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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Faith and Technology

I am thinking these days about faith and technology. Each day seems to bring a magical new development. This month I read an article in the newspaper about authorities concerned with people being able to print out guns from their computer using three dimensional printers. No, I am not making this up. But more than concerns about security, what about manufacturing as an industry? 3D printers are rapidly becoming more sophisticated and less expensive.

Or how about increasingly sophisticated robots taking over tasks normally done by human beings? Are we on the verge of work being obsolete? Imagine a robotic pastor taking over my job. I am enjoying Siri (Apple's voice recognition software voice) on my new iPhone. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said in her slightly electronic voice, "I already have everything I need." Why hire a human being to do a job when a robot can do it and needs nothing, save a charge battery (that is something Siri will need from time to time). Another article, more far fetched, reported on the prospect of people downloading the data in their brains onto a computer and achieving electronic immortality.

More to the present, consider the fast paced change that has already taken place in technology, as smart phones and tablets replace desktops and laptops (and televisions) as the primary screen interface, businesses that were thriving a few years ago now face the prospect of an uncertain future. Technological innovation can turn culture and economy on a dime.

Which brings us to the church. I have not researched this, but my own feeling is that Mennonites have a history of being techno skeptics, or at least feeling like we have to play techno skepticism lip service. The irony in this skepticism is how essential disruptive technology was to the Anabaptist movement. Developments in printing technology transformed Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, making printed material widely available in ways it never had been before. Publishing ideas became easy, and people learned to read and write in their own languages, to enjoy the new opportunities. Central to the reformation was the notion that ordinary people should read the Bible, a highly controversial proposition. The counter argument is that only those trained and learned in the proper disciplines could correctly interpret for the masses. Without technological innovation Mennonites would not be here.

Another major technological innovation has transformed Mennonite life, only in the most recent century. Perry Bush posited in his book, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, that the Civilian Public Service experience during World War II was a catalyst in getting Mennonites out of local rural communities, and into a wider, and urban, world. But I wonder about the role of technological revolution in agriculture. In 1950, and Kansas family could live on 200 acres. Today yields have gone up, but prices have collapsed by historic standards, and that same family needs perhaps thousands of acres for a comparable life today. Mennonite youth either found work in nearby factories, or pursued opportunities elsewhere, most likely cities.

The latest technological innovations are changing the ways and frequencies with which people communicate with each other. Like the advent of the printing press, it is likely these new technologies will profoundly shape how we think ourselves, and what we think it means to be a Christian, although I'm not sure how. We can resist, or we can adapt with a critical and thoughtful mind. I think I am in the latter camp, but some days I'm not sure.

Well, I have to go pick up my son from his robotics club.