I have done a lot of thinking over the past ten years or so about how living in a technological world affects our spiritual life (including our relationship with others and the whole of creation), and how Christian faith can inform our creation and stewardship of technology. (See "Technology and Christian Spirituality," my comprehensive paper for my Masters degree at Regent College.) I am now beginning to formulate a theory as to how an involvement in the arts (both as appreciators and as creators thereof) can be a balance for the potentially soul-deadening effects of technology.
1. Art keeps us engaged with the physical, material world. While technology draws us into abstractions and virtual reality, the arts engage our bodily senses and bring us into contact with the concrete stuff of life. This is true still of most of the art forms, especially sculpture, painting, dance, theatre, live music, architecture, and the culinary arts. Good poetry, while not material itself, usually employs imagery from the physical world and tends to draw us to experience it in person. Even photography, which is increasingly digital, and can involve hours of post-processing on a computer, still requires the photographer to get out into the physical world for an initial image. I think the more removed from the physical reality a photograph is (through digital manipulation), the less it helps to engage the viewer with the world around. And I suppose this point does not apply much at all to such forms of art as digitally composed and performed music, abstract visual art created entirely on computer, etc., except that they interact with our eardrums or retinas.
2. Art slows us down, and makes us more aware of the sacredness of time. While technology speeds up the pace of our lives, we need to slow down in order to read, observe, listen to, touch, taste, or contemplate an artistic creation. I am not sure what to make of the trend towards ever more multi-tasking, which puts the arts as a background to some other task (e.g., someone listening to music on their iPod while working at the computer or driving), as it seems to weaken my point.
3. Art is more inherently relational than most technology. There is an artist, and the observer can recognize traits of that artist's style, personality, soul, and worldview (see recent threads on this blog) in the work of art. On the other hand, a piece of computer hardware or software hides the creators' identities behind a uniformity designed for easier usability. I worked for eleven years in the software industry, and I can attest that the artists in us were crying out to be known anyway, so we used to hide little animated credits sequences (art!) in our software, even though it was against company policy. There is something artistic in the craft of software development, but I'll save that for another reflection for some other time (unless I decide I've said all I need to on it right there).
4. Art has the capability to be truth-telling, prophetic. We are moved to action by some film showing the degradation of the environment; David is convicted of his sin through a story; the gospel of God's loving forgiveness is communicated through Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son." I'm not sure this point totally gives art the upper hand over technology, as certainly the Internet has been used to proclaim truth and motivate and mobilize people for social action, environmental protection, spiritual growth, etc. But the Internet is a tool, a channel of communication. The initial prophetic moment generally involves some form of art communicated via this medium, whether it be a well-crafted essay or a shocking documentary photograph.
5. Art, inasmuch as it has to do with Story, engages people in community. That may be a community of shared listeners, or the community of those who came before and created the stories. Again, this might not be the domain of art alone, as computer technology can be used to enhance, and even in some rare cases (house-bound invalids, for example) create, community.
These are just a few beginning thoughts. Very untested. Possibly completely out in left field. But that's why I'm putting them out here -- to get some feedback.