Friday, December 12, 2014

We will be restoring normality just as soon as we are sure what is normal

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have tried to write one blog per month. You will probably have noticed that over the past few months this pace as slackened.

This not because I have lost interest in the topic. Actually, it is the other way around. I have been reading and working on a rich seam of theological thought which is taking a bit of effort to work through.

Therefore until your regular program is restored may I suggest some reading and listening.

First, I have recently been listening to some podcasts by

There is great stuff there, including discussions with Edwin Judge a notable historian of 1st century culture.

I highly recommend the 3 talks by Mark Strom:

They are all good. But the open Cosmos talk is simply exceptional.

I have also be reading some writings by Brian Edgar

..... It just possible that what is accepted theology by a number of writers on technology could have large holes it....

Merry Christmas

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Twitter from a Christian perspective

A growing problem over the last 40 years or more has been the privatisation of religion. It is okay to believe just don't talk about it at work or in public - outside of family and church that is. Talking about neutral subjects like the kids etc is fine but don't be divisive. And so there was and is a growing gap between private and professional lives.

Os Guinness called it the private zoo in the gravedigger file summarised here.

“Privately engaging, socially irrelevant.”  This phrase succinctly summarizes what the Assistant Director calls “the private-zoo factor.”  It is a form of dualism that restricts religion to the personal lives of believers and prevents the Christian faith from invading “public life with integrity.” ....
 Unfortunately, many Christians—perhaps most—have come to accept this sort of dualism as normal.  Things of faith are “specialized” to their personal spiritual lives.  Faith must be left at the door, along with hats and coats, in the everyday world of work—all nicely summarized by the Assistant Director. 

Has social media made much difference - no not really.
Facebook - most people sensibly in my opinion try to separate there family life from their work life. In this data age having family and real friends and bosses / teachers etc all together in the same social media space is not a generally a good idea.

Blogging - this was an interesting development but its still non-integrative. If you blog the readers of that blog will be readers because of the topic and because you are a good writer. Its like reading a book - not reading the person.

Then along came Twitter.

Take a randomly look around the Twitterverse and there is a curious phenomena taking shape. More and more people it seems acknowledge their diverse private lives. They may follow a sports team, be a father, mother, potter or like a particular TV show. Its all there. Follow someone and you'll often see a little bit of their private and professional passions on display. Not interested ignore it.

With Twitter you follow a person an individual - their work and other interests. It may only be 140 characters and thus Twitter may seem an unlikely hero to re-unite private and public and make space for religion in the public square but I think that is actually happening to a limited degree.

Twitter has the opportunity to link the 2 worlds of 'private' and 'public'and so for Christians Twitter actually offers some very interesting creative possibilities.

However, I think that generally, Christians have been so tamed by the private zoo factor already that they do use it creatively enough. There is still too much where Twitter is is still just used as a single channel communication. Pastors tweet God stuff and other Christians just tweet work related stuff. We need to integrate our lives and reintroduce genuine faith and God stuff back into the public square. Twitter offers a rather unique vehicle to do that.

So go tweet.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Technology is not neutral: I (almost) don't care!

Essentially, anyone who knows about technology will tell you technology is not neutral. From which technologies get developed, which make it to market, which succeed and why - there are always bigger issues at stake. Technologies are affected by and in turn affect the socio-economic ecologies they exist within. Although some downplay this tech non-neutrality it is such a truism that anybody who thinks tech is a neutral tool for either good or bad uses is simply mistaken. Defining the good and bad is problem enough let alone saying the way I use it is only good. But from there it gets way more complicated.

For Christians who wish to use technology uncritically I want to shake them up but for those that use the concept of non-neutrality as some kind of talisman I want to scream 'stop it!'. Search the internet and you will find plenty of examples.

The non-neutrality comes to us largely from the philosophical schools and history of technology writings nothing wrong with that - good academic analysis. But what annoys me is that Christians often take this and keep repeating it, just to support an argument usually that in some way some technology is bad. My problem is we as Christians should understand that NOTHING, I repeat NOTHING is neutral. Sex, technology, food, building temples, not building temples, giving money not giving money, burning offerings not burning offerings, it is all non-neutral in our relationship with God.

Technology is not some special case. If you want to say technology is not neutral then go on and make a decent point. Can I say it anymore clearly.

Besides the point that what we put in our mouths has consequences for our health so we can use this example...

Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 New International Version (NIV) []
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.[aSo then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods,whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.
or another example
God ordered Solomon to build a temple and even gave him essentially all the plans and when it wasn't rebuilt after the sojourn in Babylon we get Haggai 1.
In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak,[a] the high priest: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. 
and yet, and yet as Oz Guinness points out...
 it is sobering to realize the lengths of God's iconoclasm. As the Scriptures show, God is not only against the idolizing of alien gods, God is against His own gifts when idolized. The fate of the tabernacle and the temple are both a warning ... from here 
Technology is not neutral - of course it isn't, but nothing is. It is working out what that means is where the real heavy lifting starts. It is no easy task and over what time frame do you want to consider the impacts. Take the example of the plough, adopted in Mesopotamia in the 5th Century BC. Aside from the fact that the plough was adopted in climates and bio-regions where grains were available and possible to farm (which have improved our health), researchers have found that ...
Women descended from plough-users are less likely to work outside the home, to be elected to parliament or to run businesses than their counterparts in countries at similar levels of development who happen to be descended from hoe-users. The research reinforces the ideas of Ester Boserup, an economist who argued in the 1970s that cultural norms about the economic roles of the sexes can be traced back to traditional farming practices. ... Despite a host of changes over the subsequent centuries—such as industrialisation and higher overall rates of female participation in the workforce—the economists find that variations between countries in the fraction of adult women who work outside the home can be explained rather well by the farming practices of their ancestors. This variation is huge. From the Economist in 2011.
Now that is one heck of a long lived non-neutral decision.... Do you have gender stereotypes - where do they come from?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer bonus articles: Drone pilots suffer

According to The Economist Drone Pilots suffer like other soldiers of war.

“People assume these pilots have been desensitised, like they’re playing a video game,” says Nancy Cooke, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied the cognitive effect of remote warfare. “The opposite is true.” Drone pilots experience mental-health problems at the same rate as fighter pilots deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a 2013 study by researchers for the Pentagon.

So why the mental health problems.

Whereas fighter pilots drop a bomb and fly away, drone pilots may spend weeks monitoring a village or convoy, sussing out patterns and getting to know their enemies. This odd intimacy makes the act of killing more personal, particularly as these pilots are forced to witness the fallout. Afterwards, instead of bonding with fellow servicemen at a base, drone warriors go home, where they must keep their daily exploits a secret. Unsurprisingly, the air force has trouble attracting and keeping drone pilots, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an official watchdog. In December 2013 it had only 85% of the number it needed, which puts pressure on serving pilots. Many complain of long hours (nearly 60% say they work more than 50 hours a week), long commutes, open-ended assignments and few opportunities for promotion. Some say they were trained to fly manned aircraft, but were shunted to the “chair force” with empty promises that it would be temporary. A typical air-force stint is three to four years; some drone pilots have been serving for over six.
Even the enemy can become a person when watched close enough.

Rather than the strange belief that killing is costless, and that PTSD is somehow an oddity maybe we should change our worldview to expect that it is generally psychologically a problem for humans. Being made in the image of God has implications.

Ref link.

Monday, June 23, 2014

One thing to change about church: Getting the big picture

I am increasing disconcerted by the level of 'theological' discussion of technology. Take this one on the Internet at the Many Horizons blog. I am sorry to say superficially it sounds okay but almost by simply doing a search and replace I could write a blog on why the car has made us ungodly or why modern housing or whatever you like is ungodly. But what really frustrates me is this:

The primary moral logic of the Internet and mobile technology is the confidence that human relationships can be technologically mediated for personal satisfaction without cost.

Really, that's it. The internet has many functions one of which is this one. But so often the criticism of social media, cell phones etc resorts to its destroying personal face to face relationships. As if in changing the nature of such relationships there is some presumption that this is the totality of Christian life. Curiously, with this blog mostly written, yesterday I cam across this comment quite by accident.

One illustration of technologically induced human isolation: when I go to work in the morning I often meet a neighbour and her ten year old daughter. Every day they walk side by side to the bus stop, each plugged into her own walkman, isolated from each other and the rest of the world. Such is the real world of technology. Ursula Franklin 'The Real World of Technology 1990 p51.
So pre-internet culture also promoted isolation. We are so quick to judge others on their appearance. We no nothing of the quality or intimacy of the relationship between this mother and daughter, yet because they wear their walkmans to the bus stop we are told they are isolated. We don't even know what they are listening to.

So that blog on ungodliness got me thinking, how have we impoverished the Christian life to this miniscule vision. How did we get there and how do we improve the situation?

I have been a member of a number of different churches, attending since I was a kid - spanning 3 denominations, 4 cities  and two countries. Church has many purposes, it is community, it is a time to worship our creator and redeemer and it is also a little time each week to try and wrap our heads around the Message of the Messenger.

But there is one thing that has struck me wherever I have been, there is a fragmentation of the perspective. Because we hear church in small doses and because the plot is so vast - all time and space, it is difficult to develop a road map to Christian life. I have counted a number of church Pastors as personal friends and this is not a criticism of them, in many ways I understand the pressures on them - the pressure to speak every week. So read this with empathy and a critical look at ourselves, how do we as the body re-envision things.

So much of what we do at church is like Australian Aboriginal art. By no means all Aboriginal art, is dot art but it represents a substantial tradition. So think of each Sunday's sermon as a dot.

(c) Noel Doyle. (I own an original painting).

But at this range its not possible to tell what this segment of the painting is all about is it? Well I think it is the same with church - each Sunday another dot. But unless occasionally we stand back and ensure that it is organised then it might as well be painting with a straw.

It might be pretty but its not that helpful. We might accumulate so coherent ideas and then again the framework we build out of the dots might be wrong. Is the picture above a spear?

We tend to focus on either the gifts of the Spirit:
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. (Galatians 5)
or on vague applications for each sermon but then each sermon has a different application, so that is not terribly helpful.

What are the big picture issues at stake for Christians. Well of course it is Schaeffer's question How Then Shall We Live. We can create some different layers which have different questions and topics. 

What are the most important big picture directions and priorities for Christians 

at the top layer perhaps the following:

  1. witnessing and 'mission'
  2. justice
  3. caring for the poor
  4. creation care
  5. peace making
  6. living well (making a living, feeding yourself and your family, donating money, volunteering etc).
  7. relationships
  8. ...

  • Which do we prioritise, which deserves our time?
  • We can't do them all, do we make one of them our 'thing'?
  • What are the consequences for those around us when we push one thing?
  • On the other hand, we often need a focus a thing to give us purpose, indeed God, I believe, still calls people for particular jobs, tasks activities.
So then, where from there? Robert Banks in a very nice little book has some interesting discussions.

Banks focuses his discussion below the layer pointed to above. His book is really just aimed at what I called living well bove. He makes the point Christian could fruitfully discuss:

Social pressures

  • busyness
  • mobility
  • debt
  • social conformity

Routine life

  • commuting
  • shopping
  • sleeping
  • eating and drinking
  • dress
  • hospitality
  • hobbies
  • gardening
Work & leisure
  • getting having or not having paid work
  • re-creation

Central features of modern life

  • society everyday beliefs and values - which obviously affect Christians
  • communicating and relating (technology mediated and otherwise)
  • social rituals
  • secular religions (the car, the home, the ....
  • materialism and consumerism.

Over time we grope our ways towards workable answers to all these questions that work for us - ones that meet our standards of Christian living and help us live day to day. But it is difficult to travel without some sort of map.

So lets use politics as an example - we tend to steer clear from overt discussions of politics in Church for fear of creating divisions. In the absence of discussion people build their own perspectives based on everything but sound theology sometimes. But we are making two mistakes. The first is not discussing it and the second is we confuse goals and means.

Politics is based on the idea that there can be different goals but even when there is the same goal there are different routes to those goals. So if we can agree that caring for the poor is a critical Christian issue then we can discuss how we do that - different people may support different means but we can at least discuss that it should be a high priority and leaving it aside is a bad idea. So one example for western governments might be the choice between accepting refugees or having a serious aid program - it is a not option to choose neither.

So onto a technological example.

If you decide that creation care is really important to you then that is just the first choice, there will be political (protests) and ethical choices (who to buy from) but that choice alone does not choose your level of technology.

In a pluralistic view of what is a valid expression of Christian faith, there is not a perspective we can promote as the 'Christian society'. Each of us needs to make our own choices while respecting others. But we can only do this if we can start talking about the big picture of what Christian life looks like in the 21st century.

Juggling all of the priorities

So lets return to the imagery. We can now see a little more of the painting. Its not the whole picture we could never expect that, but we can see its a plant now.

So with church, is there a way of moving beyond the weekly dots?

Friday, May 23, 2014

May Micro Blog: Technology, just start the conversation

Blog writing feels a bit like what the newspaper 'men of the past must of felt like, you write, the words go out, but is there anyway to effect change? Well today I have a message, I want you to do something.

I teach Sunday School at our church for grades 5-7. It has its frustrations and challenges but occasionally there are amazing moments. Recently I taught a a series of classes on using the internet. You say really they are bit young aren't they. No Way! 9 out of 9 had electronic devices. Five of the nine could independently connect to the internet with no adult supervision. But that wasn't where the idea for the class started. That came about because after some conversation which I won't detail here, I asked whether they get taught anything about using the internet at school. Oh yes, but the lessons are lame - they don't know what they are talking about was the response. I get the impression its all about how to 'use' and nothing about the wider understanding of it.

So you adults out there - just think - the common joke for years has been that the best person to program the VCR (xyz machine) is to get the closest 12 year old. So the equivalent is we now have technologically illiterate teachers trying to talk to kids about the internet - just think about that for a moment. These kids live and breathe the net, they are the digital natives but they are still pre-teen they have no idea of what they are playing with. I'd be the same as putting them out on the savannah and seeing if they survive.

The fun bit is that if you know a little of the technology - the Bible speaks into their lives like a bell chiming.

Passages like Colossians 3 come so alive because they see what is going around them (I won't fill in the gory details but you read the news and the kids see stuff all the time).

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Really if you start with their world and specifically technology, then often the Bible isn't hard to talk about at all. Finishing within the alotted time is more the problem once the conversations get really going. And the cool thing, its kids who aren't from a Christian background whose eyes go widest at what we are discussing - its relevant, useful and they want more.

So I urge you start the conversation! Just start it. Its not too hard. We need to have lots of conversations around technology at church but at least if you do nothing else talk to the kids. it will go in weird directions I am sure of it but go with it, I am sure it will be rewarding for you and them!

Monday, May 19, 2014

May Micro Blog: Sola Scriptura

The Protestant Reformation adopted a fivefold saying.
  1. Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone")
  2. Sola fide ("by faith alone")
  3. Sola gratia ("by grace alone")
  4. Solus Christus or Solo Christo ("Christ alone" or "through Christ alone")
  5. Soli Deo gloria ("glory to God alone")
Often the first of these by Scripture alone has been interpreted as the book – the ‘device’ printed words on a page. Now increasingly, we are aware that early churches without the printing press had to hand copy the text and read it out loud for people to hear it. Churches have always read the scriptures during a service but I have been in a number of Churches where there is an increased emphasis on this for example reading a large slab of text before a new series starts. I for one love this. 

There is increasing commentary (easily found on the web) about the changing paradigm of the text from oral to printed book and to electronic. Okay boring so far.

However, last week I attended a seminar at which Bruxy Cavey spoke. He put a spin on this that was truly fascinating, one that I have not heard quite this way before and it is, I thought worth sharing. The scriptures are not solely the text or even if you want to spin it differently the Word made flesh – Jesus. One way in to think about it is that in NT to 'read' the scriptures, it would have had to been read for you and then because of the what that entails it would be in a group setting - the community together. You gather together to hear the words read. You couldn't hear the words outside of a group setting. Now the printing press changed that - individuals could read it for themselves it private, which has had important advantages but that wasn't the NT worldview.

It is a worthwhile point - the device, the printed book or electronic media may matter less than the continued act of meeting together. The Church - the body - needs to be together sharing space and time in a place. Sharing food is seems to be important as well which just a bonus. Do other things if you like but be physically together with others as well.

Monday, May 12, 2014

May Micro Blog: Cathedrals, Time and Technology

Recently, I was in the Netherlands and of course enjoyed the food (especially the cheese- said in Wallace and Gromit voice) and the sites: old European cities of narrow streets and in the Netherlands – the beauty of small canals. Of course being in Europe you can’t help but walk past many Cathedrals. We visited one – Gouda’s amazing Janskerk.

It is the longest church in the Netherlands.

Photo sourced from wikipedia.

 It is well known, for good reason, for its beautiful stain glass windows.
Photo: Brian Wixted.

Not this window, but the one next to it has a very clear date of 1603. I cannot help when I am in these churches to ponder time. Actually, when I am in Europe which is not that often, I am drawn to the Cathedrals exactly for this experience; to ponder theology, time and eschatology. What was the theology of the people who would devote themselves to such a large endeavor for such large periods of time? And it need not be the formal theology – what was in the craftsman’s head who worked on a window, where the window next to him may not be completed in his lifetime.

One idea just keeps circling in my head; how would we behave differently if we believed Jesus may not come back for a thousand years; maybe we would become complacent and lazy or maybe – what would we create, what would we as the entire body of Christ be released to do? This has obvious implications for our attitudes to technology but I will spell it out.

Much of what is written about technology from a Christian perspective (well actually this is pretty general but it is very true of Christians) is about the technology of this minute. Writing in 2014 about the implications of the invention of the telephone would clearly get very few readers. But I think we need above all a sense of perspective a sense of the longnow (to borrow the title of a resource rich blog).

We live in the now, our now, but our nows add up. Our view of time within an ethical / moral / theological framework changes our priorities for what we spend our time on. Some of what is being said about current technologies is ridiculous on the criteria of the long now. Rather than pick on particular technologies of the minute, should instead we look at the big trends – engage those, shape them, critique them, be anything but not passive. Let’s as Rikk Watts said in a Regent World be 'entrepreneurial communities'.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Borgmann Lecture III

The third talk by Professor Borgmann was I have to say rather difficult to follow, in a category all to itself. While the first two lectures were problematic largely because I disagreed with so much of them and because Borgmann's discussion of cyberspace was to me the equivalent of someone who can't read trying to describe a book. Much as he might use a computer or that internet thing - his descriptions of the technology were often baffling - mixing reality with SciFi as to how placeless and distance-less current cyberspace really is in a continuous seemless flow. However, his third lecture was confusing on a whole other level, and that after listening to the tape a couple of times. My otherwise reliable and useful Borgmann commentators, Ryan Munn and Tim Boland over here, come up a bit short this time as well. The point is simply it was a sidetrack into philosophy of matter and spirit but with little application into the world of technology.

Borgmann on Ontologies

What is the 'reality' as in the world as it is, reflected in the gospels. According to Borgmann it is a 'unity of matter and spirit'. Much of the early part of the lecture was devoted to the nature of miracles, feeding the hungry, healing body and mind. Jesus embraces matter and spirit simultaneously. In the middle ages with the newly available Aristole texts, there was a turn to Greek philosophy. One articulation of this in the real world was the Cathedrals.

According to Borgmann people in the modern world are ignorant to 'reality'. Prof Borgmann then went into a long side track about Newtonian physics of gravity and mass. Are we lost because modern physics of time and space (relativity theory) is not reflected in culture.  Nevertheless we have dematerialised the world - first seen in the transcontinental railway. We changed the feeling of space - shrinking and softening of space. The telegraph did the same. The radio, aircraft, television and finally internet / cyberspace have all shrunk space and time.

This dematerialisation of physical life has de-spirited life. Burdens are frustrations and blessings merely pleasures. Physics is complete - you can't de-construct matter and find spirit eventually. But on the other hand there is not a orderly logic to the world of matter and spirit.

This led to the tangent of the brain and mind example - even with a map of the brain - the connectome - do we comprehend it - not really. 

In this rather rambly talk of the unity of the Spirit and Materiality Borgmann makes the point that there is no encompassing order - however, it is because of the complexity of matter that there is room for the spirit. Christianity is a religion of events. The uncertainties get resolved but not at our discretion.

One problem with this talk is there is the merest hint that if we could go back at least to Newtonian physics if not earlier it would be a benefit. There is nothing in this talk that the theory of relativity is currently our best attempts to date to capture how God has created the world. If the world is increasingly confusing and difficult to comprehend - it is not our fault, it is not even the fault of modernity and current philosophical trends - that is how the world seems to be made, by God. 

It this entire talk apart from the few examples of technologies dematerialising distance there was barely a mention of technology, so it is unclear exactly what the point of the tour through philosophy and modern physics was all about. 

So over to Rikk Watts - what was he saying in response

After the first two responses to Borgmann's lectures Professor Watts third response took and unexpected turn. Whereas the first two had addressed technological design issues and the materiality of life even when engaged in cyberspace the third one diverted from this path.

In the third response Watts focussed on Jesus as a human standing between spirit and materiality. The word became flesh. Word - one who was Spirit became flesh and blood. The one who now sends the Spirit of God to speak to us for him.

Christians have to face up to many uncertainties of their faith which are resolved in Jesus but shrouded in mystery. God, man, spirit, flesh, saviour, sacrifice - a King who died that we might live. These are not neat categories, 'we are not in control' to make neat summaries and definitions of our God. So when we talk of technologies and ontologies we must still remember to put Jesus at the very heart of that conversation.

In some ways you might think that this was no response at all, perhaps Rikk had troubles as well [  :-)   ]. However, what I glean from the talk is that a philosophy of technology that gets too entangled with philosophy as a discourse needs to be reminded that at the heart of the Christian faith stands a man and EVERYTHING is measured against him. Further, Christians have a unifying world view - our vision is Jesus. 

We can have great discussions of ontology but we must be reminded that these are terminated with Jesus - the word made flesh.

Question time

In the first question response Borgmann redefined his point saying cyberspace can be useful but it can't be the centre of our lives. To which can only be said Amen - of course it can not be the centre.

However, in the very next question response he says that as technology becomes more complex, the technology becomes more concealed - and thus it produces in us commodification and eyeballing. We are designed to be fully engaged in the world - walking, the sun on our face . We can't engage with the physical world mediated through technology.

The next question provided an opportunity for Prof Borgmann  to complain about technology. For example at one point Prof Borgmann responds that technology impoverishes the experience of going to school to good teachers and the bad teachers.

The last question was what is the difference between cyberspace and for example writing and printing. Prof Borgmann responses that the first two led to the preservation of what are now the classics and the second to democracy and Protestant reformation. Has cyberspace helped the culture become more vibrant - NO. There is a decline in the ability to write and listen. BUT BUT BUT the timescales of these events are hugely different - the printing press took centuries to have effects Prof Borgmann attributes to them.

One thing struck me listening again to the Borgmann lectures. He argues from the basis of philosophy yet when challenged responds with 'lets see the data'. I am not saying that these should be adversarial but it is trick to get get out of answering. Of course data allows for some cherry picking of question and answers in matters sociological. You can see somebody else's take on him saying this here (agreeing with Borgmann).

A final word on the Borgmann & Watts blog series

 It is clearer and clearer to me that Heidegger has been hugely influential on Christian philosophers of technology.  However, I'll make one observation. Those who are rather negative to technology are fond of pointing out that technology is not neutral, however they fail to apply the same observation to themselves. Philosophy is NOT neutral. It is not purely neutral and analytical and Christians of all people should know that. So I leave this challenge, what if Heidegger is simply wrong from a Christian point of view?

Philosophy sets itself up as the social science that commentate on everybody else but its time to ask are Philosophers really only ones who can ask the RIGHT questions about technology.    

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rikk Watts: Starships off Sagittarius

Lets continue the discussion of the Borgmann lectures at Regent College Vancouver in 2011. I will again focus on the replies of Regent College New Testament Professor Rikk Watts but will start with an attempt at explaining the Prof Borgmann's second lecture Pointless Perfection and Blessed Burdens.

Pointless Perfection

'It is the powerful burden of perfection that actually leads to a pointless life, and in reverse it is certain types of burdens that bring blessing and should be embraced.  Beginning with a brief discussion of the classic greek ideal of perfection, Borgmann then went on to develop his discussion around the tempting nature of cyberspace to offer this ever-increasing, disembodied perfection.  This notion of disembodied perfection is very powerful in our culture, with virtual objects – those whose realization is independent from any particular place or time – dominating our cultural landscape, and revealing a dominant bent towards unlimited collected intelligence and thereby immortality.  However, Borgmann claims that this pursuit of perfection is pointless, as human intelligence is essentially embodied, that is, mind and body cannot be torn apart.  It is actually within the burden of being ‘bodied’ that we do find the blessing that we seek'.

Borgmann spent considerable time attempting to link the concepts of perfection and functionalism through a short but nevertheless messy discussion of the mind brain problem. In this incredibly meandering talk, he wandered through AI, Turing and current advances in computer technology. To make his points he draws on the most extreme boosterist like Kurweil. His argument is that the vision of perfection for the Brain downloaders movement is for us to be virtually ‘embodied’ online forever. Borgmann argues that being human is the physical and mind, brain and body – us – cannot be separated as it is the totality of our physical experience and our thinking that makes us, us. 

That is totally and undeniably true. So each of you readers out there are a mixture of male / female - short / tall - athlete / not so athletic - born in a very particular physical place and time. All of these physical attributes expose us to certain cultural influences that we carry with us through our lives. Indeed as we age and change geographies these continue to influence us. So I will say it, the brain downloading movement is nuts. But, they are something of a straw man in my opinion and in my opinion there are many stronger attacks on their understanding of the world than Borgmann's 'pointless perfection'. 

Why the cyber downloaders in the first place? Maybe to avoid death - hmmm now that dates back to when; lets see, Genesis. Herfeld suggests we suffer from cosmic loneliness, now that is food for thought and Christian discussion. Why should we be lonely? What is the remedy for that? What does the Bible have to say? But that is off track for this blog - Neither Borgmann or Watts went there. Through his talk Borgmann weaved a confusing thread of functionalism – that is that the function of the mind = architecture of the brain, which is what Watts picked up on in his commentary.

In response.

To sum up Rikk’s second thesis I would suggest it goes something like this – there may be a societal pull towards the Platonic idea of simple perfection and thus to the disembodied, but this need not imply that the Christian Philosophy is therefore to accept this equation and therefore reject cyberspace and the technological. Instead it is to live out a calling to transcend and redeem the philosophy of the age living with God’s desire for us to be mature, to submit our burdens to God and continue our creation mandate.

One of the more important points Rikk makes is this one.

For the designer, function belongs very much to the discourse of the Vicoean speech act, where a particular embodied subjective agent, through a particular act of imagination and incarnational fashioning, calls into being that which was not, namely, a particular thing; i.e. not motor vehicles generically but the model-T Ford. From this perspective, function has no existence of its own, but originates in, is called forth by, and is always oriented toward a particular incarnation; if one must, it’s more Aristotelian than Platonic. Variety, far from reflecting less-than-perfect attempts to realize the ideal motor vehicle, arises instead from the nature of what design theorists call “wicked problems.” A wicked problem is one where, in the very nature of the actual material world and unlike virtual mathematics, there is no single “correct” or perfect Platonic answer. The reason there are so many cars, aircraft, smart phones etc. and why people continue to design, build, and purchase them in all their glorious variety, is because they all succeed in various ways in their, not one or two, but manifold and incommensurable web of functionings (the plural is deliberate and essential).

Rikk here is directly challenging both Kurzweil's conceptualization of perfection as well as Borgmann’s retreat from it. There are many possible solutions to technical problems – thus we have many designs for cars, aircraft, toasters. I would add at this point that economics, the oft forgotten dimension is fundamental here. The equation goes something like this Function X Technical solutions X Economic transaction points (price, location etc etc) X Existing technological knowledge = DESIGNS. So rather than decreasing variety we have increasing variety. Even at the extreme, the hugely costly endeavor of civil aircraft building, even with fewer aircraft assemblers the actual range of models has probably remained at least static for decades – each model designed for a specific market.

This has an interesting cross over with Ellul, yet neither Borgmann or Watts mentioned this in their talks. Borgmann was arguing that the current worldview supports an Ellulian proposition that technology leads to one perfect solution and Watts arguing that in fact technology leads away from such a conclusion. Empirically, the evidence is with Watts on this. Here what Kevin Kelly said recently in an interview:

Over time we are generating new technologies, we're producing all new problems. Most of the problems we have today are technogenic, meaning that they were created by technology in the past. Most of the problems in the future are going to be created by technologies we're creating today. Technology is a means of producing new problems. It's a means of producing new solutions, but the fact that we have a choice between those two is what tips the balance very, very slightly in the favor of the good for the long term. Over civilization scale, we have this net tiny incremental accumulation of these choices over time, and that tiny accumulation is what we call progress.
The ordinary pen you use every day seems very simple but it probably took 100 different technologies to make this pen technology, technologies of plastic, ink, ball bearing, metal, and each of those different technologies probably themselves required another 100 sub-technologies to support it and, of course, there's kind of a circular way in which pens might be necessary to make a ball bearing in the same way that electricity is necessary to make a generator, and a generator may be necessary to make the wires of an electrical system. A hammer requires a handle and a head, and the saw requires the hammer to make the saw that cuts the handle, so there is a sense in which all of this is very recursive and that there is a network of different supporting technologies, and that the whole web of all these things I call the technium. The technium is that largest network of all the technologies working together to support each other, and while this pen is definitely not alive, there is a sense in which the technium as a whole exhibits life-like behaviors in the same way that your neuron doesn't really think, but the network of neurons in your brain can make an idea.

So rather than pointless ‘perfection’ as a unified point, technology and even cyberspace is actually heading in the opposition direction, like the biosphere the variety has increased.  


I feel Borgmann was on more solid ground on the topic of burdens. For Borgmann the ‘blessed burdens’ are taking the steps of walking, cooking, serving a meal, speaking words face to face etc. It appears that Watts was in agreement, noting that he has begun to enjoy activities such as mowing the lawn. Thus, there is nothing really to comment on here. We need to inhabit our own lives.

However, in a single sentence Borgmann skipped over a universe of issues.

“after we have cured the evil and truly intolerable burdens’ ... we can move on to enjoy the blessed burdens – what are these and what is the activity that will cure them. The science and technology system will surely be crucial in this endeavor. It was a throw away line that is fascinating for Borgmann's worldview.

Sameness does not equal  Perfection 

Borgmann was suggesting that the end point of cyberspace (as it should be pointed out conceived by some) is perfection but it is better characterised as sameness and those two are not the same. Once cyberised, experiences of a particular kind are fixed - one variable moves - the cyber entity can continue to think and learn but without a physical interaction with the world their is no true evolution of the person - Arnold Rimmer in the TV series Red Dwarf comes quickly to mind. Kevin Kelly in the same interview as quoted above makes a related point:

The real key is to remain different while you're connected. The problem with being connected is it tends to homogenize everybody, so there's this pressure to be the same if you're connected. You go to any large city around the world, and there is a uniformity in what that downtown looks like. Connection tends to drive things to uniformity, but the value, the power of being connected is by remaining different. There's this conundrum, this dilemma of remaining different while connected, because if you're just different but not connected, there's no power in that, and that's actually easy to do, but can you remain different while connected? You're different in certain degrees, yet you're part of the uniform standard. So it's like you don't want to make up new words that don't mean anything. You want to write a book that uses the standard words in the dictionary, so you're going to be different while connected to the standard. You're connected to the English language, but you're going to be different with what the words say.

In contrast to sameness I think the argument of Watts calls for difference.

But as humans we alone are also called to be “perfect”—meaning “mature, complete, lacking in no good work”—in our imaging the character of the one true personal God. And this is not a simple summons to “be good, or to do better.” It is an invitation to be transformed, by the indwelling grace of God’s Spirit, a Spirit, be it noted, of wisdom …and of truth. This is much more than telling people how to use cyberspace. It is changing us from the inside so that our mode of engagement, individually and collectively, takes on a different quality.

We are not called to be the same, we called to live the individual lives God intended for each of us. We should be encouraging a variety of lived expressions of the Gospel of Jesus and also challenging the dull sameness of the cyberspace visionaries but that is not the same as not allowing space in our lives for cyberspace. Can not cyberspace be a blessed burden. In other words can it not be a burden that is redeemed such that we have self control enough to enjoy it and not over indulge. We would say the same for eating. 

The last word however, must go to Rikk Watts for the most extraordinary conclusion to a Christian talk I have ever heard. Some of us may secretly hope for this but how many Christian have voiced it publicly I wonder?

Hopefully as (new) creators by our small expressions of transcendent incarnation in truly human technology we can work with God bringing a measure of merciful order, goodness and ... to this world in escatalogical anticipation of the goodness that is yet to come. And who knows if heaven on earth might not involve astonishing starships in stately formation off the galactic shores of an even more glorious Sagittarius. I not sure I can see the point of an embodied resurrection with our wonderful fully opposable thumbs if they are destined to spend the rest of eternity raised upwards or for the good Presbyterians amongst us calmly at our sides. Does this sound like preaching ... yeah but it was exactly this kind of preaching of the gospel that transformed the ancient world and I believe it will again.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Reflecting on thinking and communicating about 'technology'

First let me apologise that my next Rikk Watts blog is not ready yet, but it is on the way. However, I view blogging is a spiritual discipline - to write one blog a month helps me work at integrating the different parts of my life.

This month's blog then is a reflection on the challenges of writing and  thinking coherently about 'technology' as a Christian.

So let me paint my personal landscape. I do contract research. I have an association with a university research centre but am not employed by it. My income comes from doing research for others, mostly on technology industries, the impact of technological change on industries or evaluation of government programs related to research and technology. My engagement with theology and technology comes through reading, writing this blog and some occasional talks on the topic at churches. I have a PhD but it is is my professional field not theology.

So here are some observations:

  1. not having any degree in theology is perceived I think as a limitation of credentials, yet it doesn't seem to work in reverse theologians can discuss technology;
  2. although I sense a growing interest in the topic of theology and technology there is still somewhat of a gulf between the theology as it is discussed in churches and the lived experienced of "everyday life" as Robert Banks has pointed out many years ago;
  3. we often comprehend a presentation when it is applied but if audience is diverse such as for a blog or an academic community then making it too applied can remove a sense of generalisability; and
  4. then there is the issue of scale. This is the one I personally struggle with the most. In academic circles narrowness of expertise is rewarded, as a contract researcher, breadth is rewarded (there are very few repeat bits of work). Further, 'technology' as a topic of enquiry requires constant vigilance - the trends, the technologies, the patterns of adoption and use and the geographies of production are constantly evolving. For example in the 1990s the industries that made technologies such as computers and the firms within them were important but today those companies have become less important (except for the increasingly few top level architecture firms like Apple and HP). Today the companies that use technological infrastructure are more important (Google, Amazon, Facebook et al.).

This presents a problem. To be interested in the phenomena of technological development at an economy or society wide perspective for example requires both the mastery of a set of tools for analysis and also the visions to see shifts in the technoshere as I have started calling it ( mirroring the ecological language of biosphere. So those 'industries' I mentioned above - well  increasingly these are even conceptually problematic. Are social media companies a new entity or are they old media in a new clothes (new technologies) - they profit from selling advertising space after all? How do you classify a company with a few hundred employees with thousands or 10s of thousands contractors and billions in revenue. Many of these companies have few national employees in any particular country (if any) but substantial revenues and they are mostly very headquarters-centric (often America). What about the sharing economy - Airbnb etc. If you are not paying attention to the big picture your academic style specialisation will get published but it will also have a 'so what!' factor.

The challenge for Christians is God calls us to pay attention to and sift good from bad. We need to keep our sanity, always a danger whether focused on either the smallest or biggest pictures. We need to be constantly shifting our gaze, what seemed important 20 years ago just seems less so now, yet amongst the noise we need to keep our eyes focused on what matters - creation, sin, Jesus, grace and restoration/judgement.

Confused - exactly. Let try a different angle.

My wife studies assistive technologies, what is good and what may be harmful in certain circumstances from the perspective of biomechanics (i.e the human using the device). But what are the ethics of such technologies - are we 'normalising' people with disabilities so that they can be productive efficient members of society as Ellul might suggest. Or are these technologies good because rather than being left on the edges of society, people with disabilities can better engage with society as individuals that have liberty and freedom rather than being people who have choices made for them. You might think this pretty micro but within traditional academic structures there are people who research the philosophy/ethics etc of disability issues.

So where does a Christian thinking about the evolving technological world fit? When our interest is technology it is not just the tools (philosophy or economics) we bring to its study (see a good blog on the frailestthing) but the level at which we study it. If not constrained by academic structures do we try and be observers of the big issues (cyber security/spying, continuing developments in the technology economy and related ethical concerns) do we focus on particular technologies (new digital & social media interactions with personal development is popular at present), or even yet narrower topics.

As a massive generalisation humans like to either look deep into a subject or to try and get a handle on the big picture and we don't necessarily do this as a personality trait. We often explore topics of interest in depth and then survive by having general working assumptions for other parts of our lives. The academic enterprise encourages specialisation and increasingly at fantastical levels. As technologies become ever more complex this specialisation of the natural sciences and social sciences is mirrored in the engineering and design of products.

The question is how to be relevant to a discussion that barely existts. I have always been drawn to map making, trying to make sense of of the noise but does that mean my writings are too vague to be applied.

Hmmmm, how do you approach wrestling with such issues.