Friday, June 29, 2012

Economics and technology: the perspective of a Christian

When I was doing economics at university and the world of Christianity was opening up for me as it does for many at that time of life, I wanted to grapple seriously with what difference it would make to be Christian in the field of economics.

I heard about SCEG, joined and stayed a member until it closed in the mid 1990s .. the Sydney Christian Economists Group (SCEG) was a fellowship of evangelical Christians concerned with understanding economic matters in the light of biblical theology and ethics.

At the time I felt slight discomfort at the term Christian but didn't really fully think that much about it.
Last week my discomfort was reignited by Matthew Clarke at the Digital Society conference who suggested we should take Karl Barth seriously on this topic and I will, but for me something else became clear last weekend.
Christian ......

What, then, is meant by such phrases as “Christian” view of the universe, “Christian” morality, “Christian” art? Where are “Christian” personalities, “Christian” families, “Christian” groups, “Christian” newspapers, “Christian” societies, endeavors, and institutions? Who gives us permission to use this adjective so profusely? Especially when we must know that to confer this adjective, in its peculiarly serious import, is withdrawn altogether from any authority we have. This, if you like, unimportant misuse of language: does it not become evil to anybody who reflects at all? Is it not just a presumption that can allude to a most general thing as though existing . . . Ought not a serious consideration of the office of the Holy Spirit to the pardoned sinner to have this small result, at least, namely: to make it more difficult in the future for such an adjective as this to drip from our lips and our pen?
—Karl Barth, The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics, trans. R. Birch Hoyle (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 37-38.

Economics and the Christian

There has been lots written, by SCEG members, a similar group in the UK which I think is still going, Donald Hay, Paul Oslington and various scholars from a Calvinist background. Regent College in 2010 hosted a conference in response to the Pope's Caritas in Veritate which though generally of a high standard curiously completely ignored the subject of technology. You can by MP3 of it here. ($35 for 10 hrs).

However, I never found this material truly convincing. At its best it would grapple principally with OT texts and try and discern their implications for today. But these texts were written for a pre-industrial agrarian society where the land was actually a very particular gift from God.

At its worst it was often work stemming from American which tried to justify American style capitalism by retrofitting it into OT texts.

None of this was satisfying, so more than ten years ago I gave up on that project entirely and moved onto think about technology.

Technology and the Christian

Then last weekend a bunch of ideas came together. The worldview of the economist is that what matters is the rules of the game... the incentive structures and the institutions etc. Thus, if we can discern the Biblical principles for economies we can wind them up and let them go.
But if we study technology the problem is much harder. Technology changes. The ethics of motor vehicle use, for example, actually changes across time as we learn more our responsibilities change. A theology of technology can be sketched, possibly, but the inking in must be done rapidly and we must be prepared to move on quickly to adjust to changing circumstances. Th eternal must stay eternal but the day to day stuff can - will change. As I suggest over herehere and here  in my other blog perhaps our view of economics is also a little outdated as well and the rules of economics maybe more mailable than is generally discussed.

Technology is created under our mandate for creativity and subject to a broad range of big ethical principles but it would be plain silly to look for the Christian rules of technology creation... perhaps it is time to do the same for economics.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The USA's FAA and unmanned aerial vehicles / systems

Not sure how many readers may have thought that The Economist article and my response were a little 'too futuristic' but last week I heard that the US Federal Aviation Administration was looking into how to integrate UAV (Umanned Aerial Vehicles) into US domestic airspace.

Go here to for more from the FAA

and here for a discussion

As I said, the Economist has done a service in alerting us to the need to pay more attention to what is going on around us.

First we need to start a conversation, thinking through the implications is much harder.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Social media and the local church - can you help

One of my roles at my church is to be a deacon, which at our church means a functional role such as finances, or maintenance or missions. My role is a bit more nebulous, my responsibility to focus on the longer term or wider issues that may not be picked up by the other deacons because they don't fit anywhere in particular.

I love the role but sometimes it throws up interesting challenges. So one of my latest tasks for example is too look into how Churches use social media. We are not a particularly tech savvy church although we have a decent website and we have a Facebook page and we are slowly moving more tech in line with general culture.

However, I have some very particular questions at the moment. Does your church have a Facebook account? If so does it use it for projecting an image of the church into the world, like shops do or is it purely locked down inhouse?

I am assuming many churches do use Facebook but then the big question is; do you have privacy measures and written policies. How do you choose which photos go up? Do people have to agree to photos?

Your help is appreciated.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Robots and the law

Last week's Economist as my previous blog indicated had a feature on robots and the law. The article only begins to touch the surface of the issue suggesting we need to be able to determine where responsibility lies when the wrong decision is made or when an accident happens.

The Economist as always is thoughtful but not expansive enough on this particular topic. What I did appreciate was that it drew attention to just how much autonomous equipment is beginning to emerge into society and we need to start thinking about the implications.

This segways beautifully into another blog post I have been thinking about. For my birthday this year I bought myself I Robot which I had never got around to reading. I have read lots of Arthur C Clarke and Assimov but not the Robot series. The biggest eye opener for me has been my reaction to the book. I last really binged on Sci Fi in the late 1990s just before I moved city to start work at a research centre and my PhD started coming together. Just as that ended I moved country and got married so it has been more than a decade since I buried myself in books by Assimov, Gibson and Stanley Robinson with his Mars series.

If you think back to the late 1990s we didn't have robots of any public kind, the internet was still just an online yellow pages and mechanical technologies had not changed much since the 1950s. Thus, Assimov's future still seemed like speculative future with the dates wrong. None of it really connected or disconnected anymore than it probably did when he wrote it.

Today that has changed. Digital technologies are now obviously developing much faster than mechanical / physical technologies which is in stark contrast to the Assimov world. He largely missed digital technologies altogether - projecting instead the world he saw; space flight and semi mechanical technologies (aka the robots). I have thus been surprised by how little I am enjoying I Robot. The world presented is based on assumptions that have diverged greatly from the real developments. It just proves how hard it is to think about the future.

In I Robot there are many kinds of robots the most profitable are produced by  U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men and all of which have positronic brains for decision making. Around us in the real world of 2012 there is an increasing variety of autonomous vehicles (Google's car most famously) and technologies of lots of shapes and sizes - mostly for military use at the moment. What this indicates is that perhaps it is time to widen our vision of what is happening in our world.

This is not to say that initiatives such as that by Seattle Pacific University which I fully support are not worthwhile. I am quite excited by: which is focused on Christianity and the digital society but readers of this blog will see that my itch is that we are at moment in time with so much happening we need multiple conversations and fora. We need to talk about this in our local churches and we need to talk about this in larger multi-country events.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Christianity and technology in your face (The Economist)

I haven't read it all yet but the idea that we are at the point were we need to start thinking seriously about the legal ramifications of robotic technology should be enough to get Christians talking about the new technological society.

Its time to start more than occasional academic chats, although that is better than nothing, its time for something more serious.