Did Thomas Merton Predict the True Impact of Technology?

What do we make of someone productively typing on a sleek Mac computer?

What do we think of someone efficiently swipes left and right, up and down, on a well-cared-for iPhone?

It’s likely that we will think this person is organized, successful, hard-working, and even wealthy. In fact, iPhones are often associated with wealth:

“Economists at the University of Chicago recently published a paper (PDF) with the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined the best indicators of wealth over the last few decades. And it found that in 2016, the last year it analyzed, there was a 69.1% chance of accurately guessing that a person was wealthy if he or she owned an iPhone.” Fortune

Them reality that I have found, as a user of fairly dated but still functioning Apple products is that the source of my efficiency and work can easily become the source of my fragmentation and distraction. I have felt the pressure to be on social media for the sake of my work as a writer, and so technology becomes a highway of sorts into the collective anxiety, rage, and fears of our culture.

What if we stopped imagining that the person on a phone or computer all of the time could actually be in a state of danger? Perhaps the sleek, efficient device at someone’s fingertips is more of a threat to their mental, physical, and spiritual help than a help?

I probably lean more toward a heavier use of technology than the average person since I live far from all of my family, I work remotely, and all of my colleagues are far away. I need a phone and a computer for almost everything I do for my work, and that has prompted me to seek limits and barriers so that I can track my use and prevent myself from slipping into overuse and the fragmentation of disconnecting from reality as a stream of updates flows in front of me.

Thomas Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has been deeply formative for me over the past two years, and he was quite prophetic about the impact of technology on humanity.  I’ll leave you with a few quotes to consider, including a passage he quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:


It does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration. It is bad form to say such things, to recognize such possibilities… The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet liveable for mankind as a whole.

Never before has there been such a distance between the abject misery of the poor (still a great majority of mankind) and the absurd affluence of the rich.“ pg. 67-68


“Technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come in conflict with these autonomous powers. Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way.” pg. 70


“I thoroughly agree with Bonhoeffer when he says:

‘The demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery. The master of the machine becomes its slave. The machine becomes the enemy of men. The creature turns against its creator in a strange reenactment of the Fall.’“  pg. 71