Sunday, January 11, 2004

What socio-technology can learn from theology

By far one of the most interesting and inspiring people I met last year was Trevor Bechtel - he is a lecturer in theology and ethics at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and, along with (the equally impressive) AKMA, he is Project Coordinator for The Disseminary. But most importantly Trevor is a really smart, really passionate (in that gentle sort of Mennonite way), really funny kind of guy. After the Digital Genres conference we spent an afternoon walking around downtown Chicago, looking at buildings, talking about embodiment, virtuality, technology and ethics. It was perfect.

To be honest, I was kind of surprised we had so much in common. I mean I don't consider myself a heathen, but Trevor is a man of god after all! It's just that everything he said made so much sense to me - even if we didn't always agree. As it turned out, our dissertations had several areas of overlap - not least being a mutual concern with accountability. Trevor has made me think more about technology and ethics - and for that I am most grateful. (And I want to ask for Trevor's permission to discuss his absolutely fascinating dissertation proposal - How to Eat Your Bible: Performance and Embodiment for Mennonites - and not just because I love the title. Please?)

Anyway, it seems he was recently reminded of something he said to a student about "over-theologizing" : Our job is probably not so much to pin things down as it is to lift things up. I love this idea, and think it is applicable to far more than thinking about theology. It is also good advice for thinking about socio-technology, as he adds that theology is more like a prism than words etched in stone.

And a few days earlier, he wrote about the value of (faith) communities: "People need people to be held accountable and people need faith to be held accountable and people need people of faith to be held accountable. But most importantly, some of these people need to be people that we disagree with. We need expressions of faith that are different than our own not just to know who we are but also to make sure that that is who we want to be. We need to have these disagreements in spaces that are bigger than us."

I understand faith here in its broadest sense - conviction, sincerity, fidelity, allegiance - and what strikes me as most interesting and most valuable is this idea of space to make sure that that is who we want to be. What kind of people do we want to be, as individuals and collectives? What sorts of technologies do we want to build?

This isn't indifferent space - it needs to be actively negotiated every step of the way. We need to think about and discuss and understand what is at stake when we model things a certain way, when we predict certain outcomes, when we dream new beginnings.

Coming full-circle in recent wanderings, The Happy Tutor extends Trevor's comments about community to the net and emergent democracy. (Although I don't entirely share his position - it is quite interesting.)


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