Thursday, November 10, 2011

Christianity and Technology: Four Pillars

For about 15 years I had pursued an interest in Christian perspectives of economics but finding that somewhat frustrating about a decade ago I switched to thinking about Christianity and technology.

When I was telling friends about this interest mostly the reaction was 'is there one?'. Technology is a tool that I choose to use or not. Now the field of the philosophy of technology has long grappled with exactly that issue but for most people outside of some concept of basics ethics deep philosophy has little power of persuasion.

Further, in part I agree with this. Despite the closeness in many areas of philosophy and theology due to their mutual interest in existence, reasoning and moral argument, I don't think this enough for a Christian discission of technology. Writers such as Ellul and Borgmann and others who have written with great insight cannot provide the basis thinking in this area because it leaves out a number dimensions of Christian life and typically closes off dicussion rather than opening up discussion for informed debate.

So here is a first bash, but I think not the last, at outlining the primary dimensions to the debate which I have called here the four pillars.

  1. The Christian tradition of a critical position
  2. Taking a transformative perspective to our lives
  3. Philosophy of technology
  4. Escatology and technology

1. A critical stance.

This is the most general pillar and the one that can be most easily communicated with the general Christian population.

There is a long tradtion within Chritianity of attempting to be in but not of the world. This is mostly clearly visible with the interactions between Christians and science. Although, there has been since Darwin a view of many Christians that science is bad or wrong etc. But authors such as Donald Mackay (1922-1987 see obit ) a notable brain scientist argued that Christians have nothing to fear from the best science because it is motivated by search for knowledge of truth and as we have a God who claims to be the author of truth then the two are not in conflict. However, it is equally true that Christians should and do stand against scientism - where the claims go beyond the ability of science to make claims (for example where science is claimed to rule out the existence of God.

This same critical stance can be applied to the area of technology. From this perspective, it should be presented that while Christians can use and make technology, we should all be wary of idolising it. It will solve some problems only to create new ones. It can be used for good and probably will be used badly. We can never become uncritical of its creation or use.

2. Taking a transformative perspective to our lives

When we read the early chapters of the book of Genesis the fall clearly creates disruptions in a series of relations.

Lets look at the text, I have bolded the relationships.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” 11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush[b] your head, and you will strike his heel.”
16 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  NIV

We can see here three relationships clearly are broken
  • mankind and God
  • Men and women (personally and generalised as broken society)
  • mankind and creation
 A four brokenness (internal to the person can be implied). A friend of mine has taken this intuitive concept and in thinking through what it means to be a peace builder in a conflict area has developed a model of what it means to be a Christian peace maker in societies. 

 Our goal is to build
A- Harmony with the Creator: .... spiritual transformation
B- Harmony with our Being:    ... psycho-social transformation
C- Harmony with Others:         ... socio-political transformation
D- Harmony with the Creation:... economic-ecological transformation
Personally I think this is a great list and a beautiful way of expressing the essence of 'living for Christ'. Insofar as it is an expression of how we are to live generally it provides a conceptual basis for our relationship with technology. For example our individual relationship with technology should not violate our hunger to develop a personal relationship with God. It also should be destructive of creation. Equally, we cn write our efforts in the postiive. By developing particular technologies we can help the poor or use creation more wisely. 

3. Philosophy of technology

The basis of the philosophy of technology is not to take for granted the superficial appearance of a device. Heidegger wrote The Question Concerning Technology and Albert Borgmann has written on the device paradigm. Now, clearly there are debates to be had whether these philosophical positions are strong or weak - I think it would be ill advised to say good or bad.

On the one hand, I do want to affirm that this tradition is important but on the other the point of this blog is to say I think there are other important pillars on which we need to build a dialogue.

However, and as the bulk of writing on Christianity and technology works from this perspective I will leave this pillar here and return to it in a future blog.

4. Escatology an technology

Escatology (the study of last things) seems particularly important to the question of our relationship with technology. If, one's view is that this world is going to be destroyed, soon, and that in the new creation there is no work to do then we can trash this planet and live with minimal thought to tomorrow then the only care about technology is whether it is 'any good'. Alternatively, changing just one aspect of this worldview - that of when God may call 'time' - how we think of technology will radically change.

As a thought experiment if this epoch lasts another 1000 years what technological change is possible in that time? We had better start a taking this discussion about technology to the next level now.

Reframing the debate

By ignoring the impact of modern technologies and economy on creation Christians lost the potential to lead change back in the 1960s. Instead, as group they were seen as dragging their heels as part of the problem and  and the resulting movement with its pseudo-religious concepts undermined Christian apologetics for decades. The possibility for this happening again is all to real.

Over coming weeks I want to discuss each of these pillars in more detail.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Good and Bad technology

One of the key interests of a theology of technology often comes down to what is good technology and what is bad technology. Others have had a crack at this so I might as well as well. In the philosophy of technology there are all sorts of interesting ideas, but in this blog I don't want to go there. I first want to look at the practical level and begin building a model from which I will discuss the philosophers like Borgmann and Ellul at some point.

If you are at all sanguine about technology this book makes for an interesting read. Ruth Conway neither presents a systematic review of the choices nor a balanced account of the good and bad of technology. As technology is often contradictory in its effects it is not easy to pin down and it is possible to only highlight either the good or the bad.

Take the example of botox - known to many as a useless technology that wastes money with the rich using it to look well, silly IMHO. However, botox also has serious medical uses and the costs of the serious use is reduced by it beging so widely available for cosmetic use.

Often we are aware of negative feedback loops in technology but here is an example where there is a positive one at the cost to people with too much money.

Now it is possible to simply react to this complexity and personalise technology like Wan does here . I know Wan and appreciate his insights but for me this doesn't seem to be completely appropriate. Just like purely privatising your Christian faith doesn't work then privatising your choices about technology ignores big factors like pollution or labour conditions that are external to your individual choices. Nevertheless, Wan's response is better than this one - which ignores too many factors.

But, it is clear that we need a use dimension.

The problem is that with some technologies, even if we choose to use them for the right reasons personally there are what economists call externalities and these can actually get bigger faster than the rate at which use increases because the environment isn't infinite. So for example I might think I need a car to get to work, but if we had 3 billion people making similar choices we would be in a real mess. Better than simply calling these externalities which has some good and bad rationales attached to it, we need to develop better awareness of feedback loops and unintended consequenses.

If we use anti-biotics unwisely we will end up with untreatable diseases again.
If we build roads we promote car use
 etc etc etc...

So we need a scale index on our map.

But as the work of Edward Tenner on unintended consequenses suggests we can learn. We as humans do learn at lest a little bit from our mistakes and then in hubris we make new mistakes.  Unfortunately, we don't widely teach a theory of knowledge which goes along the idea of knowns, think we know, know we don't know and the unknown unknowns.

Science as a field of endeavour loves to work on the middle two - trying to prove true or false existing knowledge and trying to discover new 'truths'. However, we typically get blindsided by the unexpected (often the unlinked interaction effects). Often this interaction effects involve human behaviour and this is where the big mistake of the current attitudes to research come in.  Countries spend vast sums of money looking to find the next drug to 'cure' some disease or condition and spend miniscule amounts on the social and behaviour issues that go alongside medical practice. Social science is an afterthought, yet  that is where the big unknowns lie.

Nevertheless, we can add in a learning dimension to our framework.

To illustrate the point about learning - let's use a really bad technology. Thalidomide in the 1950s was given to patients as a sedative but resulted in severe birth defects when taken by pregnant women. As a result it was banned. So who could image that such a dangerous drug might have positives. As scientists continued to research the drug they discovered a number of important benefits.

That is the problem of technology - what is bad in one context can be good in other, what is useful to some becomes a harm if too many engage in the same practice.

Technologies can be at multiple places in this 3D box simultaneously - we need to think of choices something like a Rubik's cube. .

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mapping the literature landscape

It is worthwhile making a point about my mental starting point when it comes to this topic of connecting theology with technology (I am really going to have to come up with a better word and technium isn't it).

As I read the literature on technology it seems to me that there is an interesting feature that comes across if we show it.

Most of the theological discussion of technology derives its material from the broad field of sociology (Ellul and also philosophy - probably in part becase these three disciplines share some commonalities in their worldviews.

We can then add the work done by the engineering profession which I am not familiar with but what I have read comes across as a bit of an orphan field. However, Mitcham does a good job of surveying this literature. And to this literature we can also add the growing body of writing by people who create technology and want to have their say on the experience of creating something they hope is useful to somebody. In my first blog I noted two blogs I like - Rosie's prime inspiration is from this practioner eperience.

Lastly there is a collection of academic studies that group around two themes and which have developed almost in opposition to each but which have the greatest attention to the nature of technology. The first is Science and Technology Studies - which is focussed on the connections between society and technology. Although a sub-field of sociology because of its own course of development it warrants its own category. It has had a particular emphasis on the idea that technology is an expression of the societial context in which it is developed - giving rise to the expression the social construction of technology. This is not my native academic field but I have been doing a lot of reading in it lately primarily as part of a project on the the role of health charities in the science system.

Recently an excellent collection of papers on STS were published but it made this rather interesting comment on the backcover: It will be an essential resource for scholars in S&TS as well as for those in such neighboring disciplines as anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, law, political science, feminist and critical theory, and literary studies. Dave Stearn's tech.soul.culture blog is facilitated by his STS training.
What I find very curious about this comment is the fields of science policy, economics of technology and the management of technology are not mentioned as being relevant to STS. This broadly is where I come from, spending 10 years in science and technology analysis and policy positions in government and following that years in university environments. The primary questions behind these fields (addressing it with different emphases)  are: how do new technologies come into being (from a technical perspective), where (geographically) does it arise, how can it be encouraged and in the corporate environment what are the conditions under which technology activities can be profitable? On the diagram I have labelled all this as Neo-Schumpeterian - because Schumpeter is seen as the modern economist with the most understanding of technology - but probably more accurately is derived from Chris Freeman and Keith Pavitt (google these guys sometime). It is a pity that STS and the Neo-Schumpeterian researchers are not more familiar with each others' work - it would make for a more informed discussion.

This list does  not include the many sub-fields relevant to the topic as perhaps most disciplines have have specialisation that deals with technology as it is relevant to them - but this list is probably the main ones. If you want to read article from many of these perspectives in the one place I recommend the Canbridge Journal of Economics - what special about technology issue

Each of these many fields has something valid to offer - but much of the Christian critique of technology derives from the fields on the right hand side of the image which emerged and became entrenched before the writings on the left hand side even existed (Neo-Schumpeterian literature first got moving in the 1970s). The transforming vision is to include more of the left hand side in discussions of theologia and technologia.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Read me first

Welcome to this new blog which tries to add to the growing conversation that aims at reinvigorating the understanding of technology from a Christian perspective.

So to some definitions…

The English suffix – ology - as in technology and theology simply for our purposes here refers to the study of a particular subject.

The English term theology is derived from the theologia (θεολογια) was originally was used with the meaning "discourse on god". Today it has multiple technical meanings but within the Christian tradition I think these can be thought of as the study of the teachings and history of the Biblical texts.

The English term Technology derives from Techne which, with the ology part, means the study of arts skills and crafts. Today and often mention comment and complaint is that technology has come to mean not the study of techne but techne itself – as in biotechnology.

 I will come back to definitions of technology and the ology of techne in a future blogs.

The transforming vision part of the title has a double meaning.

1.      In the first meaning – it is a hope that this blog is another voice towards reforming the Christian understanding of technology; and

2. The voice I want to add is one that recognises that ‘transformation’ – the creation of new things is part of human DNA. The impulse to create is surely part of image of God (as broken as it may be). From language (which technically probably cannot be classified as technology) through to flint axes, fire and the technologies of first peoples (for example the boomerang in Australia and bentwood cedar boxes in British Columbia through to the cultivation of wheat. Humans where technological long before the wheel, writing and smelting and those technologies are thousands of years old.

Although, I am bit of a latecomer to this particular dimension of the consideration of technology, I have spent more than 20 years researching and working within the fields of innovation studies and science, technology and innovation policy.


 You can read my other blogs:

I can recommend the blogs of 2 others that I have met working on this topic:

Both are great bloggers and probably a bit more frequent than myself. My goal is to add one solid think piece per month.

I hope you will come back and visit.