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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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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.

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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. 

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