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Well, one thing that tells us is that we can’t be doing with the sort of notion of miracles that some seem to have, as if God hearing our prayers were like someone receiving applications. He ticks some and puts a cross by others and hands the forms back for action by some angelic civil service. There is a hint of a slightly more sensible approach in an idea put forward by St Augustine in the fifth century—that miracles were really just natural processes speeded up a bit, ‘fast-forwarded’. This may be a bit too simple; but Augustine had got hold of something that many thinkers of the Middle Ages followed through in different ways. If God’s action is always at work around us, if it’s always ‘on hand’, so to speak, we shouldn’t be thinking of God’s action and the processes of the world as two competing sorts of thing, jostling for space. But what if there were times when certain bits of the world’s processes came together in such a way that the whole cluster of happenings became a bit more open to God’s final purposes? What if the world were sometimes a bit more ‘transparent’ to the underlying act of God?

— Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

The problem with BUMMER is not that it includes any particular technology, but that it’s someone else’s power trip.

Methodical behaviorism, described in the first argument, isn’t in itself a problem, for instance. You might choose to be treated by a cognitive behavioral therapist, and benefit from it. Hopefully that therapist will have sworn an oath to uphold professional standards and will earn your trust. If, however, your therapist is beholden to a giant, remote corporation and is being paid to get you to make certain decisions that aren’t necessarily in your own interests, then that would be a BUMMER.

Similarly, hypnotism isn’t in itself a BUMMER. But if your hypnotist is replaced by someone you don’t know who is working for someone else you don’t know, and you have no way of knowing what you’re being hypnotized to do, then that would be a BUMMER.

The problem isn’t any particular technology, but the use of technology to manipulate people, to concentrate power in a way that is so nuts and creepy that it becomes a threat to the survival of civilization.

If you want to help make the world sane, you don’t need to give up your smartphone, using computer cloud services, or visiting websites. You don’t need to fear math, the social sciences, or psychology. BUMMER is the stuff to avoid. Delete your BUMMER accounts!

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

 

Descartes, generally credited with inaugurating the scientific revolution, begins from radical doubt about the very existence of an external world, and builds up the principles of scientific inquiry from the foundation of a radically self-contained subject.

Yet this solipsistic ideal doesn’t gibe perfectly with the history of science. For in fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics. This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

Ah, autumn!

Every year about this time, for a tantalizingly short while-a week or two at most-an amazing thing happens here. The whole of New England explodes in color. All those trees that for months have formed a somber green backdrop suddenly burst into a million glowing tints and the countryside, as Frances Trollope put it, “goes to glory.”

Yesterday, under the pretense of doing vital research, I drove over to Vermont and treated my startled feet to a hike up Killington Peak, 4,235 feet of sturdy splendor in the heart of the Green Mountains. It was one of those sumptuous days when the world is full of autumn muskiness and tangy, crisp perfection: vivid blue sky, deep green fields, leaves in a thousand luminous hues. It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a landscape becomes individual, when each winding back highway and plump hillside is suddenly and infinitely splashed with every sharp shade that nature can bestow-flaming scarlet, lustrous gold, throbbing
vermilion, fiery orange.

Forgive me if I seem a tad effusive, but it is impossible to describe a spectacle this grand without babbling. Even the great naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, a man whose prose is so dry you could use it to mop spills, totally lost his head when he tried to convey the wonder of a New England autumn.

In his classic Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Peattie drones on for 434 pages in language that can most generously be called workmanlike (typical passage: “Oaks are usually ponderous and heavy-wooded trees, with scaly or furrowed bark, and more or less five-angled twigs and, consequently, five-ranked leaves “), but when at last he turns his attention to the New England sugar maple and its vivid autumnal regalia, it is as if someone has spiked his cocoa. In a tumble of breathless metaphors he describes the maple’s colors as “like the shout of a great army … like tongues of flame … like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra.”

“Yes, Donald,” you can just about hear his wife saying, “now take your medication, dear.”

For two fevered paragraphs, he goes on like this and then abruptly returns to talking about drooping leaf axils, scaly buds, and pendulous branchlets. I understand completely. When I reached the preternaturally clear air of Killington’s summit, with views to every horizon soaked in autumn luster, I found it was all I could do not to fling open my arms and burst forth with a medley of John Denver tunes. (For this reason it is a good idea to hike with an experienced companion and to carry a well-stocked first aid kit.)

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

Cardinal Newman once said that a magnifying glass can kindle a fire somewhere else even if it remains cold in itself.

— Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

Customized feeds become optimized to “engage” each user, often with emotionally potent cues, leading to addiction. People don’t realize how they are being manipulated. The default purpose of manipulation is to get people more and more glued in, and to get them to spend more and more time in the system. But other purposes for manipulation are also tested. For instance, if you’re reading on a device, your reading behaviors will be correlated with those of multitudes of other people. If someone who has a reading pattern similar to yours bought something after it was pitched in a particular way, then the odds become higher that you will get the same pitch. You might be targeted before an election with weird posts that have proven to bring out the inner cynic in people who are similar to you, in order to reduce the chances that you’ll vote.

BUMMER platforms have proudly reported on how they’ve experimented with making people sad, changing voter turnout, and reinforcing brand loyalty. Indeed, these are some of the best-known examples of research that were revealed in the formative days of BUMMER.

The digital network approach to behavior modification flattens all these examples, all these different slices of life, into one slice. From the point of view of the algorithm, emotions, happiness, and brand loyalty are just different, but similar, signals to optimize.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

If God is genuinely the Lord of history, then context can just as appropriately be ascribed to divine providence as it can be to the interplay of social, cultural, and economic forces. Indeed, if it’s truly history that he’s Lord of, those “secular” forces will be the very things he’ll use, in all their developments and collisions, to tip his hand and express his Word. It is important to add, however, that in both Scripture and the church’s life, God the Holy Spirit presides over the historical process mysteriously, not ham-fistedly: he lets events take their natural course and still gets the results he wants. In short, he rides the bicycle of history home no-hands. Think about that. God uses Cyrus the Persian to liberate the people of Israel from Babylon, even though Cyrus himself does nothing but his own thing for his own reasons. God saves the world through his Incarnate Word in Jesus by the historical accident of a judicial murder. And even though the Holy Spirit leaves the writers of the Bible free to say whatever comes into their unique and independent heads, he still manages to get from them the historical Scriptures he wants us to have as his Word written. Freedom in no way precludes providence, and providence has no need to interfere with freedom.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart