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.