Monday, May 31, 2010

Life without computers? - Justin john

The proliferation of computers over the last few years has also introduced other types of subtle changes. For most of us, it is hard to imagine life without cars, airplanes, telephones, radios, televisions, and, now, computers. Each of these technological breakthroughs shifted our vision of ourselves (or, perhaps more precisely, our view of our interrelationship with our world), some more than others. As a background example, let us consider the telephone.
Today, unlike a century ago, communication, oral as well as visual, can be instantaneous from one part of the world to another. One can reach for a telephone and dial directly to the other side of the earth in a matter of seconds. It is hard to conceive what life would be like without the ever-present telephone (even without call-forwarding and call-waiting features). Yet, in many ways, our spirituality has only begun to admit that questions involving modern technology need to be addressed, and that traditional religious ways of proceeding may now need to be modified to keep up with the latest inventions (e.g., television evangelists have done a better job in staying abreast of technological advances than have Vatican cardinals).
Over 400 years ago, in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola listed rules for Jesuits to follow in choosing apostolic works, when no easy recourse was had to a superior. Centuries ago, long distance communication (if one were lucky) required letters and couriers, and was far from instantaneous. How Ignatius would have written those rules today, with someone having virtually immediate access to any level of superior from practically any part of the world via telephones, is anyone's guess! Immediate replies are certainly in line with our contemporary culture, but they may not always be (spiritually) preferable compared to those replies which are the fruit of time and prayer. Although in many situations, "speed is of the essence" may be the motto, time also is a value, particularly in situations where emotions play a role and where insight is needed. Unfortunately, insight, like God himself and things like relaxation, cannot be rushed!
The use of computers raises similar questions. Besides being used for information (data) processing (such as data base storage and searches, word processing, etc.), the other major contemporary use of computers is for "number crunching" -- performing classical mathematical operations. In fact, for many years, computers were used only as giant adding machines. Up to a few years ago, mathematicians had given up on certain problems, because verification was impossible for human beings, even working in teams for a life-time. Such rote work can now be performed by a machine in a matter of days or even hours. The domain of interest for some mathematicians is now shifting from that of being able personally to produce ultimate results, to being able to produce the computational rules (i.e., "algorithms") which would enable a machine to produce the ultimate results. How significant is this shift? For some people, it is minor. For others, it is a major de-humanization of the discipline, and turns a discipline which took time and had prided itself with "elegance" and "beauty" in proofs into a discipline whose products are fed to machines which themselves grind out answers instant- aneously. Is the same shift happening with our spiritual lives spiritually, as well? Is a sense of wonder and inquisitiveness being lost because we can so easily turn to a computer for help?
Similar shifts have occurred before in history, some with serious theological implications. Thomas S. Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, uses the title "paradigm" to describe scientific systems purported to explain some aspect of our world. Thus, two well-known paradigms describing our solar system were expounded by Ptolomy and Copernicus. For Ptolomy (and the book of Genesis), the earth was the center of the universe. For Galileo and Copernicus, this was not so. In both paradigms, scientists could predict natural phenomena with the same exactness. Even today, we still say that the sun "rises" and "sets" even though we know the sun is not moving at all. But what does it mean for a believer to shift paradigms? What does it mean for a believer to realize that his belief system (e.g., the Genesis account) is not literally true? What does it mean for a believer to come to grips with the scientific truth that the pinnacle of God's creation (the human person) is not the center of the universe, as was once believed?
Belief in Biblical literalism is not easy to relinquish for some individuals, and there are numerous non-religious implications of some of these beliefs. The United States Supreme Court in June 19, 1987, ruled on a case involving a Louisiana Law demanding that "Creation Science" be taught whenever evolution was taught in schools. Human beings are less eager to change their minds and try new things when they are faced with bidding farewell to tenets of faith which they thought were rocks of stability in an ever-changing world. Galileo, as one famous example, suffered the consequences of the tenacity of other believers. But conflicts over paradigm shifts are not limited to bygone centuries. Many of us experienced the spiritual turmoil of the mid-1960's which resulted from the Church's shift in paradigms from a Latin mass to one in the vernacular. A significant number of people, after over twenty years, have still not adjusted to that particular shift of paradigms.
In the Copernican scientific revolution, there was a definite change in paradigms, and in that case, for some people, the change was traumatic, since the two paradigms are fundamentally incompatible -- one cannot hold that both the sun and the earth are centers of the universe at the same time. However, sometimes the shift is less dramatic, as far as the believer is concerned. Newtonian mechanics works quite well in the world as we perceive it (as does Euclidean geometry). However, it takes Einstein's Relativity (along with non-euclidean geometry) to make sense of the world of inter-stellar space. One might say that Newton's theory is a special case of Einstein's even though the underlying language and concepts differ, and that the theory might still need to be expanded even beyond Einstein. However, for most people, this shift in paradigms does not drastically affect their self-image.
I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of a shift in paradigms as drastic as that which occurred shifting from Ptolomy to Copernicus. However, subtle shifts are no less important, and the presence of computers is producing many such subtle shifts. In the face of these technological wonders that the modern human mind has created, I, for one, feel less in control of my world than I once did. I feel more in awe of the "work of human hands" especially since that "work" controls more and more of my life.
I also wonder how many more computers I will see in the future -- whether ten years from now, there were be any human bank tellers or any human grocery check-out clerks. Our society is de-humanized enough without people experiencing less and less human contact. Automation and mechanization can also lead to a certain amount of minimalism, as history has shown, and minimalism has had unhealthy consequences for our faithlife. The American Bishops in their 1978 document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, suggested that many of the problems we experienced in liturgy in the past were due to a minimalistic and mechanistic approach to sacraments and symbols, which among other problems seemed to hold efficiency as a high religious value. We assume that certain decisions are made by humans now -- will that assumption be true twenty years from now? Will any changes be for the better?
But interacting with computers has other dimensions as well. Every time one of my computer programs fails to run because of a simple (or not-so-simple) error, I once again realize my limitations and I feel more and more at home with St. Paul's quotation of Christ: "My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection" (2 Cor 12: 9). It takes humility and patience to be put into your place time and time again by a bunch of metal and wires which sits next to your desk.
My computer also challenges me, as an educated believer, in the same way those other modern inventions of communication challenge me -- radio and television. These inventions can reach so many so easily -- how can I influence what is being communicated? My talents in the field of radio and television are limited -- but what influence can I have at all in this new world of computers?
St. John's gospel and first letter use the image of "Word" to present the reality of Jesus. For John, the Greek word logos summarized God the Father's relationship to Jesus. That Word, we are told, became flesh and pitched his tent in our world (John 1:14). Logos, or its usual English translation, 'Word," is a word which at one time expanded its meaning with reflection. This was partially due to the way that "words" were used in culture -- they were oral tools to convey meaning, truth, and wit, among other things. They were finely crafted and well-spoken. And sacred scripture built on this human experience. The psalmist tells us that "by the word of the Lord the heavens were made . . . for he spoke, and it was made..." .
The advent of the printing press several centuries ago changed our perception of the word. In many parts of the world, a word is no longer something primarily spoken, but rather something primarily read -- no longer oral, but visual. Words are now meant to be examined, looked at, admired, but not necessarily heard. Until recently, the visual was merely meant as an aid to convey the more important oral meanings. But as more and more writers use computers for word processing, the visualization of words on a page (or computer monitor) rather than the original content may be the determining factor as to how something is written.
In addition to the way we utilize words, the metaphor "word" (i.e., the total set of meanings, nuances, and interconnections) has itself shifted. In a few years it may be impossible to recover its original meaning -- a meaning which biblical writers capitalized upon. Some have suggested this "metaphor-shifting" has already occurred with other biblical words, e.g., "sacrifice." We continue to use the word "sacrifice," but are totally out of touch with its original religious meaning, and, in fact, we may even have reached the point of non-recovery!
For many technicians, the word is now an electronic reality, used to convey a unit of information. It is best if it only has a univocal meaning -- ambiguity leads to problems in computers. Computer words do not last long -- they are here today and erased tomorrow. They are an easily dispensable commodity -- not at all enduring like the Word mentioned in Scripture.
The more our culture sees the computer word as the fundamental reality of "word," the harder and harder it will be to understand our relationship to Jesus as the Word of God. We are overwhelmed with computer words, and, to a great degree, with the visual printed words these computers generate. We now have so many words we have to build machines to shred them. How can we speak about being "starved for the Word," and also speak about and "shredding words," without some sort of schizophrenia? How can we reflect meaningfully on the reality that the "Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us;" when we most often think about the word becoming "processed" on the computer in the den or office?
John H. Wright, S.J., in his book, A Theology of Christian Prayer, bases some of his comments on prayer on a distinction made by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in The Phenomenon of Man. Both speak about a "double aspect" to the structure of reality: all (created) things have a within and a without. As Teilhard says, "In the eyes of the physicist, nothing exists legitimately, at least up to now, except the without of things."
Problems which have occurred throughout religious history seem to be due in part to the tendency to give religious answers to non-religious questions, or, to use the terminology above, to give answers about the without of things, as if it was the within of things. Part of the reason for this tendency is due, perhaps, to the inability we have had to identify properly what pertains to the within and what pertains to the without. People in Galileo's day believed that the world as center of the universe was a within question. Now we realize that it is a without question. Thus, most of us have little problem realizing that we can still be the crown of creation, and thus the center of the universe in the realm of God's love, without being at the same time the mathematical/astronomical center of the universe. The within reality endures, while we have seen that the without statement is nonsensical.
The history of salvation has shown us that we must constantly re-think our image of ourselves, and at times, re-adjust that image based on present events which become part of that history. The people of Israel presents a vivid example of a nation which has had to re-understand itself over and over again. God's promises seemed to be dashed time and time again: slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, subjugation by the Romans, the destruction of the Temple, the Holocaust. Yet the basic faith in a God who saves remains. Christians should have a simpler time adjusting to changes in our world because of the revelation of Jesus that what is ultimately important is the love of God and the God of love. Love is the ultimate within, and it is in that image that we are created.
The computer has been described as the first invention by the human race which tried to imitate and assist the human brain rather than human brawn. Yet, the way the computer aids the mind is still basically in the realm of the without, and even though computers may imitate the human mind to an amazing extent, the within of the mind is still something beyond the reach of metal and silicon. We still need to ask why rather than merely asking how.
If some of our contemporaries have re-defined themselves as biological computers, it seems to me that they are missing as much of the picture as those who define themselves as rational animals. Both metaphors tell only so much of the reality and are fundamentally on the level of the without. For Christians, the reality of 'who I am' is based in the God of love who sustains me in my within since God is the ultimate grounding of my existence, and who shares with me divine love so I can share it with others. That love has no limit, even though my poor body which experiences it and tries to share it has more limitations that I would like to admit. The God of all reality calls me continually to stand in awe and wonder, both of God and also of creation, whether that creation be part of nature, or produced through the agency of human hands and minds. We must continue to serve God through the latest technology, and not merely serve the technology itself. The ultimate question is not whether I view myself as a fleshy computer, but whether God views me as simply a biological word processor.
T. S. Eliot once wrote:
All our knowledge brings us nearer to ignorance

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death

But nearness to death, no nearer to God.

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Our computer culture is an "information science" culture, but of itself it has brought us no nearer to God or to Divine Wisdom. We need to do that on our own.
I have raised a number of questions and have only begun to give directions for some answers. A few answers should be obvious. For instance, it is not right to duplicate software or dial in to someone's computer without authorization. But other answers may be less obvious, and may require more reflections. For example, how we should view ourselves and our God in a computer age. Some questions may be only first steps toward formulating more significant questions. My hope is that the few thoughts I have shared may lead to more fruitful reflection for readers.
We are still in the infancy of wide-spread computer use. As with the infancy stage of any child, these times are formative and the "child" is very impressionable. Once in a while, both the child and the parent may be overcome by tantrums. But the child which has been born of human talent and effort is quite marvelous. Even more marvelous is the genius of the collective human minds which created it. Rather than reducing my view of God, for me, it increases my wonder of the Creator when I reflect on the marvel I work with many hours of every day. We Christians have a unique opportunity presented to us by the birth of this new brain-child. So many beneficial uses have already been seen in so short a time. With love and direction, we may be able to use the computer (and even newer technological advances to come in the years ahead) to spread the Kingdom of love, peace and joy initiated by Christ our Lord with even more vigour! Let us hope so!
Justin John, s.j.

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