Posted by: gcarkner | October 11, 2012

Smartphones and God Substitutes

Reflections on Smartphones

Theomania, the desire to be like a god, is alive and well today. Theologian Christoph Schwöbel notes that there is an interesting historical-cultural coincidence between the birth of radical concept of freedom and the denial of God in Western philosophy. He suggests that it results from humans attempting the kind of freedom one normally attributes to God—omniscient, omnipotent, infinite. This perspective on freedom tends to imply that the self must occupy or usurp the space once given to God in Western consciousness—human and divine freedom in a strange way are set up in a direct conflict and competition. This has dire consequences; the quest for immanent radical freedom can sacrifice unnecessarily much that is good in life, and perhaps to some extent my well-being.

[There emerges] a dislocation in the relational order: when they aspire to be more than human, they actually become less than human….We often find the radical conception of freedom as absolute and unlimited lies at the heart of many of the most dehumanizing tendencies…in modern history. Where freedom is seen as radically self-constituted, responsibility is restricted to the responsibility of agents to themselves, and it is at this point that the claim of radical autonomy cannot be distinguished from the escape into unaccountability.  (C. Schwöbel)

These radical individuals as they gain power and influence, grow in narcissistic tendencies and ultimately can become a law unto themselves; the scope of perceived moral responsibility ends with one’s self, one’s perceived needs, desires and creativity. The reigning ethos claims that I alone must reach my full potential and even create my own moral and intellectual universe. This posture constitutes a failure of freedom in a game of self-deception and illusion. From whence does our freedom really come? Here are some thoughts on modern personal technology from UBC Geography Grad Student, Samuel Johns:

Not so long ago, Friedrich Nietzsche (1882) declared that ‘God is dead’. The final nail in the coffin comes from Nick Carr (2010) in ‘The Shallows’ recounting our newfound faith in the ‘church of Google’. In our supposedly post-secular, post-Christian context, this is taken for granted. Yet as the famous Geographer David Harvey writes, more often than not, ‘the status is nothing to quo about’.

This piece takes an interest in smartphones: the iPhone, HTC Android, Blackberry, and the like. As the Economist (2011) recently wrote, are we ‘slaves to our smartphones’? Their ubiquity demands discussion.

I wonder to what extent a traditional God who exudes aseity – or what theologians describe as self-sustaining life and unending energy – is rapidly being reduced if not replaced by novel technologies. The release of the iPhone 5  just weeks ago conjured up a storm. Perhaps portable, mobile devices are becoming ‘the [new] rage, the law and fashion of the Age’ (S.T. Coleridge, 1824).

Interestingly, for Regent College scholar Craig Gay (1998), such tools of calculation can encourage ‘practical atheism’, whether we like it or not. For secular and religious types alike, the insidious traits of pervasive technologies undermine a transcendent God. Such instruments may be realizing Benjamin’s (1932) ‘decline of aura’ and loss of awe. With a smartphone in hand, the world literally is at our fingertips – the virtual world of information and ideas becomes accessible at the touch of a button.

This accessibility is both exhilarating and at times overwhelming. I wonder to what extent the omni– traits of a traditional God are being supplanted by the ‘church of Google’ (Carr, 2010);

Omniscience – all knowing The world is observable e.g. the hyperlinked web
Omnipotence – all powerful The world is calculable e.g. the Google algorithm
Omnipresence  always present The world is accessible e.g. the ubiquitous smartphone

Yet what of wonder, mystery, and majesty? In our awe-deficient world, the question to ask is whether such technologies encourage or dissuade us from praise and worship. As Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor argues, life reduced to the immanent frame is the greatest blindspot of secular, Western culture. This view eclipses our ends and reduces our horizons. So how, as thinking, considerate graduate students are we to guard against this?

Well, as I look at my smartphone bleeping and flashing in my palm, I wonder when the torrent will end. How are we to rediscover limits and boundaries in our liquid modern age? Deep wisdom and true discernment are surely required. Perhaps the poignant words of T.S.Eliot (1934) can instruct us;

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

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