The Common Good
July-August 2001

God is My Palm Pilot

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann, David Batstone | July-August 2001

Extended content available only online.

Questions, both critical and vexing, about the role and impact of technology on our society, and the church, and on Sojourners itself have arisen among our staff and board. They are questions with immediate practical import, but also broader implication. How do we think biblically, theologically, and critically about technology? Is it simply a "a social given" in which we must work?

Given the way GenXers are experienced and wired, is this the medium of choice, or only possible medium, for discipling and movement-building among them? What indeed is the connection between Web/Net technology and social movement? What are the possibilities? the seductions and traps? What is the connection between this technology and market mentality? the connection to globalization and the commodification of human life? Can it create community and commitment or does it eviscerate, virtualize, minimize, and disembody them? How does it create new communities of discourse, bringing marginalized voices to the table, and how does it further widen the gap between the accessed "haves" and "have nots"? Should we be resisting certain technologies? creating alternatives? generating social capital and movement outside their framework?

Sojourners executive editor David Batstone is a professor at the University of San Francisco, founder of Business 2.0 magazine, and is actively engaged at the intersection of technology, business, and ethics. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor and director of SCUPE (Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education), one of the country's foremost expositors of "powers" theology, and the editor of Keeper of the Word (a compilation of writings by William Stringfellow). The two of them began this conversation at a meeting of the Sojourners board of directors, then continued it via e-mail in the exchanges that follow. -The Editors

Dear David,

It is astonishing to me how little critical and theological thinking concerning technology, particularly information and communication technology, seems to go on in church circles. As largely foot-dragging institutions now lead by Boomers, I suppose when they finally move, churches are necessarily playing cultural catch-up, rushing to jump on a techno bandwagon they fear to have missed. The Methodist clergy journal recently devoted an issue gushing with the possibilities of building up the kingdom technologically, with only a single cautionary article, (perhaps surprisingly) by an African American GenX seminarian.

I do notice several persistent and, in my view pernicious, assumptions. One is that this technological realm, the cyberworld let's say, is simply the new social reality, virtually the "given" world in which we are all now inevitably to live and move and have our being. Corollary to that is the notion that this world is emerging so rapidly that there is no practical time, never mind the need, to stop and think about where it is headed, how it's shaped and would shape us, and if there are actually other ways to go. The only question seems to be how quickly we can upgrade and adapt. A further assumption, that I hear even in our own circles, is premised on the alleged technological neutrality. "It's only a tool," or "Technology isn't good or bad in itself, it's all in how we use it." (Noticeably, the same thing the NRA says of guns).

This latter may actually be intended as a kind of realism buffering and countering the messianism and mystification that accrues to technology, the sacred saving power with which the technological fix is culturally infused.

All of these, however, seem to me incredibly naive-particularly in the mouths of biblically and theologically literate people.

Let me try with you a different theological assumption (and eventually, perhaps, some of its corollaries). It's this: Technology is best counted among the fallen principalities and powers and hence moves with a life of its own. Human beings who wield these tools (be they PC owners or software kings) imagine they are in the driver's seat, granted greater control, but they are in fact driven. They are wielded by mechanisms of efficacy and speed. They are in the grip of and at the mercy of their own "tools." In the alienation of human beings from God, they are at once alienated from themselves, their social constructions, their own powers, as it were. The critical helplessness of the church before the onrush of these forces may be emblem of this drivenness, though it seems to be read as a wave of sunny optimism to be caught.

Jacques Ellul has best articulated these mechanisms, these ironic reversals, these logics of necessity in which we are bound. "In this terrible dance of means which have been unleashed, no one knows where we are going, the aim of life has been forgotten, the end has been left behind," Ellul wrote. "Humanity has set out at tremendous speed-to go nowhere." And yet Ellul also championed an ethic of radical freedom. At root, is technology a power taking us for its ride?

-Bill

Dear Bill,

Sojourners began over 30 years ago out of a close-knit community in Chicago. That group of inspired young people hoped to spread their vision for a more just society, and they chose a particular technology, a magazine, to spread their message and to draw dispersed communities together in a common cause. (It's easy to forget how radically the printing press has shaped culture in the modern era). A magazine was more affordable than other communications technologies (say, radio or television) to a group of poor seminary students, and certainly more accessible as producers of culture.

But today, new technological innovations are emerging that shift our strategies of how we can best accomplish the same goals that motivated the first group of Sojourners. That is why I describe Sojourners today as a media communications network, a bundle of nerve fibers that connect nodes of distinct actions around the world.

You raise the issue of accessibility. It's remarkable that Sojourners today has affordable access to communications technologies that allow us to send a message-in text, audio, or video no less-out to hundreds of millions of people. Whether they wish to receive those messages is another question, of course. But I assume you're more concerned about access for those who don't have computers. In other words, are we becoming more elitist? But isn't a magazine elitist as well? It excludes the millions on this globe who are illiterate. Less obvious, the cost of transporting a print magazine outside the borders of the United States raises a high barrier. Many people from India and Latin America now read Sojourners online or receive our weekly SojoMail at no cost. A magazine subscription, on the other hand, was beyond their means. They are thrilled to be connected to a global movement, bound to a common cause.

If I follow your argument, our obsession with efficiency and speed ("technique" as your mentor Ellul would call it) is intrinsically embedded in technology and leads us to lose a sense of the natural order of things granted us by our Creator. The danger goes beyond the hubris of a rebellious human will, but is more deeply spiritual: You deem technology to be "a fallen principality and power" over which we have no control. You have a palpable fear that a new wave of technical innovations is causing us to lose our humanity.

Your comments remind me of a period several years ago when I worked in Latin America with peasant farmers. One year the Salvadoran government legislated daylight savings time. The peasant farmers rejected it, because it violated what was "natural." Whenever we organized a meeting for, say, 4 p.m., the campesinos would ask, "Is that 4 government time or 4 God's time?" The irony: What they accepted as "God's time" was in reality already a human construct made to order social life.

Aren't we doing much the same thing when we denounce new technologies today as a threat to God's order? I think it's much truer to say that we have made peace-theologically and ethically-with the technologies that accompanied the industrialized society. Today's new technologies potentially will alter those social structures, but I don't assume that we will be worse off for the experience. Sometimes yes, sometimes no; the verdict is a matter of spiritual discernment.

It could be argued, in fact, that human beings have been pursuing "efficiency" ever since our ancestors lived in caves and hunted other creatures for their survival. I wonder when, in your estimation, the "fall" of technology occurred?

I recall a Buddhist once challenging my work in Latin America: "By introducing new techniques of agriculture and health care, aren't you simply fueling the illusion that material life ultimately matters?" I must admit, there's something compelling to the argument that technology often manufactures desire, and desire masks itself in significance. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful that my four children will in all likelihood grow into adulthood, leading active and creative lives. Is it an illusion or a gift to offer a different future for poor campesino families who watch two out of every five children die of malnutrition or disease?

We both are puzzled, and concerned, by the placid, acritical acceptance of new technologies. I too believe we should carefully weigh how these technologies will shape us. We make those choices in my family. We do not bring TV reception into our home, for instance. I see television as a potentially corrosive force in our home. On a personal and social levels of being, we must bring our values to bear on the adoption of technologies, new and old.

-David

Dear David,

I take it your answer is, No. You don't believe technology has a "life of it's own." You'd say it is merely a social construction over which we exercise relative direction and control. (I know you'd at least have a critical economic analysis that the "we" includes enormous commercial structures distinct from humanity as a whole). Nonetheless, this is indeed a difference between us.

I remain convinced it's crucial to begin by stepping back and looking at the power of technology itself, to examine our assumptions, to bring theology to bear on our commitments, whether those concern watching television or building faith-based social movements. I see the connection between theology and practice as not so much a "leap" as a necessary and continual conversation. Yes, we need to talk particularly about concrete practices (about access, surveillance, commodification, as well as platforms and possibilities), but that talk (above all in our circles) needs to be informed by the accelerating domination which technology as such exercises.

Your example of the social naivete of Salvadoran peasants bears consideration. Daylight Savings Time is in fact not an arbitrary construction, but economically driven (and not necessarily according to the interests of poor peasants). Moreover, they may intuit that a government which can alter time could also mess with traditional relations to land and ownership. I've heard stories that during the Intifada, there were periods when the Palestinians were on different time than Israel. It became a tactic of non-violent resistance to be out of synch and the IDF would even smash watches not set on "Israeli" time. In the struggle for justice, might the Palestinians be thought to be on "God's time"? In ancient Babylon, exiled Israel lived on a seven day rhythm, spiritually out of synch with the Imperial calendar. The Sabbath was a social construction. Was God at work in the imperial resistance? Were they on God's time? In a sense, yes. Perhaps the Salvadorans simply intuited that there were powers at work beyond "arbitrary rationalism"-powers which were in fact assaulting traditional ways and which bore resisting.

Technology is indeed a social construction (perhaps the pre-eminent one, explicitly contriving more and more a self-made world-in distinction to social constructions more rooted and embedded in place and earth). But that does not mean it can't thereby be recognized a fallen principality. "The nation" is a construction, but understood biblically to have a "life" of it's own, standing before the judgement of God even in it's rebellion against that accountability. Even movements (talk about a social form with a life of it's own!) for which we spend our lives laying ground, may be understood as fallen principalities.

One of the most provocative statements about technology "out of control" (slipping the grip of human accountability if not divine) has recently been made by software maven Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems. (See Wired, April 2000). Hardly a Luddite, but shedding his own previous "naivete," he argues that a ensemble of technological innovations (nanotechnology, bio-engineering, and increasing processor speed) make sentient robots a real possibility, one which might crowd humans off the planet and out of existence in the next 30 years. He makes comparisons to the atom bomb project (breakthrough technology unleashing a nightmare) and puts the case for a kind of Hippocratic oath for software programmers. This is not theological reflection, but it does suggest some of the mechanisms by which technology assumes literally a "life" and "power" all it's own. I know you're aware of the brief stir he generated in popular culture and that you think highly of Joy. Doesn't his vision of dystopia not bear directly on our conversation?

-Bill

Dear Bill,

To the contrary, I do believe technology has a "life of its own." Perhaps you're confused because I obviously don't buy into either of the prevailing cultural myths that wrap themselves around that belief. You accept one of these stories, and couch it persuasively in theological terms: technology is a fallen principality, beyond the reach of human and perhaps even divine control. As such, advances in technology undermine traditional values and produce social alienation.

The same myth has secular clothes. See if you don't find much to agree with in this point of view:

"...The human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all the machine's decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones....People won't be able to turn the machines off...."

That last bit was written by Ted Kaczynsky. Bill, I don't intend to tar you with the same brush as the Unabomber. But it's worth citing, because Bill Joy-in his now famous Wired story, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us"-quotes liberally from Kaczynsky." Joy practically credits Kaczynsky's argument for accelerating his fear of technological dystopia.

I find the other prevailing technology myth equally if not more dissatisfying. It also looks at technology as an irresistible force. You know it: Technology has enabled the human family to survive and thrive despite the threat of a capricious nature. It extends our ability to act beyond our physical limitations. Each new technical innovation has represented a progressive leap forward toward a better future. Faith in technology means faith in the future, today's crises be damned.

I'm grateful if I can get my computer to work smoothly for an entire day without crashing. So I'm not about to bow before technology as a panacea for the world's problems. At best, technology unleashes fresh dilemmas for every set of new efficiencies it delivers.

Technology is no more neutral, or controllable, than history. "We do not ride the railroad," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "it rides upon us." In other words, what comes before us, and happens in front of us, is not merely the product of our own hands. Technology, as much as history, moves beyond the will of any one individual or one generation, forcing us to make choices and lay tracks. Yet I don't assign it the same teleological (inherent good or evil) character that you and others assume.

Like Bill Joy, I am frightened when scientists and engineers give acritical acceptance of whatever new technology lies in front of them. We make moral choices not only when we decide how to apply technology, but also in designing the pursuits of our research. Joy is especially concerned about research in nanotechnology and robotics, areas of research where the enthusiasm for what may come to be far outpaces caution over what it would mean for our social environment, and how we might protect ourselves from innovations run amok. All the same, neither Bill Joy nor I would call a halt to all technological development. Technology, like history, is messier than that.

So what does it mean to be spiritually alert in an age of technology? It means being conscious of the choices that are before us and where they are likely to lead. It means charting how knowledge is distributed and how to access it. It means learning the ideas, skills, and strategies that enable success in a given location. It means learning how to use the resources of local communities to establish leverage against dominant elites. It means intentionally creating the kinds of community that allow us to live with dignity. It means learning how to take care of people, not just people learning how to take care of themselves.

As for your position, I find it rife with contradictions. For starters, if technology is a "fallen principality" with a life all its own-beyond human and perhaps divine control-how can you then ask us mere mortals to challenge or even re-direct the force of technology in our day? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to build communities of resistance-like the Amish-and live an apocalyptic witness until all principalities be vanquished? Yet even that feels like a fated response to a diabolically autonomous principality.

-David

Dear David,

Of course I know the Kaczynsky quote, but only from Bill Joy's employ of it. He's using it not to tar anyone's position either (in this case it would be his own), but to jolt his readers with a provocative irony. As long as "might easily slip..." is operative, I can agree with it. While I'm fessing up, I'll acknowledge finding "The Matrix" a terrific film ("Wake up, Neo!") and trusting I won't be tarred with its glorification of violence either. My further caveat is that this is only one possible future, even only one possible dystopia. The very trouble with predicting technological futures is that, "with a life of its own," this sort of linear projection (as with any historical forecast, so you note) is dicey at best. My interest in Joy's argument is on several fronts:

1) One is practically metaphorical. I do think the sentient-robots-out-of-control might be considered a concentrated image of what we already have to less degree and on more diffuse a scale. The technological system itself has already a sort of 'logic' or 'intelligence' by which it moves. And the control of human beings over it is already mitigated. The robots strike me as an accelerated version of something already in process. The train riding us. (I like the Thoreau quote, but I'm not sure he was arguing for more care in laying the tracks.)

2) Joy spends considerable time on the fractured moral blindness of Oppenheimer and friends in building the first atomic bomb. This project and the subsequent nuclear arms race was my point of entre into the technological question (which may indeed color my lens)-trying to comprehend both the moral logic ("if it can be made it should be made") and the techno-logic it signaled (the arms race being driven not only by geo-political forces, by economic forces, by inter-service rivalry, but also by pure technological advance). One of Joy's most striking points there is that atomic development was at least ostensibly under political control. In the present case, it may be noted, brave new technological advance takes place almost exclusively in corporate labs, outside even the pretenses of civil scrutiny and constraint. This at the same moment that capital globalization (WTO et. al.) are sublimating local, state and "democratic" accountability. (Hence people taking to the streets). Where will technological "decision-making" any longer submit to human accountability? I can't believe I feel suddenly wistful and nostalgic for the nation-state. Even twenty-five years ago Stringfellow could hold that the imperial state was the "pre-eminent principality." No longer. That honor would need to go now to either the cabal of global corporations or technology itself-or better to their fusion in corporate technocracy.

3) As I read him Joy is not addressing his "robot-phobia" essay so much to the nano and biotechies as to his own community of software programmers. He "used to think" that by increasing software efficiency, speed, and accuracy he was doing a service to society. He's now come to doubt that. And sets forth the need for a new moral awareness, this sort of "hippocratic oath" I mentioned. I like his idea very much, but also find it somewhat limited. Programmers and chip-developers and the like are all working at such minuscule pieces of the system, that it's very difficult to foresee the consequences, even the immediate ones, of a particular improvement or breakthrough. This means asking programmers to step back, as Joy himself does, and think large about the system, its direction and pieces. To bring it home, the same is true for users. We on the market end of this stuff need to be critical not just of immediate social consequences of buying into a particular technology, of how it bites back on our own projects or but how it bears on the larger scheme of things, and even how the whole scheme of things may be implied it in. The critique must be large and deep. That's why I've pressed us at the beginning of our conversation to think teleologically, as you put it, or (dare I put it) theologically about all this. Maybe we need a critical and realistic "mythology." We need counter myths to expose the metaphysical presumptions of technology. Actually, I can't believe you count "powers theology" (or even the facile secular techno-phobia with which you identify it) as one of the prevailing cultural myths of our time. Even in the church, a biblical theology of the powers has been systematically suppressed by the myths of Modernity-the myths of Objectivity, of Rational Control, of Scientific Progress, of Technological fix. (I won't tar you with any of those, but I hope you don't imagine your thought escapes being wrapped in a cultural mythology. None of us do.) In fact, the bible's social critique of the powers has been suppressed since Constantine took over the Church in the fourth century. Jacques Ellul, to invoke him again, did attempt to keep his sociological critique of technology separate from his biblical theology. He wrote books on two separate and parallel tracks. One socially identified the mechanisms and logics (for example efficiency, automatism, self-augmentation) by which technology moves. The other traced a biblical theology pertinent to the same matters. Both stood alone. But in fact each informed the other dialectically. As to my theological contradictions-actually I embrace them. I am, however, more inclined to think of them as biblical paradoxes. At the heart of the gospel is a fundamental and scandalous contradiction, that the way of the cross and the freedom of the resurrection are one and the same. Others are like unto it: the powers of death rule this world, but Christ has unmasked and disarmed them; the fallen powers rule human life, but Christians as mere mortals are freed and called to engage them, even summon them to accountability. Radical pessimism with radical hope. Realism and freedom. Such like that. Truly paradoxical contradictions. I am preaching neither despair nor resignation. This freedom engenders a great variety of responses. I do consider resistance, even sectarian resistance, may indeed be among the tactics we'll need to employ. But so are street action, theological reflection, infiltration, reformation, subversion, combat, creative nonconformity, mythic unmasking, mass organizing, selective boycotting, moral thinktaking, shareholder proxy action, rooted local community building, among others. If accompanied by a thorough critique which doesn't imagine tinkering to be sufficient, I mean to include the very tactics you name-but not to be limited to them. Maybe this brings us round to the principles of discernment you employ in looking at any given technology. That's certainly the direction our conversation needs to move if we're going to get concrete about particular practices, about the relation of emerging technologies to church and movement and human community.

-Bill

Dear Bill,

Very much enjoying the dialog...what intrigues me is how much common ground we share, yet diverging at key intervals. Hence, I reckon it would be a mistake to present this as a pitched battle between a Luddite (which you're obviously not) and a one-eyed technology cheerleader (which I'm obviously not). That would make the discussion too predictable. What fascinates me in our discussion are the unexpected turns.

Your ruminations on Bill Joy and the impending future of robotics raises the vacuum of social accountability. I'm not so wistful for the nation-state, however. As you point out, the nation-state did not practice even a modicum of "democratic" responsibility in the development and deployment of atomic weaponry. It may be a mute point in any regard. I only see the future of a weakened nation-state vis-a-vis corporate technocracy. Of course, democratic social movements will still want to incorporate governmental bodies as part of coalitions; just don't expect them to lead the charge.

Honestly, I find it daunting to discern what technologies, or consequences thereof, we should resist. Imagine providing a crystal ball to ordinary American citizens of the mid-19th century so that they could see what industrialization would bring. Most would be horrified to observe the mobility of our lives today; for example, extended families rarely living in regional proximity. We, on the other hand, have accepted this social arrangement. Yes, we have misgivings, and hold romantic longings for an age past, but we really don't expect our children to stay within a five-mile radius once they became adults. My mother grew up on a farm in the Midwest, my father in a mining and fishing town in Canada. Both left home and became the first members of their families to receive a college education. They are both grateful for these opportunities. But perhaps our parents and grandparents, and we their children, have been duped. Mobility was the genesis of a new form social alienation, we just don't realize it. Surely our 18th century ancestors would have seen it that way, and would ponder how to resist the powerful wave of technology and economics inexorably moving them toward a new shore.

Equipped with this clear prescience, how should they respond? Complete resistance? The Luddites and other pockets of citizens took that path. Acquiescence? Clearly the vast majority of citizens felt powerless to do anything to stop the advance of the machine. And I think they were right, though that reality need not lead to acquiescence.

My tactic-a road unfortunately taken by far too few either then or today-is to build movements to democratize the application of capital and technology. The labor movement was one of the shining examples of the 19th century, of course.

In short, my point: we cannot control the forces of history (economic, technological, cultural), nor can we adequately predict their consequences. Some changes we will come to embrace, others we will continue to view as an enemy of humanity. But I can say with some confidence that minus democratic application and accountability, the majority will lose. That was true for the industrial era, and it will be the same for the dawning age of information: robotics, nanotechnology, and genetics.

-David

Dear David,

God knows I should be neither flip nor facetious about the nation state, particularly the nuclear-armed imperial state. You may be right indeed about it's withering demise, but I've spent too much of my life resisting it to actually imagine it would lead any sort democratic charge.

I'm glad you identify democracy as a struggle to be made over against and within the technological powers, rather than an inherent benefit of the decentralized and all-leveling net. There's a lot of that glowing talk out there. Net and web are already being reconfigured for control by the big market-minded portalmakers. (By the time those same gatekeepers fuse it with wide-band, big brother TV, they will have rendered your family's good moral distinction mute, no?)

Democracy has been under assault, probably from the beginning. The labor movement has been a light in the industrial era, though we should note and be warned: the strain which prevailed aided and abetted and bargained for the commodification of labor. And in the era of globalization it's mighty slow to understand it's own connection to local community.

That is the topic you do put your finger on which is close to the heart of our matter: rooted community. I'm of the mind that 19th century industrialism was a systemic and systematic assault on local community. There were those who saw and foresaw that-and indeed resisted, sectarian anabaptists being only one tactical variety. There were others, of whom Wendell Berry might be a current champion. I don't regard that continuing tradition as a "romantic longing" so much as an instinct and intuition truly inspired. And close to the heart of the work we need to be about in any genuine social movement today.

What I see is that new technologies are accelerating this selfsame assault at a frenetic pace. Globalization's dizzying dislocation has most of us "bowling alone" in the image of one commentator. Another: a whole class of us sitting or running, transfixed in solitary interactivity at some form of terminal all the day long. The chatroom becomes the ersatz community of this virtual world. Commitment is reduced to joining the listserve. A genuine hunger is sublimated and dissipated.

A Methodist theologian recently commented that eBay is the closest experience postmoderns have to small town America. To be honest, I couldn't tell if he was lauding something for the church to emulate or simply naming an excruciating need.

In the midst of this I do grant, to the great good, that voices long suppressed and ignored are coming online to a degree. One technological flipside of the global assault are these voices which may invite global solidarity. New communities of discourse are getting a hearing. Manifestly so.

But in the everywhere nowhereness of the conversation, all of us are being slipped of our own local moorings. The conversation (and the voices) are not only fragmented but cyberly disembodied and dematerialized. Our newly voiced friends become immediately subject as well. All of us are rendered politically and technologically vulnerable to precisely that degree.

For a gospel of the incarnation, this is a trouble. The prayer of any faith community (or any faith-based social movement) worth its salt is to know one another in the fullness of word made flesh. To know the hour and house (including its history) in which we gather. To pass the bread hand to hand in a circle. To know that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes and touched with our hands concerning the word of life.

Is this too romantic? It is the very thing I believe now under assault. And the question for us is will the technological means of social-movement-community-building which offer themselves in the name of connectivity and relationship, actually and virtually, subvert and undo the very thing we yearn for? The thing we pray to build.

-Bill

Dear Bill,

I confess my complete fascination with technical innovation. It was the driving factor that moved me to work with Silicon Valley companies even while I was teaching full-time at a university. Like a moth to a light, lots of creative people were attracted by the sheer stimulation of the communications economy. Oh yes, the unprecedented flow of money was a factor too.

But before long so many of us became disillusioned by the market mentality that dictates (and dumbs down) the development of so-called "innovation." First the Net, now that same hype puffing up the potential of wireless. Yet all those science fiction dreams yielded our ability to order a carton of dog food over the Internet; worse yet, making access to Playboy (and even more degrading pornography) easier then ever. Some revolution.

I haven't been quite as close to developments in robotics and biogenetics, but I observe equally romantic adventurers are finding their passion for discovery being diverted into commercially viable industrial applications and pharmaceuticals. At least it's not the Manhatten Project; more like the Sak's Fifth Avenue project.

I actually think we give technology more credit than it's due. Look at the Internet. We placed upon it so many of our best hopes and worst fears. But surely it's as much a mirror of who we are-and the powers embedded therein-than the womb of a new culture. The Net is basically a communication tool, pushing the boundaries beyond the telephone. It doesn't inherently create community any more than it obliterates it.

On the other hand, it intensifies some of the contradictions we face. While privacy did not arise with the Internet, it does make information more transparent and accessible. Just the other day I received an email from a stranger who shares my last name, yet lives far away in Newfoundland. He had plugged "Batstone" into a search engine, and up I popped. He was wondering whether we might be related. Turns out that our grandfathers were first cousins.

How remarkable to re-connect with a long, lost relative in such a coincidental way. Immigration separated our families-and technology certainly played no small part in accelerating immigration in the twentieth century-yet now we're reconnected in a way only possible via the Net. Then again, how scary to realize I am so personally vulnerable to being known.

But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that technology threatens our privacy in unparalleled fashion. In El Salvador during the civil war of the 1980s, the local village spy was a bigger threat to neighbor peasants than any sophisticated piece of technology. Betrayal always seems to find its tools.

The accessibility of information can empower citizens to become a force for corporate and state accountability. The Scorecard, a Web site launched in 1998 by the Environmental Defense Fund, provides one such model for effective citizen action. Industrial plants nationwide are required by law to report the type and amount of chemicals that their facilities emit into the air, water, and landfills. At the Scorecard site, citizens can access that data by zip code. Scorecard users also are given the option of sending a free fax-form letters are provided-to the plant manager of an offending company. As environmental activists learned long ago, public humiliation can be an effective tool for reducing pollution.

All the same, it worries me that most of our most important technology decisions are made within corporate headquarters and the tacit politics of the economic marketplace. I try to get behind movements that give citizens a say in the pros and cons of new technologies, as well as overseeing, and if necessary, regulating, their development. Maybe it's ironic, but I think the Amish might be the best model for integrating technology into our lives. The Amish engage in an intensive public discussion and democratic ratification before new technologies are adopted. While they do not reject all modern technology, the Amish recognize that some are more threatening to their community and its values than others.

That's certainly the process we use in our family. We exclude most forms of entertainment technology (TV, play stations, etc.) from our homes because it drains creativity and more interactive time together. But we have no qualms using vacuum cleaners, fax machines, and gas ovens. Judgment calls all.

But what works for a family, or a tight-knit religious community, is unrealistic for a society, right? Perhaps, but we can't abdicate all citizen involvement in technical research and development. The Dutch have a promising experiment in progress. The government has created a network of 50 public "science shops" that oversee investigations into technical developments. The science shops are set up to respond to the concerns posed by community groups, public interest organizations, local governments, and workers.

As has been the case since its birth, the future of a democracy depends entirely upon the commitment of its citizens to uphold certain virtues: freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom to realize one's own talents, freedom of imagination, freedom from arbitrary power, freedom to associate, and freedom to dissent. These values are even more vital in a world mediated by technical power.

-David

Dear David,

I think I know what you mean, and then some, by fascination with technology. I'm tempted that way myself. Even our critical thinking can be enthralled and transfixed by the spellbinding manifestations or personal experience of power, speed, and recombinant possibility. You may know that "fascinate" is what certain snakes do to their prey to bind them passive and still for the strike. I'm becoming convinced that fascination is one of the primary methods of current political rule, perhaps outstripping even fear, despair, addiction, and the reiteration of lies. Under its mesmerizing charms we willingly hand over our freedom for a mess of technological potage.

Your deprecation of the Web/net as a poor revolution of dog food and pornography surprises me, since I thought you regarded it a splendid new platform for social movements. In fact, I want to say something about that since the possibilities are truly fascinating. The net's (perhaps temporary) decentralized inter-connectivity seems to lend itself almost naturally as it were to movement-building-or at least to network generation (I do make an important distinction between the two). Links and enhanced communication are patently good things on the face of it. And the net has played a role in some momentous movement events from Tiananmen Square to the WTO resistance in Seattle. I have a few thoughts as to the latter. One is to underscore that the equivalent of the net/web (with appropriate corporate firewalls) is in fact centralizing global capital. Money now moves about the planet at the speed of light utterly indifferent to national borders (more or less rendering local, and even national, democratic structures moot as we've already discussed). But global corporatization can't withdraw its markets completely into cyberspace (some were predicting this for a while, even forecasting the practical disappearance of cities!) Globalized capital must have its feet on the ground at certain points (the new global cities with their specialized infrastructures are one set of these) and for now the international reconfiguring events (even if they are planned more and more for Caribbean Islands) require face to face meetings. One can imagine the day when those decisions above and beyond human or democratic control are made not simply behind corporate closed doors, but behind the firewall in cyberspace (try breaking in there with signs and chants!). But for now, on the ground.

My intuition is that one of the unspoken driving forces of the Seattle events was that all these new groups who researched so thoroughly and organized and acted in cyberspace were fed up and exhausted by keyboard and mouse action and finally ready to try some body politics, to be in the streets. (I make this entry on Good Friday so I'm particularly mindful of the political Body parading through the streets.) One danger of net preoccupation in movement-building is that it tempts a reduction of political commitment to a mouse click. Click, and off goes a fax to the polluter's office. Click, and I've joined the net work. Click, and I have form letters sent to my congressperson. Meanwhile, at the congressional office someone clicks and my appropriate predrafted reply is commended back to the mails. These mutually generated letters are counted increasingly, by both of us, weightless moral exercises. Commitment is technologically thinned, eventually rendered all but meaningless.

I don't think it just old-fashioned to say that movement finally means putting our bodies somewhere, or as Phil Berrigan has earned the right to say, our "asses." With others. Be it in active nonviolent resistance to corporate globalization, the militarization of space, the assault on the planet, or the just plain murder of children. Of course and simultaneously we enjoin, also in the body, the construction of alternatives for a new society in relationship and community-"social capital" as it's sometimes misnamed.

It is really in this connection that "privacy" as you put it, or "surveillance" as I would, becomes decisive. If we're not building a movement that will sometimes, perhaps often, include social disruption and troublemaking, then never mind. Click away. But if the movement we are working toward includes such things, then embedding ourselves in the technological surveillance network seems just plain silly. People a mere two decades ago would be utterly astonished at the degree of surveillance to which we have so quickly succumbed, largely in the guise of marketing, but all feeding the centralized corporate databases. People today trade information about themselves for dogfood, groceries, frequent flyer miles, internet access, and the like. The FBI used to copy licence numbers at meetings, go through people's garbage, get permission (well usually) to tap phones, break into offices to steal mailing lists. Now they just download it, while cars broadcast their own location to the Northstar system, and the NSA sorts through email envelopes straight off the satellite. And the days are shortly at hand when, in the name of our own personal security, our computers (in whatever form) will require biometric identifiers, digitalized identification technology like voiceprinting and retinal scanning, just to get signed on to our hotmail. You know I'm not making this up. (Never mind when the computers are embedded directly into our brains, or ours into theirs). I've read your comment that "ironically, the best privacy protection may arise from the market itself" in the form of new technologies and software. But when pray tell, little by little no doubt, did privacy cease to be an erstwhile right and become a pricey commodity? You are correct that there has always been surveillance. Judas lifting his cup at the table in Jerusalem, Salvador, or Detroit. But this is indeed qualitatively different. Today there is no Judas at all, just the system itself. And to be utterly frank, the movement which has logged on, is altogether unlikely to be the troublemaking sort. Perhaps that is the very decision we're now making. That becomes the question for me.

And the next is like unto it. What sort of human being is this technology, or alternatively our movement, nurturing?

-Bill

Dear Bill:

My observations about the trivializing use to which communication technologies are so often put does not dampen my enthusiasm for the potential of the medium. Whether it's Seattle, Chiapas, China, environmental activism, distribution of AIDS drugs, or human rights alerts, the Net has shown itself to be an effective organizing tool.

It's just a shame that it's so underutilized. Not only in terms of reach, but also as a form of cultural expression. Up to our recent moment, most other electronic media flowed in one direction only. It was a world of producers and consumers; players with sufficient capital resources produced content for the sake of consumers. While the issue of "sufficient capital" has certainly not disappeared, the cost of becoming a producer of content has dropped considerably. Producers now consume and consumers produce. At least in theory. It's still puzzling to me that most people spend considerably more time on average with a "dumb" technology like television than smart technologies that exercise imagination, intelligence, and interactive communication. Why watch an inane sitcom when you and your family can make a half-hour drama at home and send it to your adoring audience, family and friends?

You're too quick to shift the blame to corporate capital and irresistible forces of commercialism for my liking. While I'm loathe to minimize how deeply we're shaped by global capital and commercialization, how can we pass over responsibility for the choices we make as individuals and local networks. Why do so many of us prefer the trivial, the inane, the material over more meaningful activities? Why do we continue to believe that what we buy makes us who we are when our emotional and spiritual radar tell us otherwise? Neither do I see anything particularly insidious about the technology. The Buddha gave a term for our propensity to give permanence to something that only breathed only on the air of our superficial desires: dukkha. More than two thousand years later Jesus spun imaginative parables to expose our misplaced values.

But I do not fear technology as much as I do the seemingly universal impulse to own what we cannot, and should not, desire. Granted, commercialized technology feeds off that desire for the new; the shallow promise that a new day is at hand, ushered in by a new way of being. I still chuckle at William Burroughs' description of technology: "The brain in search of more body."

I embrace the future despite its challenges. I see no golden age behind me to which I'd hope to return, any more than I envision an apocalypse in front of me waiting to happen. Our technology is the body that our brains have concocted. Yet it cannot, and will not, escape the boundaries that fence in our histories. We are it, and it is us. I tremble with the implications of that statement. Yet I cannot help but feel it is true.

-David

Dear David:

"The brain in search of more body" is a striking phrase and in context might make me chuckle too. Here it pushes me to ponder the theological anthropology implied. What sort of human being indeed?

Just to play it out in the examples at hand: years ago Marshall McLuhan called television an extension of the eye. It was that. But as you articulate, it also has huge consequences on our humanity which are worthy of resisting. Not just because it programs our heads with violence or commodities (look at that reversal: a technological body searching out and colonizing more brains). But it dumbs us. Among the famous arguments against it are that it fragments reality into seven second sound bites rendering history disconnected and incoherent. TV's mesmerizing phosphorescence is bad for our bodies. And it habituates us in a spectator posture, inducing passivity (in that sense the medium is truly the political message). It's redundant images, be they lie or truth, pummel and harden our hearts. We have bigger eyes but can't see, wideband ears but can't hear, mouths but do not speak.

The network technologies you proffer as alternative are indeed participative with room for great creativity. I agree. However, they too have spiritual consequences to which we should be alert. Here the danger is not just the fragmentation of history, but of the self, of human being. Let me be unduly quick, oversimple, and suggestive. We now have a generation raised not only on TV, but on the web (the two soon to be indistinguishable). Never mind channel surfing, their hypertext world is boundaryless and they become accustomed to jumping at will or whim. Do attention spans shorten and thin? Participating in numerous network conversations, people "create" diverse personas; they fashion voices, sometimes many. I've already mentioned the potential dilution and dissipation of political commitment. In these personal electronic relationships folks may chat intimately without context or commitment. To what extent do lives and selves fragment? Wireless versions further penetrate every space of life, multitasking all activities and virtually preempting solitude. Does the center hold? When a human being exists as a nexus, what becomes of the integrated and authentic self? Is there not a different sort of political vulnerability in this kind of fracturing? These phenomena are just beginning to be observed and there are disparate opinions-some wildly enthusiastic about this liquid postmodern soul. Others are more cautious, urgently concerned.

I wish I could take more comfort in "it is us and we are it," though some trembling truth be in it. I remain as I began, too much of a theological realist, mindful of the fall and human alienation. It is us broken-broken off and biting back. I say that even irrespective of androids, borgs, sentient programs, and the genetically redesigned. All these Star Trek creatures this way come. Perhaps I'll prove an organic chauvinist in the end. But in any event the question will only persist and deepen: What does it mean to be human? God knows it's a gospel question. And by my lights one central to any movement worth the name.

I also know that's a question you honor. Thanks for thinking together.

-Bill

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)