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Digitally Disrupted

By Barry Taylor

In 1922 the Swiss artist Paul Klee produced an enigmatic artwork called The Twittering Machine. Against a bluish-purple background, four crudely drawn birds cling to a wire. There is a handle attached to the wire the birds are on and you can work out that it probably represents some kind of mechanism to move the birds up and down when it is cranked. Beneath the birds is what looks like some kind of pit, or bath. What the painting means is hotly debated as Klee was an intuitive artist who liked to explore the role of the subconscious mind in inventing and interpreting the world and then left the interpretation of his work up to the viewer. But over the years consensus has centered around the relationship between humans and technology, and the questioning of the issue of progress.

Are we really progressing with all the technologies we employ or are we being manipulated by an invisible hand cranking the crooked wire upon which we all cling whilst hanging over a pit of?

Well, you get the picture. 

These days we find ourselves clinging to a different kind of ‘twittering machine;’ a digital one, which alongside other forms of digital social media has changed the world dramatically around us. We live in the age of the networking of the self, the writer Adam Greenfield declares, our lives shaped and re-shaped by the device most of us hold in our hands which gives us access to cyberspace and the opportunity to connect with the world. The smartphone and all that it represents, its interfaces, its user protocols, and more importantly, by the strategies and business models adopted by the inventors of these devices, are conditioning us to respond to the world in certain ways.

Think about how you would present yourself without the selfie, or think of modern dating without the swipe right/left option. When our responses to life are shaped by the protocols of the network—the ‘like’ option (there is no dislike option)-emojis-memes-and 140 characters only—then our lives begin to fall into line with the algorithm and our critical faculties, the way we look and think independently about the world is challenged, if not co-opted by the very devices that promises us all kinds of freedom.

The challenges in all of this are profound and perhaps most challenging for people whose lives and livelihoods are attached to faith and religion. Digital technology is creating conditions for new forms of spirituality that threaten the very existence of traditional faith communities. Digital natives are hungry for meaning and more open to spirituality than ever, but the forms this takes are surprising and often beyond the comfort zone of most traditional faith leaders. What do you say to someone about faith or life when they’ve been raised on a steady diet of selfies, cybersex and celebrity-curated content? Can faith, rooted in a traditional religion, survive in a Tik-Tok hungry meme-culture?

We will be tackling these and other compelling questions when we take a deep dive into digitally in our next culture course. Digital Disruptions: Theology in the Age of Algorithms. Humans and technology go hand in hand, and we have been technological beings since the invention of fire. Technology shapes what it means to be human, but digital technology seems to herald a seismic shift in our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This course will offer new thinking about what is coming into being through the digital disruption—thinking that will not only provoke and challenge conventional wisdom but also offer insight and strategy for theology and praxis in the age of algorithms.


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