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Technology and Transcendence

ISBN13: 9781856073844

ISBN10: 185607384X


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  • While technology has been a major force of change in our world, not of all of it has been good, or shared equally according to a new book which explores the role and impact of technology in society.

    Technology and Transcendence edited by Dr Michael Breen, Dr Eamonn Conway and Mr Barry McMillan is an interdisciplinary study focusing on four areas: philosophy, theology, sociology and cultural studies. The book is a project of the Centre for Culture, Technology and Values in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

    One of the criticisms levelled against technology in the book by Dr Jim Corkery is that it flattens out the human landscape into an arena peopled essentially by producers and consumers. In such a scenario, he writes, human reason tends to be use-oriented and human activity tends ro be productive-for-consumption. Consequently aesthetic, imaginative, poetic and religious thought rank lower in the scheme of things.

    Dr Paul Brian Campbell advises that the outcome from our headlong rush to embrace technology lies somewhere between utopia and the apocalypse. Neither has the internet acted as a great force for sweeping away barriers to economic and social development, he says. Dr Campbell quotes the statistic that 3.58% of the Chinese population, 0.67% of the Indian population and on average less than 1 % of the African population has access to the net. Other difficulties surround the volume of pornography on the internet, with the worldwide porn business reported to have been worth $56 billion in 2001.

    In an article on Media Lab Europe, Dr John Sharry and Dr Garry Mc Darby write about the e-sense of technology, presenting concrete evidence of its positive application. E-sense describes the concept where technology provides us with a new sense in the world. One such application has been their MindGames initiatives, where non-intrusive.sensors monitor biometric signals from the body such as brainwaves, heartbeat, etc.

    Dr Eamonn Conway looks at ways to engage with technology from a Christian perspective. Technology can be understood, he writes, as the various ways in which we human beings creatively engage with and modify the world to particular ends and purposes. Theologians, therefore, need to share reflection with technologists and scientists. He touches on some ethical questions, including the evolution of homo sapiens into homo technicus or techno sapiens, but says that if we get our fundamental disposition towards technology right, then we will really be in a position to make informed ethical decisions.

    The Centre for Culture, Technology and Values is a joint venture of the Department of Media and Communication Studies, and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. It has additional research partners in Ireland and further afield. The Centres primary goal is to stimulate, facilitate, and enhance a dialogue with those concerned with the role of technology in contemporary society, with a special emphasis on culture and values.
  • Barry McMillan

    Eamonn Conway

    Father Eamonn Conway is a priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam, Professor of Catholic Theology at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, and assists as a priest at Lough Derg in the Summer months.

    Michael J. Breen

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    Jim Corkery

    Technology, it is said, plays havoc with transcendence, turning human desires for the infinite into finite satisfiables that can be delivered by techno-wizardry. Thus technology flattens out the human landscape into an arena peopled essentially by producers and consumers. Technology is accused of easing the Transcendent Other - the one Christians call God - out of everyday life; after all, as Bertrand Russell is quoted as saying, people in sailboats have far less difficulty believing in God than people in motor boats do (Kilcoyne, 1997). Technology seems to promise the earth; but thats all! The question arises: is what it seems to do all that it actually does, or does the - admittedly dazzling horizontality of the techno-world nevertheless leave space for some vertical light, some outreach to (and inreach of) the transcendent? Does technology simply corral human activities and values into the straitjackets of use and enjoyment? Or is it possible that there can be something more in the picture?

    People in an age of technology , some trends and examples
    Where technology is concerned, the emphasis is on know-how and on efficiency. The idea is to do things competently and swiftly. The focus is on production, on getting things done, on achieving results. Whether the technology is industrial (an electronic engineer designing a robot that can paint a thousand cars in an hour); or medical (a research scientist developing new drugs in a laboratory); or communications-oriented (a computer scientist producing a clamshell mobile phone with a colour display built-in digital camera), the goal is efficient, high-performance, profitable production. The notions of building bigger and better, faster and finer, are dominant. The main goal is: production for consumption for profit. All else is essentially subordinate to this goal, even when what is produced could be said to enhance the quality of human life. In this scenario human reason tends to be instrumental (use-oriented); human activity tends to be productive, productive-for-consumption; and human beings tend to be seen as consumers, who exist to buy, indeed who are to the degree that they do buy: tesco, ergo sum (Grey: 1997, 1). Gradually a way of living (a culture, indeed) is generated in which instrumental reason, technical skills and conspicuous consumption occupy the highest places. Aesthetic, imaginative, poetic, speculative, artistic and religious thought all remain lower on the totem-pole than instrumental, productive reasoning. Sheer technical ability - to make, produce, construct - takes precedence over those distinctively human activities that have their ends in themselves, such as, celebrating a meal; parenting; worshipping; making a home; working at a marriage. In the final analysis, it is the doing that defines us - not who are you?, but what do you do?

    The epitome of these circumstances is the self-made man (I use the sexist word consciously): the essentially unrelated person who owes nothing to anyone, who has made it to the top by effort and skill, who is self-reliant (has insurance for everything from dental health to bad weather on vacation) and can stand on his own. Such a one is autonomous, celebrates his autonomy and is rewarded for it by society, which grants him access to all the material comforts (houses, cars, holidays), to the fashionable places (clubs, chic parties, cultural events), to unlimited credit and to much public approbation. There is little space for thankfulness in this mans life because what he is, and who he will become, and how he will shape the world are all something he must achieve by and for himself (Greshake: 1977, 13). Other persons in the self-made mans life are numerous - success breeds popularity - but these other people tend to be what might be termed contacts rather than friends, people who can be made use of, or patronised, rather than friends to be enjoyed, or helped, or simply loved. Youre off to Frankfurt, said one of the self-made to me recently; Ive a contact there, just mention my name, let me give you his number (and presto, the pocket-organiser is produced and spews forth the name of the electronically-stored genie who can be counted on to make my life better in Frankfurt because my self-made man had made his better some time ago). Who is this contact in Germany? Basically, someone whose doing takes precedence over his being - someone who, in the end, is valuable because usable.

    Twenty years ago, when computers first came into schools, I noticed that when the students learned programming, they quickly became fascinated by the ways in which they could get the computer to respond to them as they wished, depending on how they programmed it. Thus words of praise, affection, admonition, humour, etc., would pop up for them, depending on how they had set up the computer to react to their different inputs in the first place. The computer became person-like for them - it even had a name: Jessica - and so you would hear students speak about what Jessica said to them that morning or replied to them that afternoon, as if Jessica had a mind of her own. Her (I mean its) responses were in fact nothing more than the product of her dialogue-partners. They were always the ones in control. And now they could not be surprised. This is fine with computers, perhaps, but when it becomes a skill that is transported into the interpersonal sphere, then relationships and the very ability to relate - can genuinely suffer. We have come a long way since twenty years ago. And we have seen many young people relate far more to their computer screens (the new tabernacles) than to their families and classmates during that time. The opposite is true too, of course; and many an e-mail helps to keep friendships alive. But there is nothing automatic about this; and e-mail itself can have quite a shadow-side as people chat endlessly with strangers in cyberspace while not knowing who their neighbours are next door.

    Culture in an age of technology - some trends and characteristics
    The kinds of behaviours I have been talking about - those of the self-made man or of the newly-dazzled computer geek - are embedded in and spring from a cultural matrix that has been in large part produced by technology and now influences, insidiously and sotto voce, the realm of human relationships and human values. Matthew Lamb speaks of the modern age - surely the age of technology - as characterised by a master-metaphor of movement, of action-reaction, that pervades the sphere of human relations and values as a kind of mentality of: act-or-beacted-upon (Lamb: 1987, 785). Marx (and others) lie at the root of this mentality, which divides the world into oppressors (actors) and victims (acted upon) and thus promotes a sort of conflictual understanding of the human world as a sphere of eat-or-geteaten. The twin team here is simply activity / passivity: do or be done unto. And you can see it played out in the above-described relations of the self-made man and even of those net freaks who live mostly in a largely relationless, manipulable and manipulative, virtual world that aggressively bombards them with seductive and exploitative offers and sucks them into shallow relational spaces where often the most intimate things can be said but only because no real relationships can ever develop from them. In all of what happens here, an aggressive act-or-beacted-upon culture is being established in which the truncated transcendence of men and women is taken advantage of as they are offered products for their consumption that in reality consume them.

    Without being determinist, it is evident that people can be harmed in circumstances such as these. They are being shut down, closed off at the top, assured that they can be satisfied by inventions, contraptions, packaged experiences, tinsel-things. The surprise, unpredictability, unmanipulability, freshness, care for persons-as-persons is being taken out of their relationships and these relationships are becoming functional: a means to something rather than an end in themselves. If the something does not happen, the relationships are quickly questioned - and often abandoned in this culture of non-support. The phenomenon is not just individual; the patterns that characterise these relationships are being writ large, inflated into the very ways in which social organisations and social life are constructed. Thus the technical-rational mentality is becoming institutionalised, with businesses, offices, restaurants, and even churches and homes being rationalised, that is, organised in ways that make the achievement of goals and the smooth processing of people primary. This is visible in airports, shopping centres, financial institutions, healthcare facilities, educational establishments (to name but a few) and - yes - in churches, and even in families (where the microwave has ensured that people need not eat together any more). No one can deny the splurge in paperwork, record-keeping and quantifying that has mushroomed in recent years. In academies, the measuring, recording, documenting and processing is eternally evident and evidently eternal! The characteristics that have been put forward as the hallmarks of McDonaldisation (Drane: 2000; Ritzer: 2000), efficiency, calculability, predictability and control, are ever more in evidence in our dealings with one another - in social groups as small in size as the family and as large as government departments and multinationals. The fast food restaurant is the measure of all things human: processes must be quick, predictable, quantifiable and - above all - controlled. In all of this persons, and the value attached to them, and the values pursued in relating to them, are subsumed under the culture of the fast-food restaurant, where there is just about enough to keep people alive and fed in the short-term, but definitely not enough to nourish and maintain them in health in the long-term.

    What I have been describing is pretty rough stuff - certainly not a welcome scenario for people. Nor is it just a matter of technological development giving rise to a McDonaldised culture that devours the best in people; somehow, we go along with and support this. There is a complex, hen/ egg type situation here, in which technology begets rationalised cultural patterns of behaviour, which in turn become institutionalised, acquiring a quasiindependent life of their own, such that, as culture, they act back on persons to further technologise them and their relationships. The culture is in us and we are in the culture. We use terms such as society and culture to try to put words on that intangible, but very real whole that is more than the-sum-of-theparts wherever human beings are gathered together and that shapes us even as we shape it. Insofar as the two terms can be distinguished - and this is not easy - society might be said to refer to the more outward or visible dimensions of human togetherness: social structures, organisations, collectivities, and the like, whereas culture might be said to refer to the more inward or invisible dimensions of human togetherness: ideas, attitudes, mind-sets, thought-patterns, shared beliefs and ideals, and so on - all of which, of course, will manifest themselves in visible behaviours such as customs, mores and practices, and even in visible constructions such as academies, supermarkets, art museums, clubs, businesses, and even churches; and then we are back with institutions, and thus with society, once again! So one sees: culture and society are somewhat indistinguishable (Jenkins: 2002, 62-63) and are so central to what it is to be human that they might be described as the very water we swim in or the air we breathe. And yet, for all their unnoticeability, our lives depend on them as they both shape and express us, of whom they themselves are the very shape and expression.

    According to Leonardo Boff, cultures can be understood as embodying overall or collective projects akin to the personal life-projects of men and women (Boff: 1979, 141-147). If an individual (thus moral theology) has a fundamental option that more or less expresses the basic intent and direction of his/her life, so too, albeit analogously, a culture can be seen as embodying a fundamental option, a collective life-project. This is the case, even though cultures are not uniform and, in fact, contain a variety of sub-cultures. Notwithstanding this internal variety, one can still speak of this or that culture (Irish culture, even western culture) as having a kind of overall physiognomy that more or less manifests the collective face of a particular people at a given time. Thus we speak of a culture as being more or less compassionate, more or less individualistic, more or less acquisitive, caring, or whatever. It is the overall project characterising a culture that people have in mind when they ascribe to it adjectives such as the ones I have just used. All cultures are ambiguous morally - in terms of the values they enshrine or embody. So far I have been highlighting the morally dubious values of technological culture(s): the ways in which they tend to reduce people to us ables and to make the world uni-dimensional by denying humanitys transcendent origins and destiny. However, as with persons, so too do all cultures live under the dialectic of sin and grace - embodying, that is, not only anti-transcendent, antidivine dimensions, but also dimensions that foster human transcendence and open men and women out to one another and to God. I wish to search a little for evidence of, and possibilities for, such dimensions now.

    The openings and possibilities, the realistic hopes, discernible in the present situation
    With Leonardo Boff it has been put forward that cultures, like persons, embody fundamental options that both express the aggregate of personal decisions and also influence subsequent decisions of persons. But is it the case that a technological and highly rationalised culture will inevitably embody (and promote) merely destructive tendencies or are there any signs of hope and opportunities for rediscovering personal values evident in our present situation? I think so; and, in a search not unreminiscent of Peter L. Bergers uncovering of signals of transcendence (Berger: 1969, 70f) over thirty years ago, some of them may be mentioned here. There is a hunger for meaning and a thirst for spirituality evident in present-day Irish culture that offers much ground for hope, even if not all the spiritualities embraced are free of anti-divine dimensions. There is a greater appreciation of, and search for, different forms of community. A willingness to get involved in issues that require public action such as protest and demonstration seems also on the rise (witness, for example, the actions of those who are protesting against Irelands endorsement of US intent with regard to Iraq without its people being consulted). The uncertainty of the self in contemporary, postmodern culture has begotten strange kinds of individualism, to be sure, but also given rise to new conversations between the non-like-minded that are far less arrogant and far more tolerant and open than anything that characterised Irish debates in the past. Certain kinds of media action have led to greater discovery of truth and a greater taking of responsibility for previous inappropriate actions. Furthermore, the dominance of the image, for all its ambiguity, offers a way of appealing to aspects of persons (affectivity, spiritual hunger, care of the earth) that modern, rationalised culture tended to reject. The voices of the unvoiced are heard more loudly now, following thirty years of liberation theologies, and, amid an increasing and evident plurality of religions, there is much greater openness to interreligious conversation and sharing. Coupled with all of this is the growing number of laypersons refusing to accept church life as it was - with themselves consigned to the margins - and many are coming forward to seek and to take a more responsible place in the life of the Christian community. All of these things - and there are more - can be seen today as concrete signals of transcendence in what often seems to be a horizontal, entirely immanent existence. Some might argue that these signals have nothing to do with our technological culture as such and that they in fact represent something of Irish cultures move away from the harshness of the modern to the greater openness and pluralism of the postmodern. Indeed they do represent such a move, but why cannot that be a signal of transcendence, an incipiently-graced opening of culture to a kind of living in which technology, profit and goals no longer call all the shots? Indeed a theologian of grace might well argue that the presence and character of these concrete signals indicating possibilities where there is blockage and gently inviting breakthroughs to transcendence - are precisely grace emerging at the stuck-points of human history in a shape divinely tailored for the healing and transformation of at least some elements of the current malaise.

    Which brings us specifically to the Christian heritage and to the possibilities it might offer today. What resources might Christianity have for building on the opportunities just noted and for strengthening the values of inclusiveness, community and justice/peace that can be seen to underlie them? Even at first glance it can be seen that Christianity is characterised by a form or shape - a kind of logic - that runs fundamentally counter to the form or logic of a technological culture that views people primarily as instruments for profit and that sees individual rights as limited only by the rights of other individuals but not at all by the social-justice responsibilities that are attendant upon all claiming of rights. The logic of Christianity is ex-centric, self-emptying, other-directed; this is evident from the kenotic Christ-form that occupies the heart and centre of the Christian story. The logic of the technological culture that we have been discussing is I-centred, focused on my rights and possibilities, basically ego-centric. The two logics clearly clash. That of technological culture deems it sufficient to agree that the rights of individuals, who self-make and have every entitlement to do so, are circumscribed only by the rights, considered abstractly, of other individuals, but not by the concrete circumstances of those individuals that may well be denying them equality-of-access to those rights. The form or logh; of a mentality such as this is in sharp contrast to the logic that is prophetically evident in the kenotic Christian form, the form of self-emptying (the ec-centric form) that is revealed to be at the heart of the very being of Jesus Christ - and hence of God - in Christian revelation. This Christ form, then, as a resource from Christianity, is a positive challenge to the anti-divine aspects of contemporary ego-centric cultural forms and offers the opportunity of envisaging ways in which people can live together that embody values very different from those of use and function. Theologian David Schindler has pointed to the gift at the heart of Christian revelation that the kenotic Christ-form is for those who would wish to shape a cultural project not against, but in the direction of, the divine intent for humanity (Schindler: 1990, 21); and John Haught has indicated how the letting go and letting be of the self-emptying Christ makes visible the way for dialogue with men and women of other religions (Haught: 1993, 80-82) and, I would add, for dialogue with all those persons who are in any sense a challenge to ones own self-centredness, individual or cultural.

    Theologian Matthew Lamb (mentioned earlier) has drawn attention to the rediscovery of a contemporary (postmodern) meaning for the notion of praxis that returns it to its classical roots and steers it away from its association (even in Marx) with an action-reaction, an act-or-be-acted-upon mentality, that tends to turn persons into usables and their activities into merely instrumental or goal-directed undertakings. Aristotles vocabulary admitted of a distinguishing between theory, praxis and practice, the first referring to theoretical thought, the third referring to productive activities (with goals outside of themselves) and the second referring to specifically human operations that respected the subjectivity and freedom of persons and gave rise to behaviours and actions which were undertaken and valued for their own sakes. The productive activities are exemplified in such actions as: cooking a meal, building a house, designing a university campus, preparing a liturgical space, constructing a city. The activities that are praxes are exemplified in such undertakings as: celebrating a meal together, making a home, creating a community of learning, participating in a liturgy, developing a civic community. A conscious recovery of such activities at the heart of families, of churches, and indeed in the wider institutionallife of a community is essential if people are to be treated as persons, not numbers; if they are to be met, not simply processed. Think of the revolutionary change that such a recovery would bring to the life of the church, which has become so formal and bureaucratised: more and more characterised by the hallmarks of McDonaldisation. Think of the ways in which refugees and asylum-seekers might expect to be dealt with if praxis rather than mere practice were to be the emphasis in our human relations. And if you have any doubt as to how such praxis looks, just glance at the dialogues between Jesus and Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, the man born blind and Martha in chapters 3, 4, 8, 9 and 11 respectively of Johns gospel. The methodology, the praxis, is there. If introduced, it could cause a revolution.

    People are seeing now - in the case of the church, for example - that it is less the what than the how that is wrong. The how has become so bureaucratic, so rationalised, so impersonal, so cold. People are met as quantities, as consumers, even as victims (when these are met); but they are not often met as persons. They are handled and processed, sent to the relevant departments, managed, controlled - but not greatly appreciated, listened to, or loved. One might say: we have dialogues now. Yes, endless ones. But the reports of the dialogues end up on shelves because the rationalised, McDonaldised system wins. Technology triumphs, or so it seems. Yet there is hope here too. I will end with a word from John OMalley, who recently pointed out that the Second Vatican Council was much more about the how of the church than about its what (OMalley: 2003). This how emphasised collegiality, shared ministry, religious freedom, attention to the signs of the times and to the real griefs and anxieties of people. It had to do with how we were to deal with people, and in particular with those who differed from ourselves. In this it was prophetic, having the kenotic Christ-form that lets go and lets be in mind long before the theologians I mentioned began to even see it and the possibilities it offers to this troubled, yet salvageable, technological age.


Technology and Transcendence