Sunday, 16 June 2013

Technology co-opted in support of moral progress

I have only just started to read Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled and have been challenged already to rethink the role of technology in relation to moral imperatives.

Having read Jacques Ellul, I have largely accepted the thesis that technology imposes on us a drive towards a particular kind of "progress" beyond human control. In many ways we are not the master but the slave of technology. Although Bailie's book is not directly about technology, it nevertheless presents a counter-example to this "technological imperative" view.

In the passage I am referring to, on pp 17-19, Bailie identifies what he takes to be the most significant dynamic in human history: "the gradual awakening of a concern for the plight of victims."

Bailie uses the USA's involvement in Somalia in 1992 as an example of a current crisis of culture about how to understand and respond to violence. There is, he says, "a growing inability to subordinate empathy for victims to more practical political and geopolitical concerns." That is, we were once able to use practical political concerns to justify violence, but that stance is crumbling as people become more empathetic towards victims. This underscores a moral paradox: "that efforts made to fulfill the moral imperative to aid victims ... inevitably produce victims of their own."

Of course, the purpose of Bailie's book is to find a way past that dilemma by unveiling and undermining violence. But within this context he makes a fascinating observation about the role of telecommunications. Some say that what enables this current awakening and empathy for victims is the broadcasting of images of victims. In Somalia it was the images on TV. More recently, with the "Arab Spring", many have claimed that a key role was played by Twitter and other social media.

While Bailie doesn't deny the impact of telecommunications on this cultural change, he claims that what is more significant is "the moral and spiritual impulse to put this technology to work showing the world the face of the victim. ... It is this _determination_, and not the technological instruments it employs, that is the defining impulse at the heart of what we call Western culture and, in fact the true driving force of history in our world."

It is an extraordinary claim that the determination to undermine or de-legitimise violence by showing the face of the victim is the driving force of history! (Though that needs to be understood in the light of what he means by "history".) But this is also a challenge to my thinking about the relationship between technology and society and faith, because it reasserts what Ellul rejected, namely that deep and positive anthropological change can impose its agenda on technology rather than the reverse. It is not that technology will inevitably be used to expand the power of technology. In this case, a fundamental striving of humanity has been accelerated by co-opting technology to promote the cause of unveiling violence.