Talk by Bishop Richard Chartres.

for WCIT Colloquium on the Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the new IT and Telecoms Environment - 10 February, 1997

What hath God Wrought?

The message sent by Samuel Morse when he opened the first telegraph line in the US in 1844 was a question - " What hath God Wrought?"

His contemporaries answered this query in various ways, Some were confident that the telegraph was a gift of God for building upon community and world-wide communication. Others were fearful and sceptical.

In Europe Kierkegaard [who published his first book in 1843] in a remarkable prophecy, looked beyond even the Telegraph. "Suppose someone invented an insturment, a convenient little talking tube which, say, could be heard over the whole land…. I wonder if the police would not forbid it fearing that the whole country would become mentally deranged if it were used.

Certainly the telegraph almost immediately increased the pace at which the world moved. In 1830 it took 5-8 months for a letter to reach India. By 1879 a telegram could arrive in Bombay in 5 hours.

Kierkegaard however was also dubious about the value of this uncoupling of time and space. He remarked that the "evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary." It is undeniable that for many people technology has exposed them to the domination of the momentary in the transmission of information with the paradoxical result that everything is reduced to a dull average.

While some were confident however and some fearful, a prescient few were alert to the commercial and military potential of the new technology.

Today the computer and the new IT environment based upon it, provokes much the same kind of reactions and considerations with the difference that contemporary commentators seldom refer to God. The emphasis now tends to be rather on human malleability and weakness.

In the beginning - the Word

For the Christian tradition communication is central. In the beginning was the Word, God's communication with us. The Church in responding to this has understood itself as a universal communication network. In consequence the Church has experienced in the past the effects of technological change on the self understanding and social organisation of its members and critics.

From the late fifteenth century the printing press created new centres and networks of power which late mediaeval states and the Church found hard to regulate.  Luther's 95 theses were posted on the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517. It has been plausibly calculated that they were known throughout Germany in a fortnight and throughout Europe in a month. The locus of authority shifted from oral tradition regulated by authority to printed texts available to a much wider public. The courtyard at Stationers Hall where heretical books were burnt still exists but the attempt to regulate the flow of ideas via the new technology proved ineffective. A similar failure even with the massively enhanced power of the modern state contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For most of human history communication principally occurred in face-to-face interactions in which a predominantly oral tradition was transmitted and continuously renewed by story telling which was inevitably inflected by creative interpretation. Fundamentalism was an inconceivable project in such an environment.

Where is the wisdom?

TS Eliot
Because those participating in communication had to be in the same place, the rate of transmission and change was obviously slow but face to face communication has the advantage of many visual and other cues which do not translate to the computer screen and so we continue to organise colloquia like this. It has obvious advantages in some fields to be able to consider messages and data on the screen without being distracted by other considerations and intimidating authority but there is a gulf between transmitting information and communicating wisdom. TS Eliot in one of the Choruses from the Rock asks:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

It is a question of balance of course and recognising the limitations of our technology but if there is an overdose of mediated rather than personal interactions what does this do to an individual over a long period? We shall be finding out over the next half century. It is interesting that already in the various codes which exist for Internet users there is this kind of plea "because your interaction with the network is through a computer, it is easy to forget that there are people out there. Situations arise which erupt into a verbal free for all that can lead to hurt feelings." [Chuq Von Rospach].

Bias towards Objects

There is already a bias in our culture towards viewing the world around in subject to object terms. The technology of the new information environment is both an expression of this cultural bias and a reinforcement of it. We can become progressively de-sensitised to subject interactions and the faculties of perception which enable such communication can atrophy.

Computer technology has also given us a new vocabulary through which we may explore what it is to be human. The reflections of a young computer student at MIT who happened to be a Roman Catholic are not untypical. "The brain is a computer and soul sort of programs……But the soul is not in a simple relationship to the body. It is like a programmer and a computer…..the soul is a spiritual thing which inhabits this computer." The technology affects not only how we work but also how we think about ourselves and our world. I know that studies of the physiology of the brain are casting doubts on the adequacy of the computer analogy but it does at least seem to be clear that habitual action confirms certain connections in the brain at the expense of other possibilities.

Can excessive exposure to the current IT environment cause repetitive soul strain?

The Global Mall

But before we have time to digest even the questions we are faced by further huge changes. There are interlocking technological, political and economic trends pointing to the creation of an Information Superhighway which would in effect be a privately managed global shopping mall. The actual term Information Superhighway was I believe coined by Al Gore and in a speech in 1994 in Buenos Aires, he launched the proposal for a Global Information Infrastructure. He argued that such an infrastructure was the essential prerequisite to sustainable development. It would provide solutions to environmental problem, improve education and health care, create a global market place and forge a new Athenian age of Democracy.

Clearly such a superhighway would offer great power and potential huge profit so a scrutiny of the democratic accountability and who would control the venture is crucial, The proposal raises again in an even more acute form the questions posed in the McBride Report of 1980 "Many Voices, One World." [see eg. a note of the 5th McBride Round Table]

There is a question of whether such a development would further the unity of the world or consolidate the global elite of prosperous white male English speakers.

Questionable Material

There is already a problem on this inter-net of evaluating the information on offer. Clearly there is a question of building in effective critical reviews of the products and policies of the global corporations and their political partners on the superhighway.

Then on the Internet as it is, there is much questionable but revenue generating material. In the UK the top five most visited sites are all sex channels topped by Spooky's Sex Links. Access is easy at present. One channel simply asks "are you over 18?" If you indicate "Yes" you are through. Obviously there are huge legal problems here of responsibility. Should the originator or the carrier be held responsible? As a society we have been prepared to be increasingly laissez faire about pornography but increasingly censorious about racist communication. Should a new Hitler be allowed to use the Superhighway? Could he be prevented?

At the very least I should be interested to know more about media awareness education in schools.

Impact on our minds and bodies

The technology is often explained but is the potential impact on how we think and act really explored?

There might be merit in further research on what impact the technology has on the body and whether it matters that my handwriting is deteriorating and with it certain connections within the body.

Many benefits

I am not however without excitement. There are some benefits already visible on the Internet. More people world-wide enjoy access to information. There are examples of parents finding medical solutions unknown to their home doctors. It can also keep people in touch in emergencies when there is a deterioration of public services in some parts of the world. I have already experienced this for myself in relations with Russian universities.

Then there is the value of anonymity. There have been recent free discussions between Manchester Christians and Kuwaiti Muslims which would have been impossible if the participants had been identified. The Internet is subversive of totalitarian establishments of all kinds.

The worshipful Company of Information Technologists brings together people who know infinitely more about these matters than I do and I am encouraged that you have pitched your virtual reality hall here for the evening for a face to face dialogue not as the Chairman reminded us the kind of transmitter to receive monologue that sometimes passes for communication in the mass media. This adaptation of ancient City traditions to a new world is another reason why I remain obstinately hopeful.

(c) 1997 Bishop Richard Chartres.

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