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Homo Digitalis

By George Sumner

In modernity the human being imagines creating him or herself. They are freed from old constraints. They rule their inward life, while science controls the outward world.
Nothing epitomizes this more than contemporary technology. The world is “flattened.” Each has free rein for choice and expression on the web. All are independent of the constraint of place and, in a sense, body. This is why the web was vaunted as the creator of a new kind of global community at its outset. The dreams of a technological future have at times been bold: perhaps consciousness could be stored on a file, so as later to be uploaded.

The reality, we now see, is very different. Information is pervasively distorted. Scams are run. The young are addicted to pornography. The sex robot already exists. A recent article described the explosion in the number of images of abused children on the web. Many who aren’t ensnared are at least overly passive. There is serious discussion of the end of work, mental as well as physical, with the question of what remains hanging over us. In the face of total surveillance, what becomes of freedom? Philosophers muse seriously on the “transhuman.” Have I gone paranoid? Alas, no, I read the news. All this gives electronic sense to the New Testament’s “powers and principalities.” Our over-exalted sense of ourselves results in fact in debasement. What could better display original sin? Our Frankenstein’s monster has absorbed us.

I am hoping the next generation of leaders can respond better than I can—I am barely able to work my beloved iPhone! But i know the following to be so. First, we need to reframe traditional questions in terms of a theological anthropology of being enthralled to technology. Secondly, no matter what, church and the sacraments must remain located and embodied. We must become Luddites, suspicious of technology, the new Amish, discerning in our use of it, for Christ, in spite of inevitable financial pressures to the contrary. In the meantime, thirdly, we would do well to listen to the Christian prophets of this rising challenge, Jacques Ellul and more recently Albert Borgmann, who will help us to see this challenge for what it is.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

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