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Digital Practice in the Public Square?

by Pete Phillips

A couple of weeks ago, Premier's Head of Digital Theology was asked to take part in a conference around digital development, working practices and faith linked to the European Community. For this, Pete as asked to write a response for the conference and here are some of the headline points Pete made for the meeting...

Digitality as the New Context for Mission

We have seen in the work of Christine Hine, Manuel Castells, and Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp that digitality and a networked society is the new normal for global society. As Hine puts it – digitality is embedded, embodied and everyday. As Couldry and Hepp argue – the importance of digitality and media is increasingly important having been left out of previous discussions.

If we follow the basics of contextual theology, then this is the basic context for our own pursuit of the mission of God – the task of the church is:

  • to seek to be present where God is on mission;

  • to be present within culture to bring salt and light;

  • to be ambassadors of the kingdom.

The UCL Global Smartphone Report argued that the smartphone:

  • Disrupts distance (globalising the world, bringing global voices into our conversations, cutting across political boundaries to allow us to hear the voices of the oppressed and the marginalised

  • Disrupts proximity (phones in restaurants, atomisation of social situations as people read their phones, potential decline in non-smartphone based interaction)

  • Is our new home – here is finance, shopping, connection, gaming, viewing, entertainment, provision, education. We have no need to go anywhere else to engage with life.

Although we may not go the whole way with this, digitality is the new context for the mission of the Church and the well-being of humanity. We need to ask how we incorporate digitality into missio dei in a way that focuses on the development of pro-human tech rather than tech which contributes to the exploitation of human resources such as in the gig (/platform) economy.

digitality is the new context for the mission of the Church and the well-being of humanity

The Nature of Truth in a Digital Age

Such explorations need to include strong conversations about the nature of truth within a digital age. Autocratic states aided by many tech companies (such as Elon Musk's permission for Russian state propaganda to be distributed by his Starlight service in Ukraine) use tech to exploit and build power for the state or to bring more revenue (and hence power) to the company. In the West, we see more and more of this under the banner of free speech argument saying that everyone has to have their say regardless of whether they speak the truth or speak lies. The Bible is quite clear on the keeping speech to a minimum when it does not speak truth.

Data attracts attention in a digital world and our data means £s for tech companies and governments. Indeed, our data draws a lot of attention with governments increasingly willing to sell anonymised citizen data to companies. As we have been warned, if something is free, we are the product – we/our data is being farmed and exploited. Note that when Facebook takes your data it can resell it to as many companies as it wants. You are being sold to thousands of companies.

Block those cookies now!

if something is free, we are the product

Indeed, states like China use such data to impose close surveillance on the public under the guise of punishing criminals. But the social credit system surveils everyone and has the potential to limit personal freedom. It may well be that the recent outlawing of online church in China is connected to the state’s desire to surveil local churches and do face/gait recognition on those attending – this is much harder through zoom or other online methods of attendance.

There are bigger questions as whether Facebook et others are altering who we are, what we believe, what we think through the manipulation (active and passive) of our social feeds. So my own research (see my book The Bible, Digital Culture and Social Media) has noted a shift towards moralistic therapeutic deism within the use of the Bible online – a shift away from classical propositional models – a shift from John 3:16 (type verse) to Jeremiah 29:11 (type verses). Of course, this is a minute shift compared to the seemingly unstoppable development and expansion of Western progressive society. We note Putin's aggression against this expansion which has had profound negative effects on the Global economy and, much more seriously, on the people of Ukraine.

Indeed, going back to truth, we see in the current invasion the use of ‘desinformatsya – not only by Russian but by other autocratic-leaning states such as the UK/China/Trump’s America. In this model, we are presented with a deluge of counterfactual statements and counterfeit evidence in such numbers and force that it is impossible for the media to deconstruct all of them – the classic hallmark of gaslighting. As with all fascist regimes, media will be used increasingly to gaslight the population and tech tools and companies such as Facebook and Twitter may well be key warzones against the truth.

Social media could help to address this. We already see this happening in Ukraine, esp in the person of President Zelenskyy, through the use of multiple, swift, geolocated and date stamped photos/posts which broadcast the reality on the ground. Russian media is now having to debunk this media by creating its own versions of Ukrainian posts. But these are poorly done. Tech companies could also help – note the shift in IG policy to allow statements of violence against Putin and Russian State which has led to the blocking of IG in Russia. Is the shift in policy ethical?

How do we counter the anti-democratic, even fascistic use of digitality – we’re back to Orwell’s 1984 where electronic media/digitality is clearly seen to be a weapon of the states vs the people.

What role might the church play:

1. To actively play a role in providing pro-human ethics in tech development.

Such activities are often easier for national church bodies, e.g.

  • Catholic Church and publications such as Laudato Si

  • EKD policies around return to church tax

  • Finnish church material around confirmation

  • Finnish Bible Society and Bible for Millennials

  • Church of England contribution to the House of Lords report on AI – Ten Commandments for Pro-Human AI

2. To query the terms

Artificial Intelligence is neither artificial nor intelligent. See Kate Crawford's “Atlas of Ai” project. Most of what we currently call AI is actually a collection of machine learning programmes coded by humans with human biases. Intelligence needs sentience. We need to be very careful in seeing brains as computer networks. They are not. The brain and the human nervous system are nothing like wired systems which we can easily replicate nor analogous to them. The human nervous system as a whole provides sentience/intelligence. Uploading the structure of a brain, increasingly portrayed in SciFi as a normal activity in the future, will most likely fail to replicate sentience. We always need to remember that computers never ‘know’ what they are doing, they do not ‘think’, they do not ‘judge’ – the just run programs.

3. To explore how to stop tech from destroying us - or to put that positively - To promote pro-human tech

(accidentally or through intentional programming). How do we guard against exploitative programming, autonomous weaponry, gig economy. How do we develop a tech economy focussed on humanity (and other sentient animal life?) created in the image of God? This means negating arguments of humans being biological machines.Organisations such as TechHuman in the UK and FaithTech in the States

There is plenty for the Church to contribute to the digitalization process.

4. Finally God. Where is God in tech, in digital?

We believe in a creator God and designed arks, tabernacles, temples, whose son was a carpenter, whose Spirit equips the church with gifts, tasks, professions. God is a technologist. So just as God is in all, over all, through all, so God is in tech, over tech, through tech. God himself is a creative, sustaining, empowering technologist, who makes use of technology through the Bible, throughout history, to empower missio dei and missio ecclesiae and to promote (human) flourishing. The church’s role is to make the world an even better place by making the most of digitality and embedding gospel values more and more at the heart of digital culture.

1 Comment

Onions Vivian
Onions Vivian
Jan 07, 2023

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