Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Digital Technology is Elitist & Dehumanizing; How Should Christians Use It?

8 Apr 2015

One of the joys of taking assemblies in our local primary schools is that one never knows what responses will be elicited from the children. Focusing on the subject of creativity and important inventions, and having gone through the wheel, clocks and drugs, with the children to quickly realize that each of these can be both good and bad, I got to the subject of the internet. One little boy, who, according to the staff, is normally “off with the fairies”, put up his hand to everyone’s surprise and said “it is elite”. Stunned silence for a few moments; but, of course, he is correct. This is one of the downsides of our digital revolution – the existence of the digitally deprived or excluded. “Out of the mouths of babes” etc. Although where he had got this idea from is an interesting question. He had probably seen it on the TV or encountered it through the internet!

This may seem of peripheral concern for faith communities, but this is one of the determining factors of the context in which we now operate and to which we have to respond. What we now call “material religious practices” are themselves being shaped by this revolution. So who is shaping whom and to what ends? For instance, the benefice in which I work has now set up its own website, linking to other village websites across the patch; increasingly accesses the Facebook pages of two of the more active villages in order to promote events; and is setting up an email network across our 8 villages for the same reason. Here I am writing a blog post for William Temple Foundation.

As the education researcher Maggi Savin-Baden recently suggested, we are increasingly “digitally tethered”. You only have to travel by train to realize that people no longer talk to each other because they are too busy talking to “distant others”. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? When do we reach the point where form determines content, and can we even make that distinction any longer? What is happening to our capacity to relate to those around us?

The mistake that we often make, both historically and ethically, is to imagine that the technologies we develop are “neutral tools” that we simply manipulate to our own advantage. Whether it was the wheel, writing, clock time, drugs or the internet, it is as much the case that they re-shape us and our cultures as that we shape them. In less familiar language that does better justice to this insight, we are always already part of the “assemblages” or constantly shifting and developing combinations and configurations of the human (material) and non-human materials that are the components and  “machines” of our existence. Examples from real church life: couples construct their wedding services from resources accessed on the internet; individuals no longer have to rely on the external authority of church, tradition and minister in order to explore for themselves the varied faith resources on the web; a few weeks ago Anglican bishops produced their pre-election pastoral letter to their congregations, available as a 57 page downloadable document. For those digitally deprived parishioners the only access is through a hard copy from Church House. Would they not have been better to produce the standard 1000 word blog? Who but academics are going to read that length of document on-line? Form determining content again?

So how are we to get a grip on these assemblages and to begin to make critical judgments (like our little boy in assembly) about which are life enhancing and which are life denying? Challenging though this may be, it demands of us a new terminology and conceptual framework – the old assumptions about human autonomy are not “fit for purpose”.

Before I propose some possibilities, I refer the reader to a book on contemporary Russia: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. The writer argues that the authoritarian control exercised by President Putin is established through control of the media and deliberate manipulation of the population by playing on their fears and nightmares; one of which is the narrative of hostile Western imperialism. The route to critical thought and reflection that we might associate with an Enlightenment ideal of reflexivity, is short-circuited by the blatant use of the technology to play directly into what I would call a pre-autonomous level of what it is to be or become human. Emotions and fears come before critical thought and questioning. The even more worrying aspect is that the example of Russia is a more extreme version of what happens (perhaps a little less blatantly) in the West. What is required here is a better grasp of human psychology, and another understanding of how we humans operate, that can at least recognize when we are being manipulated in this way, and can counter this through a level of critical reflection. If the digital technology is being employed to “rewire” a passive population, where is the hope for political change?

The resource that I am finding helpful in this respect is the work of Bernard Stiegler, a French philosopher of technology, who can at least open up these other levels of thought through a different analysis of our digitally tethered assemblages and addictions. Obviously a blog will not allow me to elaborate, but two crucial insights are his use of the term “pharmakon” a Greek word that means both remedy and poison, close to my own understanding of being entangled, and pointing to the double-edged sword which is the digital revolution. The other is his less accessible ideas about human psychology and development, building upon the work of Winnicott and Simondon, which do indeed suggest that technology is being used through commercial exploitation to manipulate those pre-critical dimensions of human behavior, and to short-circuit the longer processes of reflection and questioning which are essential, ethically, politically and pastorally. His counter to this is a reconfiguration of education and the university, but, for those of faith, we might want to explore how and to what extent material religious practices can be, to paraphrase Stiegler’s term “a therapeutics of faithful dissent”.  Perhaps it is possible to enable content to triumph over form after all.

One thing is certain, we cannot return to a point pre-digital any more than we can to a time pre-wheel, pre-clock time or pre-drugs, we can only progress from where we are, fully entangled in the material assemblages which are made up of the human and the non-human.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of William Temple Foundation.

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