Friday, June 10, 2011

All Watched Over by a God of Loving Grace

Here are some thoughts on some the the issues raised by Adam Curtis' series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Catch up with the films here. See my review of the series here.

1. They believe in anything

Ayn Rand very consciously rejected the Judeao-Christian tradition. In its place she  posited a new kind of self-organising society based on human selfishness. Rand and her fellow travellers really believed that her theories could transform the world for the better. Putting her ideas into practice she had an adulterous relationship with one of her acolytes. It seemed the logically selfish thing to do. But when he in turn was unfaithful to her, Rand was outraged and threw him out. Her selfishness was logical, his was unforgivable. Thinking that unrestrained selfishness might be the way to achieve human happiness was a naive dream. It puts me in mind of G. K. Chesterton's quip that, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything." The apostle Paul devastatingly exposes the proud delusions of those who in professing themselves to be wise become fools in Romans 1:18-23. 

2. What is man?

Are human beings little more than nodes in a delicately balanced ecosystem, or deterministic gene-replicators? Clearly we are part of the world. We are dependent on what the earth provides for life and health. Passing on our genes through reproduction is an important aspect  of human life. But is man basically a self-replicating flesh and blood computer? The Bible teaches that human beings, all human beings, whatever their race or state of health are made in the image of God. We have a God-given mandate to subdue the earth, re-shape our surroundings and change the world for the better, Genesis 1:26. In a fallen world carrying out this mandate is subject to frustration and disappointment. But the biblical injunction to "love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:39) demands that we endeavour to improve the lot of our fellow man. Our behaviour is not mechanistically pre-determined. We are free to make choices and we will be held accountable for our actions. 

3. In the state we're in we need the State 

The ideologues who saw human beings as nodes in a self-correcting ecosystem believed that without State interference society could achieve a utopian state of self-organised equilibrium. As pointed out, the hippies who endeavoured to put this into practice soon came to realise that things aren't so easy. Human beings are sinners. Without the checks and balances provided by the State with its laws and judicial system, society is at the mercy of those who grab power for themselves and use it to their own advantage at the expense of others. The communes had no mechanism for standing up to bullies. Despite talk of "Love and peace, man" the experimental communities failed to reckon on the stubborn fact of the total depravity of man in sin. The State is a necessary bulwark against the worst excesses of human sinfulness, Romans 13:1-7. A democratically accountable State may be, as Churchill put it the "least worst form of government",  but it is certainly better than no government at all. 

4. The rise of the machines

Adam Curtis' key thesis is that human beings have ceded control of the world to machines. Applying Ayn Rand's ideas to the world of economics Alan Greenspan believed that computers would allow the financial system to self-correct. It was therefore thought to be unnecessary for the Sate to intervene to prevent markets spiralling out of control.

The advent of personal computing and the internet has undoubtedly been a positive factor, facilitating easy communication between people across the globe. But we cannot entrust the running of the world to machines. That would be to opt out of our God-given "creation mandate". Machines must be our servants, not our masters. The distinction between human beings and machines must be maintained. Human behaviour cannot simply be understood in mechanistic terms. Human beings, made in the image of God are more than flesh and blood IT systems.

Early developers of personal computing and the world wide web hoped that the internet would enable the achievement of Rand's utopian vision of a self-organising society based on heroic self-expression. The vested interests on politicians could then be swept aside. However, this has not been the case. Social networking sites such as Facebook have done little more than commercialise personal trivia. Our private thoughts are now for sale and friendship has become a financially valuable commodity. Facebook hasn't changed the world. It just means that the world can know that you've just had a shower. And don't forget to click on a few ads while keeping up with the latest gossip. Facebook is now worth an estimated  $76.4bn. That's money earned from your status updates. Social networking has given big business a vested interest in the private lives of millions of users.

Now, I'm not saying that social networking is a bad thing per se. I have a Facebook account and FB is a good way of keeping up with friends, exchanging information and so on.  For what it's worth this is my 1,000th blog post, so I can hardly claim to be a convinced anti-techno Luddite.  But blogging and social networking hasn't made us into world changing  heroes of self-expression as Rand and her followers hoped. Hardly.

5. All watched over by a God of loving grace

Adam Curtis' films raise questions concerning the relationship between man and machine, but they do not propose answers. He has exploded the idea that computers will enable human beings to live in harmony with the environment, "all watched over by machines of loving grace". But how can humanity be saved from the evils of selfishness, greed and the abuse of power?

This is exactly where the Christian gospel comes in. The Bible recognises the true greatness of man, his inventive artistry and technological capability. But the Christian faith is not blind to the fact that human beings are deeply flawed creatures. We are sinners. That is why we have a tendency to mess things up so badly, as even idealistic hippies found to their cost. The most serious thing about sin, however, is not it's disastrous social consequences. Sin is rebellion against our Creator. We are not machines, but his image bearers and he will hold us accountable for our actions.

The good news is that our Creator is a God of loving grace. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ into the world as one of us. Jesus came to die for our sins and be raised from the dead so that we might be forgiven and put right with God. In Christ God has acted not simply to save human beings, but also to rescue the whole creation from the ruinous effects of sin. When Jesus returns at the end of the age, he will usher in a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells and love prevails. Utopian  schemes want the fruits of redemption without a Redeemer, which is why they are doomed to failure.

Machines make for a poor God-substitute. It is folly for human beings to place their unquestioning trust in technology. We need to turn from our IT-olatry to the living God. The Christian believer lives secure in the knowledge that we are all watched over by a God of loving grace, Psalm 139:1-6. 

1 comment:

Sue said...

These 2 references are featured in The Pentagon of Power by Lewis Mumford.

A book which describes the ideological origins and various historical developments of the drive to gain total power and control over every one and everything.

What Mumford called the Invisible Mega-Machine. Or the archetypal formative pattern or Myth that now patterns the entire world.

Put in another way the machine world in which we now "live" is essentially a combination of the dreadful scenarios described in both Brave New World and 1984.

The masses made self-oblivious by titty-tainment and a cornucopia of multiple drugs (both legal and illegal) and junk food.

With the never ending "war-on-terror" creating the necessary collective fear to keep the dreadfully sane consumerist every-person in fearful powerless submission.