Help or Hindrance?

February 15, 2021

In his fascinating book The Glass Cage (NY: Norton, 2014), Nicholas Carr explores how automation and computer assistance across a variety of endeavors can leave users “de-skilled.” The idea? The more our tools do for us, the less attentive, the less thoughtful, the less skilled we can become in doing what we do. 

These tools–whether word processing tools with autocorrect features or Bible study tools with their search and study assistance features–seemingly can make our lives easier. That’s what we want the tools to do. But there might be a downside to all that help. 

As programs become adept at doing our thinking for us, we naturally come to rely more on the software and less on our own smarts. We’re less likely to push our minds to do the work of generation [of thoughts]. When that happens, we end up learning less and knowing less.  (p. 80)

Carr goes on o explain, “When we automate cognitive tasks like problem solving, we hamper the mind’s ability to translate information into knowledge and knowledge into know-how” (p. 76). This can be illustrated by thinking about a hand-held calculator (or “smart” phone!). 

With a simple pocket calculator, you can automate even very complicated mathematical procedures, ones that would tax your unaided brain. . . . If you use the calculator to bypass learning, to carry out procedures that you haven’t learned and don’t understand, the tool will not open up new horizons. It won’t help you gain new mathematical knowledge and skills. It will simply be a black box, a mysterious number-producing mechanism. It will be a barrier to higher thought rather than spur to it (p. 82). 

I do wonder, as I talk with many Christians, if there is a contemporary risk of becoming de-skilled in our reading of Scripture and if we might not be developing habits of mind that are counterproductive to thinking well about the Word of God. 

When reading Scripture is done through the interface of a smart phone or computer software, we never have to think well about “where is that passage?”–we lose sense of the overall map of Scripture.  Like someone who has become dependent on her GPS phone app, we can become de-skilled at navigating around the city we live in because it is so simple to just type in the destination and that pleasant voice leads us to the destination. We can off-load our need to have some personal familiarity with the city by relying on the app. And we can off-load the benefit of becoming familiar with the “geography” of the Bible by relying on an app that knows where everything is. When we read through the assistance of a search engine, we can end up subtly thinking we don’t have to really learn or know passages; “When we need it, we can look it up” (p. 79). 

Not only can such tools isolate us from the basic geography of the Bible (the sense of where the particular book we are reading is in the canon and where the particular text we are reading is in the book it is found in), but the possibility of serendipitous (and perhaps Spirit-led) discovery that comes from seeing things on the page that aren’t showing up in the search window can be lost. The search engine can take us to a particular text or give to us other cross references, but what it cannot do is help us to think why those texts or references might be the best or most appropriate ones to consider. 

Paul called Timothy to diligently attend to God’s word so that he could find himself to be a “workman . . . accurately handling” Scripture (2 Timothy 2:14). It won’t do for us to defer to smart phones and Bible apps to handle Scripture for us, for then we will never become readers, well skilled in reading and knowing Scripture. 

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