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Wired and worried: Why we’re anxious about our technology

18 Jun

In my previous post, I wrote about a stream of critiques that are asking serious questions about the new technological world we’re inventing and investing in: Where is all this leading? Maybe it’s some kind of Rorschach test, but there’s a pattern to these articles and books–at least a half-dozen connected anxieties that keep emerging, at least the ones I see. You might recognize more. If you do, chime in with your comments.

1. We’re connected, but are we really detached? We have all sorts of digital ways to “network,” but what about the face-to-face connections? Can a Facebook friend ever be like a flesh-and-blood friend? Are cyber-communities real communities?

2. The Internet might want to be free, but are we actually trapping ourselves? All so-called developed nations–and more and more of the developing societies–depend on electronic and digital technologies just to keep our basic services functioning. Have we wired ourselves into a corner? The nightmare scenario, of course, is that, by accident or intent, our energy grids, water supplies, and transportation systems fail, bringing on a new dark age of catastrophe and chaos. Security experts are working overtime on preventing cyber-attacks that could paralyze us.

3. We invent and use technology to gain unprecedented power, but will our technology one day take control?  This corollary to No. 2 is a staple of the sci-fi canon: What happens when our machinery gets smart and powerful enough to take over? Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sinister rabbit-hole world of The Matrix, the rebellion in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. But we don’t need some fictitious future. The potential is as close as Google. As Nicholas Carr noted in 2008,

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.”

4. Is our technology changing us from being citizens to being merely consumers? As much as I like George Orwell, he got it wrong in his famous dystopian tale, 1984, in which an all-powerful, all-seeing government runs people’s lives.

No, it’s looking more corporate all the time. As Neil Postman pointed out a generation ago, we’re closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to Orwell’s vision. (For another take on the same idea, check out David Mitchell’s excellent mind-bending novel, Cloud Atlas.) To quote Carr again:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

5. We can dive into the world from our TVs and desktops, but are we just swimming in the shallows? So much information, so little depth. You name it: Relationships, knowledge base, attention spans. We have more information at our finger tips than ever before, but it’s not clear that we’re better educated or more perceptive thinkers. (I haven’t read it yet, but I wonder if Thomas Bergler’s new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, excerpted in June’s Christianity Today, strikes a similar chord. Anyone?) Wisdom? There’s not an app for that.

6. We have more portals to humanity than ever, but are we becoming less human? The answer to this question depends on how we define “human,” of course. But whether it’s in how we experience the world around us, in how we relate to other people, in how we think, in what we value as a culture and, more and more, how much technology will literally get under our skin and become part of us, the unsettling question is: What are we doing to ourselves as people? (The Matrix, again, anyone?)

So what to do? Diane Ackerman, writing in her New York Times blog, offers a couple of suggestions, and they’re not a bad place to begin: “I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. … One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature.”

What we can’t do is pretend this stuff doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, or that we can somehow go back to the days before … when, exactly? Not that I want to. I like most of these tools and toys. I’m writing this on a Mac that’s wirelessly connected to the Internet, for heaven’s sake, and I’ve been able to almost instantly connect to books and articles published all over the globe. My cell phone just buzzed with another text. On Saturday I carried on a real-time conversation with friends in Egypt, and we could see each other. Later I got to watch a soccer match, live from Poland.

But that’s not to say these things are unalloyed, all good and no bad. There are always trade-offs and we have valid reasons to ask questions.

Just getting in the habit of thinking about these questions is a start. That’s got to be better than handing ourselves over to research labs or the marketing departments of Silicon Valley.

Digital civilization and its discontents

13 Jun

A funny thing is happening on the way to digital paradise, and I’m not talking about the Facebook stock dive or the LinkedIn password hacking.

Intelligent, inquiring minds want to know: What is all our technology and connectivity doing to us? We may not be downloading the devil, but some voices are asking what hath Google and Facebook wrought.

Technology angst isn’t new. Some folks in the 1400s predicted cultural and theological catastrophe when Gutenberg re-invented the printing press. We might just be updating old anxieties—Technophobia 2.0–but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions, and several writers are. A select list:

Four years ago, Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, asked, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Yes, the misspelling was intentional.) Maybe not making us exactly stupid, he concludes, but something else: turning us into “pancake people,” borrowing a phrase from playwright Richard Foreman, people who are “spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Last month, Stephen Marche asked a companion question in the same magazine: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Based on new research, Marche says the answer is, roughly, yes. More narcissistic too.

Journalist Maggie Jackson wrote on similar themes in book length a few years ago in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2009).

The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. … The seduction of alternative virtual universes, the addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conception of space, time, and place have been shattered. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and our days are marked by perpetual loose ends. … We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.

And then this week, science writer Diane Ackerman asks in the New York Times, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” She’s not a Luddite, but she frets that we are cutting ourselves off from the world, even as we try to “experience” more of it online:

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

I can see at least a half-dozen interconnected anxieties that keep surfacing in these various critiques. I’ll save those for the next post. (This is a blog, after all, and so this post should stay fairly brief. Irony? You betcha.)

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about the impact of our new technology. What do you make of these concerns and questions? Please add a comment to the blog and get in the conversation.

~~

(I found the photo illustration here, but I could not find information about who created it, permissions, etc.)

Egypt: The police, the army and the people

29 Jan

All eyes are on Egypt today, and by the time I post this note, the political situation may have radically changed. Tens of thousands of protesters are pressing President Mubarak to leave office, not satisfied by his half-hearted stalling tactic of firing his cabinet. As Saturday ticks away (Cairo is seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time), the wind seems to be blowing against his staying for long. Only a handful of people know what’s being said behind closed doors in government offices in Cairo, Washington, the U.N., Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The street battles between protesters and police have been well documented and shown around the globe, especially on Friday, despite the Egyptian government’s shutdown of the Internet, cell-phone service and social media in an attempt to cut off communication between groups of protesters and between Egypt and the rest of the world. By contrast, the protesters are welcoming the Egyptian army when soldiers are dispatched to Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Compare and contrast this image, taken  yesterday, with this one, from today. (Hover over the links to see photo credits.)

I’ve been wondering why the difference: Why welcome the soldiers and fight the police since they are both controlled by the same government, at least in theory? It turns out, not surprisingly, that there’s a history. Thanks to Wikileaks‘ release of diplomatic cables, we can get a sense of what the Egyptian people have had to deal with during Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule.

First, the Egyptian police. A cable from the American embassy in Cairo to the U.S. State Department on Jan. 15, 2009 summarized:

Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have criticized GOE (Government of Egypt)-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution.

The cable provided numerous examples, including this and this.

The Egyptian military, by contrast, has been more benign or at least less terrifying to its own people. The army lost some stature after the Arabs’ failed 1967 war with Israel, but in the time since then, the military has re-fashioned itself in other ways, possibly being overlooked because of its diminished role. Whatever the reason, to put it roughly, it looks like the military has been going along to get along with the Mubarak regime (and profiting handsomely as they did so) — and biding its time. This week, maybe, its time has come. The Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are certainly acting as if the army is on their side.

From a Sept. 23, 2008 cable from the American embassy:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises.

Later in the same cable:

The military still remains a potent political and economic force. Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s (Ministry of Defense’s) considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council (upper house of Parliament) fire in August (2008) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail. The military helps to ensure regime stability and  operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a  “quasi-commercial” enterprise itself. While there are  economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial.

As of Saturday morning in the U.S., at least for amateurs like me it’s too early to know how things will go in Egypt, but the military is the big wild card. For the time being, however, it’s clear that the Egyptian protesters — and probably most Egyptians — know who are their internal institutional enemies and who, they hope, may turn out to be their best friends.

Photo: Gallo/Getty image, via Al Jazeera (English).

Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please

15 Dec

The launch of a new online Bible version has been in the news lately: the Conservative Bible Project. The project’s overseer, Andrew Schlafly, even scored an interview this week on the current-events place to be, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

This “translation”  is being spotlighted because it differs from other Bible versions in at least two important ways. First, it’s written by readers. In Internet jargon, the content is open source, a “wiki.”

The theory is that, over time, the best version will emerge. It’s literary Darwinism, the survival of the textual fittest – which is ironic because the host site, Conservapedia, isn’t fond of evolution.

The other major difference is that the editors diligently impose a point of view on the text, vetting passages according to 10 “conservative guidelines.” Renderings must fit into the “framework against liberal bias … utilize powerful conservative terms … express free-market parables” and other criteria.

The results are mixed. Many changes are harmless. Others, however, mangle the meanings. For example, a straightforward translation of Acts 2:44 describes the earliest church in Jerusalem: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

According to the “proposed conservative” translation, however, “Everyone who believed was together and shared values, faith, and the truth.”

That last phrase simply isn’t in the actual text, Greek or otherwise. But as a note of “analysis” helpfully informs us, the original could be “misread as socialistic,” and so the Conservative Bible adds the gloss.

Likewise, when a rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the conservative version waters down Jesus’ words, almost doubling the word count in the process: “You lack one thing, you need to rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure to the point that if you were destitute you would still rejoice in the Lord. For doing so will give you the greatest treasure of all, the glory of heaven. Do this and follow my teachings.”

This, despite the Conservative Bible’s claim to favor “conciseness over liberal wordiness” and “not … diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity.”

Apparently, any guideline is trumped by the risk of Jesus actually challenging conservative policies.

And that’s the point. The problem isn’t about being conservative or liberal. For people who take scriptures – any scriptures – seriously, a more important principle is at stake.

The Conservapedia approach turns translation on its head. Instead of coming to Scripture as students to learn what God might be saying, translators turn into dictators, forcing the text to fit their preset ideas.

But the folks at the Conservative Bible Project are not alone in this sort of ideological narcissism. They’re just more obvious. We all want to see what we want. We’re all prone to emphasize some points and then neglect or even bend others that make us squirm.

We can see it on the right, this case in point. We can see it on the left as well when, for example, interpreters go through verbal gymnastics over those thorny passages about, say, homosexual relations, war or the exclusive claims of Jesus. But if we read the texts honestly, we’ll find plenty to upset everyone.

That’s inevitable. We’re all shaped by culture, by personal experience, by the company we keep, by a dozen other factors that affect our reading of Scripture and our response to it. The key is to keep that in mind – humility is the word – and try to compensate. (That is one reason most reliable translations are done by committees of people from various backgrounds, with scholars.) This is not easy work and perfect reading is impossible, but open eyes and open minds can get us closer.

One message of the Christmas story is that God isn’t bound by our assumptions about how the world works. God is clear on that point, according to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Jesus came by stealth, the story says, born to obscure working-class parents, which is not what most people expected. The ones who first recognized Jesus’ birth for what it was (at least without the help of singing angels) were traveling foreigners, probably pagan astrologers, who kept their eyes open. We still sing about them.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Dec 2009.

The 1,600-year-old online Bible

11 Jul
  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (www.codex-sinaiticus.net/en/).

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

Rumors that just won’t die

11 May

Zombies_Ahead_610x479The rumors still sound ominous.

Atheists, inspired by the now-deceased Madalyn Murray O’Hair, are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to ban all religious broadcasting. If this request – petition RM-2493 – succeeds, then we can say good-bye to church services on the radio, televangelists and all religious programming.

If you want an example of what might happen, consider the fate of that popular CBS-TV series, “Touched by an Angel.” It was taken off the air because it mentioned God in every episode.

Christians can stop the atheists, however, by adding their names to a petition that would force the FCC to keep its big government paws off their broadcasts. The goal is to collect one million names. James Dobson of Focus on the Family endorses this effort to stop RM-2493.

But wait, there’s more!

Redesigned dollar coins and Lincoln pennies omit the words “In God We Trust”!

Jesus will be portrayed as a homosexual in an upcoming film!

Steak ‘N’ Shake restaurants won’t allow its customers to pray in public!

And of course, Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim!

One problem: Not one of these rumors is true. Not one.

According to Snopes.com, one of several Web sites devoted to researching and unraveling rumors and so-called urban legends, more than 40 religion-based rumors are currently blowing around cyberspace. Only a handful of them, however, are emphatically true. The vast majority are bogus in whole or part.

That FCC rumor about removing religious broadcasting? Various versions have circulated for more than 30 years, by chain letter before the days of Internet. It started after two men filed a petition, the infamous RM-2493, asking the FCC to investigate the operating practices of stations licensed to religious organizations and not to grant new licenses for new noncommercial educational broadcast stations until the investigation was complete.

The FCC denied their petition in 1975. O’Hair had nothing to do with it, but her name got attached because she was then America’s most famous atheist.

But the story just won’t die. The FCC still gets mail and phone calls.

 “Such rumors are false,” the FCC Web site bluntly states. “The FCC has responded to numerous inquiries about these rumors and advised the public of their falsehood. There is no federal law that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting religious programs.”

For their part, Dobson and Focus on the Family have never been involved in any controversy over RM-2493, except for efforts to distance themselves from it.

The “Touched by an Angel” Web site also set the record straight in 2001, just after it was renewed for a seventh season: “A chain email has been floating around the internet and our message board stating that the FCC is forcing CBS to take ‘Touched By An Angel’ off the air because we mention the word ‘God. … This is a new variation of an old hoax. If you are a recipient of this email, please ignore it.”

The series ran a total of nine seasons, a long and successful lifespan for any program, and the scripts mentioned God from the first episode. The show ended for the same reason most do: it no longer appealed to the audience advertisers wanted.

Ironically, the same Internet that makes it so easy to spread rumors makes the truth more accessible than ever. Viewers can check out sources directly, such as the FCC, or locate information on sites such as Snopes and About.com: Urban Legends.

That being the case, then why do such stories persist, some for decades? Why don’t people check for themselves?

Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe the stories confirm what we already believe or what we want to be true. Maybe it’s a reaction of fear and insecurity, prompts for people who feel threatened by the world around them.

Whatever.

For now, let’s just take the pledge to check the facts and find the truth before we risk passing along a lie.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 May 2009. (This column is an updated version of one that was published on April 29, 2006.)

Image: i-hacked.com. (http://news.cnet.com).

Rocky Mountain News closes, digital train rolls on

28 Feb

rmn-finalfrontpage_t600

Yesterday saw the last day for the Rocky Mountain News, which published in Denver for 150 years (149 years, 311 days to be precise). I wasn’t very familar with the paper except for the three years our family lived in Colorado Springs, but I know it as a unique and lively paper that built a solid reputation (multiple Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade) and enjoyed a colorful history, to put it mildly. It’s a paper that people will miss, and we should.

This is the latest casualty in the newspaper revolution, but it won’t be the last. More than 15,000 newspaper jobs were lost around the country in 2008. Denver is now a one-paper town (the Post survives), and other major cities have faced or are facing (San Francisco, Seattle) the same prospect. But the demise of the RMN seems to have struck a deep nerve among those who pay attention to the news business.

Visit the RMN site to read and view the coverage of its own death. Watch the online video on the front page. It’s a 21-minute primer on the current upheaval in the news business, focused through the story of the RMN’s final months. Slightly self-serving, maybe, but when someone’s going down for the last time, we can cut some slack. Mostly, the video presents an informative and sometimes poignant story.

Coincidentally (or not), Hearst Publishing announced on the same day that it’s developing a digital reader for periodicals — like Amazon’s Kindle device, but for magazines instead of books. Note how this particular digital train is moving from less periodicity to more: books … magazines … next stop: newspapers?

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