Ten Theses on Surveillance

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a camera. Not one of those “gotcha” traffic light cameras, just a guy on his cell phone recording the world going by from behind the wheel (no comment on the insane hazard he made himself). I have no idea what he wanted to accomplish, and his recording is none of my business…or is it?

Maybe he was simply trying to share a nice sunset with (given his driving choices) his soon-to-be-bereaved family, but now he’s got a bunch of license plate numbers (including mine) eternally residing in iCloud or Google Drive. Privacy these days is a relative thing, to be sure, and I seriously doubt anyone will ever find any relevant use for Mr. Steer-and-Shoot’s artistry. Still, it has prompted some further reflection on the ubiquity of surveillance exercised on citizens of the modern world and the lack of attention most of us pay it.

When we each voluntarily post hundreds (or thousands) of photos and videos bearing our likeness in public spaces, being recorded is as human an experience today as breathing. We may grouse a bit, depending on who is behind the camera, but mostly we don’t even notice anymore. Why worry? What do we have to fear if we’re doing nothing wrong? In the main, very little. On consideration, everything.

He's watchin' you...
He’s watchin’ you…

I am neither a Luddite nor the son of a Luddite, but responsible wariness is the better part of wisdom. That said, here are, in no particular order, some thoughts on the subject.
1) God sees all and knows all. This seems the foundation stone of any discussion on surveillance. All things private or public, down to the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Rev. 2:23), are alike an open book before our Lord. Seeking protection for parts of our lives from the eyes and ears of others is right and natural, but nothing is hidden from His sight. Privacy exists to protect virtue, not to conceal vice.

2) Man will always only ever know in part. This is the counterpoint to the previous observation, underlaying our moral standards (rejecting gossip, for example) and jurisprudence (requiring multiple witnesses for conviction of crime). We are not God and must weigh our knowledge and actions accordingly. Continue reading

Technopoly, Sourdough, and Worship

Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.

Technopoly_The_Surrender_of_Culture_to_Technology

Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, I’m not (and nor was Postman) strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.

In particular, reading Postman illuminated three things for me.

First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics, alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see herehere, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.

Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought—even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). To a man wielding a hammer, it’s nails all the way down. This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because such an establishment can have no other gods before it.

Continue reading