The Second Eclectic

What we do shapes who we are. And technology shapes what we do. Exploring the shapes.

How Technology is like Marijuana


I was recently talking with some friends from Colorado when the topic of legalized marijuana came up. Since Illinois, where I live, is considering similar measures, we were talking about the benefits and consequences of Colorado’s shift.

We’ve all heard about “medical marijuana.” The biggest benefit to commend marijuana is that. In the name of health benefits and pain relief, marijuana advocates have made the case that it should be legalized for a certain, albeit narrow, portion of the population. It will improve their lives and relieve their pain, in some cases severe pain. And no one can really disagree with that. Nor do we need to. However, opponents of legalized marijuana, even if it’s for other reasons, end up looking like heartless brutes who have no compassion for chronic sufferers.

Add to this a second benefit: money. Apparently, by legalizing marijuana and taxing those sales, Colorado’s government has raked in the cash. This cash, they say, can be invested back into schools and roads and more. Who doesn’t want to improve their kids’ education? The benefits. How will Illinois ever resist? I submit, it will not.

Of course, then there’s the consequences. Most people will agree that legalizing pot will probably have some downsides to. However, what those consequences are and how severe is yet to be determined. In most people’s minds, it’s only a matter of time.

As my friends and I talked about this, I realized that marijuana and technology actually have quite a bit in common. In terms of money, the similarity is obvious. Just like the state of Colorado, companies and individuals stand to make a lot of money from the use and development of new technologies. That’s why Silicon Valley has the deepest pockets in the world. Technology can make them rich, and they’ll willingly pursue new opportunities to expand it. But technology is also like marijuana when it comes to health benefits.

Often times, new and extreme technologies are Trojaned in using the guise of healthcare. Take brain-computer interfaces, as an example. This is bleeding-edge technology, but also potentially world-changing.

How are tech companies justifying the development of BCIs? By using it for medical uses. They’re seeking to help paralyzed people function again. These people have had traumatic spinal cord injuries and BCIs offer them the opportunity to regain some level of mobility and independence. Just like marijuana in Colorado, technologies are promoting themselves as godsends for healthcare.

The next step, in all this, would be to point out that, just like marijuana, technology also has long-term, unforeseen consequences. But here, you’ll run into resistance. People will begin coming to technology’s defense.

Few people are willing to consider that technology could have potential downsides. They simply can’t imagine that a technology that helps paralyzed people could actually cause problems down the road. Besides, if the BCI will help people in need, the reasoning goes, then it’s worth the cost. For anyone willing to question this, marijuana’s “heartless brutes” become technology’s “Luddites.” In both cases, the public chooses the immediate and tangible benefits, while ignoring, or never considering, what the long-term and less visible consequences might be.

Sticking our heads in the sand when it comes to technology, though, isn’t a new approach. Take the keyboard, for example. Its predecessor, the typewriter, was first invented and promoted as a technology for deaf-mutes. Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a Danish minister and inventor in the mid-1800s, created the earliest working models typewriters. The invention “was meant to compensate for physiological deficiencies” (rosa B) . Of course, despite it’s noble intentions, the typewriter and keyboard rapidly expanded into the lives of people who had no such handicap at all.

The same dynamic is certainly true for marijuana, and may someday also be true for brain-computer interfaces. What kind of world will we live in when everyone uses them? The question is as crazy as the idea once was of every person having a computer. But today, not only do we have personal computers, but mobile devices that are always connected to the Internet. In the past decade, the world change has shifted before our eyes in astounding ways.

The point is that, like marijuana, technology certainly offers benefits. But we cannot let the benefits cause us to overlook or ignore the consequences. And like marijuana, technology’s negative consequences will not be as immediate or visible, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

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Love Letters and the Unabomber

“Can technology be redeemed?” 

Orthodox Christians hold that the world is broken. But relatively few Christians consider how this brokenness extends to the technologies we use everyday. If they do, they’ll eventually begin to wonder, “Can technology be redeemed?” The answer, it seems, would be Yes. But, if we try to explain how, it gets tricky.

Most Christians tend to argue that redeeming technology means using technology for good and not ill. It means achieving positive outcomes and not negative ones. It means harnessing nuclear energy to power our homes, not to bomb our enemies. It means using the Internet to spread the Gospel, not pornography. This strategy is right and good—using technology for good and not ill—and it may in fact be part of what “redeeming technology” could look like. However, it cannot stop there. A more holistic approach must include a deeper understanding of technology’s impact.

Whether we use the Internet for the Gospel or for porn, we are still using the same technology. Apart from whatever outcomes we achieve, the practice itself changes us and our societies.

Take email for example. At one time, you sent letters by post. You could write love letters, or you could be the Unabomber. Good outcomes and bad. But it was the same technology. Now you use email instead, and you can likewise send love letters or computer viruses. Again, both good and bad.

But surely you’ve noticed that the letters we send have changed too. Some say the quality has gone down. What do we mean by quality? It could partly be quality of writing. It could also be quality of subject matter.

But it’s not merely a matter of quality. In quantity, the number of letters has increased. And this quantity may be linked to quality. Because we have more emails to write, we have less time to devote to each letter. We don’t have time to re-read them or edit them. Just type stream of consciousness and click Send.

And in terms of quality of subject matter, part of it may have to do with the immediacy of email. There’s no more waiting for news to arrive. No delays in information. With postal mail, you might update a friend about significant events since your last letter. With email, little thought is given to recent news anymore—only what is at hand is mentioned, if at all.

Thus, the practicesof letter-writing changed the contentof the letters we write. More letters means less time to write. More frequent letters means less time for worthwhile to accumulate. (The same dynamics are at work in the 24-hour cable news.)

Or consider group emails. With postal mail, an email thread would have been virtually impossible—to the point that no one really did it.

So even though we see email as the direct descendant of postal mail, their qualities are actually very different. They are hardly related at all. The style has changed. The content has changed. The sending and receiving has changed. All this before even getting to love letters and computer viruses. There’s a lot to talk about before we can even use words like “good” and “bad” to describe technology’s outcomes.

When we look at out habits first, we are better able to answer the real questions of good and bad. Is it good that we can “reply all” to one email thread? Is it good that we can forward a private letter with one impulsive click? Is it good that our letters are shorter, less thought out, less newsworthy? Is it good that our letters are always typed and never handwritten?

Those questions are harder to answer clearly. The changes are sort of good and also sort of bad. We kind of like these changes. And we kind of regret them. All in all, our society is changing for better and also for worse because of these changes. And these changes are changes in our habits, first and foremost, and our habits are changing because of our new technologies. So the Christian idea of “redeeming technology” isn’t as straightforward as we initially had hoped. It’s not a question of love letters versus the Unabomber. That’s only a lazy glance at the question. It does not look at the deeper habits and social impacts of the daily use of technology.


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The Colonel and the Bishop

“Colonel Mustard, in the Dining Room, with the Candlestick.” The game is familiar. But for most of us when we see a candlestick, the first thing that comes to mind is not a “bludgeon.” Candlesticks were made not only to elevate a lighted candle but to provide the light safely. Only in the hands of a person like Colonel Mustard does the candlestick become a weapon.

When Jurgenson took aim at the “The IRL Fetish,” he was criticizing the colonels of the world who pick up “offline” and wield it to bludgeon others. After I posted “The ‘Offline’ Debate: Finding the Same Register,” I was pleased that Nathan Jurgenson affirmed my reading of him. As with Jugenson’s “offline,” the Colonel’s candlestick is socially constructed, but it becomes a weapon only when someone like Colonel Mustard picks it up.

The colonels of the world are what Jurgenson later dubbed “the disconnectionists.” But there is some hope: He admitted that not all of us are colonels. Not all of us feel smug and self-righteous when we “go offline.” But to what does Jurgenson attribute such hope?

With my reading on the right track, I want to engage a bit more directly with Jurgenson’s strategy, and speak in his register. I want to confront the power-play problem that develops in social constructs like “offline,” “heterosexuality,” and “cool.” And, yes, candlesticks.

First, I want to affirm that they are indeed social constructs and that they are used to make power plays. I appreciate Jurgenson’s naming them and calling us to account for how we use them. We need to recognize our social constructs, especially when they are being used as weapons.

That said, I do not think Jurgenson’s apparent solution—to simply dismantle social constructs—can actually solve the problem. It is not a basis for hope. Jurgenson believes that everything, even Nature, is socially constructed (an argument I see the logic of). Thus, as with “offline,” he sees all social constructs as inherent weapons of power. Given this line of thinking, his solution is to dismantle all social constructs. Remove the candlestick, prevent the murder. And this seems to be exactly what Jurgenson is aiming for.

That’s why, in another article also published by The New Inquiry, Jurgenson writes, “[Labeling] the digital [as] virtual . . . is one more strategy to renew the reification of old social categories like the self, gender, sexuality, race and other fictions made concrete.” He sees these “social categories” as reinforcing people’s claims to power. Deconstructing them is Jurgenson’s attempt to eliminate those claims by disarming them of their weapons.

But what does that solution leave Jurgenson with? If everything is socially constructed, what is left when he’s finished?

Removing the candlestick doesn’t simply “prevent the murder.” It precludes the murder. Jurgenson wants to dismantle weapons, believing it will make oppression impossible (or more difficult). In the end, though, dismantling all social constructs removes all possibilities. This won’t simply preclude inequality and injustice and oppression. It will also precludes choice and, finally, freedom.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, Abolition of Man, tackles the belief that deconstructing everything will be good for us. His closing remarks of the book are, I think, quite relevant to Jurgenson, who wants to dismantle, or “see through,” every social construct. Lewis writes,
“But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”
Jurgenson’s effort to dismantle social constructs in order to eliminate power plays results finally in chaos or anarchy. Deconstructing “. . . self, gender, sexuality, race and other fictions made concrete,” he said. Without these so-called “fictions made concrete,” there is no culture or humanity left that is worth having.

So, while I agree with Jurgenson that social constructs like “offline” should not be used as power plays over others, I disagree that deconstructing them solves the problem of power. As Tim Keller writes, “If you say that all truth-claims are power plays, then so is your statement” (The Reason for God, 38). The power plays are problematic, yes, but deconstruction doesn’t fix them. Instead, I think there’s a better way forward—one that reappropriates them and uses them to serve others.

The Colonel represents one way of using candlesticks—as weapons of power. For an alternative vision, consider the candlesticks in the hands of Victor Hugo’s bishop.

When the powerfully-built convict Jean Valjean arrives in the doorway of Monsigneur Bienvenu, the elderly bishop welcomes the menacing figure in. The bishop’s home, he tells the convict, “is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering,” the bishop observes, “you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome.” Valjean eats at the bishop’s table using real silverware on real silver plates. Then silver candlesticks are bought out to light the table. Later, when the bishop shows Valjean to his sleeping quarters, each of them takes a candlestick to light their path.

After a few hours’ sleep, Valjean wakes up in the middle of the night, and, tempted, he deigns to steal the silver plates and then escapes into the early morning’s darkness. When French gendarmes apprehend him, they return the convict to the bishop’s house. Having already been alerted to the theft, the bishop receives the men with the shackled Valjean between them.
“‘Ah, there you are!’ said he, looking toward Jean Valjean. ‘I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?’”
To the Bishop as well as to Valjean, the candlesticks are indeed socially-constructed objects of great value and status. But the bishop freely gives all this power and honor to Valjean. He uses the power that is socially constructed around the candlesticks to empower Valjean, not to oppress him.

Conclusion

Like the Colonel and the Bishop, we have a choice as to what we do with “offline.” Do we use it as a power play and murder others? Or do we use it to serve and empower others? For both the Colonel and the Bishop, the candlesticks were socially constructed objects endowed with immense power. Like any socially constructed object, they could be used for evil or for good. And we have a choice.

Whether we like it or not, “offline” is a new candlestick. We can’t return to life before “offline.” We must make our way in a world where it exists. Jurgenson is right to name it as a weapon, just as we are right to despise the Colonel for murdering others. Jurgenson does a great service in bringing “offline” to light in this way. But now, the solution is not to try and dismantle it. Only eliminating the Internet could achieve that. Now, the way forward is to ask ourselves, “What will we do with ‘offline’?” Will we wield it like the Colonel, or will we offer it like the Bishop?



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The "Offline" Debate: Finding the Same Register

With the advent of the Internet, “offline” has become a new category of perception and experience. Nathan Jurgenson, however, took issue with the category: “Offline” and its closely related “IRL” (or “In Real Life” for the uninitiated) is a fetish, he argued, positioned as the moral high ground by “the disconnectionists.” He argued that the category was not “real,” useful, or distinct from “online.” In essence, he claims that the idea of “offline” is just as socially constructed as, say, the concept of “cool.” It is whatever people agree that it is, but some people have it, and some people don’t. And the haves hold it over the have nots.

If you’re unfamiliar with the debate, or need a refresher, I’ve summarized below one major thread. From there I analyze the context and goals of the debate, hopefully providing a more fruitful discussion going forward.


The Debate: “Offline”

Round One
Nathan Jurgenson started off with “The IRL Fetish” in which he argued that people have become obsessed with disconnecting from the Internet and electronic devices, and that in doing so, their “offline” experiences are more “real” than “online” ones. Jurgenson perceptively points out that even when we are “offline,” our lives, perceptions, and choices are still informed by the existence of the web and its devices. (We go camping, knowing that we will later post the photos to Facebook. Thus, camping remains informed by the Internet’s existence—so we are not truly “offline.” We exist in the same world where the Internet does, and we know it.)

Jurgenson further seems to suggest that we who are “offline” adopt a smug, self-righteous elitism in being “real.” In other words, this “digital dualism” of “online/offline” becomes a tool of power that some people hold over other people.

The debate began when Nick Carr responded with “The line between offline and online”. In it, he attacks Jurgenson’s apparent claim that the Internet has made us appreciate “offline” even more by contrast. Carr retorts that there have been many who appreciated “offline” before the Internet existed—appreciated it as much as we do today, Carr would venture. Carr goes on to attack Jurgenson’s further claim that this “appreciating” is actually “fetishizing.”

Even so, both Carr and Jurgenson seem to agree that the “offline” is saturated with the “online.” You can’t go camping without Facebook in the back of your mind. Some of what you do while camping becomes some of the content posted on Facebook. The question is, Are “online” and “offline” distinct at all? If they compose two circles, are they a Venn diagram, or do they completely overlap as one circle?

With these sides taken, Michael Sacasas chimed in with “In Search of the Real”. He teases out the distinction between Life Before “Online” versus Life After “Online.” Life Before we had the Internet was a world where we didn’t know we were “offline.” Life After the Internet is a world where, when we are “offline,” we can’t not know it. So, although going camping looks and feels very similar Before and After, they are not the same. Before is a world where Facebook doesn’t exist; After is a world where it does.

Sacasas’s point, I believe, is that when we choose to “unplug,” we mistakenly believe that we are choosing Life Before “Online.” Thus, we believe, based on that illusion, that when we unplug, we have the right to be smug, self-righteous, and elitist. And to this Jurgenson is, in effect, saying, “Life Before ‘Online’ doesn’t exist anymore, so you don’t have any right to claim superiority.”

Round Two
Round Two started when Carr picked up the thread again 7 months later with “Digital dualism denialism”. There, he zeroes in on another of Jurgenson’s essays, where Jurgenson delineates four positions: (1) strong and (2) mild “digital dualism” and (3) strong and (4) mild “augmented reality.” Both strong (1 and 3) positions are straw men, and Jurgenson ultimately sides with “mild augmented reality.” Carr perceptively distills the two mild positions down to a single distinction: Are the digital and physical “different worlds” or are they “one reality.” In other words: Do they make a Venn diagram or a single circle? And depending on your answer, does anyone have the right to feel self-righteous or not? Carr challenges the notion that everyone who “unplugs” feels self-righteous about doing so.

Besides airing this critique, Carr accepts the IRL phenomenon at face value: “people really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience,” he writes. “They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives.” Carr believes that accepting the perceived difference at face value and exploring it would be much more interesting, but that Jurgenson’s critique, by collapsing online and offline into a single circle, prevents us from exploring the differences. Carr laments this, seeing the exploration as having potential to produce valuable philosophy and art. He concludes by arguing that even Jurgenson’s “augmentation” position assumes a Venn diagram.

Jurgenson offers a number of clarifications in “Responding to Carr’s Digital Dualism”. (First) “Reality has always been augmented.” In other words, Life Before “Online” was already Life After the Printing Press. And Life Before the Printing Press was already Life After Writing. And so on. There were always things to “unplug” from, always reasons for self-righteousness and power. (Second) Jurgenson agrees that not everyone who “unplugs” automatically feels superior. (Third) “the digital and physical are not the same . . . but both Facebook and the coffee shop inhabit one reality.” So, no Venn diagram for Jurgenson. Contra Carr, he sees a single circle.

Even though he admits the (Second) clarification, Jurgenson maintains his criticism of people who use “offline” as a power play just like the “cool” kids did. Perpetuating the belief that we can really be “offline” allows us “to claim that one’s own disconnection makes one more real.” The idea of “the real” is something that one can claim to “have access to” and feel superior for having. “Offline” people then wield this abusively against others.

After this, a fourth voice, Tyler Bickford, chimed in with “The digital dualism of ‘digital dualism’ critics”. Bickford’s analysis is the densest, but he was also the one who illuminated for me Jurgenson’s emphasis on power. As the adage goes, “Whoever makes the rules wins the game,” and so also whoever decides what is “real” (supposedly “offline”) gains the upper hand. By calling “offline” more “real” than “online,” people “unplug” and smugly judge those who don’t.

Bickford argues that Jurgenson’s “mild augmented reality” solution still reinforces the dualisms he wants to dismantle, the same point that Carr made: a Venn diagram. For Bickford, “the solution here is to stop talking about ‘reality’ altogether.” His alternative is “rather than ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical,’ can’t we just have ‘lots of different stuff’?” Deconstructing categories into “lots of different stuff,” Bickford seems to believe, will resolve the power plays at work, or at least blunt their force. If there aren’t “cool” kids but instead, just a lot of different people, then there are no outsiders.

Jurgenson responded.

The hubbub petered out finally with Sacasas’s “Online/Offline/No Line”. There, Sacasas admits that the points of disagreement aren’t exactly clear. (My summary should show that there does actually seem to be a good bit of agreement, and that where there is disagreement, opponents are talking past each other.) Sacasas sympathizes with Bickford’s desire to simply deal with “lots of different stuff,” but he also recognizes that an “undifferentiated blob” isn’t very helpful either: “There are realities against which our language, concepts, and knowledge claims rub, and within this reality there are distinctions.” (Although I wonder how Jurgenson and Bickford feel about Sacasas’s deployment of “reality” here.) From here, Sacasas returns to the categories of “online” and “offline” and calls them “meaningful” labels for the “difference” that Carr believes “people really do feel.”



The Weapon: “Offline”

After “reviewing the literature” such as it is, I follow Bickford’s reading: Jurgenson seems more concerned with power and oppression than he is with “online” versus “offline” as social constructs. Jurgenson could have just as easily have used other socially constructed weapons. For example, “homosexuality” versus “heterosexuality” could have been his social constructs of choice (which he will do); some people deem one orientation to be better than the other and use the distinction as a weapon to benefit themselves and dominate the other. (In fact, that argument is made here.)

We need to distinguish Jurgenson’s goal from his means. The “offline” question is merely a means to his end. His end goal is to prevent people from claiming power and abusing others. The weapon, as he sees it, is the belief in the “offline.” If Jurgenson can deconstruct “offline,” then he can remove that weapon from the arsenal. He can stop people from claiming that alleged power and abusing others.

Carr and Sacasas are not attacking Jurgenson’s ends. I don’t even see them recognizing his ends. But they are attacking his means. And so when Jurgenson hears them attacking his means, I think he hears them attacking his ends. However, I do not think that is their intent at all.

Yet, even with his means, Carr and Jurgenson seem to be talking past one another: Carr is talking about “offline” in the context of experience, but Jurgenson seems to be talking about “offline” in the context of perception. (Although, perception is rightly a subset of experience.)

Jurgenson argues that the Internet factors into your perceptions even when you are logged off. You account for the Internet even when you go camping. It’s presence is assumed for when you return from camping. In terms of perception, we are never “offline.” We can’t go back. We are all online now.

Conclusion

In order for Carr and Jurgenson to converse productively, the context and the goal need to be clearly understood. Jurgenson is talking about “offline” in the context of perception, and his goal is to deconstruct “offline” as a path to power. Carr is talking about “offline” in the context of experience, and his goal is to use “offline” to describe lived experience in meaningful ways. These are very different contexts and goals, very different registers. Once they can start speaking in the same register, the conversation might finally bear some fruit.



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Buying Power

I had the privilege a few weeks ago to write an article for Christianity Today's Parse blog titled "Buying Power." It's a bit afield from my normal technology discussion, but I see them connected in the ways that power is abstracted and disguised within ordinary human habits. Here's an excerpt: 
The Crusades are a go-to symbol of the hypocrisy and power-mongering that Christianity is sometimes accused of, even today. Nonetheless, the Pope's original goal seemed admirable: To provide Christians safe passage to Jerusalem. Their heritage, he believed, gave them a legitimate claim for inhabiting at least part of the city. But for this belief, Christians were willing to take up arms and kill those who opposed them. Many mortgaged everything they had to keep fighting.
Many today (including Christians) are aghast that such killing was committed in the name of Christ. People who read Jesus' words are bewildered at how such violent methods could have ever been justified. Many Christians even avoid warfare metaphors for their Crusade connotations. Yet, given the recent buying habits of American Christians, perhaps the Crusades still have things to teach us about the pitfalls of wielding power.

Read the rest at Parse.

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The Thief and the Locker

Flickr/Brett Levin
I was at the gym yesterday, in the locker room. A few others were in there. I’d chosen a locker that was right next to another guy—he was about 60. We were both done with our workouts, both had our lockers open. At one point, I stepped away from my locker, and when I turned around, Mr Sixty was holding up my button-down shirt, like he was trying to figure out which end was up. I could tell the gears were churning upstairs.

Above his head I noticed a sign, placed there by the management: “We are not responsible for lost or stolen items.” Typical boilerplate.

I looked back at the man. There was no un-awkward way to do this. “Uh, that’s my stuff.”

“Oh, I thought something looked wrong. I’m sorry.”

Still awkward. “That’s okay,” I offered. He'd made an honest mistake. He would have figured it out eventually. Note to self: Leave a locker’s buffer between you and 60-year-old men.

He apologized again.

The boilerplate sign got me to thinking about how the management could never have installed lockers without locks. Locks were simply a foregone conclusion. A necessary evil. In fact, hardly an “evil” anymore, and more simply necessary. We just don’t think about it hardly at all.

But what were lockers called before they had locks on them? “Cubby holes”? Was there ever such a thing? Even the name assume they have lock. In fact, they are defined by it. But did schools or gyms ever have “lockless lockers” where students or patrons could store their personal effects? Maybe country clubs back in the day? Or the local Elks Lodge maybe? Those old boys’ clubs—where Mr Sixty should be instead, where he could mix up clothes with other confused men his own age—those clubs are the only places I can imagine something like lockless lockers—and even then, only in the days when everyone still knew each other.

But I don’t think lockers came to be because of size or anonymity—at least, not initially.

It was the single thief.

Maybe this seems obvious. But my point is not to look at the thief. My point is to look at the lockers. Why? Because all those lockers are the response to that one thief. But it’s not merely the lockers. The lockers are part of a bigger system.

Take high school for example. I went to a high school with hundreds of other students—each had his or her own locker. A single thief required thousands of lockers, each having a unique lock and combination. So not only do you need lockers, but you need a way to keep track of all the combinations for all the lockers. That requires a whole system.

Now compare this complex system to that one thief. Maintaining the system involves more work than the lone thief expends. On balance, the reaction far outweighs the action. They are not equal—not by a long shot.

We overlook this imbalance simply because it has become normal. Like that boilerplate. But normal does not necessarily mean sensible. The system far surpasses the thief both in complexity, execution, and longevity.

So that imbalance is one element in this dynamic. The other, which I mentioned, is anonymity. Again this circumstance seems normal to us today. We regularly see people we don’t know. It happens daily. I stopped at the grocery today, saw at least a hundred people, and didn’t know a single face. Anonymity is a given. But the thief’s potential anonymity plays a big role.

But this kind of extenuated anonymity was not always normal. Today, strangers are the rule, but in the past, they were more often the exception. Think about the classic movie scene: A stranger walks into a small town. Everyone stares at him. Everyone is suspicious of him. “Stranger danger” was probably the more common experience for most people throughout history. They saw the same people most days. There were strangers sure, but social circles were pretty finite.

In this sort of defined community, flushing out a thief was much more realistic. An entire group could be rounded up. If a crime was committed, the culprit was likely among them. If he or she wasn’t, that recent stranger could be quickly identified.

But in a culture of anonymity, everyone is a stranger. The circle is much bigger and more diffused, so apprehending the culprit becomes much, much harder. A needle in a haystack. A case for Sherlock Holmes.

Hence a culture of anonymity breeds a culture of suspicion. It’s not necessarily overt. It may rumble at such a low decibel that it’s hardly detectable. Or perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to it—like locks on lockers. Lockers exist in a culture of anonymity. They symbolize our culture of suspicion.

This anonymous society—this “bowling alone” culture—is the context of the thief. It’s the community of isolated neighbors with signs posted for “community watch.” It’s the dead bolts and police patrols. It’s the well-lit corporate parks and cell phone safety blankets.

+ + +

I want to extend this thief-locker dynamic by analogy to some broader scenarios we face nationally. Specifically, two instances come to mind: the 3D-printed gun, and 9/11. I’m sure many others could be identified.

First, the gun. The 3D-printed gun made headlines last spring when a Texas law student used a 3D printer to manufacture and fire "The Liberator." It was a shot heard around the world, as it were. It was not long before concerned citizens were pressing the U.S. Congress to “do something.” We need to stop this. Citizens’ safety was at risk. Suddenly, anyone could print a handgun, without a permit. They could obtain a weapon by surfing the Internet. Made of plastic, the handgun could conceivably be smuggled aboard a plane, to disastrous ends. But for Congress, the measured response was not clear. What sort of system could they implement in the edgeless landscape of the world wide web? Until recently, the NSA seemed to be an answer; now new systems, or at least strategies, must be created.

The dynamics surrounding the 3D-printed gun seem to map well onto the dynamics of the locker thief. In both cases, you have a single individual wielding immense power in an anonymous society. And that individual “could be anyone.” In both cases, the response seemingly required is that of some kind of system. This system must expand far enough to encompass and account for all possible offenders. Everyone is a suspect. Except, of course, such a system is not possible. So instead of a comprehensive system, we must employ a statistically-supportable strategy. Instead of rounding up a whole community, we have to cast a net, inevitably letting some suspects through in order to catch the more likely offenders.

Second, 9/11. By now you can probably see the pattern. In this case, it’s not an individual but a group of like-minded people—a cell. They coordinated their efforts—a small, ever so small subset of U.S. inhabitants. Their goal was not to steal, but to kill and destroy. They used airplanes not for transportation but for weapons. They targeted symbols of American economic and military power. After 9/11, we waged war against “terrorism”—a concept. Because the war was no longer against a place, but against a mindset. Now we cast the net over the whole world, though we cannot fight the whole world. Still, we remain suspicious.

War is the first reaction. The second reaction is a system, a net, a web: the Department of Homeland Security. The system involves additional TSA employees and full-body scanners. It involves the NSA surveillance. All are strands in the web. All are combinations to the locks. Someday we won’t remember a time before lockers.

All these strategies and systems are in place to prevent another cell, another 9/11. But compare the efforts of 11 men, their years of planning and, finally, of their execution, with the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA's surveillance practices. Thousands of new enforcement officers. Hundreds of new policies and strategies. All these participate as part of the net. All of these together make up the U.S. reaction to the organized efforts of a few people. The reaction far outstrips the initial action.

Of course, it must. The work of prevention is far greater. Again, the imbalance is not sensible, only normal. We intuit that the response must be greater, but do we know why?

My main interest is to know what role technology plays in cultivating these dynamics—primarily the inequity between the thief and the system. Others factors besides technology certainly play a role, but my interest is in technology’s.

How does technology contribute to this imbalance, and how does it extend this imbalance to all levels to society—from lockers to homeland security?

Why is the action and reaction not equal and opposite? Or, if they can be shown to be equal, why does the individual wield so much power for destruction (and so little corresponding power for good)?

Another question I have is, Why, when responding to destruction and threats of destruction, do we default to a system or strategy as a means for preventing crimes and deterring criminals? Is this the best response? Are there other options? Other, non-technological options? Does implementing technical systems actually give the individual more power in the long run? Or does it, perhaps, make a police state more likely?

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One final note. Clearly my attention is drawn to the individual’s power for destruction. That said, there are some notable examples of the “anti-thief”: People who acted in ways that led to massive positive outcomes far outweighing the actions themselves. Examples that come to mind include Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa. I’m sure there are others. Indeed, they are world-changing figures. As well, I’m sure there are many lesser known anti-thieves whose small acts brought benefits that outweighed their efforts. We can take hope in people like this. We can hope to be people like this. And perhaps, if we understand the thief/locker dynamics, we can learn what it takes to bring about this kind of massive good. For I’m confident that many of the dynamics used for evil can be turned around and used for good.


Do Prisoners Deserve to Be Human?

Flickr/kIm DARam

The Other Journal featured an interesting two-part article last week by Andrew Krinks. Krinks interviewed 5 inmates at a “supermax” prison in Tennessee. They have all been sentenced to death for their crimes. Krinks describes the prison’s surroundings (an industrial area outside Nashville) and the restricted lives that the inmates lead (“Whenever my feet hit the ground, they hit concrete.”). With it, Krinks makes the case for seeing how the environment and practices of incarceration ultimately fragment and abolish human meaning in the lives of its inhabitants. He also talks about how inmates strive to restore that meaning. It’s a fascinating article; I recommend it to you (part one, part two).

The article caught my attention because of its focus on the body in its environment. Krinks looks at the surroundings and makes an argument for understanding the human within it. He looks at how the structures and systems that delimit these prisoners suck the meaning out of their embodied lives. This meaninglessness is not the punishment intended by the justice system, but it is a by-product of the efforts at containing them. One inmate told Krinks: “. . . these cells close in on some of these guys.” Krinks sums it up: “It is all to easy, when one is so thoroughly cut off from others and from the outside world, to eventually become cut off from oneself.”

In other words, the incarceration techniques being used to punish criminals does more than imprison their bodies. It can also dehumanize their souls. This dehumanizing, I believe, is an unintended, but very real, consequence of prison technologies.

The prison environs represent an extreme edge of the ways that our man-made surroundings can shape our bodies, our habits, our identities, and our souls. But this shaping isn’t only true for extreme environments. It’s true for more moderate ones as well. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a more moderate example. Although the effects themselves may not as extreme, the subtlety of these moderate environments can be deceiving. Their moderation does not mean they are any less pervasive. They may have just as much impact on us. But to what ends?

A few years ago, my friend Mike returned from a trip to New York City. When I asked him about his trip, he described it with one word: “dehumanizing.” The sheer volume of people and the density with which they pack themselves in, he described to me. And Mike’s not some rural bumpkin; he lives in the city of Chicago.

What I would, in fact, suspect is that all man-made environments are, to one degree or another, dehumanizing. And I would suspect that they are dehumanizing to the degree that they are man-made. Yet, also, I would suspect that they can be humanizing to the degree that they point beyond themselves to something universal, and ultimately to God. (In fact, research suggests as much.) Hence, because a prison—both in its environment and its routines—is entirely man-made and self-referential, it is one of the most dehumanizing places on the planet.

By the same argument, a city is more dehumanizing than a rural setting. Why? Because of it environment and its routines. The habits it cultivates and the meaning it embodies are largely constructed by humans. (See Ellul's The Meaning of the City.) You will walk faster on a city sidewalk than in a small town. The buildings and streets are usually symbols of human activities—for better and worse. The exception proves the rule: New York’s Central Park is a respite from the pace and symbolic overload of New York City.

The city and the country remain clear extremes. However, something like a suburb is a bit more complicated. Much of these planned communities include things like trees and grass and open sky, but much of the man-made stuff is disguised with landscaping. How are we to understand this fundamentally man-made landscape? How should we think of it in relation to an English garden? Landscaping has completely subjugated natural growth to the landscaper’s will; the garden on the other hand is cultivated by a gardener in a more stewardship role. The two remain much closer than the skyscraper and the farm. But they are not the same. Even these subtle differences matter may effect subtle differences in us humans. Their impact does not have to be equally extreme to be equally pervasive.

Whatever these effects may be, and however deep they go, it is worth considering the man-made world and its impact on our bodies, our habits, our identities, and our souls. If we feel a sense of ennui, what role do our surroundings play? If we experience joy or rest, what kind of spaces bring that forth? If we feel abstracted or if we feel centered, what are we doing and where are we doing it?

Andrew Krinks’s article is titled “Soulful Resistance,” suggesting that handcuffed bodies are not handcuffed souls. But if we can more clearly see our surroundings for what they do, then perhaps “resistance” could give way to something more like “cooperation.”