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Author Archives: John Reader

About John Reader

Associate Research Fellow - William Temple Foundation

Book Review: Religious Experience and its Transformational Power, by Sabrina Muller

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Open Access and De Gruyter, Berlin, Germany. 2023. Pp1-x111. Pp1-243. ISBN: 978-3-11-100005-3.

As Muller says in her preface (vii), this is the text of her habilitation thesis of autumn 2021, made possible thanks to the cooperation of the 20 co-researchers who were part of this project. She also adds her thanks to the academics and examiners who supported this work throughout. At the heart of this book is the concept of religious experience and a focus on individual personal religious experience rather than on the collective and institutional dimensions. Specifically: “the explorative, empirical study presented here is a search for traces of how young urban adults understand and interpret their religious experiences and relate them to their everyday lives” (P3). Muller refers to three key theologians to validate this approach: William James; Friedrich Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich and goes on to explore their contributions at later stages in the text. As a practical theologian she admits that the concept of religious experience can only ever be fragmentary and incomplete and must be contextualized (P5). As a result, this study is inductive and discursive and represents a narrative, practical theology from below.

In greater detail as Muller explains: “Specifically, I empirically investigate how and why urban people perceive their experiences as religious and how they categorize them and put them into language. In addition, I ask inductive questions about transformation logics in religious processes, which can be mapped, for example, concerning self-perception and perception of the world, identity or personal theologizing. Based on this, I reflect on theological implications and action-guiding principles for practical theology” (P6). The structure of the study reflects this broad agenda and includes sections on sensitizing concepts; grounded theory; detailed responses to the surveys and then a more theological summary of the results, in particular revealing the importance of the Christian concept of hope. Given her own experience as a pastor and youth worker, Muller is accustomed to both listening to and interpreting the experiences of others in this context.

As already mentioned, Tillich is a key conversation partner in this process, particularly as he emphasizes the personal dimensions of the theological task. So commitment to context rather than detachment is essential. The theologian is determined by their faith (P8) as this is an existential engagement and cannot be taken to be purely theoretical. What follows is in no way “armchair research”, but fully engaged through one’s own personal experience and background.

The first section on sensitizing concepts is understandably detailed and demanding, particularly as there are different interpretations of “experience” within the German and English languages. The study refers to Aristotle, making it clear that introducing religion into the mix is itself not straightforward (P18). This is further developed with reference to Monasticism, Luther, and then into Pietism and Schleiermacher. The introduction of the German term “widerfarhnis” is important as it points towards a more life-historical setting than is familiar from a UK context (P21). It suggests that other disciplines need to be taken into account, notably sociology and psychology. The work of Ann Taves and the Alistair Hardy Religious Experience Centre at Trinity St David in Wales becomes part of this discussion. It is the relational and personal dimensions of religious experience that come to the fore in these debates.

How though does “the urban” feature in this project? Muller states that the phenomenon of urbanity has not often featured in practical theological discussion (P31) which I think those of us involved in the work of the William Temple Foundation in the UK might find a little surprising as much has been written about this subject, for instance, by my colleague Prof Chris Baker at Goldsmiths. But perhaps this reveals differences between practical theology in the UK and in Germany? Bauman’s work on Liquid Modernity and Spirituality are brought into the discussion, but one wonders whether the distinctions between the urban and the rural are quite as solid as sometimes suggested ? The role of the digital in creating virtual spaces becomes a factor which crosses those boundaries, for instance. As myself both a participant and leader in zoom church following the pandemic this reflects a practice which overcomes such a sharp division. As Muller notes, one result of this is that the influence of institutional religion is declining as the role of individual and personal religious experience begins to increase (P37). People are far more likely to interpret for themselves than to rely on external church authority or tradition.

The study then takes us in greater depth into empirical research into the prevalence of the urban and debates and controversy into definitions of “the City”.

The next section on grounded theory is a methodological excursus bringing into conversation qualitative social research and practical theology. Once again Muller draws upon Tillich as a source for this (P65). In terms of the actual research, the emphasis is upon co-researchers who were trusted to understand the nature of the exercise and to be a source of specialized knowledge during the data collection process. Urban young people who have had religious experiences in the Christian system of meaning were chosen as the focus group. The desired age group was between 15 and 25 years although 3 older people were also included (P70). Participatory Action Research provided an overall model for the process. This is then presented in considerable detail in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 continues with individual case presentations which include drawings as well as text. What emerges from this is that transcendence and interpretation are not mutually exclusive in the personal descriptions of religious experience, but that the two go hand in hand (P118). So any form of dualism is brought into question. An awareness of and relationship to God become central to this process. In the background to this is the idea of religious imprinting, understood as diverse and as a liquid phenomenon under the conditions of a pluralist and late-modern society (P121).

To what extent though and with what evidence can it be argued that this leads to changes in personal frames of reference, which, after all, is meant to be at the heart of the research project? Muller talks about “the aha moment” (P137), or the moment of happening ( “the penny dropping”?) the point at which the boundaries between the profane and sacred, the immanent and the transcendent are brought into question, particularly as it is often the profane places where the sacred begins to break through. The everyday becomes the locus of transition as God is experienced as present and alongside. “Religious experiences are perceived as something that gives hope and confidence in everyday life” (P154). This is the reorientation and shift in the frame of reference that emerges from the research, but rather than a linear event it is more of a circular-narrative process (P168). It is now possible to see both oneself and the world differently.

The final two chapters take us into more explicit practical theology territory which is another area where differences between a UK and German approach come to the fore. I am less familiar with the latter than I am with the former and this needs to be acknowledged. The experiences of recognizing and being recognized are central to Muller’s interpretation (P187), and these reflect the changing frame of references discussions which emerge from this research. Faith as an existential experience widens ones’ range of engagements and offers different perceptions of both the individual and the collective. This is closer to a “doing theology” approach with which I am familiar from a UK perspective (Laurie Green and my own “Local Theology” SPCK 1994 etc). This is where the “wilderfahnis” idea comes into its own, expressing a wider experience of the religious, one which is relational rather than institutional (P205). In turn this leads into a discussion of “Lived Theology” (P211) and other approaches which are close to a UK interpretation in the works of Astley and Ward. This is a practical theology “from below”, both contextual and liberating as it challenges more traditional and orthodox approaches which come from a Catholic rather than a Protestant perspective. As this is the approach on which I have been working for some years I am happy to sign up to this and to recommend Muller’s book as an excellent contribution to this contemporary form of theology.

Revd Dr John Reader. Senior Research Fellow. William Temple Foundation.

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Review of ‘Robot Theology: Old Questions Through New Media’ by Joshua K. Smith

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John Reader reflects on the philosophical questions and theological challenges of robots, embodiment, and human identity in Joshua K. Smith’s ‘Robot Theology: Old Questions Through New Media’ (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2022).

June 4th 2022 in the UK is the 4th day of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations but the news this morning is all about the events from which she will be absent, not surprising given her age! She had appeared for much of the event on screens projected at a great distance from the assembled crowds. Had there been the possibility of a robot or avatar replacement would that have sufficed instead? What is so important about the presence of the “real person”?  

It would seem that real people are in process of becoming an anachronism. Joshua K. Smith’s new book, Robot Theology: Old Questions through New Media (2022), addresses the question of how Artificial Intelligence and robots might become part of the theological vision.  

Smith suggests that the lacuna in the field of human-robot interaction (HRI) is firstly because Christians and theologians have a pessimistic view of human nature (3). This subject might be more appropriately approached under the heading of a critique of dualism and the division between mind or spirit and body.  A second explanation for this lacuna could be the widely held Christian belief in human exceptionalism and the doctrine of the humans made in the ‘image of God’ (imago dei). Smith suggests that humans are unique in terms of function, rather than ontologically distinct. I agree that these are crucial questions but would argue that they require deeper reflection, and could perhaps benefit from the concept of distributed agency, as well as ideas of human non-human assemblages (see my “Theology and New Materialism” 2017). 

The main aim of this book is to examine how robots can serve as a new media for theological and metaphysical discourse in an age of scientism (4). Humans and robots can work together for human flourishing if there is a balance between humans’ involvement and the morality of the machine. By making moral machines, we must give careful attention to how robots are designed to interact with humans. With this consideration, the telos of machine should be to aid the efforts of an array of religions and ideologies. Smith rightly suggests that technology is no mere tool but is in fact a profoundly religious ideology. What, however, I feel is lacking is a more robustly philosophical perspective. For, in his analysis, there is a danger of subsuming “technology” beneath a theological banner, which could be regarded as a form of biblical imperialism.  

In chapter one Smith argues that attempts to transcend human limitations through technology have been around a long time. What, he asks, is different about robots? How, following Jesus, can we respond to “the other” in the figure of robots (13). There is a danger of idolatry in human attempts to manipulate and control robots in search for identity and security.  For there is a temptation to turn new technologies into objects of reverence and worship (15). AI and robots will not simply change the world around us, but will also change the way we relate to each other. Does this not then require a new conceptuality? Smith correctly points to the dangers of a view of reductive materialism that would suggest these issues will be resolved through the scientific study of the material world.  

As AI must be embodied in mechanical computers,  and draws upon human user interaction and natural resources, there remains a danger of treating it as a disembodied agent, in which ethical values and responsible decisions are built into the machines beyond philosophical questioning. In the second chapter, Smith describes how Christians and theists believe that there are objective moral standards that point to actions or desires that are either right or wrong.  Despite grounding moral values in the Bible, he nevertheless demands a more nuanced investigation to ethical and regulatory guidelines (25). He writes: “We know there are God-given standards to what makes something good and just.” The problem of the Tower of Babel was, as Smith interprets, not that humans were collaborating through technology, but rather that they had desired to subvert their Creator through technological means.  

Technology is, Smith insists, neither innately good or bad. Rather each instance must be assessed according to the following three criteria. First, technology  must not conflict with God’s moral law. Second, technology must promote the Christian understanding of love. Third, technologies must foster the biblical concept of stewardship. And fourth and finally they must not oppress and limit liberty and conscience. (27)  

Any advances will come at a cost and no matter how tempting the benefits “we cannot subvert the design and decrees of the LORD”.  Smith further discusses familiar issues concerning responsibility, privacy, big data and the dangers of the control of technology (See Zuboff 2019, and Veliz 2021). Current approaches to AI and robot ethics typically assume a mechanical metaphysics, in which there is no room for the nonmaterial or the supernatural (37). We should, I suggest, seek to move beyond reductive materialism and form-matter dualisms by developing the insights of New Materialism(s), as perhaps a more promising source of critique in conversation with elements from less traditional religious sources.  

In chapter three on Christian anthropology, patiency and personhood, Smith argues that there may be ethical reasons to grant certain qualified entities negative rights and protections because to do so may positively impact conditions of human and environmental flourishing  (45).  There are, he suggests, four recognized forms of personhood. First, moral: this person is a moral actor and therefore a moral patient. Second, psychological: this person is sentient, can suffer and displays intentionality. Third, legal: this person can be the subject of law or exercise rights. Fourth, relational: this person is determined by the nature of relationship or character they play in the moral actor’s story (48).  

The next section is on robots and moral patiency. The key question is whether moral agency can be attributed to robots?  To do so, Smith argues, risks devaluing and dehumanizing humans through human-robot interaction. Not granting moral standing to social robots though is dangerous as to neglect this scholarship is to risk skewing anthropology toward a non-biblical perspective of the human person (57).  Social robots, he suggests, do not ever have to be moral agents or pass the Turing test. For when a robot behaves in ways that are similar to humans it is of no consequence whether they have an inner self, moral agency or consciousness. Regardless of these concerns, they deserve moral consideration simply because of the potential moral injury to the human counterpart. Is this not a watered-down version of human exceptionalism? Would not the conceptuality of human non-human assemblages be a more effective means of dealing with this? Is it not simply about interactions but about the ways in which both evolve and develop through relationship? 

It seems clear, in Chapter Four, that many current debates are trying hard to catch up with these developing issues, and it is not immediately obvious that an explicitly Christian or biblical perspective should have anything distinctive to offer.  Smith begins, in Chapter Five, with a section on the biblical idea of friendship or companionship supplemented with a study of modern philosophical and psychological views. Will human values and relationships be damaged or undermined by those with robots? There are issues of exploitation and manipulation for the benefit of the controlling party. He further discusses the dangers of surveillance and external control. Friendships with robots can, he concludes, supplement human friendships, yet cannot be considered as a substitute or replacement, as such a substitution would also undermine or devalue those relationships. Could there though not be examples where “friendships” with the non-human are more reliable and secure than those with humans? 

Smith begins Chapter Six with the biblical-theological understanding of race. Further brief sections include important yet well-documented concerns about inbuilt bias in the technologies. How and to what extent can governance and regulation counter these biases and how can the processes of development be engaged early enough to make a real difference? (See Evans and Reader address this in “Ethics after New Materialism” Temple Tract 2019 proposing a modest ethics). 

In Chapter seven Smith presents an important section on embodiment. He argues that the Christian tradition has, in its disdain for disembodiment, effectively made an unholy alliance with physicalism (121). There should, he argues, be room in the Christian metaphysics and ecclesiology for a qualified disembodied presence. Embracing strict theological physicalism seems to conflict with the biblical reality that presence is not merely about biological material or physical embodiment (123).  

Experiences during the pandemic have raised the issues of presence in a significant way and require further reflection, but attempting to interpret this through an exclusively biblical lens holds the debate in a straitjacket, and could alternatively be remedied by bringing in other sources and ideas. There are further concerns for the pastoral context, and the role of the remote or virtual as well as the presence of robots. There are also environmental consequences of disembodiment that need to be taken into consideration. 

In the brief conclusion, Smith reiterates the attempt to lay out some of the territory.  While this is an important task my main concern is that the subject requires a more fully developed interpretive framework drawing on philosophical as well as theological sources. 

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Postdigital Theologies Workshop

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On 1st October 2021 the Ethical Futures Group hosted a workshop at Trinity College, Oxford, for participants to share material which will form part of the content of a forthcoming book on the subject. Senior Research Fellow John Reader reports from the event.

10 people were present in person and another 6 at one time or another were present virtually, including two colleagues from the USA who made presentations. The technology worked well, and it is important to note this, as this hybrid workshop itself shows one of the positive impacts of the technology.

What do we mean by “postdigital”? Essentially, the “postdigital” indicates that we have now entered uncharted territory, where the task is to discern questions that need to be raised and to critically engage with both the positive and negative aspects of the digital itself. It is not possible to do justice to the depth and range of the rich content shared on the day, but only to articulate some of the more general themes that emerged.

First, it was clear that all share the concern that this area requires a greater depth of analysis and deployment of conceptual resources—both theological and philosophical. The world outside the churches is already well ahead and much ecclesiastical engagement revolves around the practicalities of employing digital technology in response to the impact of the pandemic. Whilst there is church involvement at a national level over matters of policy, at a local level the questions are largely pragmatic or still to be formed.

Second, there is a range of views on the extent to which the digital reshapes not just our practices but also our beliefs. Is it simply a matter of mastering a new “tool for mission”, in which case the question might be that of what is gained and what is lost in the process? Or is there a more profound re-shaping of what it is to be human underway, in which case there will also be implications for the divine assuming an incarnational theology? Most of the presentations worked on that basis and explored conceptual resources that might enhance that approach.

The issue of power was a constant throughout the day. Who controls the technology and in whose interests? Are we fully aware of the extent to which the Big Tech companies now determine developments and use them to exploit not only our data but also human labour at a basic level? Accounts of refugees being “employed” to operate digital systems in appalling conditions contrast with the affluence and comforts of Silicon Valley, for instance. Then there are the issues of privacy and anonymity and who “owns” our personal data. Even when congregations share online worship, they do not fully escape the intrusive elements of the technology.

What exactly is the relationship between the material and the spiritual in religious traditions? If we have an understanding of being human which assumes that we are embodied and embedded, then what are the implications for enacting the rituals which are central to the religious life? If all are “partakers” and participants, then what is the role and authority of ministers and congregational leaders? Does the digital enable a greater democratisation of worship and religious practices and beliefs?

Much time was spent exploring how the postdigital pushes the boundaries of belief in ways that might be more amenable to more radical theologies, by encouraging a transformation of our understanding of embodiment. Discussions of digital afterlife are one aspect of this, and the Foundation will be hosting a webinar on the subject at 5pm on 8th November. Are time and space both reconfigured by the digital, in which case notions of presence and absence, and indeed the sacred, come into play? Where then do we find the spaces—subversive and otherwise—where the divine might be mediated by the new technologies? Possible routes into a new postdigital theology included: notions of the sublime; understandings of the Trinity, which are potentially to be rediscovered through a computational theology; and encounters with “the Other”—technological, human, and divine.

Throughout, though, there was an awareness that the dominance of the Big Tech companies—now more like independent nation states than nation states themselves—leaves the applications of the digital open to commercial and political interests which exploit rather than enable. So, while wanting to engage positively with the new possibilities created by the digital and to explore the implications for what it will be to become human in this context, how do our institutions and societies guard against becoming unwitting pawns in this extractive and reductive form of materialism? If governance and regulation come too late to the party, what form of ethical approach offers a better safeguard and what understanding of the divine might support the critical distance that is required? The workshop was simply a starting point and a platform for further debate which will be developed in the book. Many thanks to those who contributed on the day and others who will write chapters but were not able to be present.

The extended deadline for submitting abstracts for consideration is now 1st November 2021.

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Review of ‘I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain’ by Anita Sethi

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John Reader reflects on Anita Sethi’s recent memoir, following both her internal and external journeys, and applauding her use of digital media to bring about new forms of public interaction.

This will not be a ‘normal’ book review, but then this is not a normal book. It is an exceptional book touching reflectively on themes that are central both to the work of the Foundation’s Ethical Futures Group, and more widely on how the UK perceives itself at this moment. In effect, Sethi, by pursuing her own very personal journey, presents us with a mirror of where we are now and how much needs to change. What follows are some of my own reflections on her reflections—as some of the ideas she shares resonate with the work of our own Ethical Futures Group.

In summary, Sethi sets out to walk across ‘the North’ as a response to being the subject of a hate crime while travelling on the Trans-Pennine Express in 2019. Her account of the incident, and references to earlier ones which she did not report, throws a shameful and disturbing light on the depth and prevalence of racism in this country, exacerbated by the Brexit process. This is her story to tell, though it is echoed in the experiences of many others. For those of us who have never experienced such discrimination, it is a story to take to heart and begin to understand.

It is also a story of hope, though, as by recounting her own journey, both the external one across the northern countryside and the internal one of coping with the trauma and anxiety brought on by this incident, she shows the importance of human connections to the ‘natural world’—and how caring for others incorporates our care for the environment.

Determined to establish for herself, and for others, that she belongs here, as a Mancunian and a northerner, she draws out the significance of the geological and geographical terminology which she encounters as she both walks and researches the areas which she explores. This includes places such as: Kinder Scout, with its symbolism of free and open access to all; Malham Cove; High and Low Force; Hull Pot; and travelling the Settle to Carlisle railway. Railways played an important part in her own family background, and she reminds us of the human cost of the construction of these vital networks of communication.

The walking is difficult and at times dangerous. She gets lost and then finds her own way through. Others accompany her or offer advice along the way, but some of this is journeyed alone with the vulnerability this might entail. Vivid descriptions of this bring the areas to life and ought to be read for their own value. Her engagement with nature is both therapeutic and links to the idea of ‘the sublime’—as found in Turner’s paintings and the writings of Burke and Kant from an earlier age.

Perhaps, though, it is the internal journey which is most powerful and demands our attention. As a woman of colour, she is acutely aware of being told that she does not belong here, despite being born and brought up in Manchester. Prince Charles, on meeting her, commented that she did not look as if she came from Manchester! Perhaps one should not be so surprised at this, but it sums up the deep-seated prejudice which permeates our society.

Not to be dissuaded by this, though, Sethi has deployed digital media to communicate and share her experiences. This is of great significance to the work of the Ethical Futures Group and brings together our concerns for both the digital and the environment. She records the original incident on her iPhone, which enables her to share and report it more effectively. She also recounts the funeral of a serviceman who died without family where the service was tweeted widely and enabled many to attend and pay their respects even though they had never known him.

So, Sethi’s work is very much ‘of the moment’ in that she uses digital media to bring important events and incidents to light to combat both racism and loneliness. This is an important insight into how the digital can be used to create those alternative public spaces that are so badly required in order to further the causes that Sethi herself espouses. ‘Yet the internet and social media can paradoxically both enhance connection and create a sense of isolation’ (p. 153). Therein lies the tension which characterises how the human interacts with and is itself shaped by the digital, just as the human interacts with and is shaped by the natural world.

The book is a powerful, disturbing, and yet hopeful read—and a journey that we each need to travel from different, but related, perspectives.

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To bury or to praise?

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John Reader responds to our recent seminar on ‘Spaces of Trust’ and warns of the dangers of binaries in a digital age.

‘I come to bury Caesar not to praise him’. So says Mark Anthony at the start of his funeral oration to Caesar—according to Shakespeare. Anthony, of course, was dissembling and playing on the emotions of those present to do exactly the opposite of his stated intention: to stir up the crowds and justify violent action against the perpetrators of the assassination.

But at the recent Foundation webinar on ‘Spaces of Trust’, the presentations on the role of ‘the digital’ correctly attempted to steer a path between either burying or praising the technology. One of the themes emerging from the webinar was the control of the language being deployed to describe the digital and to be able to challenge that from within religious sources. Both speakers talked about binaries: Eric Trozzo an apocalyptic binary in US politics leading to a sense of threat encouraging extreme responses or a resigned inertia; and Beth Singler about the binary in the language used to talk about Artificial Intelligence, where it is described as either good or evil—helpful robots or scary monsters.

In both instances, one objective would be to see if and how alternative metaphors, or language more generally, could provide a more nuanced and balanced public space in which to conduct debates about the digital. Trozzo referred to Catherine Keller’s counter apocalyptic and the opaque glory in the excess of the incalculable: that which remains beyond articulation as encountered in ritual for instance. Trozzo was advocating that we attend to the apophatic in Christian discourse—what Keller refers to as ‘the cloud rather than the crowd’. Singler, on the other hand, urged us to try to expose ‘the wizard behind the curtain’, to reveal the human agencies at work beneath both conspiracy theories and the operation of algorithms. The magic needs to be demystified, she said.

So, are we about to bury Caesar (the digital) behind the veil or to bring him (the digital) back to life as just another fallible human with dubious political motives?

One of the problems is that the debate itself is being conducted through the digital technology. Who speaks for whom and with what authority in this medium? The objective of the webinar, and possible subsequent ones, is to open spaces for debate in what is hopefully a trustworthy and reliable digital location, but the medium has its limitations. Engaging with high-quality presentations remotely and with limited time available is a challenge in itself. Much that might be said and reflected upon in a more relaxed and physically present setting tends to be lost in a focussed present where opportunities to comment and discuss are reduced to the instant and then probably lost. This, I would suggest, contributes to creating the very binaries that both speakers pointed to. Debate and discussion, let alone description, are reduced to simple and sharp points and responses that can be communicated effectively through this highly controlled medium.

I fear the same for matters of faith and practice, which are also now increasingly mediated through the digital and reduced to the readily articulable and accessible in a matter of moments. This makes it so much easier to create those binaries or polarities that both speakers referred to, and that is exactly what I fear politicians are deliberately trying to do through their use of the digital. It is much easier to manipulate the crowds and their reactions by appealing to emotional responses in the moment, as Mark Anthony was doing, when there is such limited opportunity for real debate and open feedback.

Helpful robots or scary monsters. Good or evil. My concern is that religious approaches to the digital can fall into the trap of these binary logics: the technology is either ‘faith-washed’ or else becomes a kind of scapegoat. And both of these polarised positions are so much easier to communicate through the digital itself, where the language and imagery is controlled by whichever wizard is behind the curtain, than when one has to present an argument face-to-face in an open forum.

Which brings us back to the intention of the webinars of trying to create a space of trust in which these debates can take place. The digital itself, as with all technology, shapes what becomes possible, and those who have grasped this first then use it to their advantage. How to counter this by using the digital becomes a major challenge. A simple appeal to an external authority is compromised when anyone can access anything through the internet, for instance, and in this apparent anarchy those who shout loudest or longest gain the best hearing.

Is it possible, even in restricted faith circles, to construct some form of order or discipline where boundaries can be recognised and agreed? Are the alternative metaphors found in ritual, worship and the physical spaces believers inhabit enough to counter subversive influences? The control of both space and time are surely critical if this is to be the case. The instant and immediate, which enable emotional manipulation, must be expanded into the extended and spacious to enable more measured and nuanced discussion of the impacts of digital technology, both positive and negative. Keeping the references circulating and preventing the premature closure of debates seems essential to this. Each contribution is only a beginning, or staging post on a journey, rather than a destination itself. What religious metaphors might lend themselves to this process? Pilgrimage perhaps? Moving out into the wilderness? Death and resurrection?

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Fantasy or Reality?

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In the wake of recent events in US politics, John Reader interrogates the role of social media in blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality.

One of the most interesting responses to the events at Capitol Hill on Wednesday 6th January was an article by Bruno Macaes in the City Journal the following day. His main argument is that what we witnessed as the event unfolded was actually roleplaying as much as a real coup, although this does not make this any less significant. Photos and selfies were shared across social media, such as that of a figure wearing a horned Viking helmet posing while his colleagues took the snap shots. He turned out to be a professional actor.

The full implications of this are still being played out, with President Trump now impeached for inciting insurrection at the Capitol building. But Macaes’ article goes on to suggest that this action took place in a kind of virtual reality and that our traditional way of relating to the world has increasingly collapsed. As Trump has attempted to realise any and every fantasy he cares to promote, and to turn his desires into reality, so the real world has become less and less real. We live not only surrounded by the internet, but inside it, and the institutionalised truth of the past has lost its hold. Hierarchical society, religion, the old elites, the natural limits of technology—all of these have now been swept away in the new America.

Macaes’ response to this is that all we can hope for are better fantasies. The best way to break the violence of this faction, he says, is to create a greater variety of interests and parties, presumably on the basis that the more there are to choose from the better chance that no one will gain a monopoly. He concludes that a political theory of virtualism still waits to be developed.

The recently departed philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler wrote much about the importance of dreams and intermittances—or opportunities for reflection—as the best antidote to the algorithmic governmentality that now pervades this postdigital age (The Age of Disruption, 2019). He does, though, also draw attention to the value of some religious practices which still respect and perpetuate the slow work of time, counteracting the speed at which digital technology functions.

But, is this enough? Are we to abandon talk of reality quite so readily?

My own view is that there would need to be some reference to an external reality to give this approach its validity. The suggestion that we have totally lost our bearings and have no means of discerning what is true or distinguishing between reality and fantasy surely needs to be countered. This is a matter of constructing both individual and public trust. It is the latter that appears to have been eroded by the deliberate deployment of social media by our politicians. If we cannot believe or trust anything we see or read any longer it does not matter what is said or that a statement one day can be contradicted the next. That is what we have now come to expect. There are no public standards of truth by which we hold our leaders accountable.

But this is to go too far. It is the harsh realities of our own daily lives that bring us back down to earth and prevent us escaping into someone else’s fantasy world. What is happening “out there” which appears to be external and disconnected from our local and inner worlds, does actually impinge upon our individual and family existences on a daily basis—especially so in the midst of the current pandemic. We are reminded that what each of us chooses to do in terms of social contact has a direct impact upon others and that we must minimise these contacts in order to protect others. We may be islands at the moment, isolated in our own bubbles, but this makes us even more aware of the extent to which we need those external contacts to offer us our identity and sense of self.

In theological terms this is surely about the importance of fellowship and community; our belonging to networks of relationships that ground us and enable us to critically assess those virtual realities or fantasies with which we are bombarded moment by moment. Rather than a proliferation of fantasies we need the more solid territory of trustworthy relationships to provide us with the bearings to navigate through the complexity and confusion. The crucial question is: who do we trust?

It has been instructive to read through the Psalms during the pandemic and to know how others have discovered their answers to this question. A shared resource from within the tradition that still speaks to our fears and hopes. But we can also still see visions and dream dreams as part of our communal activities.

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Review of ‘What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing’ by Ed Finn

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Senior Research Fellow John Reader questions the power of the algorithm in this review of Ed Finn’s book ‘What Algorithms Want’.

This book sets out to examine how computational systems are transforming the world in which we live and work, and to develop an “algorithmic” interpretation of the world (p. 5).

One means of doing so can be derived from the work of Ian Bogost who talks about our increasingly mythological relationship with software, in which we replace God with the algorithm and religious buildings with the “Cathedral of Computation”. A faith-based relationship with the algorithm is now trusted to guide us through the city streets, for instance, and indeed to answer most of the questions we have about life in general. Although we imagine that such algorithms are elegant, simple and efficient, they are actually sprawling assemblages involving many forms of human labour, material resources and ideological choices (p. 7). They may be perceived or presented as the pinnacle of Enlightenment rationalism, but our engagements with them function in a very different mode. The cathedral metaphor suggests that there is an ordering logic, superstructure or ontology for how we organise meaning in our lives—effectively a universal system of knowledge. In which case, the book argues, this is a significant and philosophically inflected development that demands analysis.

Chapter One sets the scene by investigating algorithms themselves. Algorithms are recipes, instruction sets, or a sequence of tasks designed to achieve a particular calculation or result (p. 17). The current focus of research is not so much how they work but rather about how efficiently they function. Most of today’s powerful technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are essentially “cultural wrappers for sophisticated algorithms” (p. 20). However, these algorithms have changed our world, and the belief that they are vehicles for unbiased decision-making is misplaced. Instead, what we are dealing with is “effective computability” and crucial for this process is the practice of abstraction. Yet every such abstraction has a remainder: that which is excluded in order to formulate a neat answer. According to Finn, the most important abstraction of all is the desire for an answer, and therein lies both the power and the fascination of the algorithm in contemporary society.

Gradually, we are beginning to grasp that the technology now makes decisions on our behalf, presaging the point at which it transcends humanity in its capabilities and range. This takes us, however, into the issue of implementation. Implementation presupposes both the capacity of the technology to shape our experience of the world and the human capacity to engage imaginatively with the technology as we develop it:

“implementation runs both ways—every culture machine we build to interface with the embodied world of human materiality also reconfigures that embodied space, altering cognitive and cultural practices” (p. 49).

Our desire for universal knowledge draws us into the power of the abstractions which determine the algorithms, but then runs the risk of excluding those other elements which don’t fit neatly into their efficient functioning.

Finn begins his next chapter with a description of how Apple’s virtual assistant Siri was developed and how it is designed to function:

“like so many other big data, algorithmic machines, it depends on a deep well, a cistern of human attention and input that serves as an informational reservoir for computational inference” (p. 62).

It navigates the world through ideas rather than syntax, but it is a station on the path to the quest for perfect self-knowledge. Anticipation is the key term in this discussion: the technology will tell you what you want before you have even worked that out for yourself. On the basis of its past experience of your searches it can predict and anticipate your next moves and desires. As Finn says:

“the Google culture machine is assembling a map that at times threatens to upstage the territory” (p. 74).

Chapter Five takes us into the realm of Bitcoin as an example of algorithmic arbitrage, this time in the field of finance and high-speed trading. Trust is being constructed by and through the technology but in a way that is very different from previous means of creating such relationships. The navigation and manipulation of the data become more important than the data itself, just as the functioning of whichever interface becomes more important than any relationship which might lie behind it. What are the implications of this for the public sphere and public life more generally? Now that the current pandemic crisis has encouraged more of us to resort to Skype and Zoom in order to be in contact with others both professionally and domestically, what is lost and what is gained in the process, and how much of this practice will be sustained once a different normality is resumed? How might this impact upon our understandings of democracy and ways in which this could now function?

Finn’s final chapter turns to the concept of algorithmic imagination. Can there be such a thing, and if so what would it look like and how would it differ from what we understand as normal human imagination? This depends partly upon how the technology develops, but also upon our own expectations of what works in human relationships. Could there be an augmented imagination bringing the human and the digital into ever closer assemblages? Finn remains essentially optimistic despite all his misgivings and argues for what he calls an “Experimental Humanities”—a discipline which requires a greater transparency into how algorithms are devised and deployed and a deeper intellectual engagement with the processes involved. Both of these principles seem vital if the technology is not to outrun the human capacity to exercise critical thought and to guard against the worst impacts of commercial manipulation.

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Review of ‘Future Politics: Living together in a world transformed by Tech’ by Jamie Susskind by John Reader

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Review of ‘Future Politics: Living together in a world transformed by Tech’ by Jamie Susskind

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Dr John Reader, Honorary Senior Research Fellow here at the William Temple Foundation, reviews Jamie Susskind’s bestseller and argues that wise and transparent restraints on our use of technology are needed sooner rather than later.

The premise of ‘Future Politics’ is that relentless advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together with consequences that are both profound and frightening (p. 1). We are not yet ready for the world we are creating. Politics will not be the same as it was in the past.

Susskind assumes that the distinctions between human and machine, online and offline, real and virtual will fade into the background. For Susskind, three changes are of particular note: increasingly capable systems that are equal or superior to how humans function; increasingly integrated technologies that are embedded in the physical and built environment (the internet of things); and an increasingly quantified society, whereby details of our lives are captured as data and processed by digital systems. Those who control the technologies will exercise power over us, set the limits of our liberty, and determine the future of democracy—it is their algorithms that will decide vital questions of social justice (p. 3). One of the problems is that the engineers devising and implementing these technologies rarely engage with consequences of these developments.

So, it is up to the rest of us to correct this deficiency and take responsibility for understanding and analysing the implications of this transformed world. We must, says Susskind, engage with political theory if we are to think critically and develop appropriate intellectual tools to tackle these digital developments. With this as the agenda, Susskind sets out to examine this future under the headings of power, liberty, democracy, justice and politics itself, devoting sections of the book to each of these subjects in turn.

In Part Two, Susskind devises three categories for discussing future power: force, scrutiny and perception-control (p. 89). The big tech companies, and government agencies who work with them, will be in control of developments and thus possess the power, while the rest of us will be relatively powerless.  Susskind writes:

“[T]he shift from law enforced by people to law enforced by technology means that power will increasingly lie in force rather than coercion, with self-enforcing laws that cannot be broken because they are encoded into the world around us.” (p. 105)

This is a really important insight. The following chapter on scrutiny is also perceptive and helpful as Susskind brings more distinctions into play: this time between scrutiny as intimate, imperishable, predictable and rateable (p. 127). The cumulative impact of this scrutiny will construct a world unlike anything we have experienced hitherto. Where we go; what we do; what we purchase; what we write, read and say; let alone who and what we know, and our work and ambitions will all be the subject of scrutiny (p. 129).

Part Three, on future liberty, brings us to what I think is the most valuable section of the book. Susskind offers a new conceptual framework to aid our thoughts about freedom, and he proposes the following categories: digital libertarianism, digital liberalism, digital confederalism, digital paternalism, digital moralism and digital republicanism (p. 164). When law enforcement agencies start deploying algorithms to predict who is likely to be engaging in criminal activity there are huge questions about how our freedoms are going to become more restricted, let alone about how deterministic some of these processes are in danger of becoming. Morality itself could become automated if we are not careful.

How then are we to approach the subject of freedom in this new context? Referring to his various categories, Susskind suggests that digital libertarianism means freedom from technology (p. 205); no one should be forced to use the technology in the first place. Freedom begins where technology ends. Digital liberalism is a more nuanced stance where technology is engineered to ensure the maximum possible individual liberty for all. This is the “wise restraints” approach. Digital confederalism would enable people to move between systems according to which code they prefer—so there needs to be a plurality of digital systems available in order to be able to do this. Any private or state monopoly would make this impossible. Digital paternalism and digital moralism hold that technology should be designed to protect people from the harmful consequences of their own actions or to steer them away from lives of immorality. It is digital republicanism, however, which seems to be the most constructive and interesting of the options that Susskind presents. By this he means that nobody should be subject to the arbitrary powers of those who control digital technologies. This requires that we understand how these technologies function, the values they encode, who designed and created them and for what purpose. Even more radically, but I think crucially, we should actually have a hand in how these technologies are developed so that we are not simply passive consumers. Transparency, accountability and participation are fundamental to this approach: “programme or be programmed”.

The final sections of the book present Susskind’s arguments about justice and politics itself, containing helpful discussions on algorithms of distribution, algorithms of recognition, algorithmic injustice and issues of unemployment and wealth. The message is a consistent one: that digital technologies are never neutral tools but are always designed and deployed for specific purposes and controlled by the tech firms in ways that may, or may not, lead to greater transparency and democracy.

Although Susskind claims that he only aims to outline the territory and some possible options, he does clearly favour digital republicanism as the best way forward, arguing—correctly, in my view—that we need to be able to understand and shape the powers that will govern our lives (p. 347). We need to get working on the “wise restraints” required to ensure transparency and accountability.

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Review of ‘Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime’ by Bruno Latour

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Senior Research Fellow Dr John Reader reviews Bruno Latour’s book ‘Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime’ and wonders whether a shared politics relies on a shared earth.

Latour’s basic hypothesis is that we cannot understand the last 50 years unless we recognise the intimate connections between globalisation, the explosion of inequality, and the question of climate change. This is the “New Climatic Regime”, in which the elites have concluded that “the earth no longer had enough room for them and for everyone else” (p. 1). This absence of a common world is now driving us crazy.

Trump’s attitude to the Paris Climate Accord and his subsequent approach to both international relationships and the environment are symptomatic of this general understanding, says Latour. Americans don’t belong to the same earth as everyone else. As with Brexit in the UK, this is an attempt to cut loose from other nations and go it alone.

Attitudes towards immigration are another symptom of this, with fears that climate change could create waves of migration in the near future. Where are they going to “land” and make their home? There are also growing numbers on the inside who feel they no longer “belong” as a result of growing inequality. They have been set adrift by social and political machinations. The basic right to feel safe and protected when under threat has been undermined (p. 11).

One obvious reaction to this is to resort to nationalism and the populist politics that so often accompanies it. When others appear to threaten or impinge, one protects one’s own space and place. An attachment to one’s land or territory is simply reactionary. But rather than being for or against either the global or the local, Latour suggests that what matters is to maintain the maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world (p. 16).

The response of the elites is, according to Latour, to accept that there can be no overall answer which can encompass everyone, so the only strategy is to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as quickly as possible. Deregulate; dismantle welfare structures; ignore or even exacerbate inequalities; deny that climate change is happening, or that it is the result of human activity; and construct a safe place where one can pull up the drawbridge. The earth is no longer somewhere to be shared. Facts, scientific findings and the previous norms of public discourse are also victims of this process. The infrastructure of public life must be undermined in order to shore up this position and give it some credibility. There are many truths, hence none at all, and the populace is bombarded with conflicting and contradictory stories in order to disorientate and confuse. We don’t know who to believe any longer so we end up believing no one, even those who might be trustworthy. As Latour says: we no longer inhabit the same world and there is a deficit of shared practice (p. 25). This is a deliberate ploy.

What is also abandoned is the objective of a common trajectory, whether that be towards or away from an established tradition. Both progressives and reactionaries are undermined by this. The old markers of left and right, local and global, and future and past no longer have any purchase. The attraction of Trump is that he has managed to harness this context to his own benefit: “Trumpian politics is not ‘post-truth’ but post politics, a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit” (p. 38).

To resist this, Latour proposes that we need to come down to earth; to land somewhere. He names the new place we need to inhabit “the Terrestrial”. Rather than being the framework for action, the Terrestrial participates in the action. Humans are no longer the only actors, as the earth now comes fully into play.

But what is an appropriate political approach in the face of this? We must be both materialist and rational, but we must shift these qualities onto the right grounds (p. 65). For instance, how can we call a civilisation that has created a world where parents are prevented from leaving a habitable world to their children rational?

We need to turn from the global to the terrestrial. The view from nowhere, which has dominated much scientific and supposedly objective thought, cannot be sustained. This also means that the division between knowledge as assured seeing from afar and imagination as seeing things up close but without grounding in reality also needs to be abandoned (p. 69). We need to acknowledge that agency is distributed and that it is the entangled engagements of human and nonhuman assemblages that determine life in the terrestrial—and this requires a broadening of both science and reason. What is needed is a balancing act between an attachment which allows us to get away from the illusion of a “Great Outside”, and a detachment which allows us to escape the illusion of borders (p. 93). This can only be achieved by generating alternative descriptions. A dwelling place is that which we depend on for our survival, while also asking who or what else depends on it.

That is where Latour ends, though, and as with all such attempts to redefine the territory one wonders whether this goes far enough? Yet the attempt itself is perhaps the most important contribution and does point towards new ways of thinking about and articulating the problems we now face.

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Review of ‘The Road to Unfreedom’ by Timothy Snyder

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John Reader, one of our Senior Research Fellows, reviews Timothy Snyder’s book ‘The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America’ and suggests that a digital ethics for public life is urgently needed in today’s political climate.

My particular interest in this book centres on the impact of digital media on political life in Russia, Europe and America and the ways in which this undermines public life. Snyder’s central argument is that what he calls the “politics of inevitability” has given way to the “politics of eternity”. The politics of inevitability refers to the idea that what there is to look forward to is essentially more of the same; there is no alternative to the onward march of market forces. The politics of eternity refers to the situation where life is more like a constant cycle of gloom, and where governments can no longer offer the promise of progress in any form, so instead manage their people by manufacturing crises and manipulating emotions. Digital technology is deployed in order to deny that there is any such thing as truth or objectivity, and life is reduced to spectacle and feeling, undermining both democracy and public debate, and raising questions about how those of faith might hope to respond or engage (p. 8).

In the opening chapter Snyder refers at length to the writings of a lesser known figure, Ivan Ilyin, whose earlier portrayals of a Russia constantly under external threat, but innocent of the crimes and mistakes of other nations, has been revived and used by Putin to justify his own grasp of power and increased hostility towards the US and the EU. On the basis that the whole of life is arbitrary anyway, the idea that the rule of law, democracy in any form, or even a one-party state can function effectively, is overthrown, and what is left is the rule of one person—Putin himself of course—often thinly disguised as a form of fascism (p. 24).

The argument of chapter three raises the question of what happens to countries when the era of empire has come to an end. The project of EU integration is interpreted as a response to this situation. Hence, its principles of democracy, the rule of law, free trade and free movement represent a logical political response to a context in which the old empires have disintegrated, and it is no longer possible to return to some golden age of the individual nation state forging its way in a globalised world on the back of a notion of sovereign independence. The alternative, now being pursued by Russia, is what is called “Eurasia”, a sprawling space covering large swathes of both Russia and Europe.

The chapter traces how Russian attitudes to the US and the EU shifted decisively following the end of the 2000s. Having previously perceived these other regimes as equals, the objective from 2011 onwards was to export Russian chaos and disintegration on the grounds of what Snyder calls a “negative sum strategy”. Since the EU has never faced any real external challenge, it is oblivious to the Russian use of the internet and digital technology to undermine its own foundations (p. 100). Neither the UK nor the EU are properly aware of the levels of activity of trolls, bots, and tweets, and the underlying power of Russian TV and its Internet Research Agency (p. 106). This is cyber warfare: technology is now deployed to spread fake news to the point where no-one knows who or what is to be trusted and any sense of factuality disappears completely. In this context, politicians know that they can say anything since there are no longer accepted criteria of truth or credibility. The deployment of digital media by faith groups therefore needs to question the naïve assumption that it is simply a neutral communication tool, and instead recognise ways in which the technology can be used to shape human behaviour.

Chapter four describes how Ukraine, on the boundary between Eurasia and the EU, became a focus of conflict. The narrative is disturbing, revealing the ways in which Russia’s control and manipulation of the media and digital technology fooled other nations into believing a convenient but false account of events on the ground. A further section focusses on the deliberate destruction of the boundary between people’s public and private lives (p. 203). “The only politicians who are invulnerable to exposure are those who control the secrets of others, or those whose avowed behaviour is so shameless that they are invulnerable to blackmail.” Once public life is no more than entertainment or spectacle, the idea that there are any values or principles to be honoured or respected is abandoned. In this context, how are alternative values to be articulated and given credibility?

In chapter six Snyder concentrates his attention on the rise of Trump and his long-standing links with Russia. Most disturbing is the way in which US citizens were both susceptible to manipulation through the use of the internet, bots, hackers, Twitter and Facebook, and the extent to which “news” in the USA has been detached from local sources and become another form of entertainment. A contributory factor is the decreasing attention spans of many people, leaving them open to the instant impact of sound bites that enter almost at a subconscious level.

The echoes reverberate well beyond Russia and the US right into the heart of UK and EU politics. What is less clear, though, is what alternatives we have to either the politics of inevitability or the politics of eternity. Can we return to the values of the rule of law and democracy? If so, Snyder does not explain in this book how we can defend these values against the damaging impacts of social media and digital technology. A digital ethics for public life, I suggest, requires insights and faith practices which embody “the slow work of time” as well as criteria for trustworthiness and credibility.

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