The Mitchells vs. Technophobia: Balancing a Theological Approach to Technology

By Jake Doberenz

There are plenty of examples of entertainment media deconstructing its own existence and warning about the dangers of technology. Shows like Black Mirror asks us to question how media and technology control and affect our lives. Movies from iRobot to Age of Ultron to Ex Machina depict the danger of artificially intelligent robots. And Jurassic Park famously preaches that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Science fiction as a genre has been a prophetic voice for some time now, prophesying a dismal future if technology gets out of control.

But in the last decade or two, these messages have creeped into children’s entertainment. Technology is so ingrained in our lives that it’s practically unavoidable to bring it up as a subject, especially if you are seeking to reach the Millennial or Gen Z generations. And it’s about time—probably two thirds of story plots from before the turn of the 21th century could be solved by having a smart phone with a good battery life! But as technology emerges into children and family entertainment, it’s mostly retained its critical lens.

Pixar’s Wall-E was the first animated movie I remember seeing that took such a harsh stance against technology. Despite starring two robots, the movie clearly wanted to tell people that our obsession over getting more stuff and mindless entertainment would not only ruin the earth, but us as humans. But it’s not just Wall-E. Animated movies from FernGully to The Lorax have pitted “nature” against technology and its effect on the environment. Even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has an underlying message that technology can cause destruction.

When the Incredibles 2 came out, it also presented an obvious technophobic message. Quite on the nose, the main villain is Screenslaver. Though ultimately the agenda behind the villain wasn’t actually about technology, the Screenslaver identity nonetheless spoke out against people’s addiction to screens and their lack of discipline with technology. Only after reflecting on this sequel did I realize that the first Incredibles also featured a villain that used technology for evil. In the world of the Incredibles, bad guys have technology and good guys have (biologically-based?) superpowers. Since we are to root for the heroes, the stories thereby criticize technological advances.

Turning on Netflix’s The Mitchell’s vs. the Machines, I expected this same kind of message. The antagonist is artificial intelligence and the heroes must overcome the obstacles of robots (plus Wi-Fi-enabled appliances). Phones have to literally be smashed so they can’t be tracked while they fight back against technology using whatever non-electronic tools they can find. Rick Mitchell is a manly father figure of comical proportions with complete technological ineptitude. Amazingly, he can’t even type a web-address into a search bar! He doesn’t “get” his daughter’s online videos and his old fashioned ways clash with the young technological native. Always concerned with how screens distract from family time, the movie appears at first to be a recipe for a predictable message: technology distracts us from what really matters, family.

But that’s not the message of The Mitchell’s vs. The Machines. They offer a worldview that says technology isn’t inherently good nor bad–it all depends on how we use it.

Technophobia and Theology

As long as there has been innovation, there has been fear of innovation, typically when it first emerges. Socrates is infamously quoted for suggesting that writing is a dangerous skill since it will promote forgetfulness and students will trust texts too much (Socrates apparently lived by this principle—we don’t have any writing by his own hand, only what his pupil Plato recorded). Conrad Gesner is another polymath who has gone down in history for complaining that the abundance of books in the world was confusing and harmful—as recorded in the intro for his 1545 compilation of all known books Bibliotheca universalis, published almost 100 years after Gutenberg’s printing press.

Technophobia—a fear or suspicion of new technology—persists with every new revolutionary innovation, especially, it seems, in the last two centuries where technological advancement has skyrocketed exponentially. Beyond just movies and tv shows, news articles, major studies, and documentaries have cropped up warning of the dangers of these technologies that seem pretty great on the surface. Much of technophobia is rooted in psychological or ethical concerns, but it’s not uncommon to hear theological arguments such as “man is not meant to play God.”

Religion has always had a curious relationship with technology and innovation. On one hand, we’ve all heard the tales of religions persecuting proponents of new ideas and inventions—from scientific theories to certain artforms. On the other hand, religions have been quick to adopt new technology that helps spread their beliefs, such as the papyrus codex for early Christians to preserve Scripture or the use of radio broadcasts to spread religious teachings over the globe.

Religious technophobia seems to have its origin in two primary arguments. Firstly, is the idea of some technology as unnatural. While the natural world is seen as a creation of God, technology, as produced by humankind, has a marked distance from the divine. It’s “artificial” quality makes it suspicious because it’s not a creation of God. Worse, human creators are seen as trying to “play God.” Everything from gene editing to airplanes to McDonald’s chicken nuggets can be seen as artificial and unnatural, and thereby against the order that God has ordained. Of course, the holes in the argument are numerous; yet proponents will happily draw lines between expedient accessories to human existence (like clothes) and innovations that go far beyond the will of God (like cloning).

Secondly, the largest world religions have ancient roots which can curb progress. Especially with the Abrahamic religions who are known as “People of the Book,” the ancientness of an idea becomes a test for orthodoxy. A great example is the Orthodox church’s commitment to artistically representing biblical characters and saints in exactly the same way, even after 2,000 years. With the criterion of ancientness, everything from PowerPoints to microphones to electric guitars as used in worship can be looked upon in suspicion because of arguments like “Paul didn’t need those things to be an effective minister.” Technology can be viewed as a progression that strays from the old paths.

Technophobia and the Good Old Days

However, technophobia often does not play out in an Amish-like rejection of zippers and electricity. Instead, technophobia is usually presented as a nostalgia that regards “the good old days” as representing all that is truly necessary for humanity. Thus, a Baby Boomer says that kids don’t need laptops in school because they themselves survived in school on pen and paper—if it was good then, why change it? This view shares a perception of technology with much of the larger populace—that technology is a means to an end. Why do we need to text when we can talk on the phone? The ends are the same, but the means are different, and the more traditional means are seen as simply better. Technophobia need not require an abandonment of technology, but a preference to the ways that are more comfortable.

Many animated movies demonstrate a surprising suspicion of technology that is rooted in a desire to return to the past. The end of Wall-E has the humans returning to earth to get things back to “normal,” possibly without machines doing all the work. More notably, however, are both Incredibles movies. More than just the villains being those who use advanced technology, the movie’s entire aesthetic is designed to promote a “simpler time.” In an article for The Verge, D.M. Moore and Devon Maloney point out the implications of this design:

“The Incredibles franchise is set in a retro-future awash in mid-century modern design, meant to evoke the kind of rosy nostalgia that fuels most of Pixar’s films. That certainly lends itself to a technology-suspicious outlook, if not an outright technology-averse one. …Retrofuturistic design leans on a nostalgia that isn’t true to what that period of time was actually like, for people who weren’t straight, white, middle-class Protestant men. Nostalgia itself promotes stagnation or regression, which is antithetical to the advancement that invention represents.”

Technophobia looks backwards and refuses to adequately weigh the pros of the future. In looking backwards, it overemphasizes the good while minimizing the bad. Yes, a Leave it to Beaver-esque family might have talked more at the dinner table, but let’s not sweep under the rug the serious problems of the era, such as racism, misogyny, and in general fear of anything that didn’t vibe with a Christian nationalist ideology. The past is not always better. Technophobia unfairly overemphasizes the bad of technology without reckoning with the benefits that progress has brought.

Those who still fondly remember using cassette tapes might resonate with this nostalgia, but it isn’t likely Pixar can keep this up. Whitewashing the past and dimly portraying the future isn’t going to work anymore. Not with digital natives or anyone with a robust theology of technology.

The Unique Approach of The Mitchells vs. the Machines

By the time the credits rolled after watching Netflix’s The Mitchell’s vs. the Machines, I realized I had watched a very sophisticated discussion of the role of technology in our present world—despite it being an over-the-top comedy. While the set-up seemed like a classic techno-bashing, at the end of the movie, the main characters did not disavow technology and live in a secluded commune. They still participated in a technological world: they video chatted, watched YouTube, and even had robots in the family home. Despite seeing the absolute worst of technology, they didn’t give up on it.

PAL (probably a hat tip to HAL from 2001 A Space Odyssey) is the antagonist and the artificial intelligence that goes rogue in the film. Her turn to evil is initially due to being disregarded and mistreated by her creator, but then she comes to the conclusion that humans aren’t good for anything. She bemoans the fact that technology is so beneficial to human connection, yet humans don’t use it for it’s full potential. As an example, PAL notes on one occasion that so many calls from Grandma are ignored.

This is an interesting twist for an evil AI. Most AIs in science fiction see the inefficiency of humans and want to either “upgrade” them or start over fresh. But PAL seems to believe humans can be better on their own: they just continually choose not to, despite all the benefits that technology brings them. Her solution is still out-of-proportion, but you know what, PAL is on to something.

The Mitchells are embroiled in this discussion even before robots attack. Katie Mitchell makes silly videos that her father just does not understand at all. Here technology could be used as a kind of connection, but Rick Mitchell refuses to budge from his rather technophobic ways. It’s not until later in the movie when Rick learns that Katie’s viral YouTube videos bring so much joy to people that he’s able to see the benefit of that kind of technology. He “reprograms” himself, as the friendly robots Eric and Debrahbot 5000 say, to use technology for the benefit of the world. Rick learns to see technology for it’s value, especially it’s value as a tool for connection with other human beings.

The movie doesn’t let technology off the hook. There are some humorous but fair jabs at PAL’s creator Mark Bowman for having an unregulated tech monopoly that has access to everyone’s data. As well, The Mitchells vs. the Machines praises the ingenuity and weirdness of regular humans as often superior to what technology can throw at them. Individuality over uniformity is praised. Certainly, the movie recognizes the potential dangers of technology. 

Yet The Mitchells vs. The Machines offers a better way to view technology. Uncritically accepting technology as flawless and good is a problem; uncritically rejecting technology as damaging and evil is also problem. Technology should be approached with caution, but let’s recognize that technology is helpful and does promote human flourishing–if there is aquadrate oversight. The movie seems to show that technology is often only as good as the people using it.

A Theology of Technology

Technology has a powerful influence over us. Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death helped wake up the world to understanding how technology, namely television, can affect how we think and behave and even do religion. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma should be taken seriously, though we can turn the panic level down a few notches. Danger is unfounded. Yes, progress isn’t by necessity “good.”

Yet, let’s not forget the immense benefits. Technology can and should serve human flourishing, the proliferation of religion, and the working out of our divine task. Despite a perceived distance between technology and theology, human creations still owe their existence to God for the materials involved and skills utilized. Though notions about what is meant by the imago deo imparted in humankind, it’s highly plausible that creativity is part of what it means for humans to have the divine spark within them. Technology is not antithetical to God.

Religious-based technophobic arguments fail to understand the way technology relates to our being. In Networked Theology, Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner provide the helpful definition of technology as “a human activity that is carried out within the context provided by God for human beings to exercise their creativity and agency.” This definition balances both the practical and value-shaping dimensions of technology, for ignoring either aspect does not capture the full meaning.

A contextual theological approach means we can discuss technology’s proper uses without having to make it wholly good or wholly evil. As most religions recognize, good things can be used for evil or are improper when used in excess or certain contexts. A traditional Christian ethic, for instance, does not say sexual intercourse is objectively bad but that it must be done in the context of a mutually submissive marriage or it risks being labeled “sin.” Likewise, we must recognize that technology is a tool that can be wielded  for either good or evil, depending on the context. That means–like The Mitchells argues–it’s not the technology’s fault but how we use it.

The technology of the future must be put in conversation with sources from the past though understood in relation to the needs of the present. We don’t need uncritical nostalgia, but it is good to look back to Scripture or tradition for ethical opinions on tomorrow’s world changing idea. Our current reality is one that religious giants of the past could not fathom, so that means it will take some work to understand our wisest course of action in never-before-charted territory.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines reminded me that technology can go way off track but that’s no reason to throw it out. Instead, technology is often as good as we humans make it.

Jake Doberenz is an early career theologian who ministers at a local church while running his company Theophany Media, an organization that explores the intersection of faith and imagination. He graduated with a Master of Theological Studies at Oklahoma Christian University. Find out more about Jake at www.JakeDoberenz.com or find his sometimes insightful tweets on Twitter @JakeDoberenz.

Resources

Campbell, Heidi, and Stephan Garner. Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture. Engaging Culture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2016.

Canceran, Delfo Cortina. “Cybertechnology and Theology: An Uneasy Relationship.” Landas 26, no. 1 (2012): 37–47.

Moore, D. M., and Devon Maloney. “The Incredibles Movies Have a Weird Relationship with Technology.” The Verge, July 3, 2018. https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/3/17485088/the-incredibles-2-technology-technophobia-screenslaver-syndrome-villains. 

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