Should Christians Work in the Tech Industry?

In my favorite types of conversations, conversations about individuals’ yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows, one idea is prominent: we all want to matter. We don’t have to change the world, but we want to make an impact somewhere to someone. Since work occupies the plurality of waking hours, work seems the most natural place to look for impact.  According to Deloitte’s Millennial study, millennials in particular want to matter; at least 60% of millennials selected “’a sense of purpose’ [as] part of the reason they chose to work for their current employers.”1 As a millennial and as a Christian, I stand firmly in the “I want my life to matter” camp.

Thus, I never thought I would work in the tech industry.  I had concerns about its strategy and side effects.

Before describing those concerns, let me first define a “tech company” as any company that produces technology as an end-product, either as a good or a service. Although other posts on this blog have described technology pretty broadly, I am specifically focusing on technological goods like phones, laptops, and tablets, as well as technological services like internet-based companies.  Think: classic Silicon Valley “high tech” companies.

The Truth about the Tech Industry

First, what is the strategy of the tech industry?  Nearly every company wants to make a positive impact on the world, but the strategies used to accomplish this goal differ by industry.  If we define impact as a lasting effect on an individual or situation, impact is readily apparent in healthcare and ministry.  In healthcare, one can say: because I was there, the patient lived. Or in ministry: because I was there, the seeker learned more about God’s character.  However, impact is not readily apparent in the tech industry since it does not focus on saving lives or souls.

Second, technology results in a host of side effects on its consumers, some related to screen time and others related to privacy and security.  Screen time-related side effects are unsurprising given the sheer amount of time Americans spend using technology: according to a 2018 Nielsen study, American adults spend over eleven hours per day “watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media,” including TV, radio, DVD/Blu-ray devices, game consoles, tablets, computers, and smartphones.2 Increased screen time is linked with depression, a sedentary lifestyle is linked with diabetes, and viewing blue light emitted from screens is linked with poorer sleep.3 Social media in particular is linked with less life satisfaction, greater feelings of social isolation, and jealousy.4

Another major side effect of the tech industry is a decline in privacy and security, resulting from both the ease of finding and contacting other users and the quantity of data collected about each user.  Google alone has enough data about a given user to fill 3 million Word documents, and Facebook has enough data to fill an additional 400,000 Word documents.5 At its best, this results in a more personalized ads experience.  At its worst, it can result in abusive situations such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, financial scams, and sex trafficking.  

So What Does Impact Look Like for Christians in Tech?

In summary, the tech industry can be considered either not impactful because it does not save lives or negatively impactful because it can decrease the quality of users’ lives or even lead to sex trafficking. Should those of us who work in the tech industry all quit?

Obviously the answer is no.  I would argue that 1) impact can differ from our expectations and 2) impactful jobs may fall short of God’s purpose for our lives.  

First, given that impact may differ from expectations, what might impact look like for Christians in the tech industry?

One possibility is making decisions with the user’s best interest in mind.  For example, because an addicted user is a highly engaged – and thus highly profitable – user, many companies use unreliable digital rewards (i.e. Facebook likes or Reddit upvotes) to drive addiction to a product.6  While addiction is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, it is closely related to idolatry.  Thus, Christians can choose to alter products to fight addiction, even at the expense of financial gain.  This is selflessness.

In addition, impact can look like celebrating with fellow employees when technology’s impact is positive. The same reach potential that results in decreased privacy and security also allows for video calls with friends across the globe, the availability of world-class educational resources to third-world countries, and the potential to stumble across life-altering truths on social media.  These are reasons to rejoice.

However, I believe we are more likely to positively impact the people we work with than to impact the end users of our products.  In an industry that has gradually eroded in-person interactions, we have opportunities to create meaningful relationships with our coworkers, both as individuals and as members of church communities.  These are reasons for gratitude.

Second, looking to the workplace for impact may fall short of God’s purpose for our lives.  In the Bay Area, it is all too easy to let that “impactful” job become an idol, something we look to for worth and value.  We think if we spend 40 or 60 or 80 hours per week working on something that matters, our lives have meaning. But we must look to who Jesus says we are for our worth and value: chosen and beloved, apart from anything we do.Furthermore, even if our view of work is appropriate and our work deemed “impactful,” we also need to recognize the potential for impact outside of the workplace: we can positively impact our family, friends, and neighbors by loving them with Christlike love.

Moreover, looking to lead lives of impact may miss the point.  When God describes his purpose for our lives, he never mentions impact.  He does mention making disciples of all nations; being created for good works; and rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances.8  Maybe our goal should not be impact for its own sake, but for God’s name to be lifted up, regardless of our contribution.  In Philippians, Paul mentions “some [who] preach Christ from envy and rivalry.” Is he upset that people with impure motives are proclaiming Christ? No, he rejoices that Christ is proclaimed, regardless of the means.9 When addressing a church divided into factions, he reminds them: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”10  Paul is not interested in attributing salvation or spiritual growth to specific individuals in order to assess his impact, but is most interested in God being glorified through the church. Please don’t misunderstand me; we should aim to do good works, just not for the sake of impact alone. So maybe the question, “Where can I have the greatest impact?” should be replaced by “How can I honor God wherever I am?”

The latter question is different for everyone and may not necessarily have immediate answers. But one thing is clear: technology – and thus the tech industry – is here to stay.  If you are a Christian in the tech industry, the world needs you to stay too.

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Notes:
1https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/gx-wef-2015-millennial-survey-executivesummary.pdf
2https://www.marketwatch.com/story/people-are-spending-most-of-their-waking-hours-staring-at-screens-2018-08-01
3https://www.familiesfirstindiana.org/how-screen-time-affects
4https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/06/30/a-run-down-of-social-medias-effects-on-our-mental-health/#31d942872e5a
5https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/28/all-the-data-facebook-google-has-on-you-privacy
6https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/boundless/201801/technology-designed-addiction
7Colossians 3:12
8Matthew 28:19-20; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
9Philippians 1:15-18
101 Corinthians 3:6-7

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