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Surveillance capitalism: Elements of a Christian response

We are embodied creatures and we rightly long to interact face-to-face. This God-given longing is a compass to help navigate the deceptive and exploitative redefinition of relationships.

JUBILEE CENTRE AUTOR 275/Jonathan_Ebsworth,286/Samuel_Johns,312/Michael_Dodson 29 DE SEPTIEMBRE DE 2021 16:24 h
Photo: [link]Just Jack[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Read Part 1 of this paper here, and Part 2 here



 



Elements of a Christian response



We have mentioned several well-informed critiques of surveillance capitalism, [1] which include some policy or regulatory recommendations to address the systemic abuses of technological monopolies.



The concerned reader can find a voice among organisations raising these issues at all levels of government, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation [2] and the Center for Humane Technology. [3]



Given that any societal reform will be slow and incomplete, and there is no comprehensive mechanism to opt out, how should we live within the system and architecture of surveillance capitalism?



 



Cultivating life beyond exploitation



During the pandemic, products such as Zoom sustained our friendships and our worship; however, we consider these technologies as substitutes. We are embodied creatures and we rightly long to interact face-to-face.



This God-given longing is a compass to help navigate the deceptive and exploitative redefinition of relationships described earlier.



Jesus himself is the preeminent example of choosing present, physical relationships in defiance of immediate ‘reach’ and ‘opportunity’. [4]



[destacate]We are embodied creatures and we rightly long to interact face-to-face [/destacate]


Surely God could have broadcast his good news directly to the whole globe, but he chose to come as a baby, apprentice as a carpenter, and then spend three years focused on evangelising and discipling a few dozen men and women.



We find similar themes in Paul’s correspondence. He is distressed when he hears that people he knows are suffering. [5]  He writes to tell his readers that he longs to be with them, [6] and that he finds his joy in them. [7]



John also desires to share joy ‘face to face’ rather than with ‘paper and ink’. [8]



The instruction in 1 Peter for Christians to consider their identity ‘as foreigners and exiles’ [9] offers encouragement and motivation to refocus time and energy away from social media and towards loving our physical neighbours.



The Israelite exiles in Babylon are told to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ [10]



They are called to local love, in direct contrast to their natural longing to be elsewhere.



 



Living by rhythms to counter addiction



In the story of Creation, God rested on the seventh day. [11] In the Ten Commandments, God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath holy, by resting. [12]



A first step away from digital slavery is to put our devices aside for one day each week. Perhaps we could take Andy Crouch’s advice.[13] He suggests we set devices aside for one hour each day, one day each week, and one week each year.



Christians are commanded to be ‘very careful… how you live’.[14] One of the best defences against busyness and digital addiction may be an adaptation of the ancient practice of a ‘rule of life’.



[destacate]A first step away from digital slavery is to put our devices aside for one day each week[/destacate]


The Rule of Saint Benedict [15] provides a guide for communal monastic living. The rule establishes regular rhythms of prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and work.



There has been a surge of interest in considering how aspects of Benedict’s ‘rule’ could be applied to individual as well as communal living.[16]



We see great benefit in establishing some fundamental low-tech relational rhythms and practices that reflect our most precious values and priorities. These can be combined into a personal ‘rule of life’.



This offers a robust defence against the digital sprawl that threatens to inundate us and can help contain our working day. Without such practices, it is hard to ‘have life, and have it to the full’ [17] in a world dominated by surveillance capitalism.



Challenging these perspectives is hard. Working together to develop practices of digital fasting, sabbath rest, and personal rule of life allows us to establish countercultural patterns that can break the bondage of consumerist technicism that holds us so tightly.





[photo_footer]   Photo: Josh Rose, Unsplash, CC0. [/photo_footer] 


Restoring truth in a post-truth world



The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes that it is the ‘prestige and aura that surround technology’[18] – with its glint of newness and promise of convenience – that casts the spell of enchantment on our society. We are beguiled by a simple aphorism: ‘the newest is the truest’.



[destacate]Our soft compliance and enchanted reliance on technology is reminiscent of the world sketched by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932)[/destacate]


Perhaps rather than the rigid, mechanical world prophesied by George Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) [19] our soft compliance and enchanted reliance on technology is more reminiscent of the world sketched by Aldous Huxley in the novel Brave New World (1932). [20]



Neil Postman writes: ‘what Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no need to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one... Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.’ [21]



Postman sided heavily with Huxley’s dystopian view of the future in Brave New World. As Huxley saw it, ‘people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’. [22]



Postman echoes this tone, continuing: ‘in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.’ The warning is clear: a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing.



Restoring truth is no easy quest. In their fight for our attention, the owners of social media platforms have willingly accepted societal polarisation as an unimportant side effect of their activities. [23]



When we are fed ever more strident opinions that align with our own, common ground and alternative perspectives seem to evaporate. To rediscover truth, we must escape from the grip of these algorithmic tools.



[destacate]Faith communities could develope the notion of ‘generous conversations’ among people who have widely divergent views on contentious issues[/destacate]


We have stepped too far into the looking-glass world of alternative truth, and we have to relearn the art of listening: to remember how to consider alternative perspectives, and to actively remind ourselves that the ‘facts’ we are holding on to have likely been deliberately handed to us by an algorithm designed to help entrench our position.



Faith communities could go further by developing the notion of ‘generous conversations’ among people who have widely divergent views on contentious issues. These could be constructed to allow room for disagreement, to extend grace to errors, and to foster productive dialogue.



 



Conclusion



How then should we live? The Psalmists insist that the focus of our gaze is significant. Idols and false gods will always compete for our attention. Too easily, we allow our eyes to be drawn away from the living God, drawing from our own broken cisterns that cannot hold water. [24]



 ‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?’[25] begins Psalm 121. Mountaintop idols seem appealing, yet they distort our relationships by volatising the real and obliterating lived experience.[26]



These same idols can deceive our sensibilities by distancing us from God and foreclosing relational intimacy. They dismay us and dissatisfy in profound ways, leading us towards mirages and leaving us insatiably thirsty.



[destacate]In community, we can better put the technology that is intended to serve us in its proper place [/destacate]


But the Psalmist continues ‘my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth’; he wisely shifts his frame from the mountain to its Maker, the foundation of what is real.



What is the potential idolatry of digital technology? Liking a photograph is fairly harmless. Endless scrolling perhaps less so. But surely it’s not idolatrous?



As noted earlier, Guy Brandon highlights the spiritual danger associated with the way that social media tends to become dominant in many people’s lives.’ [27] We have become utterly distractable, as T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘distracted by distraction from distraction’. [28]



Bottomless content and endless notifications ‘undermine our ability to focus and, implicitly, reduce our capacity to relate to each other – in the most basic terms, to love’. [29]



Indeed, ‘sensitising the mind to distraction … compromises our humanity’. [30] It is this prospect for humanity that concerns us.



In this hyper-individualistic age, it is in embodied community where we can best ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’, [31] learning how to hear and respond to Jesus’ call over the digital cacophony.



In community, we can better ‘learn the unforced rhythms of grace’, [32] putting the technology that is intended to serve us in its proper place. It is in that community where we can flourish; to know and to be known.



 



Jonathan Ebsworth has spent his career working with Information Technology. He has recently established a small consulting practice focused on human-centred technology innovation and co-founded www.TechHuman.org, a website aimed at offering insights into how we can live well in a digitally-dominated world.



Samuel Johns writes on identity, immediacy, and technology in the late-modern world, with a particular interest in human personhood. He studied at the University of Oxford before pursuing a Master of Arts at UBC, Vancouver, on the philosopher Charles Taylor's work The Malaise of Modernity.



Michael Dodson is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, studying Computer Science. His research focuses on security and privacy where digital equipment meets the physical world, such as in water and power utilities, medical devices, and automotive applications.



This paper was first published on the website of the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission.



 



Notes




1.  Shoshana Zuboff, op cit., and Guy Brandon (2016) Digitally Remastered.



2 Electronic Frontier Foundation home page, ‘The leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation’, (accessed 10 May 2021).



3 Center for Humane Technology home page (accessed 10 May 2021).



4 Matt. 4:5–7.



5 2 Cor. 1:5–7.



6 2 Tim. 1:4.



7 1 Thess. 2:19.



8 2 John 12; 3 John 13,14.



9 1 Pet. 2:11.



10 Jer. 29:7.



11  Gen. 2:2.



12  Exod. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15.



13 Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), p.105.



14 Eph. 5:15–16.



15 Rule of Saint Benedict (Regula Sancti Benedicti, ad 516).



16 Useful resources include: Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2019); John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021); Bridgetown Church, ‘Practicing the Way, Rule of Life Workbook’  [accessed 26 February 2021]; Praxis Labs, ‘Rule of Life for Redemptive Entrepreneurs’, (accessed 15 March 2021).



17 John 10:10.



18 Charles Taylor, Malaise of Modernity (Toronto, CA: Anansi Press, 1991), p.6.



19 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949).



20 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932).



21 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, NY: Viking, 1985), p.vii.



22 Aldous Huxley, 1932, op cit.



23 The Social Dilemma, dir. by Jeff Orlowski (Netflix, 2020); ‘Political Polarization in the American Public’ (accessed 21 April 2021).



24 Jer. 2:13.



25 Ps. 121:1.



26 Paul Virilio, Michael Degener, and James Der Derian, Desert Screen: War at the Speed of Light (New York: Continuum, 2005).



27 Guy Brandon, op cit., p.6.



28 T. S. Eliot, 1941, op cit.



29 Guy Brandon, op cit., p.161.



30 Ibid.



31 Heb. 10:24.



32 Matt. 11:28–30 (part) The Message version.



 

 


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