catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 10 :: 2010.05.14 — 2010.05.27


Do FarmVillains dream of analog sheep?

Access to technology, particularly information technology, varies greatly throughout the world, with large swaths of the world’s population having little or no access. It is a fact that is easy to forget in information-saturated societies in the Americas, Europe and East Asia. Some of our commercials, too, help minimize this truth with images of people around the world benefiting from various forms of information technology in remote places. Yet, even in our own societies, as we spring for ever-more-amazing pieces of technology, there exists a wide digital divide, with many unable to afford laptops or have Internet service in their homes. My work as a librarian at a community college reminds me of this almost daily, and I am careful to not privilege the privileged in my classroom instruction about how to access databases from “home” and assuming that this is something that everyone can do.

I think that it is important that we are cognizant of inequities such as the digital divide and work as a society to help overcome them so that more people can have access to education and economic and communication opportunities.  Such opportunities more and more require some level of information technology access and information literacy as prerequisites. However, even as I help others access these technologies, even as I am personally a very active blogging e-citizen who all too frequently checks Facebook, even as I type this essay on a laptop and will e-mail it across a wireless connection to be published in an online medium — I wonder about how such technology use affects us.  How does it help or hinder our being human?

Such a question is not a new one and similar unease has accompanied the crossing of each new technological threshold throughout history. Many of us are afraid of new technologies, at least initially, as if the technologies themselves are inherently evil, which is a question worth considering. Are there any technologies that are inherently evil? Splitting the atom? Human cloning? Is technology itself a product or necessity of the Fall of humankind? Would an unfallen Adam and Eve have had need of it?

Such foundational questions are outside of the scope of this article, but let me posit at least a tentative no; technology is not inherently evil, even as I believe that it may indeed be an adaptive response to the Fall. Having said that, it seems obvious that use of technology can certainly have some de-humanizing consequences that may result in oppression and evil. The technology of warfare and the excesses of the Industrial Revolution alone might serve to bolster this point. Moreover, I believe that the Digital Age, which is predicated and founded on all of the analog advances throughout the ages and which is only just beginning, presents some unique wrinkles to this question, as it creates an ever widening digital world overlapping the real world.

The final two words of the last paragraph, “real world,” should provide you with a clue as to how I am going to play my hand in the rest of this article. Some would question my assertion that the physical world is the “real world,” claiming instead that a world of pure information which underlies and orders the universe is the true “real world,” which we are inching ever closer toward. Transhumanists envision the increasing incorporation of technology into our bodies to enhance perception and interaction with virtual worlds, perhaps even with the ultimate goal of being able to transcend biology completely.  In his story Idoru, William Gibson tells of a human rock star who is attempting to wed a completely virtual, Artificially Intelligent pop star and live together with her in a virtual world. In the Matrix trilogy, human beings are cultivated and then plugged into a virtual world that they accept without question. The virtual world is used as a means of pacification and control.

We are nowhere close to either of these two hypothetical scenarios, and yet I find them far more plausible than the premise of recent movies like Avatar or Surrogates, in which plugged-in individuals operate “avatars” in some remote physical world. This scenario seems to get it backwards. If anything, we will settle into sedentary physical lives as we become more virtually active. Without being alarmist, the trend toward living virtual lives that parallel or seek to replace our real lives is well afoot. Input devices such as cameras which allow us to digitize reality are becoming ever more ubiquitous and smaller. And the programs that allow us to mash-up this data into dazzling new creations become ever more sophisticated and easy to use at the same time. And smart phones and Bluetooth devices and 4G networks allow us to be continuously connected to it all.

Again, I am not descrying all of these advances wholesale. I am an active participant in many of these activities. Almost daily I employ a digital camera to capture images of the real world, use a computer to make them “larger-than-life” in their look, and post them for people to see, potentially all around the world through means of the Internet. And I also close the loop, too, by occasionally having some of these images squirted on to fine art paper and ensconced within frames and shown in real brick-and-mortar coffee shops and galleries with flesh-and-blood people coming to see them. And, from what people tell me, my work, digitally manipulated though it is, does help them reflect on the beauties of creation — indeed, even to thank the God of creation for that beauty.

But still, I have this unease. I sense in myself and witness in society the temptation to use such technologies to replace, and not merely enrich, our human interactions. While Facebook can help me become reconnected and stay connected with numerous people, it can also become a poor substitute for real, risky connection with people. While taking and publishing pictures can help myself and others experience beauty, constantly feeling the need to take my camera along to capture images can rob me of real connection with nature. And the time that some of us spend in Farmville (that scourge of librarians) or answering the Call of Duty or even watching the antiquated, non-interactive technology of television, takes time away from personal communication and, yes, even from good work. And sometimes that is exactly the point: either disappointed from failures in such real-life interactions or starved for want of them, we turn to the narcotic of entertainment to try to soothe our hurts or placate our boredom. We anaesthetize ourselves and fall asleep into restless dreams which keep us from being fully awake, fully alive.

Two of the past four times I have ridden my bicycle to raise money to fight MS, our route has wended through Missouri’s Amish country. Each time I see the Amish, I am enchanted, drawn to the simplicity of their lifestyle, the innocence on the faces of the quiet children who gather to watch us ride by on our high-tech machines with our cyclocomputers and GPS systems and cell phones tucked away somewhere in our spandex. I am enchanted, even as I know the Amish life is proscribed by some rather restrictive fundamentalist understandings. My impulse here I imagine is the same as the one people had in the 60s and 70s as they made their way to communes to be closer to the land, to each other. Sometimes we want to be free of the strings of the modern age. And perhaps never has this been more true than now, as those strings invisibly wrap all around us all of the time.

And yet, the model need not be like that of the Amish, a wholesale repudiation as a response to wholesale acceptance. We can judiciously use technology to enrich our real, embodied lives in communities. We can use it to learn about ways to live our lives more carefully, to plant an organic garden, for instance, or to recycle or to avoid investing in companies that do harm. We can use them to organize together for just causes, to make one another aware of injustice around the world, to raise money to respond to disasters.

It is such connections to the real world which I believe are essential for us to maintain, which should keep tugging on our virtual selves, pulling us back to bodied existence, to real fellowship with human beings, both in our own sphere and around the world. It is for this that we were made, for fellowship with God and with our sisters and brothers. And this is a truth which is, thankfully, now being re-emphasized thanks to the efforts of writers like N.T. Wright.  He insists that this fellowship with God and humanity always has been and always will be within the “bone and spittle and muscle and sweat”* context of bodies living in nature both now and at the end of time in a renewed and resplendent nature. And, so, the temptation of constantly being pulled away from embodied life to a sort of e-Gnosticism, requires us to be continually thoughtful and intentional with how we use technology, to fast from it when we need to, to listen to friends who call us back when we use it as a numbing drug.

Returning to a consideration of science fiction, I do not know where our world is heading and what our future difficulties in this realm will truly be like. Yet I believe that one of the purposes of science fiction is to discuss problems that are already extant, but which may increase in scope, by envisioning exaggerated, extrapolated scenarios of where things appear to be headed. This allows us to consider ahead of time how we may respond to future challenges. Of course, these are generally only postulates and most visions of the future never come to be. I, myself, have several stories of the future running around in my head. In these scenarios, a couple of which I have sketched out in some detail, a privileged upper class has found a way to plug their bodies into virtual environments that are completely malleable to their god-like wishes.  In doing so, they either control or disconnect completely from an underclass of people who either cannot afford the technology and must serve the upper class or are opposed to it for religious reasons. And in this imaginary world of mine — yes, in this “matrix” if you will — I have always had my hero experience a growing unease and become increasingly infatuated with real, uncontrollable life, until he finally tries to make his escape, to unplug, to try to return to creatureliness.

At one point in life I meant these stories as cautionary tales for others, to wag my finger at them. But now, exaggerated though they be, I also mean them for me. And whether these stories ever see the light of publication or not, I do want to remember their central point: that should I ever become so enamored of virtual dreams, I pray I will be given the grace to wake up.  

* Mullins, Rich. “With the Wonder.” Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth." Reunion, 1989. CD

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