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.

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