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.

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