Don’t Be Dominated by Your Tools

By Joe Holland    |    July 10, 2023


And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” —Genesis 1:28

A pitchfork is an ideal tool unless you plunge the tines into your foot. If you’re moving hay, grass, or any other bladed yard debris, there is nothing like it. The difference between these two scenarios is more than just avoiding a sloppy yard work injury (of which I’ve had many).

Tools can either be instruments of dominion or domination.

I mean dominion in the most positive of ways. In early, pre-fall creation, God gave Adam the mandate to exercise godly dominion over creation (Gen. 1:28). This wasn’t carte blanche dominion. Adam was a vice sergeant of God. Adam was under authority and made after a pattern. God was still king, and Adam was joyfully functioning under God’s sovereign dominion, even as Adam exercised dominion. And Adam wasn’t plunged into creation as a voided nothing. God had already exercised loving dominion in his creation of all things. That was Adam’s pattern, the work of God that preceded the mandate that God gave to Adam. Adam was to exercise dominion by God’s command, under God’s authority, and by God’s example.

And it is evident that tools would eventually come out of this. There was ore in them thar’ hills. And there were vines to weave into rope. And some rocks could be sharpened into blades. There wasn’t a tool shed in the Garden or a John Deere parked next to the Gishon. But all the resources for tool construction were already there. And, though this is a topic for another post, those tools were inevitable and would be the great grandfathers of the tools we enjoy today. The iPad I’m typing this on is made out of material that has been present since the creation of the world.1 The capacity and expectation of tools to serve the dominion mandate were there from day one (yes, day one, even though Adam wasn’t created until day six).

But tools can dominate us and be used for intents that God does not condone. Cain may have killed Abel with his bare fists. He also may have picked up a medium-weighted rock to make his fratricidal rage a bit more efficient. Tools can be servants or make us into servants, free or enslave us, be used for righteousness or unrighteousness.

Take this ol’ iPad for example. I could do any number of nefarious things right now on it rather than writing this. I could also use it to waste time by consuming large amounts of entertaining nonsense. I could literally waste my life on this little thin rectangular tool of precisely arranged aluminum and carbon. This tool can dominate me if I let it.

Tools can either be instruments of dominion or domination.”

—Joe Holland

Or take for example Matthew Crawford’s work on cars. Cars are marvelous inventions. They increase my affordance, my ability to extend what I can do as an extension of myself. Imagine that I get a phone call from a family member that said, “It’s an emergency, can you be here in three hours?” My family member lives 120 miles away. I can say, “Absolutely,” without blinking. Within five minutes I can be en route in my car, knowing I have time to spare. But now imagine that same family member got in touch 100 hundred years ago with the same request, “It’s an emergency, can you be here in three hours?” Well, 100 years ago, that was an easy, unflinching “no, I can’t. I can saddle the horse or hop on the train and be there in a day or two.” The car extends what I can do and where I can be. I can exercise dominion over creation and traverse time and space faster because of the tool that is the car.

But now consider auto-driving cars. With the touch of a screen, I can switch my car to make a drive for me. This seems like dominion. But is it? If I’m not practicing driving and learning directions and keeping up the skills necessary to avoid roadway hazards, I’m becoming a worse driver though I’m using a pretty cool tool for efficiency. An auto-driving car isn’t helping me exercise dominion, it is robbing me of the skills I need to exercise dominion. It is dominating me.

And that is how we can approach tools with a better heuristic than just “Amish is better” or “all cool tech is good tech.” So the question to ask yourself about your tools is whether they are helping you exercise dominion or whether they are gradually dominating you. Hay in the barn is great; holes in your foot aren’t.

  1. The Law of the Conservation of Mass reminds us that mass cannot be created or destroyed.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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