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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
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

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