Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part Two)

What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?

More than you might think, but that question, of course, is a riff on Tertullian’s famous query, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was a rhetorical question. By it, Tertullian implied that Christian theology, represented by Jerusalem, should steer clear of Greek philosophy, represented by Athens. I offer my question, in which Silicon Valley represents technological “innovation,” more straightforwardly and as a way of introducing this second post in conversation with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s essay, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.”

In the first post, I raised some questions about terminology and the force of Gobry’s analogy: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day.” I was glad to get some feedback from Gobry, and you can read it here; you can also read my response below Gobry’s comment. Of course, Internet reading being what it is, it’s probably better if I just give you the gist of it. Gobry thought I made a bit too much of the definitional nuances while also making clear that he was well aware of the distinctions between a twenty-first century start up and a thirteenth century monastery.

For the record, I never doubted Gobry’s awareness of the fine points at issue. But when the fine points are relevant to the conversation, I think it best to bring them to the surface. It matters, though, what point is being made, and this may be where my response to Gobry’s essay missed the mark, or where Gobry and I might be in danger of talking past one another. The essay reads a bit like a manifesto, it is a call to action. Indeed, it explicitly ends as such. Given that rhetorical context, my approach may not have been entirely fair. In fact, it may be better to frame most of what I plan to write as being “inspired” by Gobry’s post, rather than as a response to it.

It would depend, I think, on the function of the historical analogies, and I’ll let Gobry clarify that for me. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, it matters what function the historical analogies–e.g., monasteries as start-ups–are intended to play. Are they merely inspirational illustrations, or are they intended as morally compelling arguments. My initial response assumed the latter, thus my concern to clarify terminology and surface the nuance before moving on to a more formal evaluation of the claim.

The closing paragraphs of Gobry’s response to my post, however, suggested to me that I’d misread the import of the analogies. Twice Gobry clarified his interest in the comparisons:

“What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal,”

and

“What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends.”

That sounds a bit more like an inspirational historical illustration than it does an argument by analogy based on the assumed moral force of historical precedent. Of course, that’s not a criticism. (Although, I’m not sure it’s such a great illustration for the same reasons I didn’t think it made a convincing argument.) It just means that I needed to recalibrate my own approach and that it might be best to untether these considerations a bit from Gobry’s post. Before doing so, I would just add this. If the crux of the analogy is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a goal and a sense of mission executed by a devoted community, then the monastic tradition is just one of many possible religious and non-religious illustrations.

Fundamentally, though, even while Gobry and I approach it from different angles, I still do think we are both interested in the same issue: the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation.

In Gobry’s view, we need to recover the innovative spirit illustrated within the monastic tradition and also by the building of the great medieval cathedrals. In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that a closer look at both helps us to see how the relationship between technology and culture has evolved in such a way that the strength of cultural institutions that ought to drive “innovation” has been sapped. In this light, Gobry’s plea for the church to take the up the mantle of innovation might be understood as a symptom of what has gone wrong with respect to technology’s relationship to religion, and culture more broadly. In short, the problem is that technological innovation is no longer a means directed by the church or some other cultural institution to some noble end, it is too frequently pursued as an end in itself. For the record, I don’t think this is what Gobry himself is advocating.

Gobry is right to raise questions about the relationship between technological innovation and, to borrow Lynne White’s phrasing, cultural climates. White himself argued that there was something about the cultural climate of medieval Europe that proved hospitable to technological innovation. But looking over the evolution of technology and culture over the subsequent centuries, it becomes apparent that the relationship between technology and culture has become disordered. In the next post, I’ll start with the medieval cathedrals to fill out that claim.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

Last week I read a spirited essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry titled “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.” Gobry’s post was itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

So, needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. In fact, I’ve been thinking of Gobry’s post for several days. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. Of course, these issues can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I thought about Gobry’s post and read related materials, relevant considerations cascaded. Nothing short of a book-length treatment could do this subject justice. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that I think are worth further discussion.

In this post, I’ll start with a quick sketch of Gobry’s argument, and I’ll follow that with some questions about the key terms at play in this discussion. My goal is to read Gobry charitably and critically precisely because I share his sense that these are consequential matters, and not only for Christians.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim it’s role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

With that sketch in place, and I trust it is a fair summary, let’s move on to some of the particulars, and we’ll need to start by clarifying terminology.

Church, Technology, Innovation—we could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these key terms. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arises from the equivocal nature of these terms and how Gobry deploys them to analogize from the present to the past. I would assume that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily has the Roman Church in view when he talks about “the Church” or even Christianity. On one level this is fine, it’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that is not all. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which would function as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern, is that speaking about the Church, technology, and innovation involves us in highly problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, I understand this, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. I’m not pedantically opposed to generalizations in principle. However, every generalization, every concept, obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense is that in Gobry’s post, we are very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermine the thrust of the argument. This is especially important because the historical analogies in this case are meant to carry a normative, or at least persuasive force.

Because the generalizations are problematic, the analogies are too. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence is absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, are, in my view, misleading. The first clause is misleading because it suggests, as I read it, that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. As Gobry knows, “monastic life” is already a generalization that obscures great variety on the question at issue, especially when eastern forms of monastic life are taken into consideration. But even if we concentrate on the more relevant strand of western and Benedictine monasticism, we run into trouble.

As George Ovitt found in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. This is evident in the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—is misleading because it imports the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seems unhelpful, if not irresponsible to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.

I hope these considerations do not come across as merely “academic” quibbles. I’ve no interest in being pedantic. In writing about technology and Christianity, Gobry has addressed a set of issues that I too consider important and consequential. Getting the relevant history right will help us better understand our present moment. In follow-up posts, I’ll take up some of the more substantive issues raised by Gobry’s essay, and I’ll follow his lead by using the construction of the cathedral’s as a useful case study.

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Your Click Will Have Come From the Heart

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For the first time since 1517, when Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation, indulgences are in the news. As the start of the Roman Catholic Church’s 28th annual World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro drew near, it was widely reported that Pope Francis had decreed the granting of special indulgences for those who took part in the event. A decree of this sort would not ordinarily garner any media attention, but this particular decree contained an unprecedented measure. Indulgences were offered even to those who followed the event on social media.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. In Roman Catholic theology, Purgatory is where those who are ultimately on their way to Heaven go to satisfy all of the temporal punishment they’ve got coming and otherwise get spiritually prepared to enter Heaven. This is where indulgences come in.

The Church, as a conduit of God’s grace, may issue indulgences to reduce one’s time in Purgatory. Indulgences are premised on the notion that while most of us end up in the red when the moral account of our lives is taken, saints, martyrs, the Virgin, etc. ended up in the black. Their abundance of moral virtue constitutes a Treasury of Merit on which the Church can draw in order to help out those who are still paying up in Purgatory. Indulgences, then, are not, as they are sometimes portrayed in the press, a “get out of Hell free” card. They are more like a fast-pass through Purgatory.

That early modern religious, political, and cultural revolution we call the Protestant Reformation was kicked off when a German monk named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses for disputation on the door of a church in Wittenberg. Luther took aim at the practice of selling indulgences to fill the Church’s more literal treasury. He was particularly scandalized by the abuses of the notoriously unscrupulous Johann Tetzel. Think of Tetzel as a late medieval version of the worst stereotype of a contemporary televangelist. Luther set out to shut Tetzel and his ilk down, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While the practice of selling indulgences was banned by the Church shortly after Luther’s day, the Catholic Church still offers indulgences for particular works of piety. And that brings us back to Francis’ offer of indulgences to those who participate in World Youth Day celebrations. Here is the portion of the decree that has made a story out of these indulgences:

Those faithful who are legitimately prevented may obtain the Plenary Indulgence as long as, having fulfilled the usual conditions — spiritual, sacramental and of prayer — with the intention of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, they participate in spirit in the sacred functions on the specific days, and as long as they follow these same rites and devotional practices via television and radio or, always with the proper devotion, through the new means of social communication; …

The “new means of social communication” have been widely reduced to Twitter in accounts of this story. Following the Pope’s tweets (@Pontifex) during the week is one way of virtually participating in the event. The faithful may also watch live streaming video through web-portals set up by the Vatican or keep up on Facebook and Pinterest.

Claudio Maria Celli, president of the pontifical council for social communications, was quick to clarify the intent of the decree. “Get it out of your heads straight away,” Celli explained to the media, “that this is in any way mechanical, that you just need to click on the internet in a few days’ time to get a plenary indulgence.”

As the text of the decree makes clear, the “usual conditions” apply. Believers must be properly motivated and they must see to the ordinary means of grace offered by the Church: confession, penance, and prayer. And there’s also that line, almost entirely neglected in media reports, about being “legitimately prevented” from attending. But Celli seemed particularly determined to prevent any misunderstanding on account of the inclusion of digital media:

You don’t get the indulgence the way you get a coffee from a vending machine. There’s no counter handing out certificates. To put it another way, it won’t be sufficient to attend the mass in Rio online, follow the Pope on your iPad or visit Pope2You.net. These are only tools that are available to believers. What really matters is that the Pope’s tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us.

Protestants are usually taken to be more technologically savvy than the Catholic Church. After all, while the Catholic Church was weighing the moral hazards of the printing press, Protestants took to it enthusiastically and used it to spread their message across Europe. It is also true that American evangelicals have been especially keen on appropriating new media to spread the good news. As Henry Jenkins, a scholar of new media, put it,

Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.

But this way of telling the story, centered as it is on print and the communication of a message, may be obscuring the fuller account of the Catholic Church’s relationship to media technology. It may be, in fact, that the Catholic Church is well-positioned, given its particular forms of spirituality, to flourish in an age of digital media.

Making that case convincingly is a book-length project, but, allowing for some rough-and-ready generalizations, here’s the shorter version. It starts with recognizing that Francis’ decision to extend indulgences to those who are not physically present in Rio is not without precedent. This strikingly 21st century development has a medieval antecedent.

If you’ve ever visited a Roman Catholic Church, you’ve likely seen the Way of the Cross (sometimes called the Stations of the Cross): a series of images depicting scenes from the final hours of Jesus’ life. There are fourteen stations including, for example, his condemnation before Pilate, the laying of the cross on his shoulders, three falls on the way to the site of the crucifixion, and culminating with his body being laid in the tomb. Catholics may earn indulgences by prayerfully traversing the Way of the Cross.

What makes this a precedent to Francis’ decree is that the Way of the Cross represented by images – carved, painted, sculptured, engraved, etc. – in local churches was a way of making a virtual pilgrimage to these same places in Jerusalem. Since at least the fourth century, Christians prized a visit to the Holy Land, but, as you can easily imagine, that journey was not cheap or comfortable, nor was it entirely safe. By the late medieval period, the Way of the Cross was appearing in churches across Europe as a concession to those unable to travel to Jerusalem.

While the precise history of the Way of the Cross is a bit murky, it is clear that the regularizing of the virtual pilgrimage transpired under the auspices of the Franciscan Order. This is not entirely surprising given the Franciscan Order’s traditional care for the poor, those least likely to make the physical pilgrimage. It also makes it rather fitting that it is Pope Francis – who took his papal title from St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order – who first legitimized social media as a vehicle of indulgences.

What’s interesting about this connection is that Catholic theology had grappled with the notion of virtual presence long before the advent of electronic or digital media. And this leads to one of those egregious generalizations: Protestant piety was wedded to words (printed words particularly) and while Catholic piety was historically comfortable with a wider range of media (images especially).

This means that Protestants have understood media primarily as a means of communicating information, and Catholics, while obviously aware of media as a means of communicating information, have also (tacitly perhaps) understood media as a means of communicating presence. Along with the Way of the Cross, consider the prominence of images, icons, and statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints in Catholic piety. These images, whatever shape they take, are reverenced in as much as they mediate the presence of the “prototypes” which they represent.

Without claiming that the printed book created Protestantism, we could argue that in a media environment dominated by print, Protestant forms of piety enjoy a heightened plausibility. Print privileges message over presence. But high bandwidth digital media, combining audio and image, have become more than conduits of information, they increasingly channel presence and may thus be more hospitable to Catholic spirituality. Conversely, digital media may present intriguing challenges to traditional forms of Protestant spirituality.

It’s not surprising, then, that Pope Francis has seen fit to sanction digital media as legitimate tools of spirituality for Catholics. As Fr Paolo Padrini, a Catholic scholar of new media, put it, digital media allow for “Sharing, acting in unison, despite the obstacle of distance. But it will still be real participation and that is why you will obtain the indulgence. Above all because your click will have come from the heart.”

The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age

A few days ago, I noted, thanks to a WordPress reminder, that The Frailest Thing had turned thee. I had little idea what I was doing when I started blogging, and wasn’t even very clear on why I was doing so. I had just started my graduate program in earnest, so I was reading a good bit and, in part at least, I thought it would be useful to process the ideas I was engaging by writing about them. Because I was devoting myself to course work, I was also out of the classroom for the first time in ten years, and the teacher in me wanted to keeping teaching somehow.

So I began blogging and have kept it up these three years and counting.

The best of these three years of writing is, I’m happy to announce, now available in an e-book titled, The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age.

Forty-six essays are gathered into eight chapters:

1. Technology Criticism
2. Technology Has a History
3. Technology and Memory
4. Technology and the Body
5. Ethics, Religion, and Technology
6. Being Online
7. Our Mediated Lives
8. Miscellany

Not surprisingly, these chapters represent fairly well the major areas of interest that have animated my writing.

Right now, the e-book is only available through Gumroad. Of course, feel free to share the link: https://gumroad.com/l/UQBM. You will receive four file formats (PDF, .epub, .mobi, .azw3). The .mobi file will work best with your Kindle. Some formatting issues are holding up availability through Amazon, but it should also be available there in the next couple of days for those who find that more convenient.

Each of the essays can be found in some form online, but I have revised many of them to correct obvious errors, improve the quality of the prose, and make them read more naturally as stand-alone pieces. Nonetheless, the substance remains freely available through this site.

Convenience and a few improvements aside, those of you who have been reading along with me for some time will not find much you haven’t seen before. You might then consider Gumroad something akin to a tip jar!

Finally, because I would not presume they would see it otherwise, I’d like to share the Acknowledgements section here:

Each of these essays first appeared in some form on The Frailest Thing, a blog that I launched in the summer of 2010. I’m not sure how long the blogging venture would have lasted were it not for the encouragement of readers along the way. I’m especially grateful for those who through their kind words, generous linking, and invitations to write for their publications have given my writing a wider audience than it would’ve had otherwise. On that score, my thanks especially to Adam Thierer, Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, Emily Anne Smith, Alan Jacobs, Nick Carr, Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Matthew Lee Anderson, and Evan Selinger.

But I must also acknowledge a small cadre of friends who read and engaged with my earliest offerings when there was no other audience of which to speak. JT, Kevin, Justin, Mark, David, Randy – Cheers!

And, of course, my thanks and love to my wife, Sarah, who has patiently tolerated and supported my online scribblings these three years.

Deo Gratias

My thanks, of course, are owed to all of you who have stopped by along the way. While it may sound sappy and trite, I have to say there is still something quite humbling about the fact that when I offer up my words, which is to say something of my self, there are those who come around and take the time to read them.

There is a sense in which I’ve written for myself. The writing has helped me in my effort to understand, or, as Hannah Arendt put, “think what we are doing.” It is no small thing to me that in making that process public, some have found a thing or two of some value.

Cheers!

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“Terce”

“Terce,” the second of seven poems constituting WH Auden’s “Horae Canonicae: Immolatus vicerit”:

After shaking paws with his dog
(Whose bark would tell the world that he is always kind),
The hangman sets off briskly over the heath;
He does not know yet who will be provided
To do the high works of Justice with:
Gently closing the door of his wife’s bedroom
(Today she has one of her headaches),
With a sigh the judge descends his marble stair;
He does not know by what sentence
He will apply on earth the Law that rules the stars:
And the poet, taking a breather
Round his garden before starting his eclogue,
Does not know whose Truth he will tell.

Sprites of hearth and store-room, godlings
Of professional mysteries, the Big Ones
Who can annihilate a city,
Cannot be bothered with this moment: we are left,
Each to his secret cult, now each of us
Prays to an image of his image of himself:
‘Let me get through this coming day
Without a dressing down from a superior,
Being worsted in a repartee,
Or behaving like an ass in front of the girls;
Let something exciting happen,
Let me find a lucky coin on a sidewalk.
Let me hear a new funny story.’

At this hour we all might be anyone:
It is only our victim who is without a wish,
Who knows already (that is what
We can never forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then why are we here, why is there even dust?),
Knows already that, in fact, our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mount Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday.

(October 1953)