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This is a forthcoming monograph I have authored for Fortress Press. It will be housed in the Dispatches book series I co-edit with my colleague Dr Scott Kirkland.

The following is from the prologue:

Encountering the Crisis

Before my current appointment, I had the privilege of taking up a research appointment and sessional lectureship at Vancouver School of Theology and a Templeton postdoctoral fellowship at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. These positions resourced the time and space to read, to think, and to write, leading to several projects, including the genesis of this book. These positions demanded a range of responsibilities also, including the opportunity to engage with students in and out of the classroom. At one such experience, a panel discussion, I was invited to respond to a few student questions. The final question was phrased this way: Are there any [industrial] technologies or uses of technologies that Christians should boldly condemn and why?

I paused to gather my thoughts and to consider my response. Yet that was enough of a silence to allow the convener to jump in and draw the seminar, now in overtime, to a close.

But chased down outside the limited class setting the student enquired again. I offered a curt response, which went something like this: I would condemn the technologically enabled advent of violence as first reliance expressed by pre-emptive military aggression exercised to demonstrate political dominance or to achieve so-called security, no matter how obscure. I would encourage us to condemn industrial technologies of war, including ‘smart’ rockets projected from naval warships and bombs released from ‘intelligent’ drones towards so-called targets, as though one is aiming for the inanimate objects of a video game while discounting the human cost, whether innocent civilians or rival combatants. I would condemn the industries of war and the economic machinations that make killing profitable. I would condemn such technologies that bolster the powers of Death.

Why? An equally curt rationale followed: Death is revealed, in such acts, as a moral power, wielded by nation-states or militant groups to obtain particular ends and social purposes. It illuminates a particular technological rationality whereby domination, by military terror and triumph, guarantees economic and security advantage for those tied to, i.e., dependent upon, the corporate-military-industrial-complex that is increasingly interested in certain technologies, including contemporary advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence, and remote warfare. Yet such advantage is won, in the age of smart machines, without due attention to the human cost—‘friends’ operating unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence or intervention who see and participate in the carnage of war, all in high definition from the so-called safety of remote locations, but no less traumatized by the power of Death; ‘enemies’, whether civilian or combatant, cut down by Death’s power, now promoted with the further guarantee of ‘precision warfare.’ Death allures by such foolish guarantees of domination and security (often introduced in the same breath as peace). And there are many who labor to justify war, and the killing of persons, accordingly. But in the face of Death, as a moral power, should we not learn to struggle toward living (whatever that might mean)? Should we not learn how to live humanly in the midst of and by dissenting Death, as William Stringfellow (1928-1985) invited his reader?[1]

Surely, we must try! Of course, this reveals a particular conviction that has nurtured postures of nonviolence and a commitment to pacificism, at very least.

Nevertheless, it might be that such a curt response and rationale was not heard well. It might not be read well either. So, instead, a tempered response to the question might provoke reflection rather than recoil.

Such a response might be offered accordingly: I would encourage us to look beyond mere industrial technologies and consider both moral and political techniques, too. Accordingly, we must learn to discern techniques of any kind, which instrumentalize human life, reducing human being to a brute materiality, a bare life as Georgio Agamben might diagnose.[2]

I would condemn technologies where, as Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) forewarned, personality, particularity, and difference are effectively amputated until “the situation of each of us becomes as similar as possible to that of [our] neighbour.”[3] I would condemn those techniques where persons are reduced by the will to form, as Karl Barth (1886-1968) lamented.[4] I would condemn, with Michel Henry (1922-2002), the barbarous disposition where “Everything that can be done by science ought to be done by it and for it, since there is nothing but science and the reality that it names, namely objective reality.”[5] Such a reality is one in which culture is lost, where dialogue and difference are replaced by monologue and homogeneity, where power to form usurps creativity, restraining the freedom, for life.

I would contest those techniques, following after Frederick W. Taylor’s (1856-1915) ‘scientific management’,[6] for example, that constrain human vocation and replace meaningful work (of any kind) with a type of dehumanizing measure that makes persons into the marketable and managed labor market.[7] Such markets are those where persons become replaceable as though they are mere cogs: nameless, faceless, meaningless—only meaningful for particular ends, useful only when performing the designated function; meaningful as a part delimited and bounded by the technological machinery and the powers of the market. Concomitantly, I would contest the technocratic ideations of control over nature and over people that have forged economic programs (i.e., industrial capitalism) and political structures (i.e., corporate-military-industrial complex) that are complicit in the technological determining of the material structures of the world, and that define what is possible—specifically, what is possible for the perpetual progress and profit of economic programs and corporate structures themselves.[8]

In my book, Reading Karl Barth, Interrupting Moral Technique, Transforming Biomedical Ethics, I confront the apparatus of the (secular) common morality incumbent to contemporary biomedical ethics, a moral technique to be sure, that determines moral speech, and cares little about the panoply and particularity of persons captured by crises of life and death. Instead I argue that we ought to demonstrate in our ethics solidarity to persons not principles, attending to actual crises that demand decision rather than a priori constructs that determine both questions and answers before the crisis. So, I would encourage that we protest such ethics and refuse to set aside persons, neighbors both near and distant, and the peculiarity of theological ethics when we sit at the ethics roundtable.

That said, the exercise to answer such a question as I was asked was originally meant to participate in a pedagogical exercise. My response, I suppose, was intended to provoke further reflection. Perhaps both the curt and tempered responses have done just that already.

Of course, I cannot be sure.

Yet I am sure of this: That question posed sparked further thinking about technology and catalyzed the pursuit of this project.

I am also sure of this: The purpose of this book is to advance not only a critical reflection on our technological age, but also an understanding of the ways in which we might participate in human becoming. It is a project, therefore, that might help us toward a form of ethical or humanizing performance that moves beyond the hegemony of our technological society and towards a kind of educative, and therefore, transformative, material social practice.

The following, therefore, will illuminate the meaning of technology while clarifying the crisis we must confront. The following, then, will clarify the critical turning point we are facing; and have been facing for some time—the crisis concerning the cosmogony of technology, i.e., the reality it has created. As such, the crisis concerns, fundamentally, who we are to become in and for our techno-evolving society. It concerns the “energies previously hidden in the depths of nature,”[9] but now active in a world of our making—a world at risk of deformation. It concerns the powers procured by our own creative agencies, but powers that are now wielded over nature, over other human persons, over life itself.[10] It is vital that we learn to see such a crisis for what it is and address it rightly. It is vital that we continue to learn of the essence of technology and of the freedom for human being.

This volume emerges from crises incumbent to those wrought from advancements and applications in modern sciences and technologies. It will turn our attention to the relationship that the questions above demand that we explore. Therefore, follow me towards understanding the crisis, which positions this book in the Dispatches series: A series that aims to provoke dialogue and exchange of ideas, while setting in relief the implications of theology for crises that beleaguer the present age. Consider also the theological response that will not seek to establish a reified proposition demanding assent but bear witness to a responsive (responsible) posture that cultivates human being in and for our technological age.

 


[1] William Stringfellow. An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2004 [Original, 1973]), 118-122.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life , translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

[3] Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, translated by G. S. Fraser (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008 [Original, 1952]), 19.

[4] Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, translated by Brian Cozens and John Bowden (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002 [Original, 1947]), 41.

[5] Michel Henry, Barbarism (London: Continuum, 2012 [Original, 1987]), 55.

[6] Frederick Winslow Taylor, Scientific Management: The Early Sociology of Management and Organizations, volume 1 [includes "Shop Management" (1903), "The Principles of Scientific Management" (1911) and "Testimony Before the Special House Committee" (1912)] (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2003).

[7] Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2013 [Original, 1956]), 179.

[8] David King, “Exposing technocracy—the mindset of industrial capitalism,” The Ecologist, (27 June 2015): Accessed online from https://theecologist.org/2015/jun/27/exposing-technocracy-mindset-industrial-capitalism

[9] Nicholas Berdyaev, “Dukhovnoye sostoyaniye sovremennogo mira [The Spiritual Condition of the Modern World],” Put’ [The Way], no. 35 (1935): 59. Retrieved at http://www.odinblago.ru/path/35/3. Translation is mine.

[10] Berdyaev, “The Spiritual Condition of the Modern World,” 59.