Spirits In A Digital World
Interview with AKMA Adam
AKMA, a theologian, who embraced social media. A rare specie. We are glad we’ve found him. Very special in his way to articulate his thoughts …
we-mag: You describe yourself as an activist. Why and what for?
AKMA: I don’t remember calling myself an activist, but to be honest, that’s not the best description of me. It would be more accurate to say that I latch onto important ideas and try to call more general attention to them. In that sense, I’m a witness: I’ve seen tremendous possibilities, and I restlessly remind people about opportunities that the world is overlooking.
The internet confuses, intimidates, affronts, and baffles people – such that much of the public discourse on digital technology arises from misperceptions, then people broadcast this amplified igno- rance as though it represented unquestionable facts. I persist in proposing – especially to churches and the academy, but to anyone else who will listen – a different, sounder picture of what’s going on. I press a case for recognizing how the advent of digital media offer ways we can further our causes, and I warn about pitfalls we should avoid. Of course, my advocacy persuades people more fruitfully if they haven’t already stumbled into the pitfalls and made themselves hobbit-holes there.
we-mag: What does WE mean to you? And how has your understanding of WE changed since the rise of the Internet?
AKMA: WE provides an instructive barometer to the behind-the-scenes agendas of the people who deploy that simple pronoun. A great many prominent voices tend to think that WE has to designate either a universal totality – WE equals absolutely everyone – or a faction, a tribe, a cult, a partisan group. Both of those two usages lend themselves to conveniently sharp boundaries for identifying who belongs to any given WE.
Contrariwise, however, WE more often designates a more flexible, more fluid subject. Rather than including all or marking off us from them, WE most often indicates an indistinct bunch of people at a particular moment, and sometimes even only semi-includes any given individual. Is Barack Obama black or white? WE isn’t necessarily one thing or another. For this reason, it’s usually best to specify, or at least to signal, the constitution of the WE for whom one is talking.
People have various reasons for insisting on using WE in binary ways. One overly simple explanation might observe the anxiety with which dominant cultures project their priorities onto humanity in general (so that anyone who doesn’t share those priorities must not be fully human) – with the result that their use of WE produces either people like us or people who resist intrinsically human priorities.
I’d gently suggest that it’s more honest, and more benign, to allow that WE names a transitory constellation of subjects associated with one another for limited, pragmatic purposes. WE digital immigrants interact with the Web in particular ways, but WE digital natives use the Web differently, and WE antiquarian aliens deal with online technology as little and as simply as possible. And these WEs don’t exclude one another; I fall into each WE at various times, depending on what activities we’re pursuing, or what mood I’m in. Some digital natives depend on chat, texting, and email for their daily communication without any interest in the semantic Web or gaming, for one example. WE is internally divided, shifting, changing, affecting and being affected by other WEs – very much like the Web.
we-mag: Al Gore says ”Religion is not about belief it is about behavior“. Would you agree?
AKMA: Belief and behavior permeate one another; it’s a grave mistake to try to split the two apart, especially in the name of honoring the favored alternative (behavior) at the expense of its alternative (belief). Try to imagine what it would mean to believe in gravity, but to disregard balcony railings – or for that matter, to suppose that someone who avoided precipitous changes in altitude had to assent to a catechism of particular propositions about the nature of gravity. (Different groups of Gravitationers might then dispute the precise velocity of objects falling in a vacuum, or the right decimal place for rounding off Newton’s constant).
Behavior entails implicit beliefs; believing, in the more-than-notional sense, shapes behavior. Religion (like pretty much everything) is about an amalgam of behavior and belief.
Now, throw in the complication that people disagree over what to count as a religion. Who would adjudicate the taxonomy of religions, parareligious groups, cults, and plain old scientific and metaphysical (in the philosophical, not New Age sense) truth? Many social groups espouse claims about the nature and purpose of human existence – so that everyone has a stake in asserting how everyone else should live (and think), even if their stake amounts to the claim that no one’s claims should trump anyone else’s (except that this principle trumps others). These sorts of efforts always bootleg in presupposed universal or necessary ideals, ideals that not everyone shares (or one wouldn’t need to enforce them).
Religion names certain ways people order their behavior and beliefs, but there’s no profit in getting into arguments over whether religion ought to be this or that way, or whether this or that counts as a religion. I admire Al Gore for a number of reasons, but sometimes he simply misses his target.
we-mag: Religious fundamentalism is causing so much damage in the world. Wouldn’t it be a huge challenge for all religions to let the believers go and let them define their own god according to their values and beliefs in order to reach freedom?
AKMA: Your question assumes, without arguing, that no religious fundamentalism could possibly reflect the way matters are and should be – you’re construc- ting a WE that excludes a vast number of people whom you might view as fundamentalist (many of whom would not understand themselves that way).
As I was just saying, that simply means that the WE who asks me that question doesn’t expect to overlap with another WE ?– to an extent that it seems obvious and ethically urgent to you that this unwelcome WE be prevented from behaving in a way that accords with their beliefs (just as it may seem obvious and ethically urgent to some fundamentalists that they protect themselves from heathens or infidels). The notion that people can and should be obliged to permit all forms of religious expression can’t be put into practice with- out subsequently enacting a process for policing true and false religion (a practice with demonstrably fatal precedents).
If in fact there is a some sort of religious truth, it’s hard to see why exponents of religion should be expected to allow people to devise their own home-cooked versions of theology, any more than people should allow any old sort of financial investment scheme, or any sort of medical treatment. The medical estab-lishment may be wrong or right, but it’s not simply indifferent. Once a body of people arrive at an articulated account of what they take to be most true and most vitally important, It would be strange to demand that they disregard that truth and permit everyone to do whatever they want. Unless, of course, one begins by assuming that particular religious truth-claims about God or human destiny or the purpose of the cosmos simply don’t matter; but then one is setting oneself apart from a tremendous proportion of people who have advocated one or another religion, from the Dalai Lama to the Pope, Martin Luther King Jr. to Martin Luther, Sojourner Truth to Al-Ghazali. One can make that claim, but it will have the paradoxical effect of constituting an inclusive, tolerant religion that excludes most proponents of most recognizable religious traditions.
we-mag: In the bible there is a lot about sanctions, failure, prohibition but rarely anything about gratification and praise. Why should people embrace it?
AKMA: My allegiance to the Bible arises from my being captivated by the vision of life that I recognize in reading it, and from my aspiring to solidarity with its most winsome adherents. Of course, as I’ve been arguing all along, that’s a reading of the Bible that thoughtful readers can and will disagree about – but it’s simply not the case that the Bible is about sanctions, failure, prohibition rarely anything about gratification and praise.
Our (digital) proximity to one another – manifest in such wonderful projects as Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon’s Global Voices – affords us the opportunity to listen better, to hear more widely and generously, than ever before. Plenty of people reject that opportunity in favor of seeking out like-minded reinforcement of their prejudices, but the opportunity remains.
In a comparable way, plenty of people read the Bible and see there a reflection in black-letter type of their presuppositions (whether for or against a biblically-informed way of life). It’s easy to put together a selection of biblical injunctions that could form the framework of a code of law (though one would have to codify this law with a degree of selectivity and with some forceful interpretive gestures, unless one advocated freelance stonings and had nothing to say about vehicular traffic, the practice of modern medicine, and complicated financial instruments). One may also read the many biblical warnings against presuming that we know exactly what’s on God’s mind for us: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord, or Many will come from East and West and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, to cite just two. We would do well often to say as Paul says, I have no command of the Lord on this.
Now, people may not want to embrace the vision of blessed, holy life that I recognize from Scripture. They may want to argue about various elements of it, or to reject it entirely in favor of some other vision of reality that diverges from what Christian churches propose. That’s out of my hands. But I can, I am called to, articulate and practice a manner of life that illustrates a miniature representation of a grander whole: a glorious, harmonious, unpredictable and uncontrollable risky vision of the intensity of transcendent joy and truth.
we-mag: TRUST – MISTRUST in church, economics, society – a huge topic today. What role could faith/the church play in the orchestra in order to achieve TRUST and not to get stuck in MISTRUST?
AKMA: In keeping with my last several responses, the churches could devote themselves more wholeheartedly to the sorts of behavior that promote trust. Churches could embrace digital technologies’ capacity to draw people together, without succumbing to the fearful self-protection that so often cuts us off from our neighbors – and that (justifiably) communicates the message that we don’t trust you, we don’t want you to know about us. Surely, digital technologies entail various risks; but face-to-face interaction likewise entails (as recent scandals remind us), and churches remain pretty enthusiastic about getting together in person despite those risks.
Digital technology has opened up a new mode of friendship. We’re still trying to figure out how it works, but the church ought to be in the forefront of learning how to be friends with digital media. If we’re not taking part in this exploration – and suffering some of the wounds of venturing to trust others – why should anyone listen to us if we criticize some practices of digital friendship? In many ways, the churches’ mistrust of the digital frontier has needlessly repelled a generation of online citizens. That’s all the more sad because the churches have been thinking about the non-physical dimensions of persons, about life in non-terrestrial terms, about how a nonrivalrous plenitude of goods might most wisely be shared, all for centuries.
we-mag: What about the evils of post capitalist consumer culture? The fantasy of immortality which is becoming more tangible with stem cells, merging with our machines in cyberland? At the very least we might double our life span in the next 30 years – does the techno-science revolution scare you? What hope do you have and why?
AKMA: The topic of hope involves a treasury of complications – about which I know a little, since my wife is writing her doctoral dissertation on it! Without invoking all the technical intricacies, though, I regard technoscience with guarded appreciation. I would like to live a very long time, with as much strength and activity as possible, but not at just any cost.
The recent stages of capitalist culture have continued (and in some ways have intensified) the self-serving tendency of privileged people to allocate resources in ways that benefit themselves very directly, very immediately, and benefit others only indirectly and gradually – and that’s when the economic system works at its best. Right now, the world is experiencing the ramifications of that system’s more usual aspect. Those who can take wealth and power and good health for granted concentrate their efforts on securing those privileges, rather than on orienting the economic system toward benefits for their less privileged neighbors. Governments bail out their respective versions of Wall Street; CEOs who supervised their companies’ decline into bankruptcy take severance packages for sums of money that a successful, hardworking laborer won’t earn in a lifetime of sweat and aches (and that’s just the severance package for leaving a failing business). There is a logic that supports such economics, but it’s a logic that doesn’t sound very convincing if you’re a migrant laborer, a sharecropper, a war refugee.
So people who vest their hope in technoscience are participating in something that resembles another sort of Ponzi scheme, a scheme of research and experimentation that offers a version of immortality to a few, at the cost of basic life-sustaining medical care to millions. Advocates of technoscience frequently discuss the future of human health and longevity as though these opportunities would avail for all people, equally – and we critical observers have no reason whatsoever to accept that premise, when an actual system for cultivating and distributing food, shelter, and medical care still disregards a staggering proportion of the world’s population.
And just as the premise that the new immortals will include you and me is false, so also the hope that of immortality – at least, immortality in a sense that fits what people have usually associated with living. A tremendous proportion of what people experience daily (one might say all, but there’s no point in starting an argument over that) is conditioned by limitations, risk, frailty, and incarnation, embod- iedness. Those limita- tions change radically – if they even pertain at all – if, for instance, the electrical impulses of my brain were transferred into a CPU and hard drive located in a robotic superstructure. (David Weinberger offers keen arguments against the distinguishing of the formal properties of an electrical system of processors and digital memory (on one hand) from the conditions by which those electrical impulses are received, processed, and stored (on the other hand).)
Robotic immortality – even if it were possible, even if it were available to people regardless of their economic status, neither of which premises holds true for the foreseeable future – robotic immortality is not the sort of immortality people long for. The legendary Cumaean Sibyl asked Apollo for indefinite longevity, but neglected to ask for strength and good health throughout her life – so that as the years passed, Apollo allowed her body to wither and shrink, until she dwindled away but did not die. We should beware of technological promises lest we, like the Sibyl, discover that deathlessness without the bodily life we love is worse than the death we fear.
we-mag: Why do you think is the church so restricted in using social media? It is obvious that there are huge opportunities …
AKMA: Most churches have only the most tenuous involvement with social media, for a variety of reasons. First, we should acknowledge that the church represents a pro-foundly conservative institution. Churches cling to the past for some very good reasons and for some less-worthy reasons. On the good side, we espouse a living solidarity with our forebears, the communion of saints, and we pursue a way of life we have learned from centuries of disciples before us. We respect the hard work of faith by which people in ages past struggled to understand and practice a true commitment to the way of Jesus Christ. On the not-so-good side, churches very fre- quently regard antiquity, safety, and protection as their raisons d’être, so that they resist any form of change or innovation. If you’re busy resisting all innovations, though, you’re not examining possible innovations to see whether they in fact strengthen and extend the mission of the church. If you resist all (apparent) changes, you’re probably ignoring an entire catalogue of cultural changes that don’t catch your attention because they’re taken for granted in your broader society. So in the first instance, churches often pursue a deliberate reluctance when approa-ching innovative change.
Second, some churches take up changes with clumsy enthusiasm, in ways that scare off more sober congregations. The rainbow-colored blinking banners, the gruesome page design, the heedless lack of concern for basic online security, all strengthen churches’ aversion to any participation in social media whatsoever. Many congregations pay large sums for web hosting and site design from companies that offer less than a free account on BlogSpot or WordPress. Many other churches consign their web design to ardent amateurs who know just enough HTML to be dangerous. If you were on a church board, considering whether to work up a web presence, and on one hand your neigh-boring congregation had paid thousands of dollars for a decorative web page that no one can update, and on the other hand another congregation has home-brewed website that looks like the mutant digital offspring of an album cover from the early 70’s and a slide show of Our Family Vacation In Ibiza – wouldn’t you hesitate before getting involved? That’s a good reason, though I would argue that it’s not good enough.
Third, because the technological terrain is largely unfamiliar to church decision-makers, they tend to adopt practices without a sound basis – like novice investors picking stocks by the sound of the corporate name, or the appearance of the CEO – or avoid the area altogether. When churches do get involved with the Web, they often use the Web to reproduce resources already available in other
Fourth, relatively few businesses have a good handle on digital media. Plenty of businesses have no web page at all. Many that maintain a minimal web presence don’t use that presence as more than a placard for announcing hours, address, and phone number. Even enterprises that actually use the web and digital media rarely make the most of their opportunities. So we probably ought not expect that a not-for-profit institution staffed mostly by volunteers few of whom are wellacquainted with digital technology should be taking full advantage of the possibilities that a new generation social media.
As you say, however, opportunities for churches to strengthen their mission and amplify their presence in their comm-unity (and the world) abound. It’s a shame that so few church leaders have shown the insight and initiative to adopt even a lowcost Web 2.0 congregational or denominational strategy.