.

Schuurman’s book remains thoughtful throughout and provides an excellent framework for new students of technology to discuss and evaluate technology in light of Christian experience. For more experienced students of technology, some of the material will be basic but Schuurman does an excellent job synthesizing this material into new frameworks for thinking about technology. Perhaps one of the most important contributions Schuurman makes in his book is examining the modal aspects of technology in order to discern appropriate norms to develop and follow when creating, experimenting, and developing technology. I’d love to see others develop Schuurman’s exploration of norms in relation to technology and to try to apply them in instances besides computer technology in order to test their relevance. Schuurman accomplishes his goal of showing what Jerusalem has to do with Silicon Valley and provides a thoughtful starting point for a new generation of Christian technologists.

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About the Contributor

Benjamin Robertson

Benjamin Robertson
Benjamin Robertson is a founding editor at Second Nature. He has worked in advertising for the Chicago Tribune and Gannett, and now is a web developer at Up&Up. He studied Communications and Media Studies under Dr. Read Schuchardt at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has presented papers on Marshall McLuhan, media ecology, and Christianity at the Media Ecology Association, National Communication Association, and the McLuhan's Philosophy of Media Centennial Conference in Brussels. He lives with his wife, Ruth, in Greenville, SC. His personal website is benjamingrobertson.com

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