29 April 2017

Mystery, Logic, Engineering and Neo-Luddism

When philosophers, apologists and other thinkers labour to destroy certainty, attempts at coherence and confidence in logic, the scepticism they produce sends many into crisis and the response can range from the robust to the frantic, the diligent to the foolish.
One of the most common arguments I hear (and often at that) from within Christian circles is that scepticism is wrong because if the world adopted this view then we could have no inventions and no technology. They will usually buttress this reductio ad absurdum by arguing that it's a good thing their auto or aeroplane mechanic wasn't a sceptic. 
This argument rests on several fallacies.

First it fails to acknowledge that scepticism carries different motivations as well as varying ends. Some employ it as a means to nihilism. Others like this author believe it helps to delineate and define the nature of faith and the limits of human knowledge. Scepticism in a Christian context is never absolute. There is an answer and a meaning to life and the universe but it's not accessible through sense and experienced based rationality or some form of logical predication.
While there are indeed some forms of scepticism that challenge such ideas as 2+2=4, usually the focus isn't on the objective nature of that reality but rather its basis, its meaning and how the reality can be integrated (or not) into a larger body of coherent thought or even a grand unified theory.
In one sense the engineering appeal is completely misguided and has really nothing to do with the issue. Knowledge is not reducible to mathematics and physics. Logic and rationality may have an order to them, or at least attempt to construct one, and yet the nature of such questions hardly follows the same mechanistic and rule-based order as is exhibited in mechanical engineering.
The appeal is therefore an example of non sequitir.
Ironically in another sense, and one quite apart from what I'm suggesting here, it is a type of scepticism that actually drives scientific and technological development. Inductive experimental logic that is sceptical of rational coherence-based assumptions is at the heart of scientific exploration.
Now that can be dismantled. Because ultimately the inductionist builds arguments upon unsubstantiated coherences. While they might claim their predications are warranted based on past evidences, they nevertheless rely not only on mind-constructed and dependent relations (rational coherences) but inference which essentially relies on transcendental reasoning. The very warrant they appeal to is based on coherences often referred to as laws which cannot be located in the spatio-temporal realm but are instead ideas or mind-constructs. And yet as ideas they cannot be probed as to their nature. Are they absolute objective mechanisms? What is their origin and purpose? Are they random? How can you account for uniformity and sustainability? Are they social conventions? How then can they be relied upon as constants?
In the end, their inferences and coherences, so necessary to all thought and predication do not rest on the very sceptical induction they pretend it does.
Ultimately though, no matter which angle we consider this question the logic contra mystery/revelation argument based on a scientific/engineering analogy is exposed as fallacious.
Not only is empirical-mathematical engineering insufficient when it comes to understanding the nature of epistemology and the various questions such an inquiry will engender, such a reductionist philosophy is able to produce little more than what can be described as 'shallow' inventions. Through trial and error the forces of nature are harnessed and manipulated and yet what knowledge is really gained?
This form of epistemology provides no context and thus no ability to relate. This question of coherence is at the heart of knowledge and one must therefore question what knowledge is really being gained in these inventions? They may indeed make life more convenient but is knowledge really advancing? I contend that's a more difficult question to ponder.
Without a means to relate, to distinguish objects in an objective sense, how can there be any hope for not only contextualisation but interpretation? Questions of meaning and thus ultimately knowledge itself begin to grow foggy.
What are we left with? Tools and gadgets that neither really help mankind nor satisfy.
Man can produce technological tools and devices but rather than view this as a warrant for the place of logic within a framework of confident epistemology, we have to say we're not really that impressed.
Certainly it cannot be denied that mankind has produced some fairly impressive machines but life (knowledge and existence) is more than gears and sprockets let alone ones and zeros.
In fact it could be argued without too much difficulty that for every problem solved, ten more have been created. Technology creates leisure time. This allows for a more 'advanced' civilisation to develop but it also sets the stage for decadence. Ancient Rome had the same problem. They didn't have the technology but they had another tool that did their work for them. Human slavery functioned as technology does today in that it freed a leisure class from the daily grind of work. The results were not altogether good and though slavery doesn't exist in the same way technology does, they both have a surprisingly high human cost.
Generally speaking our culture does not praise those who self-sacrifice. The zombie-like mantras regarding 'the troops' are shallow and superficial. And though not a few have been brainwashed in this regard I think a good number of people know (deep down) that these people in camouflage are not 'defending our freedom'. Defending the system... maybe. As far as self-sacrifice, words of praise are doled out and yet the truth of the matter is the people that go into the military for the most part do so because they don't have other viable options. The military is very appealing to the poor and downtrodden, for those seeking a kind of stability and structure. They are praised but at the same time looked down on. Successful people don't enlist in the armed forces nor do they want their children to do so.
Our culture certainly does not praise godliness. In fact it abhors it. But our society does praise the innovators. As our society becomes more dependent on technology, increasingly people define themselves and find their meaning through gadgets and various online applications.
Thus it's no great shock that someone like the late Steve Jobs is particularly venerated and adored. He's praised as a visionary, a leader, an innovator, someone who has 'improved' lives and helped to advance civilisation.
The focus I contend is actually all wrong and this is why someone like Jobs is praised. In reality he should be loathed and hated as someone who must certainly sit atop the list of anti-social criminals and destroyers of culture.
Jobs spent his life in the production of shallow trash. He is by no means alone in this. A creator of vapid empty meaningless pseudo-art, Jobs did little more than transform once useful tools into toys. Technology under his guidance was turned into a type of faux-magic in which people were fooled into thinking they were experiencing a type of empowerment and deification.
Buying into Jobs vision many believe that in using his gadgets and their spin-offs they are mastering the elements. Through cheap superficial pixilated expression they are somehow deluded into thinking they are elevating the self.
The paragon of brilliance, Jobs was in fact a destructive fool. He dazzled everyone with his cheap tactile interfaces that were in fact a denigration of human experience and communication. The touch-screen computer, a cheap-thrill toy that cannot be used for anything serious was wed to the pocket telephone. Empowerment? Hardly.
The Silicon Valley wizard is instead revealed to be a snake-oil charlatan.
Society praises him. They should be burning him in effigy and erasing his name from memory. A vile vain fool, Jobs enslaved the masses to a cheap meaningless sensate drug, helped open the door to mass-manipulation, surveillance and totalitarianism. Individualism is an illusion. Everyone has been fooled. There is no artistry to the stupid device you're carrying. It's now the mark of consumerist materialism and a sign of conformity. What's hip, cool and modern is built on an ugly foundation of resource exploitation, semi-slave labour and an economically destructive system.
It is in fact a base technology that cheapens communication. Ideas are reduced to cartoon hieroglyphics, sparkly video clips and words that scroll by so quickly that people are losing the ability to read simple paragraphs or watch something that isn't turned into a high-paced action segment. Texting has cheapened and destroyed the art of writing and the means for people to effectively communicate. People used to rightly decry what email was doing to communication. That was nothing. Now we have a generation of young people coming up that can't talk on the phone or carry on a simple one-to-one conversation.
People have been duped. Jobs grew rich promoting his self-interest and manipulating people through marketing ploys. Like a pyramid rip-off Ponzi scheme his methods have trickled down to the masses so that now everyone seeks to emulate his marketing deceptions.
There are serious moral elements to this technology and how it is used and what it does in terms of relationships and the way it presents information. But were already far beyond these questions. They should have been addressed and dealt with a generation ago. But our culture blindly follows the latest thing and having been taught to consume and worship those who create consumer products (especially the tech variety) there was no way these questions could be entertained before it was too late.
Recently my wife has been castigated by friends and family for refusing to text and carry a smartphone. We're not anti-technology. That's not the point. My wife was actually an early mobile phone user. She purchased one back in the mid-1990s long before most people had them. At that time it was largely government and business people that had them. Many still had car-phones as opposed to proper mobiles.
But what a shift in values! She remembers on a couple of occasions getting a call in a restaurant. Everything stopped. Everyone was staring. It was embarrassing and a borderline faux-pas.
Today we have to endure people on the phone in the supermarket, cluelessly disengaged from the world around them as they push their cart down the aisle, blabbing away or texting. Oblivious to everyone around them, there's a loss of older forms of communication like speech and eye-contact. An older generation would have marked them as flat rude and that's what they are.
Why? Because the heart of good manners was to give consideration to the other person. When you went out into the world you thought about other people. The world wasn't all about you. You wished to be respectful and treated with respect. This is why you didn't go out in filthy clothes or show up at a store, office or restaurant looking like a slob. This was taken to extremes and some got ridiculous about it but at this point in time the basic idea has been lost.
The use of the mobile phone in public is an ethical issue. It's an application of morality. In terms of human relationships it has most definitely hurt society and if I am to love my neighbour and treat him as myself I out of necessity must weigh how such devices are used if they're to be used at all.
Likewise recently I was in a coffee shop with my wife and a man a few tables away was busy talking away on his phone. He obviously had set up shop, turned his table into an afternoon office. He talked away, got up, paced around and generally disturbed everyone else in the restaurant and was a distraction to our conversations.
He was rude and should have been asked to leave. But I doubt he would have understood why. He was a self-centered self-absorbed jerk.
This is what Steve Jobs, another self-centered and absorbed person has given us. He didn't invent the cellphone but he is the undisputed father of the modern smartphone... which has only taken all of these moral issues to the next level.
I have several friends and even some family members that I no longer talk to. I've grown weary of trying to hold their attention while they attempt to converse with me while watching a ballgame and conducting retail transactions in stores. They're rude to me and certainly rude to all the other people around them.
Is this empowerment?
Someone could argue that the technology isn't inherently the problem. It's people. I can grant that to a degree but the nature of the technology, its immediacy and now the nature of modern social media, especially when wed to a phone/pocket computer is something that I don't think can be justified.
If I'm talking to someone and they keep looking at their phone every thirty seconds I usually wrap things up. They're not a person to be taken seriously. They are in fact to be pitied. I was intrigued and pleased not long ago when sitting in a waiting room, I ran into a pastor I knew from years before. While we sat talking for maybe ten minutes his phone just continued making a racket. Various pings and boings continued to interrupt our conversation. Obviously he was getting texts and updates and yet he exhibited considerable self-control and did not look down even once but held my eye.
But even then... the thing was so distracting that at one point we both broke into grins. It was ridiculous and he knew it.
I know, I know. You can turn off the sounds. Are there ways the technology can be used that are better? Certainly. There are always better ways but that's not really the point.
The whole culture of texting has created its own protocol which I consider to be anti-etiquette. Rather than exhibit self-control now people function on a stream-of-consciousness basis. When something pops into their head, they zip a message off to you and you're expected to reply. In fact you're rude if you don't get back to them pretty quickly. I know of several adults whose teens and even adult kids all but go into a meltdown if they don't answer texts within minutes. They grumble about it but to my amazement... they do it. They keep texting.
This technology is base because it rests on rude and anti-social assumptions. The person texting you expects that their receiving party will prioritise them.
All the old etiquette regarding calling during dinner time, after hours or on the weekends is long gone.
All too often, even business related messages are things that could have easily waited. Immediacy creates its own ethical demands and one must question just how ethical they are.
Needless to say I will not under any circumstance text with anyone and I will go without a phone before I carry a smartphone around with me. I have a burner flip-phone. I'm not anti-technology but I use it in a very limited fashion. I don't take it into stores or offices with me. It stays in the car.
I've had several people say that they would never do that because they want to be available to their kids at all hours of the day and night. How soon we forget. It was only a few years ago that this technology wasn't available. I'm not an old man and yet I didn't grow up with any of this. I remember when answering machines were novel. Offices often employed an answering service. Sometimes you called people and didn't get a hold of them. Oh well. You'd just have to call back later.
Leaving my phone in the car for an hour is not going to bring about the end of the world. Ironically what it has done in many cases that I regularly witness is that it has produced teens and even adults that can't function or work through anything on their own. They don't learn how to solve problems because even at twenty-five they're still tethered to mommy via the texting mechanism.
Social media and the smartphone have only made these things worse.
An acquaintance of mine told me he refused to have a cellphone because he didn't want to live that kind of life. I told him I knew exactly what he meant.
While many feel liberated by this technology, when you don't have a phone and you don't do social media or text your perspective is quite different. I don't see liberated people. I see people who are enslaved, zombies even.
With incredulity I sat across from an old friend and watched the guy obsessively checking his phone. He was missing half of what I said. He'll only talk on the phone when he's on the road or out and about... once again distracted. We'll be talking and suddenly I hear him talking to someone else, other voices and a cash register.
It's absurd because often we're trying to discuss something fairly weighty. He can't do it anymore and frankly I've talked to him maybe 3-4 times in the past 5 years. Why bother? I have better things to do with my time.
The original desktop computers were trying to replicate the idea of a desk. Hence the desktop... what you had out of the drawer and on the surface to be used. The hard-drive was like the file cabinet etc... This was how I used to explain a PC to people years ago.
Jobs wanted to change all that. He wanted to change how we interact with the computer.
The touch-screen, especially the variety with multiple simultaneous inputs turned the computer from a tool into a toy. It's a gimmick and one I frankly loathe. Tablet computers are a joke. You cannot do anything serious with them. They're made for play.
Even Jobs, vile creature that he was, seemed to realise this. After introducing the iPad he later admitted that he restricted his own children from using it. Why? I'll tell you why. Because he realised what the thing is. It's not something that helps you grow. It's a toy for the lazy. Screen-reading has certain advantages but the iPad isn't a proper reader. The whole experience of interacting with a book, writing things down, taking notes... all this is lost using a tablet, or any computer for that matter. The experience isn't the same and something essential to the whole experience is lost.
I know many a millennial pastor would shake his head looking at me while I study. I'll have the Bible, concordances and commentaries piled around me with a notepad. Pages are bookmarked and my wife will attest I've got 5x8 yellow pieces of paper everywhere.
And yet I'm sorry but I contend there's just no way they are studying and even learning by using all the Bible software and apps. Flipping open screens and taking digital notes is not the same.
Jobs has helped to create the modern computer interface that has eliminated visible text and re-constructed the file cabinet and desktop model. While not wholly gone, the means of interface is quite different. What was once clear concise and meaningful communication has been replaced by silly push-button symbols, tactile, childish and child-like visible stimuli. I suppose some people find his products to be user friendly. Personally I have hated every Apple product I ever interacted with. My father insisted on purchasing an Apple II. I hated the thing and was deeply jealous of my friend's Commodore.
The gimmick aspect of modern touch-screen computing has also been amplified because of cost considerations. There's a real hostility to moving parts and buttons. This is why I still carry around my 10+ year old mp3 player that has a 1GB capacity and takes a AAA battery. It has actual buttons and a physical slide-lock. My kids have ended up with the more modern devices I have purchased. I can't stand the cheap combo-button functions when it comes to volume etc. I use the mp3 player at work. I start and stop what I'm listening to on a regular basis. I don't have time to fight with silly pseudo-buttons that you have to press 'just so' to get them to work.
Once again tools are turned into toys. Actual functionality is degraded and utility is limited. Touch screen phones and tables are not tools meant for serious use, communication or inquiry.
The touch-screen technology wave and the smartphone are base technologies. They are fraught with ethical problems in terms of socialisation, manners and communication. One of my wife's family members told her she was being foolish in refusing a smartphone. She's not keeping up with the times. It was an amazing statement from someone attending a culture-affirming Dominionist Evangelical Church. I cannot think of a statement less reflective of a Christian worldview.
The truth is the technology is immoral and rooted in selfishness.
From start to finish the legacy of Steve Jobs is poison. He is one of the great villains of the modern era. I truly hate the man and what he stood for. We should actually be thankful that Providence removed him from the scene. He had at least another ten to twenty years of potential destruction left in him.
Am I merely a Luddite? The Luddites continue to be misunderstood. Their protest was not against technology per se but what it was doing to society, to individuals and to relationships. They realised the machines were going to destroy the moral order of society and they were right.
Neo-Luddism though not necessarily a Christian movement also recognises the moral component to technology. Existence is more than bells, whistles and endless floods of information.
Likewise I am not impressed with modern gadgetry and the elevated icons of the tech world. There are times that certain technologies are useful. For me this is largely in the world of tools. Yes, tools like the oscillating saw, the laser level or the flexible camera scope that I can stick into a wall are quite helpful. That said, the proliferation of Lithium Ion batteries raises other problems. And as with phone culture, the tool culture of the construction world can become just as snobby and competitive. If one's tools are 'out of date' then you're almost looked upon as illegitimate. It's quite laughable.
Nor am I impressed with those who think building an airplane is answered in the same way as probing the meaning of existence. While it is unfair to accuse those who employ such arguments of embracing all the negative effects I have mentioned, I still find the nature of the argument to be wanting.
That said it is no great wonder the pseudo-Christian Dominionist cult of temporalism/pantheism demonstrates a consistent myopia when it comes to the social effects and consequences of technology. Once again any true antithesis (despite their feigned lip-service to the notion) is anathema.
Other points can be made. Technology increasingly resides power in the hands of specialists. Steve Jobs was so stupid as to think it would empower individuals. Instead, it is removing power and even access from the average person. Reduced to a series of ones and zeroes, checked boxes on terms of service forms, we have become objects of exploitation and manipulation, forced to conform to the whims and wishes of tech sector visionaries, their effeminate engineering corps and the financial backers who call the shots and reap the rewards.
What's the answer? The industrial and technological revolutions cannot be rolled back and at this point few would actually want them to be. But what we must do is think through the moral implications of the technology we use. How that works out will differ from person to person. I can respect those who differ with me, and I realise most will, but I cannot respect those who refuse to even entertain the question.
How many shy away from wrestling with doctrine or deep thinking and yet will hand themselves over to consumerist data, tech arcana, sports statistics and endless political partisan propaganda?
And yet they can't wrestle with the larger questions?
For me, my time is too precious to own a smartphone. Like my aforementioned acquaintance, I don't want to live that kind of life. If you don't know what I'm talking about then truly I feel sorry for you.

Others will defend their ownership and use and that's fine but at the very least think it through. And don't stop there. The smartphone is just the tip of the iceberg, the visible expression of morally problematic technology that's clear, prominent and easy for all to see. Do not venerate the Steve Jobs-like figures in our society. I think they need to be exposed as the fools they are. I use fool in the moral sense. He was clever to be sure, but I can assure you it's not helping him at present.