The last 20 years have seen the proliferation of a machine that stores, organizes, and retrieves information: the computer. It can perform repetitive tasks without error or fatigue, analyze problems too complex for the human brain, and collate great quantities of information. The power of the computer, however, has its drawbacks—among other things, it allows governments to monitor in detail the activities of citizens, and it takes employment from those who cannot perform other kinds of work.

Ours are the times of a romance with the computer. Computers are continually described as being “powerful,” “fast,” and “smart”; they “work” for us; they are “friendly” and can “help” us. We sophisticates of the 1980’s no longer anthropomorphize the things of nature; instead, we humanize our machines. As a result, computers are accepted uncritically; many consider them an unalloyed good, or at least the “wave of the future.” The tremendous amounts of money involved only strengthen this attitude.

In The Silicon Society, David Lyon examines the computer and its effects on us from a Christian perspective. Dr. Lyon is senior lecturer in social analysis at Bradford and Ilkey College, England, and his book is based on the 1985 London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity. Despite my wish to recommend this book, however. The Silicon Society is a disappointment. It is superficial, for Dr. Lyon simply doesn’t know very much about the subject on which he is writing. The text is anecdotal and has a number of factual errors, while the bibliography merely reiterates the usual E.F. Schumacher, Alvin Toffer, et al. Throughout The Silicon Society the author tantalizes us with intriguing but undeveloped topics. For example, Dr. Lyon at one point comments that “no Christian teaching demands we rule out in advance the possibility that humans could create thinking machines,” an assertion worthy of a book by itself.

Dr. Lyon, however, makes two points worth emphasizing: First, no discipline can generate the principles to judge itself; second, a Christian must consider how the tenets of Christianity apply to the discipline in question. A Christian is obliged to use it in a way that does not gratuitously harm his fellow men. The assertion of scientism, that technology will somehow rescue us from the problems created by itself, is unsubstantiated. Our use of the devices must be principled and thought through.

Computer worshipers claim that we stand on the verge of an Age of Information. In my experience, however, the future promises to be the Age of Misinformation—nothing rivals the computer in churning out masses of statistically analyzed, thoroughly collated, beautifully printed nonsense. The sheer quantity of information threatens to be overwhelming: the Harvard five-foot shelf of the future may hold not a few printed classics, but the entire Library of Congress on compact disks. As never before, we need skills of the mind, what Dorothy Sayers called “the lost tools of learning.” More than the myriad governmental programs that Dr. Lyon advocates, more than the technical training that the computer lovers advocate, an education emphasizing reading, writing, reasoning, and religion would best equip our young people for the use of the computer.


[The Silicon Society, by David Lyon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) $14.95]