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What does it mean to exist in complex relationships with machines? What insights can be offered to our understandings of these relationships by the theologically significant theme of ‘love’? What critical assessments can be made of our multiple uses of technologies in shaping our futures, by reflecting on our pasts?

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> Conference: Care and Machines
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Disquiet over the prevalence of social and economic individualism has a long history. In a world of mobile Capital and increasingly mobile people, communities of common tradition and locality appear to be under threat from the advent of a fragmented market society. Are these complaints against individualism justified? And crucially, how should Christians respond to them? Digging down into the substance of these questions, this project will consider the theological, liturgical and scriptural resources Christians have for understanding the notion of individualism in relation to issues of education, public life and the formation of democratic citizenship.

Tuesday
Apr252017

Augmented Reality: Incarnation, Imago Dei, and Digital Technology

This is a guest post by Karen O'Donnell. Karen is currently Research Fellow in Digital Pedagogy at the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology. Karen completed her PhD at the University of Exeter, which focused on theologies of the body and psycholoanalytic theories of somatic memory. Building on her interests in these fields, Karen is now undertaking research into augmented reality, which is the subject of her blogpost here. She can be contacted at: karen.o’donnell@durham.ac.uk.

 

The squeaking, whirring, and buzzing sound of the dial-up modem is, for most of us, a thing of the past, something to describe to younger generations. It marked out a border crossing. A stepping out into a no-man’s land. The movement from offline to online. In the contemporary world of broadband, wifi, and mobile data, there is no comparative movement. This no-man’s land has almost ceased to exist. I argue that whilst the offline/online binary has had its day, the other binary most commonly articulated in discussions about digital technology is, and always has been, false—the virtual/real binary. Replacing this false binary with the notion of Augmented Reality (AR) is a more accurate and helpful way to understand our relationship to the digital world.

In 1997, Douglas Groothuis argued that the internet, then still in relatively early days, dehumanizes us:

through lack of personal presence. An important theological question is: How disembodied should our communication be? The internet distributes information widely and quickly, but in a merely electronic form, which lacks the personal presence at the heart of biblical discipleship, fellowship, and worship. When cyberspace begins to replace embodied interactions, we fail to honor the incarnational nature of Christianity. 

Groothuis’ perspective is one echoed by Christians in the subsequent twenty years and belies a sharp digital dualism. The digital world becomes synonymous with ‘virtual’ and thus is assumed to be counterfeit, fake in some way. Human engagement in this world is seen as disembodied, detached—one is not really there. Such a view is at odds with a Christian life that priorities incarnational relationships.

Such digital dualism is a common approach to the digital world. Social Media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coined the term to describe the habit of viewing the offline and the online world as distinct and separate. He prefers the term Augmented Reality to describe the relationship between the online and the offline, arguing that the digital and the physical are increasingly meshed and our contemporary reality is both technological and organic.

We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities ala [sic] The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic ‘first’ and ‘second’ self, but is instead an augmented self. A Haraway-like cyborg self comprised of a physical body as well as our digital Profile, acting in constant dialogue.

Moving away from a digital dualism that artificially distinguishes between so-called real and so-called virtual (as if what happens in ‘real’ life doesn’t affect our Facebook accounts and vice versa!) towards an AR view of the world offers a much more helpful way of understanding our relationship to digital technology, avoids false binaries, and more accurately identifies the role of technology in our lives.

AR offers the opportunity for a much more holistic view of the self. It moves away from a split self separated across two spheres—one real and one virtual. Such a view of the self is in theological keeping with the Christian understanding of the person. In the 1960s, Wolfhart Pannenberg argued:

There is no independent reality of a ‘soul’ in contrast to the body, just as there is not a body that is merely mechanically or unconsciously moved. Both are abstractions. The only reality is the unity of the living creature called man.

This holistic view of the person was in sharp contrast to the centuries of theological thought that had preceded it. Distinguishing between the physical and the spiritual in the person had long been the practice of the Church and had detrimental theological implications for the body in general and women’s bodies in particular. This distinction between the physical and the spiritual lead to the stereotype of woman as fleshly, weak and irrational. The association with the body here is a negative connection. To be fleshly, to be bodily, is opposed to being spiritual and rational—the characteristics of the male.

Such a distinction is at odds with the biblical understanding of the person. In the New Testament, Paul does not distinguish between the soul and the body or the mind and the body but rather sees them as a united whole—the life of a person, body and soul together. So, for example, when he writes “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5. 23) Paul isn’t articulating a tripartite division within the person, but rather praying for complete unity and wholeness as an expression of life in Christ.

Interestingly, this old perceived binary between body and soul priorities the immanent, transcendent, so-called spiritual part of the person as being the real one. Digital dualism has the opposite priority. For dualists, the more real, authentic part is the physical person. If we persist in this digital dualism, we uphold a distinction between the mind and the body that is theologically bankrupt. Thus, if the person is an holistic, embodied, material entity that cannot be split into ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ then we must reassess our relationship with digital technology. We must have a similarly holistic view of reality. This, then, is the value of AR.

To perceive of technology as augmenting our reality (rather than removing us from it and entering us into a fake ‘reality’) has some significant theological advantages. First, it more accurately reflects the reality of the created order. To augment something is to make it greater by adding to it. As created co-creators, to borrow Philip Hefner’s term, this is part of the human’s purview as one’s functioning in imago Dei.  To think of digital technology as augmenting created reality is to create a wealth of possibilities for using it well for learning, for communication, for creativity. For both Karl Barth and Emil Brunner it is our ability to establish and maintain complex and intricate relationships that see us fulfilling the imago Dei. An augmented reality, where the physical includes the technological and both person and reality are viewed holistically, is one in which communication, creativity, and deep, personal relationship thrives.

AR crosses boundaries and refuses to be defined by traditional binary assumptions and persistent dualisms of natural/unnatural, real/virtual. If the creation of boundaries is a political act, then the transgression of them is surely equally political and subversive. AR meshes together two seemingly impenetrable worlds and in doing so offers us something new—embodied, material, augmented, with greater potential for creativity, greater depth of relationship, and new ways of perceiving the world—sounds awfully incarnational to me. For in crossing the boundary between divine and human, Jesus inaugurated an augmented reality –embodied, material, creative, relational—a new way of perceiving the world. AR not only offers an holistic view of reality and the person, but also offers a new depth of incarnational relationship. Let us move away from the virtual/real binary, which has never been real in the first place, and embrace a reality augmented creatively with digital technology as expression of the remarkable, curious creativity of created co-creators, made in imago Dei and living as incarnational boundary crossers.

Friday
Mar312017

Which Ghosts in Which Shells?

This blogpost is about the recent release of Ghost in the Shell, and while I have made an effort to avoid spoilers, it’s probably best holding off reading this until you’ve seen the film as some plot points are discussed or touched on here.

In the future, humans look set to become enhanced cyborgs – fusions of organism and machine. Or at least that’s the premise of Ghost in the Shell, the live-action adaption released this week of Masamune Shirow’s cult manga classic of the same name. While I perhaps have my quibbles about whether cyborgs are solely entities of the future – and you can pre-order those quibbles in my forthcoming book here – the film and the franchise that spawned this year’s cinematic release certainly raise interesting questions about the sometimes uncannily and uncomfortably close relationship between humans and machines.

The general aesthetic of the film rebooted this year, directed by Rupert Sanders, is nothing short of spectacular. The setting is a city that, like humanity, has apparently given itself entirely over to technology. Neon and holographic images are everywhere, and humans are cocooned in the worlds created by their own devices in a way that strikingly reminded me of both Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (also due a return and reboot later this year) and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, which recently crossed over to Netflix’s stream of original content.

Representative of how humans have given themselves over to technologies are the vast proportions of the population who have elected to enhance themselves as easily as plastic surgery might allow us to presently aesthetically ‘enhance’ ourselves at present. Concordant with the film’s emphasis on identity as being about what you do, though, the cybernetic techno-enhancements are emphatically about increased functionality. From enhanced vision, including X-ray and tracking software, to enhanced livers that can cope with enhanced alcohol consumption levels (perhaps to cope with the pressures of an all-too-enhanced society), constant cyborgian improvement is the name of the game.

These trends culminate in the creation and genesis of Major, the film’s central character and protagonist. Major is a human brain in a technological body – a ‘ghost in a shell’. In the film, a ghost is described akin to a soul. The nature of the soul in relation to the technological systems that ensconce, enhance, and also exceed it, particularly in terms of its transmutation into a ghost, is one of the central questions that the film attends to. Indeed, it’s one of the central questions that Hollywood attends to, and it crops up a lot in relation to technology, so it’s no surprise to encounter it here.

Major is a cyborg with an existential crisis: she struggles to know who she is. Part of her is owned by Hanka corporation, who manufactured her prosthetic body, were responsible for her cyborgian genesis, and maintain and repair her as she conducts the combat that she was programmed for. Part of her is her memories, sometimes presented as ‘glitches’ that fuel the drama of her coming to know who she truly is. Part of her is an autonomous individual who now combines the best strengths of humanity and robotics, yet part of her equally is prototype and being the first of her kind, which is isolating and makes it difficult to be sure of her strengths in the first place. In other words, part of her is ‘her’ ghost; part of her is ‘her’ shell. Cartesian ideas about the division of mind and body, which have long plagued Western philosophy and anthropology, are placed in a new shell in the form of this Ghost in the Shell reboot. Major – and the film itself, if not Western technoculture more widely – finds it hard to reconcile these tensions, which in a sense attests to her (and our) anxieties as a human about being (and remaining) human in an increasingly technologised world.

These questions were at the forefront of my doctoral thesis investigating (advanced) technologies and human nature in theology, specifically looking at the legacy of Genesis-based anthropologies and attitudes. There is a tension, I argued, between different understandings of human nature as something static or fixed, and as something more dynamic and open. That humans are made in the image of God, for example, may lead us to conclude that there is something essential and unchanging (taking a standard understanding of an ‘image’) about who we are. If this is the case, then technologies may either be in accordance with this, or detrimental to it. In Ghost in the Shell, for example, Major frets about what was taken from her in her cyborgisation, and what must be preserved.

Alternatively, open interpretations of imago dei and humans as created in the image of God, as told by Genesis mythologies and anthropogeny (a story of the creation of the human), would pay more attention not to what is essential to humans, but more of the ongoing conduct that we perform in the world and in relation and response to others, where technologies are a key part of that world. The image, then, is not something static, but is constantly reshaped and imbued with new meanings in our ongoing relationship to it: think here of hermeneutics rather than fixed meanings of texts or images. While the enhancement technologies prominent in Ghost in the Shell would suggest an anthropology of the latter style, I posit that in actual fact it returns to the same fixed notions using the same questions and attitudes about what it means to be human, but in a new scenario: the same ghosts in new shells.

Major insists – voicing one of the film’s central messages – that what we do is who we are. However, it actually seems to be the case that who we are is what we do: it is the self-as-created that comes prior, which explains why characters in the film have motivations towards connection in the form of family, sexuality, animal companionship (which itself is a very interesting theme that takes inspiration from plot and character traits revealed in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence), or friendship, which is seen as fundamental, against the tenuous and often alienating technologies. Humanity is performed, yes, but it is identified and gauged in accordance with certain images and preconceptions that are interestingly conveyed and even contorted by the film’s futuristic metropolis-cum-dystopia setting.

Like the holographic images of humans in advertisements all across the technocity, it seems that we are surrounded by images of the human: all of them ephemeral and distorted, deeply technologically mediated. I find these holograms to be an apt metaphor of individuality denoted by the film: omnipresent, often even larger-than-life, yet fundamentally absorbed or effaced by vast technological systems. Such systems are even larger-than-life, but they are insidiously masked by their technological prowess; they are the real and threatening ghosts – or, rather, poltergeists – in the shells and machines.

That said, the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note: against these faceless technologies and companies, audiences are told that humanity is our virtue. This is a notable departure from the end of the 1995 anime film, which sees Major fusing with a powerful AI to further question the hybridity of humans and machines, as well as self and other. Instead, it seems that the live-action film seeks to celebrate difference, but also to maintain a sense of difference. The techtopia that is the setting of the film is rife with struggles – a sort of ‘vale of suffering’ scenario – but it is only in such a world that humanity can be expressed and realised. In relation to the tensions raised and explored by the film, then, there seems to be little attempt at their reconciliation other than by recourse to returns to ideal and normative types of humanity, even as performed. Without intending to collapse difference entirely, then, the film sets out to equip its characters and audiences with a way of facing up to existing at the site of these tensions: of having privacy and being social; of having memories and pasts and yet making ongoing actions in the present and future; of belonging to oneself and yet having obligations and strong ties to others; of wanting enhancement and also preservation; of technology and tradition. The film sets out a philosophy and anthropology that ultimately addresses, if not helps us to understand, what it might mean to be ghosts in shells.

Monday
Jan022017

Recovering the Interdependent Self in an Age of Technology and Consumption

This is a guest post by Benjamin J. Wood. Ben was a previous affiliate of the Lincoln Theological Institute, as a Postdoctoral Research Associate. His project, 'What Next for Individualism?', examined issues arising from neoliberalism and the politics of identity and selfhood in contemporary societies. In this post, Ben explores how technologies, particularly in a late capitalist context, inform a certain understanding of the self that theology can and indeed should respond to. 

 

One of the characteristic features of modern civilization is the ability of human beings to cross many kinds of boundaries, biological, territorial, and technological. This has been driven in the last three centuries by the rapacious energies of Capitalist expansion. In key respects this spirit of progress has freed human beings from cumbersome inherited roles and the oppressive weight of custom. Yet, alongside undeniable human liberation, our culture has spawned a hungry and power-obsessed vision of the individual. If in previous centuries the human self was circumscribed by close- knit interdependent communities. Yet with the advent of mechanisation, bureaucracy, and mass production, it was possible to live as an atomised self, radically disconnected from older notions of solidarity and mutual obligation. For the first time in human history, people could start living for themselves, without the painful contortions forced on the individual by the community. Yet, few but the most committed libertarian utopians would argue that the weakening of human ties has produced the kind of emancipation many Enlightenment thinkers promised. In place of freedom, we have highly standardised life options which we can take off a peg. Taking this criticism one step further, the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman argues that contemporary notions of individuality are intimately tied to the economics of mass-consumption. In the vast metropolises of Europe and North America citizens now spend much of their time in temples ‘dedicated to the cult of choosing’; their participation in a hedonistic crowd of shoppers, masking the fact that consumption ‘is a thoroughly individual, solitary and in the end, lonely activity; an activity which is fulfilled by quenching and arousing, assuaging and whipping up a desire which is always, a private, and not easily communicable sensation.’[1]  Inward pleasure is now the criterion of economic life; subordinating older objectives, like productivity, ability and thrift. Yet, these transformations are secondary to what really unnerves Bauman; the degree to which this freedom of private hedonism obscures the consolidation of a new and detrimental form of social hierarchy. As Bauman observes:

Freedom to choose sets the stratification ladder for consumer society and so also the frame in which its members, the consumers, inscribe their life aspirations- a frame that defines the direction of efforts towards self-improvement and encloses the image of ‘the good life’. The more freedom of choice one has, and above all the more choice one freely exercises, the higher up one is placed in the social hierarchy, the more public difference and self-esteem one can count on and the closer one comes to the ‘good life’ ideal.[2]

Thus, despite its promise of individual fulfilment, Bauman suggests that the model of autonomy envisioned by the avaricious society is a dangerous mirage- accessible only to a few who have the money to pay for it. By esteeming consumption over other human activities those without the material resources to participate are left behind in states of poverty, boredom, and listlessness. The technologies intended to free us, have (even in the case of the most prosperous section of the planet) brought their own forms of slavery and brutality. Increasing numbers of us feel isolated by a society based on power. We are trapped by the ideal of achievement, to the neglect of altogether deeper needs.

How should we break these paradoxical bonds of enslaving progress? We need to revisit our language around the ‘person’ and the ‘individual’ in ways which generate new possibilities. The model of the self that is now desperately needed is fundamentally an interconnected vision of the person. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all become Amish and refute a whole range of contemporary technologies. It means however, that we become attentive to the fundamental needs of the body (its finitude and fragility) as a basis of our ethical and theological reflection on the application of scientific technique. A key task of such reflection is to build genuine points of connection and habituation amid otherwise faceless and avaricious and metropolises. The Church and its implicit theologies of the body have a key role to play here. While the Enlightenment story is deeply preoccupied with the mechanics of transforming (forcing the world into an improved shape through the exercise of reason) the Christian story is startling different. The community of Jesus declares that the world is meaningful, that it is loved, that it is saved. This majestic starting-place generates a practice and an ethic which attempts to put technology in its rightful place in the structuring of human life. The ecclesia begins its deliberation on the meaning of the human, not by resisting technology, but by taking seriously the lessons we learn in the acts of giving and receiving hospitality. At the core of such acts Christians discern that humans are fundamentally needful creatures, in need of care, consideration, and company. Our bodies cry out for tenderness and relation, our faces call for recognition.

This logic of gift (embodied by Eucharistic sharing) exaggerates these bodily realities by stripping us of all our masks, pretensions, and defence mechanisms. What matters at the table of fellowship is not our status in the net of consumption, but our longing for consideration and affirmation. Our presence at the table is not dependent upon our ability to choose, but based on our ability to receive. What might this account mean for Christian approaches to technology? Whatever powers technology offers the human user, ‘proper use’ must always be circumscribed by the notion of care. Such logic is alive and well in the advocates of cooperative enterprise, where consumers and producers take a mutual share. In the middle of this joint relation, the self is invited not to see itself as a grasping ego, but as a centre of reception and gift. Dignity is derived not from mere acquisition, but from making and enjoying. The same logic is also at work in recent calls for the implementation of Basic Income in post-industrial economies. In societies where increased automation is leading to rising levels of unemployment and poverty, it is becoming clear that we must find ways of channelling the fruits of technology to citizens more directly. Citizens must be given the material basis not merely for consumption, but for leisure, community, and friendship. Technology must be given a human face. Deep bodily needs must be respected and given space to flourish. The Christian theologian would doubtless make an additional point.

While the stratification ladder of consumption remains in effect, the opportunity for mutual care and service is heavily constrained. When all are worried about their status in a pyramid, there is a paralysing fear that our compassion will leave us hope to attack or a loss of hard won security. The person who regularly chooses between heating and eating is unlikely to have the means of caring for others, his mind preoccupied by his own anxieties. His body cries for sustenance and care but fellow ’soulless’ bodies do not hear him. Such deafness is one stinging definition of the demonic. Instead of delighting the possibilities, we use our technology to hide from one another, fearing the encroachment of one who might take everything away. Something of this fear lies behind the common reticence to meet the gaze of the homeless. Do we dare to glance the fragility which is also our own? But the more we look away, the more we are wounded and distorted by our defensiveness. In our little caves of solipsism, we revert to the very monsters we fear, perhaps never murdering anyone, but murdering the love within us. There seems only one route through this human wasteland. We must apply our technological expertise to free us from these invisible enclosures of distrust, and set us on another course. We must use our network technologies to do more than grease the wheels of consumption, but ensure that we use them so that the body who cries for our help is heard and met. We need to redeem leisure from the narrowing confines of consumption, by attempting to build communities of care. Only when we can give without the isolating fear of self-destruction will we have truly honoured both the logic of gift interwoven into our bodily experience, and the core of the Eucharistic experience.

 


[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Work, Consumption and the New Poor, Second Edition, (Maidenhead Open University Press, 2005), p. 30

[2] Bauman, Work, Consumption and the New Poor, Second Edition, (Maidenhead Open University Press, 2005), p. 31

Monday
Dec052016

Lazarus on Ice: Cryonics and Life after Life

Last month, media attention was drawn to the case of a 14-year-old girl who had died of cancer. Although a saddening case, this was not the full extent of the story: according to the girl’s wishes, she was granted legal permission by a high court judge to have her body cryogenically frozen, in the hope that she would one day be able to be reanimated and brought back to life, once medicine had progressed enough.

Cryonics is a specific branch of experimental medicine that freezes people to maintain them in a cryopreserved state. It derives from the Greek root term ‘kryo’ (κρύο), meaning ‘cold’. Although, at present, the technology does not exist to thaw people out and reanimate them (hence the experimental nature of it), procedures are undertaken on the basis of faith in developments in medicine and technology that will one day allow for the subjects to be safely brought back to life. Cryonics, as such, fundamentally works on the principle of cryogenics, which is a broader branch of science that involves the production of materials at very cold temperatures. Materials operate differently at these lower temperatures, and this has use in a range of industries and applications from special effects on films and in nightclubs (using liquid nitrogen), to rocket fuels (using liquid hydrogen), to freezing food on larger and industrial scales.

While it is perhaps only a subtle distinction, then, between cryonics and cryogenics, it is one worth noting, particularly insofar as it pertains to a difference between complex, or conscious, and non-conscious matter. We can thaw out cryogenically frozen materials safely as and when needed (indeed if at all needed), yet when it comes to the cryogenic freezing of living organisms, the technology and detailed knowledge is still lacking. We meet, in a sense, the frontier of our skills and insights, but this does not curb a fundamental faith in the power of us or our technologies to reach the point where they will one day allow for the revivification of icy bodies. This resounds strongly with Francis Bacon’s visions and ideals for humans and their technologies, where both are connected by a scientific method that allows for the celebration and expansion of our abilities.

The specific news story and the wider issue of cryonics capture media and public attention because of the bold and radical changes that they propose, and the implications that they have not only for our future, but also for how we understand our abilities as a species and as amplified via technologies. Are we comfortable with the idea of being able to put our bodies, our personalities, and all the things that make us who ‘we’ are, on ice? Can we acclimatise ourselves to the ability to hold ourselves in suspension and to wake up in a different world unfamiliar to our own?

These questions raise further important ones that pertain to questions about how we understand who ‘we’ are in the first place. Is the self a purely material, neurological phenomenon that can be thawed out in its preserved state? This adopts a materialistic perspective that would rely on the assumption that everything about the organism – including ‘life’ and indeed ‘consciousness’ – is of the same stuff as the rest of the body, which is a position that would find a lot of support in contemporary understandings of science. However, there are those who would regard the ‘self’ or the ‘soul’ (where the two are somewhat interconnected via the Koine Greek notion of ‘ψυχη’, or ‘psyche’) as distinct from the ‘stuff’ of the rest of the body, and indeed this is part of the controversy surrounding Julian Offray de la Mettrie’s position that regards the human as essentially a mechanism not unlike the rest of nature. For opponents of Mettrie – even contemporary ones – the ‘self’ cannot be reduced to such a mechanistic modelling, and this is why Descartes for example was comfortable to consider animals as machines but not humans who have more complex selves and thought processes. If any of these oppositions are to be taken, then cryogenics becomes an increasingly untenable endeavour. And there are yet others who regard the self as constituted by its relationships, as a malleable structure that is contextually defined and dependent. If this is the case, then cryonics will not thaw out the same self but a different one by virtue of the different context that not only technologically enabled such thawing, but that also is formed of different people and ideas than that from which the person was frozen in the first place.

While cryonics gives us an opportunity through which to explore these models of identity, at present they do not offer any answers and thus they pose a sense of risk. There is risk in the technologies and the capabilities of humans that they may fail or fall short of idealistic expectations; there is a risk of fundamental changes to the self that is frozen and thawed, perhaps even beyond those that are anticipated or even sought; and this is not to mention the risk in the companies that offer such cryonics services, and their ability to remain commercially viable and to cover their running costs over an indefinite period of time. (Indeed, it is not irrelevant to note here that a number of bodies have had to be thawed out improperly due to the closure of companies.) With all of these cases, what are being wagered are actual lives. That is not to say, to be sure, that the risk is not worth taking: in the case of the 14-year-old girl that made the headlines recently, her argument put forward to the judge was about losing out on a potentially longer life due to cancer. What this reveals are assumptions about the value of longevity, and the human war on disease and suffering. The message is fairly simple and straightforward: life is worth protecting, and even if we can’t at the moment, we have reason to have sufficient faith in the future and the developments of our abilities to be able to stall our interventions in the interests of therapy until such technologies enable it.

And here is the key word that highlights the significance of theology in this technology: faith. It is faith in human and technological abilities that underscores efforts in and examples of cryonics. There are theological resonances and parallels with this story, namely with the story of Lazarus, who was brought back to life from his tomb by Jesus and via the glory of God (John 11). Does this story vindicate developments in cryonics? Does it underwrite our efforts in cryonics? Is God’s glory channelled through these technologies? One way to explore these issues is to ask what the ‘life after life’ is that is sought by attempts at earthly resurrection, both divine and technological. What is the quality of life that is being sought through cryonics? What, in other words and in theological terms, is Lazarus’ fate post-revivification? Questions that science poses at the frontier of life and death present new challenges but there are traditions and narratives that can equip us and can guide us in our reflections on the benefits and drawbacks of this and other technologies that may look set to become increasingly prevalent in society. Are these necessary risks, for example, insofar as they mediate God’s glory, or insofar as they compete with it? Is it riskier to surrender the body after death to a sort of afterlife on earth, or elsewhere? These are but some of the theological, moral, and metaphysical questions that we should be engaging with in attending to explorations of cryonics.

Monday
Nov212016

Techno-politics or a new way of living? An exploration of technology’s centrality in political work and discourse

This is a guest post by Michael Morelli. Michael is a PhD student at University of Aberdeen, Scotland who is studying theology, ethics, and technology. In this post, Michael explores how technology relates to politics, particularly in the context of the run-up to the US Election 2016, and he offers theological reflection on this via Jacques Ellul and faithfulness in Christ. You can follow Michael on Twitter here.

 

As I write this, the US presidential election is one week away. When you read this, it will be approximately two weeks after the elections results are revealed. While it is tempting for anyone to speculate about what the forthcoming result will be this is a blog which explores the relationships between technology and theology. Likewise, I study theology, ethics, and technology. So, speculations about the next US president are not in order here. Instead, I would like to explore, provisionally at least, the implicit and explicit relationships between technology and politics. In the process, I hope to present a modest constructive theological response to what such an exploration yields.

By way of clarification of what I mean when I use the word politics, Otto von Bismarck enduringly defined politics in the 1860s as the art of the possible. But I wonder if Bismarck would change his definition if he was alive to observe the end of Obama’s second presidential term and the election of a new president in the United States? I think a redefinition might be required. What if it is the case that politics is no longer primarily the art of the possible? What if politics is now primarily the work of the technical?

Despite all the vitriolic disagreement about the ways in which politics ought to function today the one thing everyone can seem to agree on without reservation is that technology, when applied rightly, is the one best way to guarantee prosperity and safety for the West.

For one of many examples, consider Hilary Clinton’s response to the first question during the first presidential debate. When asked, “Secretary Clinton, why are you a better choice than your opponent to create the kinds of jobs that will put more money into the pockets of American workers?” Clinton responded: 

I want us to invest in you. I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure, in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy, and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business. We also have to make the economy fairer.

The first and ostensibly salient solution to a lack of job security in the US is not making the economy fairer—that comes later and it rings hollow with Clinton’s known affiliation with and support from many people who make a living making the economy less fair. Rather, the primary solution presented here is infrastructure (of a tech-related kind?), advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, and small businesses (tech-startups?). Of course, Clinton didn’t clarify what she meant by infrastructure and small businesses, but it’s clear that these are tech-laden terms. And nobody questions the implicit connections being made here: more technology means more jobs and more jobs mean more security and prosperity. This is basic economics implicitly infused with technological optimism.

Now, consider Donald Trump’s response to the same question. After the classic cut taxes move, and buried beneath his xenophobic postulations, Trump, in his own characteristically obscurantist way, also references the building of technological infrastructure as a solution to the US’s economic problems:

Under my plan, I'll be reducing taxes tremendously, from 35 percent to 15 percent for companies, small and big businesses. That's going to be a job creator like we haven't seen since Ronald Reagan. It's going to be a beautiful thing to watch. Companies will come. They will build. They will expand. New companies will start. And I look very, very much forward to doing it. We have to renegotiate our trade deals, and we have to stop these countries from stealing our companies and our jobs.

Intriguing. For all Clinton and Trump’s violent disagreement the one thing they can agree on is that the expansion of technological infrastructure will naturally produce socio-economic stability.

While these statements could be interpreted as passing remarks in a broader political discourse, I would argue that they speak deeper volumes about the centrality of technology to politics today.

To further reinforce this explorative thesis, let’s look back upon Obama’s presidency to see what a reflection upon its legacy might yield. If two terms of the Obama administration has taught us anything about where politics is and where it is going in the West it has taught us that technological-know-how is a critical factor, if not the critical factor, to winning votes and retaining public favour.

This is why it comes as no surprise that Obama’s publicly-stated post-presidency move will be to venture capitalism in Silicon Valley; why his calculated exit from office seeks to install the image of a technologically innovative legacy; why Obama freely discusses Washington’s so-called tech-problems with Fast Company; and, why Wired has announced that Obama will guest edit its November issue. These press releases are more than topical waves on the surface of a deep political ocean. These are the deep technological currents which stir up the waves we see on the political ocean’s surface.

It is here that the thought of sociologist-theologian Jacques Ellul becomes relevant. Ellul uncovers the reality of politic’s increasing captivity to technology, and in turn, suggests how theology might constructively respond to this precarious phenomenon. In his second of three major works on technology, The Technological System, published in 1977, Ellul observes:

The enormity, the complexity of [political] issues make the politician highly dependent on research departments, on experts who assemble dossiers. And once the prepared decision has been submitted by the politician, it escapes [them], and the agencies take care of implementing it. And we know that today everything depends on implementation. The politician has a facade role, [they] provide the showy front; and [they] also assume responsibility for a matter of which [they] have only a very shallow knowledge.

Ellul explains why this is so:

The reason for [such a] system is technological growth. On the one hand, if the state is expanding its jurisdiction, then this not the result of doctrines […] but rather of a kind of necessity deriving from technology itself. All areas of life are becoming more and more technicised. In proportion, actions are becoming more complex, more intervolved (precisely because of extreme specialisation).

Hence, as political problems become more complex in a globalised world—that is globalised precisely because of technology—technology itself becomes the primary means of negotiating the dense web of problems—political, social, economic, or otherwise—and how those solutions will be affected materially in the world.

The upshot for our discussion here, then, is that the politician and their administration (i.e the state) is forced to resort to an expression of politics that is inherently technological. Politics becomes techno-politics. And it is here that visions of Obama, Clinton, and Trump, and their respective rhetoric and strategy begin to materialise. These people aren’t technocrats so much as they are beholden to technology. But either way, the politician who knows this truth and acts accordingly is now the model politician of our day.

Agree or disagree with Ellul’s thoughts and my deployment of them here, one has to at the very least grant that technology has become a critical factor if not the critical factor in politics and the work of the politician today. And if this is granted, this warrants serious critical thought.

Now, what might theology have to say to all of this? I would like to submit, provisionally at least, that theology has a great deal to say on the subject; that whomever has been elected president of the United States by the time this post is being read, we ought to revisit, or encounter for the first time, the theological edge of Ellul’s work. Here’s Ellul in his earliest text, Presence in the Modern World:

Absolutely everything, even the slightest details that we consider to be indifferent, must be called into question, reviewed in the light of faith, and examined from the perspective of God’s glory. It is on this basis that we may be able to discover within the church a new Christian say of living—intentional and true.

Technology has become so basic to our everyday existence that many of us cease to question it, even if, like in the West, technology ceaselessly is cited as the means to guaranteeing the type of life that politicians assume that we want to live. And yet, as Ellul suggests, those who follow Jesus and gather in the church are called to a different way of living; a way that is directed to a different end than that of techno-politics:

For Christianity to have an entry point in the world today, it is ultimately less important to have an economic or political theory, or even political and economic positions, than to create a new way of living. It is quite evident that the first effort occurs through faithfulness to revelation, but this faithfulness to revelation can be embodied only in this creation.

Perhaps politics, technology, and economics will play a role in this new way of living. In our time, these will be areas that all people, including Christians, will have to think critically about and respond to intentionally. But, as Ellul contends, all of these considerations should follow at a far distance from the disciple’s and the church’s first task of discerning how it is that God is revealing a new way of living in the here and now. Today.

So… whomever’s elected and whatever they propose as solutions to the problems we face today, let us not rely on technologically reliant politics to determine this new way of living. Let’s rely on Jesus to reveal that way.

 

Update, written following the announcement of the Election 2016 results:

When Donald Trump shockingly defied formal polls, media forecasting, and general public expectation after becoming the forty-fifth president elect of the United States, it was very, very, tempting to revise this article. I found myself asking (in an existential crisis sort of way): of what consequence is a theological discussion of techno-politics when it is eclipsed by the basic reality that a well documented racist and misogynist individual who has no political experience has been elected as the next president of a country with the most lethal arsenal in the world?

Amidst the media prophecies of impending doom and wild blame assigning in respect to how something like this could happen, it did initially seem as if such a discussion was inconsequential at best. However, as I thought through the personal panic and listened through the blasting echo chamber of media noise, I became convinced even more that the basic thesis of my article stands firm: politics is no longer the art of the possible, it is now the work of the technical. Unfortunately, the election of Donald Trump proves this.

As I pointed out in the initial piece, the one thing that Clinton and Trump could agree on was that technology was the way forward. Where they differed on the subject, however, was their application of that truth: as pointed out in a brilliant article by Glenn Greenwald, Clinton seemed destined to carry out the techno-policies established by the Obama administration which would reinforce the power of those who are already in power, while Trump, who, let us not forget, is a media celebrity, seemed to promise to the public a drastic overhaul (destruction) of a (technical) system that actively was excluding and exploiting those who are not in power. Moreover, whether one agrees with Trump’s rhetoric or not (hopefully you do disagree with it), it is clear that he was adept at identifying trends of opinion and emotional currents and exploiting them in a way not unlike a technician pulling levers and pushing buttons. That is to say: Trump wagered that his technical strategy would beat Clinton’s. And it did.

So it is here that I return to comments made by Jacques Ellul. Ellul observes in Ethics of Freedom:

Face to face with the complex determinations which pressure man in today’s society one of the most dangerous illusions is to confuse freedom with the fight against dictatorship. To be sure, dictatorship is alienation and ought to be resisted. But the real dictatorship today is that which has its origins in the labyrinthine web of psychological, sociological, and technological conditionings.

If we gaze only at the representative, the figurehead, of a dictatorship—whether it is a full blown dictatorship or a dictatorship in the making—we detrimentally neglect the underlying currents that made and make such a threat to freedom possible. Yet, if we peer through the countless empty images and listen through the half truths, we begin to see a full truth emerge: Trump has been elected and has to make some serious decisions. For better or worse (probably worse), technology is going to be what helps him make and effect those decisions.

Again, it is time for the church to think about a new way of living in light of these current socio-political realities.