Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jedi Knights and Christmas

Over the years, there have been any number of analyses of the Star Wars universe and its philosophical and religious heritages. My concern in this blog is not these deep issues. For this Christmas there is a different concern. In my recent blog on Huxley and Brave New World I wrote that Huxley wrote his future with Christianity dead and buried. Back in the 1980s Oz Guinness (a Christian apologist and analyst) wrote the Grave Digger File which contained a number of observations about how the culture of that period in time was shaping Christianity. Many of those sociological characteristics were related to technological change (TV evangelists, drive through churches etc).

The “gravedigger thesis” (which gave the book its original title) is the notion that the Christian faith is the single strongest contributor to the rise of the modern world, yet the church has fallen captive to the modern world it helped to create. So as the church accommodates to the world uncritically, it becomes its own gravedigger. There are parallel versions of the same idea in Cotton Mather as well as Karl Marx. For Mather, early Puritanism created prosperity, only for prosperity to undermine Puritanism. I would argue that only such a wide-ranging analysis does justice to the full raft of problems we are facing today. Without taking such cultural analysis into account, other proposed remedies will always fall short of our hopes and prayers. 

I thought at the time I read this book his reading of the times was rather profound. And though I don't agree with everything his says but he is a voice worth hearing. His telling point I think is one he has been bashing on about for more than twenty years. The following quote from the same interview linked above refers to a newer book he was promoting in 2010 that took up the gravedigger thesis again.

The chief challenge for the church in our time could be summarized in three words: integrity, credibility, and civility. This book is about the first, and our need to recover a faith that can prevail with the integrity and effectiveness in the advanced modern era. Everyone mentions rightly that the church is exploding in the Global South, while failing badly in Europe and faltering in the US. But the church in the Global South is largely pre-modern, and the major reason for the weakness of the church in the West is captivity to the spirit and systems of the modern world. Put differently, much of the church in the West is in a profound Babylonian captivity. It has become deeply worldly, like the European church before the Reformation. (ibid).

The point that generally in pre- (advanced) technological societies Christianity is thriving but collapsing in the advanced technological societies is a critical issue. So as I write this and think about how to connect young people to a faith that is 2000 years old, ringing through my ears comes the voice of Hans Solo.

Han Solo: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Luke Skywalker: You don't believe in the Force, do you?

Han Solo: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe there's one all-powerful force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.

In the same movie Darth Vader is challenged with the same question.

Is Christianity in danger of becoming a hokey religion in a technological age? How do we communicate a grander story - the story even.

In a discussion group where I first opened my thinking on this topic, Jason Carroll made these points 

  • It used to be that it was enough to function in the world if one could simply read and write, and maybe a little math. Not so now, we need data processing skills, much higher levels of thinking processes and the ability to integrate and assimilate information quickly.
  • In a sense, ancient texts require a totally different kind of "literacy". The ancient texts are about story, poetry, allegory and so on, and our children (not to mentions reams of adults who are catching up with the technology) are not "literate" in a way that helps them engage with the text. They are technologically literate but not epistemologically literate; they only know how to gather, process and disseminate information, and they don't know how to draw truth from text because no one has taught them that truth can come from a text, and even if they did, no one has taught them how. 
  • Since the invention of the printing press we have engaged the text as a written text rather than an oral one. Prior to that, with low literacy rates and limited access to written materials, believers engaged the text orally and communally in the setting of worship. 
The reformation in Europe was simultaneously a renewal movement that restored a more Biblical Christianity but intertwined within that it adopted the latest technologies available - the printing press - combining it with a theological innovation, that believers should read the text for themselves in their own native languages (and not hear it in a foreign one (Latin).

Clearly, then there are multiple factors at play. 1. As people gain knowledge about their world and power technologically they feel more in control, more independent and thus less dependent on a God. 2. Access and use of technologies changes how we think - more and more things become utilitarian. Questions of life become centred on whether it is valuable or useful not. Less survival more choice. A sense of background ethics or principles get in the way of necessary decisions. Consumerism fits in here, we don't see a problem with all the stuff we buy. 3. We instill in our lives a sense that we are where we are because of our work and eliminate from our lives a sense of grace and mercy - but for some chance, we would have been born poor in India  or Brazil or Africa. 4. We have no long view - how do we live with a small footprint? 

How not to be a hokey religion?

Shrinking back from a Christianity that engages with the world and scientific knowledge leads to a god of the gaps - a god which inevitably shrinks -Bonhoeffer, in a letter that he wrote in 1944: wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.^[3]

So retreating from science or from a technological society is not useful, as we have seen in recent history but but as Guinness warns simply embracing technology it on its terms is wrong and will lead us astray. The quest is to embrace it and subvert it. For me our thinking of technology must come under Romans 12.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

There is a need to test technology by the standards of Christianity - does it do good or put differently: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matt 25:35-36)

I am challenged by the idea Paul presents in Colossians (NIV).
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Dwell on that...
 reconcile to himself all things ... things created and things technological, what is it to redeem, to reconcile technology to Jesus?

But how, how do we begin this conversation? How do we promote a literacy in Churches of the text we have of narrative, of poetry, of theology? Do we need to change the form that Church takes? Less lecture more hacker space where we take a passage and pull it apart and learn how to apply it to our lives? How do we begin to bridge the gap between text literacy and media/technological literacy - within a Christian context? Relying on a single Pastor or even a team if your Church is rich enough I don't think has the muscle. We need leading because history shows that quickly enough groups wander off in all directions but Pastors are increasing too separate from the world their congregations inhabit.

Friday, November 22, 2013

In memory of C.S Lewis and Aldous Huxley 22 Nov 1963

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (they died the same day as John F. Kennedy) it seemed apt to ask what we understand of their views of technology and Christianity.

A bunch of resources are useful for thinking about these two men.

CBC on Lewis 1:
CBC on Lewis 2:

BBC on Brave New World

I have never seen or heard these two books compared with one another but as I read Brave New World I could not help but see the Abolition of Man in it.

C.S. Lewis

Some context for the life of Lewis and Tolkien is important. Both served in World War 1 and that conflict with nerve gas and trench warfare would be enough to turn anybody against technology and build a desire for the peace of a rural setting Oxford library..

There are many insights into man and technology sprinkled across Lewis' work but perhaps the best source is The Abolition of Man. The book is a work of non-fiction matters in the context of the current blog and was written in response to a school book that Lewis calls the "The Green Book'.

Chapter 3 is called the Abolition of Man and includes the following text.

Man's conquest of Nature' is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science. `Man has Nature whacked,' said someone to a friend of mine not long ago. In their context the words had a certain tragic beauty, for the speaker was dying of tuberculosis. `No matter' he said, `I know I'm one of the casualties. Of course there are casualties on the winning as well as on the losing side. But that doesn't alter the fact that it is winning.' I have chosen this story as my point of departure in order to make it clear that I do not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as `Man's conquest', much less all the real devotion and self-sacrifice that has gone to make it possible. But having done so I must proceed to analyse this conception a little more closely. In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man's power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science has given them, But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called `Man's power over Nature' must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man's power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes—the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct—the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future.

The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the hundredth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man's side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well aas stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man's conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Humannature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant "a bastard nursed in a bureau", and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women,1 and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry2—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

I understand the concepts of power and direction as Lewis writes of them. Each age by choosing a direction cuts off possible futures from successive generations. That is simply true. However, Lewis give this great gravitas but I am uncertain about it because every choice does this. The choice to develop planes empowers some and puts some in a weaker position relative to those that have built and fly the planes. But not building the planes does exactly the same thing. One group has a certain type of power, it is just potentially a different group and power they have is different.

The choice not to use contraceptives creates one world, the choice to use them creates a different world. But they power have trajectories, they both have impacts.

Auldous Huxley

Huxley was a descendant of a line of famous scientists and atheists. His best know work is Brave New World. I decided to start reading BNW again with this blog and the anniversary in view. I read the book like many people across the world in early high school  somewhere around 33 years ago. Obviously what sticks in the memory over that time is some sense that it involved genetic engineering, which reading it again fills the the early chapters. But other than that I could remember nothing.

In contrast to The Abolition of Man this a work of fiction and therefore it is character driven and not necessarily reflective of Huxley's views. Or at least a work of fiction allows and author to play with the complexities of realities rather be offering a 'position'.

For those that similarly don't remember the plot. The one world state now controls the economy, population and takes responsibility for the birth rate through it 'Hatcheries' where children without parents are breed and brought up. There are five types of humans all breed for particular levels of jobs. Monogamist relationships are frowned up as potentially unstable. Nothing is really owned or wanted for. Finally, the taking of drugs (Soma) is essentially essential. The calendar was restarted after a particularly bad war at the date that the first Model T Ford emerged and with it mass production and consumption. The ideologies of Ford, Freud and to a lesser extent Marxism prevail.

What struck me in the reading was the emphasis of the names on socialists (Marx, Lenin etc)) and the economics of mass consumption. There are powerful echoes of 21st century lifestyle. Chapter 3 provides a number of the State's aphorisms:

  • ending is better than mending
  • I love new clothes
  • etc
In general Christianity is largely treated as an ancient forgotten religion which has been done away with but here and there are interesting quotes (p52 in my verison):

"there was a thing, as I've said before, called Christianity. ... The ethics and philosophy of under-consumption ... So essential when there was under-production, but in an age of machines and the fixation of nitrogen - positively a crime against society. ... All crosses had their tops cut and became T's." [a reference to Model Ts]

Churches have been replaced with community sings - an echo the recent developments in England of having atheist churches encouraged by some writings of Alain de Botton.


There are many echoes of our current times although obviously the book does not map onto the future. there is enough to make you think.

The BBC radio documentary linked above has a fascinating discussion of the degree to which the book is somewhat utopian of Huxley rather that the dystopia that we naturally read in. Huxley seems both attracted to and repulsed by total State control. But whatever mixed intentions Huxley had in mind we read from the technological vantage point that quickly gaining on 100 years hence.  

A future without courage

What is perhaps most striking to me an utterly surprising is the similarity of vision. Both works write of a future when conditioning has removed courage from men and women.

Lewis: And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Lewis: But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

Huxley's book is essentially a book about the man moulders and the scientific technique. Of Soma bliss rather than facing the tedium of work, of people like Bernard Marx who know the lies but has no courage to stand against them.

As we develop ever more technological helps how do we encourage Christian virtues in the knowledge that they ARE difficult?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and Robotics

The ideas behind this particular blog are still a tumbled jumbled mess, I don't have the categories yet to think on this topic. What even to call this blog Dawn of the Robots, Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Robot Ethics, 3 Laws of Robotics. But I hope the title and its juxtaposition captures the problem.

Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

On this last Sunday our Pastor was preaching on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it was a good sermon. You can listen for yourself here. The main point is that the Knowledge of Good and Evil is all about independence - independence enough for moral reasoning and independence from God. But listening I began to thinking about stories that have been running through the media lately on recent hopes for drone technology. 

The ethics and issues surrounding the use of drones in warfare is getting serious and Amnesty International is campaigning around the ethics of drones.

Firstly, existing large aircraft such as the F-16 can now be retrofitted as drones. This changes the game in terms of payload, distance and speed. Secondly, and more seriously, the U.S. (mainly) wants to develop technology for fully automated warfare. Lethal Autonomous Robots are still someway off, but maybe not too far. Currently the trigger is in the hands of a human, but soon it  may not be. Now this won't be close to what we may call High AI, this will beLow AI driven by recognition software and decision rules algorithms that though complex are still too simple for moral reasoning. There is the usual arguments about why this is good, obviously it is particularly good for the technology industries building these things, but for me any argument that they are good is spurious on a single point - the decision to take a life as bad as that is should cost another human something.

Peter Nowak's book Sex, Bombs and Burgers argues the rather commonsensical notion that war, food and porn drives much modern technology. And so it seems to be true here. But, that our first real attempts at AI should break the suggested 1st Law of Robotics (ie A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm) and with the history of science fiction exploring unintended consequences of machines that are too literal such as 2001 or gone a muck - The Matrix; these developments are particularly galling.

Drone warfare is happening way too fast and without enough of the public becoming engaged in the changes. Do we really want to give up moral decisions to robots. Having made our own bad decision back in the garden with our own creations we aren't going to 'let them decide'. Well actually this isn't exactly true, instead we are going to make them our killers. Even now the operators of Drones even at a distance still suffer from war illnesses which should be no surprise. 

Robot ethics in general

There is a nuanced discussion of Robot ethics and legal status here
As a Christian it didn't come close to discussing all the issues that robot ethics raise (to be fair it is only an hour long) but my mind kept racing ahead yes but yes but..... back in Genesis yada yada yada. But the academic engineer, who I must admit I have some sympathy for kepts arguing for robots to replace humans in dangerous, dull and dirty jobs (DDD) - but who is making that moral judgement academics who prefer to think than do and companies that want to save a buck because the 3Ds have typically been relatively well paid jobs. How many of the people doing those jobs have been asked what they think of their job.

Noreen Herzfeld maybe right that high AI is someway off, but I am thinking that Christians need to start having urgent discussions about the 21 Century. She seems to be definitely correct that AI is a response to Cosmic Loneliness.

I have been seriously blogging on technology and Christian faith for a little over a year now and I want to say that the more I explore the topic the more it grows and the more I am bewildered by the change we are rushing into. Not frightened, because I God still holds the future but alarmed by how deaf Christians are to the change. In 2011 Laity Lodge in Texas held a conference on technology and Christianity (read Dave Stearns blog on it) - I didn't go but I have listened to the MP3s. Then last year 2012 Seattle Pacific University ran a conference on the Digital Society most run by IT practioners. You can probably still download audio of this event from Itunes U. I was at the this second event and thought it was great, but a year on as I look back I am profoundly struck by how preliminary these discussions were. It was like attending a Christian conference on Sci Fi, the topic was fun and interesting but there seemed an otherness, an unrealness.

I am not a luddite, I am not Ellulian, I am not a Borgmannite, as should be clear from summer series this year that perhaps technology should be seen as Go'd idea all along. Mostly, the implementation of modern technology is some really excellent stuff, some mixed messy stuff (see VanderLeest's Joe Lost his Job ) but there is also room to say some technologies are bads.

Mostly as Oz Guinness would say I want Christian to think. In case Christians haven't noticed yet TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE is here and it ain't going away. What even are the questions what are topics for discussion how do we engage the minds of the digital natives on Faith and 21 Century. Its real and its real important.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Writing on Christianity and Technology Fears

During the summer Virginia Heffernan an ex technology writer for New York Times wrote on her blog that she was a creationist. The blog entry could have been better written but she did an interview with Q on CBC which is actually well worth listening to.

But the reaction to her announcement was rather vicious and out of proportion.

This gives voice to my own silent voice. Does blogging on Christianity and technology in a serious way, thus revealing that I am a Christian jeopardize my ability to get contract consulting work?

Although the study of technology in society today is a growing field of inquiry and there are many of academics who are Christians. Indeed, there are many who are interested in technology of many faiths nevertheless is it a risk?

Given the current perceptions of Christians do non-Christians get that I can take science seriously and still be a Christian?

A whole bunch of questions there, but I will continue.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Creation and technology ... so what

I can't help feeling that somebody from a non-Christian background who stumbles across this page may dismiss it as arguing over the number of angels on a pinhead. But as we have seen in recent years, the absence of discussions of morality in economics has led us into massive greed which is not healthy for the system. Various newly formed economics institutes are looking to theology for help. So it is with 'technology', the discussions of ethics and morality and who we are as beings is of critical importance. In the 2 recent related blogs 1 and 2 I have begun to develop the thesis that technology starts before human kind.

Technology, the fall and pre / post industrial age

For many Christian writers technology is synonymous with the fallen character of humanity. The theology concept that we have and continue to rebel against God.

I don't pretend to know much about Ellul, and his views are quite complex, as becomes clear from this recent post on a new book about Ellul. However, Schuurman in a journal article Forming a Christian View of Computer Technology has this comment.

.Jacques Ellul describes the state of creation as follows: No cultivation was necessary, no care to add, no grafting, no labour, no anxiety. Creation spontaneously gave what man needed. (Ellul, 1984, p. 126). He questions how in a “world where there was no necessity” what possible purpose there
would be for technique (technology). In conclusion, Ellul says: Thus, no matter what attitude one takes toward technique, it can only be perceived as a phenomena of the fall; it has nothing to do with the order of creation; it by no means results from the vocation of Adam desired by God. It is necessarily of the situation of the fallen Adam. (Ellul, 1984, p. 135).

Though not a Christian, I'll add him to mix here because he has been very influential in Christian circles. His view was that there is a difference between natural technologies and industrial technologies. In other words there was a technological 'fall' with the coming of the industrial age.

C.S. Lewis Chapter 3, The Abolition of Man.
In preparing a C S Lewis blog for November I went back and re-read chunks of the Abolition of Man.
Lewis, makes a very interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive point. In summary what he states is that technological progress tends to close down options rather than open them up. It is very insightful point, which needs to be parsed more closely than I want to here. 

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man's power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

In essence, each development of technology diminishes the future freedoms. This is an important and rather complex point. It doesn't close all freedoms obviously but 'progress' does have an essence, a 'direction'. Academics who study technology have identified an economic an social phenomena that is not unrelated which they call technological trajectories. There are particular practical use momentums behind the use of certain technologies, although we increasingly find that these are not as predictable as we once thought. Indeed parts of the ethnography discipline is gradually moving from its old haunting grounds of race, gender etc to the study of the interactions between people and technology.

But this is where it gets interesting. The created world also has these structures. The speed of technological development in electronics is faster because it is simply an easier science than mechanical engineering. Thus we have supercomputers in our pockets and cars that have improved little in fifty years. So this idea of progress directionalities and limits was one of the germinating seeds for this current blog series - creation does the same thing. Creation pushes us, directs us and limits us in what we can do and what we can't do.

Jared Diamond in his book Guns Germs and Steel makes a very powerful case for placeness of pre-history developments. The Australian Aboriginals had few resources. No domesticable crops and no domesticable animals. There were few places in Australia where the resources were rich enough to created settled communities, thus they were nomads becoming well adapted to their environment. My adopted homeland Canada has many places where there were settlements or close to it. In BC with the rich Salmon resource and towering cedars there were permanent villages. Creation acts upon humans in the same way as our own technologies.

From the Garden to the City

In Dyer's book, of that title, John does an excellent job of telling the Biblical story with the obvious but overlooked conclusion - the story starts in a garden (God's creation) and finishes with a  city and a garden (God and Man together). I keep referring to this book so I should write a review of it. John also makes the point that Human were created to be creative.

Schuurman in his recent book compliments this view with the idea that natural laws allow us to make technology. (see my book review here). Schuurman also discusses the idea of creation having a direction - from creation through fall to redemption. A good point but he uses direction differently to how I am using it here.

But I find both of these as good as they are still start at year 0 as it were - with man and I want to push the date back.

Technology as God's idea

In the 2 most recent blogs I have been building a case that creation embodies technologies. The statement that technology is post fall phenomenon has a number of assumptions. 2 of them are.

1. The new desires were created after the fall.

We need to separate needs from desires. C.S Lewis in the Screwtape Letters makes the point over and over again that evil has never created a genuine desire just corrupted created ones. I haven't ever seen this contradicted so I will take it to be valid. Therefore even if our circumstances changed after the fall, the basic palette of desires remained the same. Feeding ourselves became more difficult but the desire for food is real. So the desire to make and create, to learn are all natural and good.

2. That technology is all about needs, it isn't

The Ellul commentary quoted earlier states: how in a “world where there was no necessity” what possible purpose there would be for technique (technology). 

This is a rather strange point actually because lots of technology were first created before they had a use. Throughout human history we have invented as a process of learning and exploring the world we are in. Why are scientists currently trying to build an eye, because it is there. Of course there are commercial potentialities but the first reason is; it is there.

Then there is this example which I love. There is a growing movement with the rise of funky new technologies called Maker Fairs. These are basically events for hobbyists / part time professionals to build stuff and display it. In Vancouver we have a group of engineers trying to build a mechanical snake. Talking with them was really interesting. Their device has wheels not little feet but because it can only slither sideways and not up and down, on sand it basically digs itself into a hole. Snakes need to (and here I'm putting it into concepts that may be wrong but I understand) lift to ride like a speed boat. Now I am sure a scientist may do an anatomic study and find some of that out but there is nothing like trying to build a model to really find out whether you understand.

Lets put it slightly differently. What is the difference between an undergraduate degree and a PhD.
Undergraduate, (unless it is engineering) in many cases prepares you to learn more. Even in medicine these days, you do an undergraduate degree, then you do medicine and then you are ready to specialise.

In doing a PhD you are meant to transition from someone learning how to do something to someone who can do it for themselves - can think up a practical problem, work out how to tackle it, tackle it and then interpret the results (that is the scientific method).

Interestingly there has been for most of human history two forces one to study reality and one to just believe in received wisdom.

The human body

In the 2nd Century AD Galen a physician to gladiators took the time and effort to do real anatomy (except his dissections were not of humans). A big plus for Galen was he took the time actually look at bodies and not believe in philosophers. However, his drawings though wrong largely lasted till the 16th Century as the basis of medicine and anatomy. Finally, there came a new thirst for actual study and experimentation. Andreas Vesalius replicated Galen's drawing for drawing fixing all the previous errors. 
So because there was no inclination to study reality but rather rely on the greatness of received wisdom it did not advance much beforee Galen and it did not advance much after him for well over 1000 years.

You could say, well without the fall into sin there would be no need, true. but do you think we would not have been interested in what God had created.


People were mucking about with electricity decades before there was any use. It was only when they realised it had magnetic field properties that they could use it for something. How did we learn about electricity. Lighting was an interesting phenomena but impractical to study, but there were animals such as the torpedo fish which had it in abundance. We discovered how to generate and store electricity by looking to nature itself. Therefore, the created world always had the potential to teach us about electricity, would we have not been interested in trying to learn and replicate it?

I could go on....
If there were no birds how strong would our desire be to fly.
If the night sky was black would we dream of space travel (Douglas Adams does a fabulous job of this in his story of the Planet Krikkit.
If ..

Here is a contemporary example.

CO2 problems

We currently face an over capacity in the production of CO2 - in other words we are producing way more carbon dioxide that we should to keep the system in relative balance. Where do scientist look for answers - the natural world. Now like all early development science you should read the following press release with a lot of skepticism, the gap between knowing and doing in the science-technological world is large and time lines are usually much longer than are wished by the proponents.

However, I hope you get the point.

A creation centred perspective on technology

The Bible is not a scientific textbook, it is about a relationship between us and God. We need to be clear about the theological versus the scientific world. Both exist simultaneously. I don't have faith that is diminished or challenged by science because my I don't start with pre-suppositions about what the Bible tells me about the way the world is made. Many Christians have got in a tangle over theology and science, most famously the Catholic Church and its involvement with Galileo (I just finished Galileo's Daughter - great book). The Bible has not revealed all the stories nor the fulness of the kingdom of God. It has revealed the important stuff for us to know about God as a being as a 'person' that wants to relate to us. But even here the Bible hints at the wealth of creation (read Ps 104). Just as we are still mining the depths of scripture - for each new age new answers, while the overall story stays the same. So then can we be taught from creation about better values for our technologies.

  • A slow technology movement .... be in less rush to develop technologies with particularly long lived consequences;
  • Don't invent materials we can't decompose (plastics for example with their current chemistry would have been disallowed under this rule); and 
  • etc.....

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: Shaping A Digital World: Faith Culture and Computer Technology

In full disclosure IVP offered me a free paperback copy of this book on the condition of reviewing it on this blog.

Schuurman, Derek, C. (2013) Shaping A Digital World: Faith Culture and Computer Technology. IVP, Madison.

This is an easy to read book that leans slightly to the scholarly side in that it provides full referencing which enhanced its value for me. It is a short, modern introduction for readers interested in the intersection of Christian faith and our technological world. In this book review I don't want to give away the punch lines by getting into a discussion of the arguments, but I do want to give a sense of the content.

The introduction is thoughtful and I particularly liked the fact that Schuurman did not jump straight into computer technology, albeit briefly addressing the concept that we live in a multifaceted technological world. I want to emphasise this as it was critical for my liking this book. Too often Christian writings on technology pick on the latest 'whatever' and critique it. Meanwhile they still use roads, electricity, and sewage systems, all of which are technological. We need to see how enmeshed we are and Schuurman at least acknowledges this from the outset. Chapter 1 opens with a nice turn of phrase - what does Silicon Valley have to do with Jerusalem. It continues with a discussion of technology and then moves into the requisite point that technology is not neutral. His treatment of this elegant and straightforward.

Chapter 2 introduces an obvious point that is so obvious it may not have been introduced by those emphasising the negative side of technology (Postman, Ellul and Borgmann as examples); the rules of this world allows certains technologies to be built - and unstated by the book disallows others.  In this chapter Schuurman introduces us to a number of 'Reformed' writers such as Wolters. While I appreciated the light touch, not using these writers too much there were a number of points that I thought were obvious jumping off points for deeper discussions. Nevertheless on the whole I preferred this approach over others.

Reformed writers on economics have over the years left a bad taste in my mouth as they start with a set of assumptions about the proper workings of economies (individualism, property rights etc), then work backwards to use the Bible to justify their views. I had been a bit nervous on this very point to accept the offer of a book for writing a review. The book's website at IVP states In this thoughtful and timely book, Derek Schuurman provides a brief theology of technology, rooted in the Reformed tradition and oriented around the grand themes of creation, fall, redemption and new creation. He combines a concise, accessible style with penetrating cultural and theological analysis. However, the book didn't go down the path I was personally shy about. Schuurman is cautious, Biblical in a broad sense and uses the Reformed tradition in a thoughtful worldview shaping framework in which to discuss the important issues. 

Chapter 3 is a discussion of the fall and technology. It is short to the point and hits all the major topics and concepts and Bible readings that would be expected without belabouring the point. It does not enter into discussing how a number of Christian writings have dismissed technology as owing to the fall.

Chapter 4 is really the meat of the book. There is a return to reformed writers, particular Wolters who provides a very interesting framework on which to build. At this point I will admit I have owned a copy of Creation Regained for more than 20 years and if I have read it in that time I can't remember doing so and my thumbings have obviously left little impression on me. However, the light Schuurman shed on Wolter's book has given me the enthusiasm to take it off the shelf and start reading it. With the mental focus on technology it too is a good read. While Schuurman's chapter covers the ground giving short pieces of thinking for the components of Wolter's worldview I did think this section of the book was a bit of a let down.

First, the sub-title of the book is Faith, Culture and Computer Technology, and it means it. There is only one mention of social media (I think) and one mention towards the end that digital technologies are fast moving. However, in general this is a disappointing aspect of the book. The scope of the digital world is expanding at huge rate and its implications for everything (jobs, relationships, politics, business etc)  are very important. But these issues hardly if at all get mentioned.

Secondly, in discussing the judicial, ethical, economic etc 'norms' component of the framework I was bit disappointed again. There was a lack of nuance and of an opening up of the bigger questions. For example in  'judicial norms' there is a rather dry discussion of IP laws which doesn't go into the current juicy problems and debates or even alluding to them. These are human frameworks that change, they are malleable and they favour certain groups over others. That these concepts truly are norms in the sense that there are big grey zones that are up for debate could be acknowledged.

However, in someways these are minor quibbles. The chapter may feel a bit dated somehow, but it does what it sets out to do, it provides a framework for how to think about digital world issues in multiple categories and the reader can be left to realise that many topics cut across a number of them simultaneously.

Chapter 5 is a short treatment of the future and chapter 6 provides some very brief concluding thoughts.

My best advice is read the preface first. In there Derek states he is a user not a developer of philosophy and theology and that this book only sketches the outline of a Christian perspective on computer technology and if the reader keeps that in mind, the reader's time and effort is rewarded.

The book is easy to read but not simplistic. It can be read in one or two long sittings and it is rewarding. The framework developed is not overused but the sketch leads the reader into thinking more deeply. It has shortcomings but it has some illuminating ah ha moments as well. I will acknowledge here that my recent blog series on creation and technology owes something to this book. Some of the ideas here were the new jigsaw puzzle pieces I needed for me to enhance my own sketchings of a perspective for Christians on technology.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Creation technology values?

Before I start, I want to say that my previous post should not be over interpreted. I think the created world needs to be shown more respect than we currently do. Just because we may be able to understand it as being constructed of technologies does not mean we treat it as disposable. As this post begins to suggest maybe quite the reverse. Anyway, I also just want to say, I love being out in the bush as Aussies like to say. Breath taking majesty and beauty, enough to bring tears, should not blind us to the place of creation in our own technological story. Creation has given a particular direction to our technological developments.

Technology and Values

The assertion that all technology has values needs little support but maybe some clarification. It is an almost universally agreed assumption of the philosophy of technology that technology has values. By values here we are meaning embedded assumptions, meanings etc. Clocks for example give a distinct value and meaning to a particular understanding of time.

Take these quotes from Schuurman (2013: ), as an example only because it is the latest thing I am reading.
"Neil Postman explains the non-neutrality of technology as follows ' embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly over another'. Postman goes on. 'new technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts dvelop' ".

As Schuurman continues he points out Marshall McLuhan went even further with his claim that the technology not the content of the technology is the message.

Postman's analysis was itself non-neutral while the direction of the statements are largely beyond dispute, Postman was writing from a disposition of being largely negative and pessimistic regarding modern technology.

It is worthwhile to note here, as Schuurman does along with other writers, that the 'values' of technology are not always easy to discern and the rationale for developing the technology is not always in line with the values that emerge with the use of the technology.

Creation values

How, without taking the step of understanding the technologicalness of the natural world we have not quite understood our own technological history appropriately. If creation (the natural world) is technological, then logically we can analyse it using some of the same philosophical tools we apply to our own creations. This is a continuation of a blog series started here. I will repeat briefly that I can accept both creation and evolution as the process of that creation.

The created world has biases, particular constructions etc. It facilitates certain activities and hinders others. Our world does not allow us to float unaided for example.

What values can we see embedded in the technology itself:
  • massive heterogeneity - multiple ways for achieving the same ends (seemingly)
  • at times incredible complexity
  • at times elegant simplicity
  • virtually no waste - reuse, reduce, recycle
  • scales across the micro to the planet wide
  • creation is non-neutral it has a purpose it has values, it has meaning.
Now my imagination is a bit limited others can probably extend this list. With what values does the creator imbue the creation. Here it matters whether you broadly accept evolution or something quicker.

If evolution.
  • If this world took billions of years - then your understanding of Yahweh is one which emphasises exuberance and joy in the process for creating. Why not wait millions of year to watch your designs change if time has a different meaning.
  • Not all 'imperfections need be due to fall, creation being good does not have to mean 'perfect'
    un-improveable as we understand that concept.
If quick creation.
  • This is a God in a hurray, its all perfect from the beginning no change no history, far less joy in the actual act of creating. The point is the end, lets get this messy in between period over quickly. 
  • All imperfections as we currently see them are due to our sin and the fall.
If we are image bearers and we enjoy our small creations so much, why can't we allow God the same privilege.

Wolters in ‘Creation Regained’ suggests that creation has a ‘structure’ and ‘direction’. As I understand him he uses structure to distinguish moral responsibility (e.g humans have more than other creatures) and presumably as well, his structure of norms as they apply to humans (justice, economic management etc) and physical laws as they apply to all of creation. Direction is simply creation, fall and redemption. But, these words of structure and direction triggered another association in my head. Technological studies discuss structure a great deal, particularly the notion of modularity with computers. Modularity, is the idea of building different components that fit together, rather than each new device being built from scratch like cars used to be when they were first produced. DNA is quite modular and biologist are using the analogy of technological modularity in learning more about it..

Technology studies have also discussed direction a great deal although using the word 'trajectories'. The idea of trajectories is that if there is enough momentum for a particular technology then changing 'course' is very costly. It has been argued that trajectories exist at all levels from micro (the QWERTY keyboard) through to the macro (cars). There are arguments about meanings and logics of course but for QWERTY, for example, the argument is – once it established dominance it kept keyboard dominance for reasons of essentially sunk human capital costs. Petrol driven cars as another example require an entire technostructure that is different to that of electric cars. Further on, automated piloted cars offer the potential to reconfigure urban landscapes with changing parking patterns for example.

We can apply this idea to creation, it has structure and direction (or architecture and trajectories). There are ‘easy find’ technologies such as glass (heated sand) through to much harder ‘finds’ such as DNA through to the massively complex interactions. Science is the way it is because of this structure. We are still following the rabbit down the hole – ever deeper levels of structure. Ecosystem studies remains largely theoretic because it relies on interaction data and that is monumentally challenging.

Compare these views with Heidegger who made a distinction between pre and post industrial technologies or alternatively, Cassirer who appears to have a more continuous fluidity of development in mind. Each new aspect of the world revealed by the use of tools opens up a new aspect of our inner world. [Roberts p30 discussed in this blog

My problem with Heidegger’s position is that it does not reflect history terribly well. The industrial revolution as much as it is has been mythologised as occurring with a very limited time frame actually evolved over centuries. The ‘age of discovery’ (meaning western expansion) opened the way for the scientific revolution, which opened the way for the industrial revolution. Throw in the mix of Christian reformation and there is a twisted tale to tell – everything co-dependent on one another. Without people like Galileo and Newton and many many others, the technological experimenters of later times may not have emerged till much later. As for Galileo, some of his works may have never been published except for the reformation and freedoms in Holland especially.

The confusing part is that within the chaos, accidents and disorder of human discovery, nature itself is ordered and structured. We find discovery difficult because like a jigsaw without the box cover you can’t see the picture until you have enough pieces and you can’t get the pieces in order without some sort of picture of what you are doing. Sometimes (often) that picture turns out to be wrong.

Creation’s technologies have values just like human technologies and we can begin to get some tantalising glimpses of these in their architecture and trajectories.

In the third blog in this series I will focus on the link between human technologies and creation and attempt to reduce the gap between the two. Human technologies have not evolved in a vacuum they exist firstly within a set of physical rules that allow them to exist, second, they have started actually in many cases based on the natural template and third there is a social dimension where we project onto the world our technologies and the created world rebukes our immaturity. We have talked of brains as machines or railway networks and then computers but they are none of these. The reality challenges our concepts and our results. And so the process continues.

Christians have the important message that we are more than machines but I am beginning to think we as Christians need to see the machinery in creation as well as defending it as being the IP of someone else. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Is 'creation' technology?


As a Christian I obviously adhere to the Judeo-Christian belief that Yahweh is the author of creation. I am less concerned with specifying the how. Science it seem to me to be as good as anything we as humans have devised for discovering some truths but I don't believe it is the whole truth. For now, given that science as it uncovers more evidence for this theory or that theory holds to a particular time line for the evolution of plants and animals in the billions of years. This, I am happy to ascent to with the proviso that science updates its opinions every now and then.

I will say now that there is a point to the title of this blog, but it is a logic that will reveal itself across a mini-series.

So all that said, I love watching natural history programs. Everything is fair game, but my bias is towards documentaries on plants. The problem with animal shows is they kind of start with a presumption that because we are animals we know something about being an animal. Thus, they focus on animal behaviour and speculating on emotions and thinking etc. This gets a bit much at times. What I love about documentaries on plants is that focus on the biological mechanisms plants deploy to achieve this or that goal - such as laying down carbon ie growing. We could say that these mechanisms are a form of 'technology'.

I have just finished watching on a public broadcast channel here in Canada a BBC documentary called 'How to Grow A Planet'. Just brilliant with some of the most amazing photography I have ever seen.

The question for this blog is: "Is Creation Technology" 

So the key words are 'creation' and 'technology'. So no need to define creation, we can just define it as the God stuff - everything not made by humans.

Typically technology is defined as pretty much everything else - i.e. the human stuff.

Brian Arthur has THE best definition of technology I have come across.

His definition of “technology” has three components: (1) a means to fulfill a human purpose, (2) an  assemblage of practices and components and (3) a collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.  

So no luck there for turning the created order into technology. But lets play a mind game.

Put yourself in the position of Yahweh, he has a problem. He has a barren lifeless rock, but he wants it to be habitable for a species that he wants to create to be in relationship with.  How to turn barren earth without anything into an abundance of life. Interestingly, scientists and engineers are beginning to think about this exact problem, because there is the challenge of moving to live on another planet.

If you are God you need to create techniques and mechanisms to, for example, maintain a certain level of oxygen in the atmosphere that you want because it will easier to build a self sustaining system.

So lets play with the terms.

(1) a means to fulfill a human purpose,
(A) creation - a means to fulfill God's purpose {that works];

(2) an  assemblage of practices and components
(B) an assemblage of practices and components - look at how all the components of a plant or the human body are built together into one organism and those form ecosystems in particular regions which collectively form the biosphere [hey that actually works pretty well];

(3) a collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.  
(C) DNA is a pretty interesting collection of practices all to its own, and an enormous quantity of DNA is shared across animals and plants. Curiously across natural world technologies there is a collection and diversity - that is why we use the biological analogy for technological evolution so much [okay so I think that also  works]

So actually, using Arthur's definition we can usefully define creation as technology - from a particular perspective.

What we get blinded by is the sheer sophistication of plants and animals.

Photosynthesis is totally amazing. The BBC haven't posted their fabulous photography unfortunately. So look on line there are a ton of videos - not as beautiful or elegant as the recent series, but I'm sure they will reuse the footage or it will get to youtube eventually.

Anyway, photosynthesis takes sunlight to power the process of taking carbon dioxide combining it with water to lay down carbon in the plant and then oxygen is the waste product dissipating into the air.

Then there are plant animal interactions.
The interaction between the Orphium frutescens flower of South Africa and the carpenter bee is really interesting. The bee must hit the note of 'middle C' to get the flower to release its pollen. Watch it here.

Multiply this a million times for just a single ecosystem with the flows of water, nutrients, animals and plants - (ecosystems dynamics is my second passion), and the continuing inspiration for how I think about technology, economics and society. But the point is ecosystems scale from what is in your backyard to the entire planet with incredible complexity and diversity.


So have I convinced you, is creation a complex system of technologies.
In my next blog I will outline the implications of creation being technological in nature.

Friday, May 24, 2013

How Should We Then Code?

A short while ago I discovered Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? videos on the web.
I still find much of it a powerful perspective on history, even if the story telling is a little dated. But as he gets closer to our own times (1977) I think the presentation becomes a little less accurate and his last episode shows how problematic prediction is.

Curiously, in his last episode he puts forward the view that the only answer for future societies in the absence of 'the Christian consensus'.is for an elite to dictate ethics. This has obviously been shown to be wildly wrong. We don't have an elite as an arbiter of certainty. In the post modern world, we have the very opposite, a completely fragmentary view of reality and truth. But it is the role of technology in making that prediction so wrong which is of course interesting. Schaeffer and others thought that the coming technological age would enhance the power of the powerful technocrats - and in someways this is true. But what the futurists were completely blindsided by was the opposite - the fragmentation of power. Social media, the disaffection with spin etc and now a fair percentage of the population who will believe anything so long as it is opposite to the elite they don't like. Societies are it seems immensely adaptable and so it seems the conditions for collapse based on the lack of a moral consensus are not valid yet. Social media allows simultaneous fragmentation and a gluing together of societies.

And this is a point that has been said a little bit but is generally under appreciated - technological trends are somewhat predictable for a period of 10-20 years but social trends in general not just in relation to the technologies are to a much higher degree uncertain. 

But the question Schaeffer asks is an eternal one: How Should we Then Live?
Or to put a modern spin on it How Should We Then Code?

Some time ago Ethos Australia published a thought provoking article: Hold Your Nerve And Do Nothing by Steve McAlpine . Of course the point of the article is not to do nothing, but it is to do nothing less than to be the community of believers the New Testament envisions. It is a great article and one that is definitely worth reading. 

Galatians 5 states:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. .... 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

In churches we spend most of our time reading the theology of the New Testament, but as I discover some of the literature on the new testament church, I get more inspired for my own living. There is much that we can should change to be better witnesses, but probably nothing as important as being genuinely people of faith.

How shall we code, the same way we work as bankers and entrepreneurs as homemakers and artists. We need to be people of integrity, a people who care for others, a people belonging to God. Lets not get to fussed up about the future. As Schaeffer shows, the business of prediction is precarious.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Church as an organisation and the changing labour market

Over here, in another blog I write, I wrote recently of emerging patterns of work. I focused on drawing a distinction between people employed in jobs and people employed to do a task.

Jobs I defined as being for an organisation either for a specified period or indefinite and which comes with a set salary and benefits. Often they are associated with a career path. Societally, jobs are associated with high wages and health outcomes.

Tasks, on the other hand is an emerging class of work at the other end of the scale. Beyond the point of consultants that going fishing for work, at rates of pay that are survivable tasks are single discreet packages of work. Mechanical Turk is the current extreme example of outsourcing tasks at, for the most part, an extremely low rate. However, there are other platforms emerging to outsource 'tasks' and each task may be at quite low pay rates.

Now I understand that there will be a group of people this pattern may well benefit, but at the level of the economy it is problematic as a recent Economist article revealed in discussing massive global youth unemployment.

But I'll also want to repeat what I said in the other blog - it maybe that certain cities keep producing jobs with only a marginal creation of tasks activities while other cities will produce a much higher percentage of task activities. You need to be discerning about your environment.

In this blog I want to focus on the impact on churches. This is not about good or bad it is just about change at this stage.

Changing church finances. Middle class city churches in the West have generally been able to afford a middleclass lifestyle. A building, at least one Pastor and often some help and then maybe a little bit of paid administrative help. Now obviously, many Churches do better than this and some that do worse. Now for those cities or regions that trend towards a task economy it is possible that many churches will no longer afford a building or pastor.

Attitudes. Protestant churches still largely affirm the Protestant work ethic of: get a job! This may not be so possible in the near future at least for task regions. Entrepreneuring your way to an income will be tougher and more taxing.

Church demographics.   Again middleclass churches often had quite high employment levels, and good education backgrounds - not necessarily tertiary but skilled and high school completions. But if jobs begin to get harder to get we will see a growing rich poor divide in our churches between those who work hard at piece work tasks and those that are somewhat more secure.

Church leadership. I think  it is still pretty common for churches to have hierarchical leadership structures of a small leadership group (board, council or deacons) and then committees etc. As workplaces flatten their structures people have less experience and less desire to work hierarchically so we will need to flatten our church structures. After all the we have been democratising and flattening church structures since the middle ages as we became familiar with parliaments and private organisation of work.

Just a few thoughts to mull over......are you already seeing this in your church?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Heidegger and his contemporaries: their time, their views

For a long time I was interested in linking Christian faith and with an understanding of modern technology but I didn't know how to connect the dots. My world was science and technology policy and economics of new technologies and thus how technologies get used. But where did being Christian fit?

The Christian technology world seemed the complete opposite not at all connected to the 20th Century but instead, all about philosophical understandings of technology. I was unsure about the philosophies and the people behind both in terms of their belief structures and whether they were Christian. I had heard names such as Heidegger; but where they Christian or just adopted by some Christians, why were they SO important?

Then I moved to Vancouver and starting meeting absolutely great people like Rosie Perera, Wan-Phek How at Regent, Derek White from New Zealand, Dave Stearns at SPU. Then John Dyer's fabulous book came out a couple of years ago. All of these people engage with technologies in their jobs with genuine faith and struggle for combining the two. I have begun to connect the dots.

I am still a bit of the odd one out it seems, but I have a better sense of where I fit. But there is that nagging doubt that at some point I have to start reading the 'philosophers', but who were they, what was shaping their worldview? As I was taught when reading the Bible: text without context is a pretext.

So it is important to me to know something about the people before I read what they wrote. Luckily for me, it seems if you wait long enough something brilliant shows up.
Technology and modernity: Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger, Cassirer

by David Roberts in Thesis Elevenvol. 111

This is a must read.

Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger, Cassirer were all German technology philosophers we can call them situated between the two world wars. That in itself is very significant - the fervent of; military defeat, economic turmoil and re-emerging power. It is little wonder that there a desire to understand the technological age. Roberts summarises briefly the views of each of these four in turn, and though you probably won't agree with much of the viewpoints of at least Spengler and Junger there is valid insights and gems..

Spengler is summarised by Roberts:

Spengler’s summary application in Man and Technics of Nietzsche’s Will to Power to the whole of animal and human history is of the crudest kind. Starting from the premise that technology is to be grasped as ‘the tactics of living’, Spengler’s ‘Contribution to a Philosophy of Life’ amounts to the bald assertion that life itself is identical with conflict (Spengler 1940: 10). No less than economy, war or politics, technology expresses the one active, fighting, and charged life’ (1940: 11) – ‘life, indeed, in the Nietzschean sense, a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power’ (1940: 16). [p21]

But he has one point that stood out to me:

The tragedy of the West is inherent in the Faustian drive to tame and harness the energies of nature. Not only has Faustian man mechanized and devastated nature (‘we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power’; 1940: 94), he has been enslaved by his creations (‘The lord of the World is becoming the slave of the Machine, which is forcing him – forcing us all, whether we are aware of it or not – to follow its course’; 1940: 90). [p21]

I love that line ‘we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power’ - so true.

Junger, is not too different. Junger’s model of freedom and order is the army, not the social contract. The army knows neither individuals nor the mass, dismissed by Junger as the twin faces of the identity of democracy and anarchy that characterizes the Weimar Republic. [p23].

It is difficult to detect from Roberts whether Spengler and Junger wanted the militaristic style technological age or just saw it as inevitable. So lets turn to more interesting writers; Heidegger and Cassirer.

Following some very nice prose that helps to unwrap where Heidegger is coming from he gets to this point which was a rather ah ha moment for me.

In the enframed world of completed metaphysics nothing less than ‘the leap back into the source’ can restore to art its original powers of poetic revealing. Heidegger’s silent distinction in ‘The Question concerning Technology’ between poetry/poiesis and modern ‘literature’, that is, between authentic art and the ‘business of culture’, is therefore just as crucial to his argument as the explicit distinction between techne and modern technology. Modernity can be redeemed only by the original saving power of the Greek source, even though the will to will as the will to power revealed by enframing springs from the destining progressively unfolded in Western metaphysics since Plato. In ‘The Question concerning Technology’ Heidegger is asking in what way modern technology is like but also unlike art, a question which is pushed into the background if we focus solely (as reception mostly has) on Heidegger’s reading of the essence of technology as enframing. Moreover, by reducing the essence of technology to enframing Heidegger obscures his own more fundamental and original question concerning what art and technology have in common: unconcealing as a way of revealing that brings forth and makes present. I do not wish to deny the power of Heidegger’s interpretation of modern technology. Enframing is clearly an ever present danger in our technological
civilization. What I do want to argue is that the price of Heidegger’s totalizing reductionism is too high. We need to unframe Heidegger’s question because he closes rather than discloses the question of the essence of modern technology and modern art. [p29].

Lastly, lets us turn to Cassirer, somebody I had not come across before reading this article.

We need to recognize, Cassirer says, not only language as the ‘tool of the spirit’ but equally the ‘spirit of the tool’ at work in technology. The word and the tool represent the two fundamental acts of the grasping of reality, by which humans give form to the world. The giving of form is an active process: speech involves a genuine act of world-creation, tools open up the possibility of a new aspect or dimension of the world (Cassirer 2004: 8–9). Cassirer argues that the use of tools signified a break with magical practices but also continuity: ‘All ‘‘real’’ actions, if they are to succeed, need . . . a magic preparation and anticipation. A war or plundering expedition, fishing or hunting can only succeed if each phase is anticipated magically and as it were ‘‘rehearsed’’’ (p. 11). To anticipate and rehearse is to picture to oneself, to make an image, to imagine what could or should happen. (Heidegger’s distinction between the revealing ‘fore-knowledge’ of poiesis [Heidegger 1993: 319] and the objectifying world-picture of the modern subject may be read as a critique of and correction to Cassirer.) [p29-30\]

Then this rather dazzlingly brilliant point for something written in the 1930s. 

If, with Schiller, we think of art as a ‘second creator’ of humanity, then with Cassirer we must think of technology in the same fashion, not only in respect of material culture but equally in respect of the self-reflection and self-knowledge technology gives rise to. Each new aspect of the world revealed by the use of tools opens up a new aspect of our inner world. [p30]

If Cassirer offers us a modern answer, it is not one premised on a distinction between ancient and modern technology. On the contrary, the very first use of tools set in train an ongoing process of revealing as unconcealment, that is, the uncovering of what is present but hitherto concealed in the world. The nature waiting to be shaped and given form by technology is thereby revealed as essentially incomplete. From the beginning technological ‘discovery’ signifies the experimental path of formation and transformation mediated by the essential plasticity of nature. The spirit of technology therefore resides for Cassirer in its capacity to reveal the latent in nature, waiting to be actualized. [p31].

And on this point I will leave Roberts' article for you to read, which I do encourage.

But that last point by Roberts on Cassirer, that is a point I can sink my teeth into. If over twenty + years of watching technological developments there has been one overall impression it has not been how clever we as humans have been at building digital devices (sorry, my friends), no, it has been that the still emerging science and technologies that will help us over the next hundred years. We can use biological mechanisms to build houses in the desert sands of Africa, we are still finding new ways of increasing solar panel efficiencies - long after it was deemed a dead end and so on and so on. As we develop new technologies we discover new things in nature that help us build the next generation of technology. The wealth of technology in the biological world seems limitless, if we can but point our own technologies to benefit mankind and not its destruction. That is not to say other domains of nature such as physics don't come to play but it is the biological world that fascinates me.

It is always dangerous to pin yourself to a particular philosophy, but if the depiction by Roberts of Cassirer is accurate then it seems to me that as Christians there is much to explore here. Creating a worlview based on distinction between pre and post industrial revolution technologies is I believe seriously problematic. Watch any archaeological tv program and it is totally evident how technologically driven some of ancients societies were. In a recent program by Neil Oliver he described the coming of the Romans to Britain as something a kin to an invasion from outer space. Some of Britain was in the bronze age but not all of it. The Romans brought the latest technology including glass which they could use in buildings for windows thus keeping them much warmer. They had central heating for their more important buildings etc etc. 

Yes we are living in a period of rapid technological change but these have happened before.