Where Men Fear to Tread

Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.

Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.

These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.

First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:

The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.

She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:

But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.

Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-­somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.

1. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/05/gender-after-eden

Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.

In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.

2. https://www.lifesitenews.com/episodes/conservative-author-explains-how-englands-greatest-poets-shed-light-on-the-meaning-of-jesus-words/

Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.

3. https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/07/76816/

Reentering the Matrix?

I’m sitting down today to put down some thoughts on my month-long absence from social media. Actually I thought today was the last day of April but—lo and behold!—’tis the first day of May. As I write this then the thought occurs to me: I could go check my Facebook right now! What juicy notifications await! But I will finish writing this first.

The simple conclusion here at month’s end is that the role of technology and social media in my life has been healthier this last month than at any time I can remember. That isn’t to say there isn’t still room for improvement—there is—but it’s been a very significant step in the right direction. As a family we have spent more time together, and I have been more present when present. I’ve also had time to read and write more than usual, although I didn’t have any great outburst of creative productivity. I guess a part of me was hoping I’d wake up two weeks into April and have a brilliant novel or short story just pouring out of me. Alas!

Twitter I did not miss at all. Even with the Elon-buying-Twitter drama playing out in real time, I don’t really feel I missed anything by my absence. The constant screeching of real (and manufactured) outrage, the preening self-righteousness, the craven virtue-signaling, the over-active users who somehow tweet a hundred times a day (but how?!), and the creeping notion that Twitter somehow is or even represents real life—good riddance to it all. The best part of Twitter for me is interacting with people I have some existing connection to and being able to share bits and pieces of my writing. But that was perhaps 10% of my time on there. The rest of it was just a yielding to the power of the algorithm.

The Algorithm knows what we like.

Facebook is a bit more complex. Of course the same addictive neuro-hijinks are at play. The reason people become enslaved to gambling machines is the same reason many of us check Facebook dozens of times a day: the delicious possibility that something amazing might be there the next time. So we need to break that stranglehold with honesty, wisdom, and self-control. The positive side that I do miss is interacting with friends and the genuine exchange of ideas that, despite everything else, does occasionally happen. l do enjoy “thinking out loud” and hearing from people who have something to say. I’m a weird guy who thinks about things most people in my life do not and so Facebook puts me in touch with other folks who are likewise interested.

But is that reason enough to step back onto Facebook?

I’m not sure.

What is clear is that it needs to stay off my phone. The role of the “phone”—a ridiculous misnomer at this point—is a key piece of this whole techno-puzzle. It would be more truthful to name them rightly, for the word “phone” does not even begin to represent honestly the role they have come to play in our lives. And “smartphone” is no better. So what shall we call them? Our glowing rectangles, our pocket super-computers, our handheld digital universe gateways, our AI-powered attention absorbers, our voluntary surveillance devices (too conspiratorial?). A bit of a mouthful, but closer to the truth. I increasingly hear the word devices used. That’s not bad—it trades a sleight-of-hand, as if phoning is what we used our phones for, for ambiguity; a device might be used for anything, as is in fact the case with these.

All this highlights the need for more and better thinking about technology. I’m thankful to be finding that many fine thinkers and writers are answering the call. I’ve written before about many of these, but let me just list them all in one place. Older writers worth revisiting: C.S. Lewis, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul; contemporary writers who are Christians: Paul Kingsnorth, Andy Crouch, Chris Martin, Samuel D. James, Tony Reinke; and those who are not: Jonathan Haidt, Erik Hoel, Tristan Harris, and many more. Please feel free to comment with a name or two I missed.

My hope is that the collective effect of all these will be to shift the thinking of a critical mass within the church and the culture on these questions. And to correct many parents’ unthinking embrace of every new techno-gizmo for their kids. Indeed there seems to be a shift taking place, as indicated by the springing up of grassroots movements like 1000 Hours Outside (“The entire purpose of 1000 Hours Outside is to attempt to match nature time with screen time“).

As for me, I will not be stepping back into the social-media Matrix like before. I don’t want to. The challenge will be, given my personality and various weaknesses, to dip a toe back in without being pulled in entirely.

“Swim at your own risk.” Spillway from the Monticello Dam in California.

The Tech Post

Is it just me, or are we all talking about technology far more than ever? It might be just me. I’m reminded of a strange phenomenon I have experienced a few times. It comes time to replace a vehicle, and I start doing a whole bunch of research, eventually zeroing in on one make and model. Suddenly I am noticing them everywhere: parking lots, streets, and even zipping by in the opposite direction on the highway. They were always there, but I never noticed them. Attention is a mysterious thing.

And so it was that during my month-long absence from social media that all kinds of hubbub and hoopla burst forth. Let’s seethere was Jonathan Haidt’s viral article in The Atlantic. If you’re like me and you already used up your free monthly articles from The Atlantic, you can check out the related podcast interview between Haidt and Bari Weiss. Samuel D. James, who is writing a book on how technology shapes us and how Christians ought to respond, offered a response to Haidt’s article: What Jonathan Haidt is Missing. It’s a good word.

Last week I was at the last T4G in Louisville, KY, without Twitter, and so I spent a lot of time walking around and looking at things. I’ll admit I felt a little bit like this:

“Hey, what’s going on over there?”

With impeccable timing, Chris Martin wrote a piece titled “Things Are Real Even if We Don’t Share Them.” Ironically, I am sharing that piece with you now, dear reader. But not on social media. Unless you post this post on social media, in which case we will have achieved maximum self-referential absurdity and the fabric of the universe will unravel.

I plan to write some more on my time at T4G, so stay tuned for that. Lastly, I have been pondering the whole idea of natural and creaturely limits as well as technology’s endless quest to transcend and transgress those limits. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this dynamic tension than the project of transhumanism. It was with great interest then that I read this piece by Wesley Smith at First Things: The Impossibility of Christian Transhumanism.

That’s enough links for today.

Stepping Off the Tilt-A-Whirl of Social Media

I got it into my head that it would be good to take a month off social media. This decision, of which more later, came about after a few months of reading a lot about technology, media, the internet, and the massive changes causing so much upheaval in the West. There are tectonic shifts occurring under our feet in real time. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1989 that we had reached The End of History, that liberalism had prevailed, and that we had entered a golden age wherein democracy would continue to spread across the world. Such a feeling was perhaps understandable, but it is no longer credible. With war in Europe once more, and liberal democracies everywhere struggling with debt, decadence, and internal decay, such illusions are dissipating. Even Fukuyama himself agrees. History has started up again.

With all this instability in the world, I felt compelled to try and understand the nature and implications of these changes. I plunged into Paul Kingsnorth’s essays about The Machine, which is shorthand for the cumulative effect of technology’s endless march onwards. I, like millions of others, watched The Social Dilemma which exposed how Social Media giants exercise massive control over their users. I learned about the movements towards decentralization, such as cryptocurrencies and homesteading, and the powerful movements from above towards ever-greater centralization, such as the dangers of Central Bank Digital Currencies. I read about how AI increasingly functions like mysterious capricious spirits; how people have been broken and undone by an addiction to technology. I read thoughtful Christians reflecting on the spiritual impact of technology in our lives.

I’ve been getting clarity on the fact that my relationship to technology is not that healthy, even in the process of learning so much about how technology so often shapes us more than we think. The words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to me. The medium is the message. Each technology has an inherent logic that works itself out despite the intention of the user. As one writer pointed out in an essay titled Technology and the Soul:

Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.

The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”

That’s helpful and sobering. So all this nudged me towards trying to do something concrete to reset and reboot the role of technology and social media in my life. But a big part of me, the addiction-prone part, didn’t want to change anything. So I posted my intention to take a month off of social media on… social media. This meant I was on the record – no backing out now.

But why exactly am I doing this? It’s important to be specific about the goals for such an undertaking. In order to answer this question, it’s worth reflecting on what negative effects technology and social media are currently having in my life. First, Facebook and Twitter can easily act as huge time-wasters. Too often I have found myself passively scrolling the endless string of content from the algorithm that was designed by expert psychologists and neuroscientists. They have chosen to use their hard-earned PhD’s to hijack the dopamine loops of countless millions, including me. Second, if I post anything to these platforms, I tend to compulsively check for engagement with that content every few hours for the next couple days. Third, daily news content & opinion comes my way via email, news websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My intake of these varies from day to day, but at times is excessive and unhealthy.

In addition to these effects upon me, there is also a definite negative impact on my family relationships. I am not nearly as mentally present with my wife and children if I have my phone in my hand. But even with the phone elsewhere, if I’ve filled my mind with these things to the point of saturation, I’m still not as engaged relationally as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been a complete zombie, but the difference is measurable and therefore lamentable. My wife and my family deserve the very best I have to offer, and I have too often given them far less – and for what?

So these are some of the things I am hoping to change during this coming month. I have removed Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, and will block access to them on my browsers. I will not watch news or current events opinions on YouTube, but take that kind of content in only through published articles. I will aim to not have any passive time on my phone, and to have nothing available on it to which I instinctively turn in those many small moments of tedium or delay throughout the day.

But what will replace all of this? You cannot create a vacuum without something filling its place. Well, more silence would be good. Silence encourages a prayerful heart, reflection, thoughtfulness. Good spiritual food is another thing I want to emphasize. Bible reading or audio is good, as is the daily prayer service of the Church of England. I would like to find a sermon series or seminary lecture series that I can dig into as well. I’m open to suggestions. It’s also a great chance to be outside more, with the weather warming up here in rural Quebec.

We moved out to the countryside a year and a half ago. A few things have been more difficult, but by and large I have loved it. The natural beauty is awesome and endless: stunning sunrises and sunsets, flocks of geese noisily settling down for the night in nearby fields, a distant train quietly moving across a winter field with a long trail of snow floating behind it, the power of the wind whipping across the landscape, and on and on. Living out here, you can’t help but recognize that, despite our modern conceits, we still need to bow to the natural forces that can so easily overwhelm and humble us. The city erases the wild; the suburb domesticates it; the countryside just barely keeps it at bay. Unplugging from ubiquitous technology allows for a deeper connection to natural beauty which, for me at least, speaks to my soul of the undomesticated Creator.

I will also aim to write more. Silence really helps me to write more, as the stillness allows my heart and mind to come up with ideas. Although I’ve been writing on and off for about 20 years, creative writing has been very intermittent. For example, after a season of reading a lot of poetry, I found myself writing some. I say it that way because it sort of bubbled up; I didn’t sit down and decide to write poetry. Recently, I noticed that I stopped writing poetry immediately upon returning to work after a season of parental leave.

I’ve long wanted to try my hand at fiction, whether through a short story or a short novel, but nothing has come yet. I recently discovered a chapter’s worth of fiction that I wrote about ten years ago, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really remember writing it, so it felt like reading someone else’s writing – and I enjoyed it. If I could find the right idea, and then have the mental space to develop it, who knows? I might just write something worthwhile.

And of course I want to write about this specific experience of resetting my relationship to technology and social media. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will probably include some shorter pieces on this blog, and then something like a personal reflective essay with some broader application. I am not, after all, the only one who struggles to keep technology in its place. If anything, I belong to the last generation that will have had a memory of life without technology and the internet as an ever-present reality. I suspect that in the coming years our society, and young people especially, will be desperate to reconnect with nature and the transcendent as technology leaves them empty, frazzled, and addicted.

A lil’ Ellul on Technology

We carry in our pockets little devices with incredible power. We do not really understand how they are made, how they connect to other devices, or how they affect us. And yet increasingly our lives are enmeshed with them. Like so many others, I struggle in my relationship with technology. I find impulses and compulsions at work in me in relation to social media, emails, and other aspects of connectedness that indicate, if nothing else, that this symbiotic relationship is tapping into aspects of my mind and heart that I do not fully control or understand.

While it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, we must nevertheless make the observation that our society is integrated with technology like none before. The fundamental nature of technology has not changed so much – a tool, device, or technique that allows you to exert influence and control over some aspect of the natural world – but the interconnectedness of those technologies and devices certainly has. And the reach they have into our lives has also deepened significantly. All of this begs for wisdom. We need wisdom and understanding if we are to think and act rightly. Thankfully we have a promise that such a request made of God is gladly met: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

We also have wise teachers to guide us in the particulars of this challenge, gifted men and women who have pondered these questions and written prophetically and insightfully. Among those often cited as authorities on the subject of technology is Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). In the rest of this post, I will share some thoughts on his book Perspectives on our Age, the only English book of his I could track down at the main Montreal public library. It is not one of his major works, but rather an adaptation of interviews he did on his life and work for a radio broadcast of the CBC program Ideas. Which is probably why so much of the book was biographical.

This was my first attempt to read this author that I have heard so much about. It was not quite what I expected. Nevertheless, it was thought-provoking and displayed that originality of thought for which he is famous. The first section was largely autobiographical.

I was surprised to find that Marx was a major influence on Ellul throughout his life. He eventually rejected the Communist cause due to his interactions with their groups, and what he saw as their departure from Marx’s thought. He speaks of “a revolutionary tendency in me.” He said it was Marx who “convinced me that people in the various historical situations they find themselves, have a revolutionary function in regard to their society.”

My jaw dropped however when I read his claim that “Marx was not opposed to the family. He himself started a family and was a good father who married off his daughters and so on.” This is patently false, and certainly hinders my ability to take at face value his evaluation of Marx. See Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals (which is valuable despite some lamentable shortcomings) for a rather more sombre view of Marx’s family life. It was not pretty. Ellul’s takeaway from all this however is a decision to side with those who are poor (in the sense of alienation), the ‘excluded’ such as the aged, the unfit, those at the fringes.

Ellul eventually rejected Marx’s atheism. He was disappointed however by the religious authorities that he turned to for answers to his questions, such as the local pastor. He embraced an intellectual attitude where he did not look to anyone to explain things to him but sought out solutions to problems and questions that he had. This would certainly encourage originality of thought.

Turning to his conversion to Christianity, Ellul says that the Bible offered answers to his existential questions, such as the meaning of life, death, and love. The Bible gave answers on a different level than Marx had:

“I was converted – not by someone, nor can I say I converted myself. It is a very personal story, but I will say that it was a very brutal and very sudden conversion. I became a Christian and I was obliged to profess myself a Christian in 1932. From that moment on, I lived through the conflict and the contradiction between what became the center of my life – this faith, this reference to the Bible, which I henceforth read from a different perspective – and what I knew of Marx and did not wish to abandon. For I did not see why I should have to give up the things that Marx said about society and explained about economy and injustice in the world. I saw no reason to reject them just because I was now a Christian.”

It seems that he lived the rest of his intellectual life with these two sources of authority, Marx and the Bible, refusing to let go of either one, nor to create two domains, one material and one spiritual, but forged on in some kind of dialectic holding the two together in a kind of “permanent contradiction.” Fascinating.

He joined the reformed Church in France, which was only faintly Calvinist at that time. But it led him to read Calvin, who he found very interesting for his “rigour, intransigence, and total use of the Scriptures.” He went through a Calvin phase but then moved on to Barth. Indeed, Calvin was completely eclipsed by Karl Barth.

When World War 2 arrived, he was dismissed from his teaching role, his father was arrested, and his wife was in danger of being arrested. So he joined the Resistance. After the war, he tried to influence change in the French reformed Church for 15 years, but failed due to the “traditionalism of Christians,” and the “indifference toward change.” His verdict: “Once a movement becomes an institution, it is lost.” I can only say that, given the nature of the far-reaching changes he had in mind, it seems to me that the mechanism of that institution protected it from being radically redefined. But I don’t know enough about the details of it all to say whether that was for the good or not.

Ellul then tried to change the study of theology: “I kept trying to find what would be possible for a Christian who analyzes society with the apparatus of Marx’s thinking.” What strange echoes this has today as evangelicalism, these forty years later, wrestles with the role of Marxist modes of criticism like Critical Race Theory and intersectionality.

As I said, I was surprised to find so much Marx in Ellul’s intellectual biography. Given the way Marxist categories have so profoundly infected and poisoned so much of Western (especially North-American) intellectual life, and the allergic reaction that the name Marx now triggers in many, it certainly seems to me that Ellul will not gain many friends or eager ears in my circles.

But now we move on to his seminal insights into technology and ‘technique’. In studying the modern world he came to see that technique, as defined by him, had a similar or greater explanatory power than did capital in the works of Marx for the 19th century.

Distinguishing technique from technology, or from machinery, Ellul points out the common theme of efficiency, what we now sometimes refer to as ‘hacks,’ or the relentless pursuit of ever greater efficiency in every sphere and domain of our lives, including our minds, our sleep, our bodies, our meetings, our organizations, our transportation, our schedules, our athletics, our psychology, et cetera ad infinitum (and other Latin phrases). “This expansion of technique to human groups, to human life, is one of the essential characteristics of our world.”

This seems to me to be precisely right. Ellul is helpful in exposing how technology and ‘technique’ have a kind of internal logic and telos which override whatever human aims we claim for the technology we invent. It remains the case that someone comes along, builds on what has been done before, and finds ever better ways of applying technology to more of life, revolutionizing sphere after sphere of human life to conform to this overriding principle of efficiency and inter-connectivity.

The history of technological development since the Industrial Revolution seems to bear this out. It is easy to think that the individual or small group developing some technology is acting in isolation and that the effects of their work is limited to the applications they themselves have in mind. But a broader view suggests that all such efforts are part of an unstoppable wave of technological advancement and expansion.

It is important to be clear-eyed about this reality and to take stock of our relationship with technology. We must never believe the lie that we merely use technology like a tool. Instead, technology shapes us more deeply than we usually like to recognize. And this process shows no sign of slowing down – indeed the rate of acceleration is increasing. Instead of being carried along in the powerful current, we must ask hard questions about how much technology we should really embrace in our lives, and ask how much of that technology is actually leading to human flourishing.

But to answer that question, one needs to have a definition of humanity, of the good, and therefore of what the ‘good life’ is. That is perhaps one of the most important things we need to recover – a vision of human nature. Are we merely biological machines, like the materialists insist? Are we free to define and redefine ourselves by our own authority, as the gender revolutionaries assume? Are we subject so some universal moral law that we ignore and defy to our own detriment, as the classical and Christian traditions teach?

I’ll admit I did not find as much applicable insight in this book as I was hoping. Perhaps other thinkers have gone further and have spoken more directly to the modern challenges facing us today and into the future. If you have one to recommend, please let me know in the comments!