Integration Information Technology and Christian Faith
Lecture presented to Handong Institute for Learning and Faith, 10 June 2014
Information and Communication Technology (ICT - I.T. connected over the Internet) has a huge impact on the wealthy part of the world and, indirectly, on the whole world. Some of its impact is positive, such as enabling fast, global communication, inter-cultural relationships and global commerce, and enhancing efficiency, but some of its impact is negative, such as increasing dependency on ICT among its users, time-consumption, addition, impoverished relationships, and disempowerment, especially of those who do not have good access to ICT.
How can we understand this and perhaps do something to make the world a better place? These impacts come from both how ICT is used and how it is designed. So it is not enough to say that ICT is neutral and the positive or negative are from how we use it. Increasingly the 'materiality' to technology is being recognised, by which the shape that ICT has affects its impact on us.
Traditionally, design and use are considered separately, but we should perhaps begin to consider them together. For example, the way YouTube is designed, to allow quick and easy indication of whether we like a piece or not, may be used by others to easily gain a good indication of the views of people - which might be seen as a positive. But likewise it might lead to groupthink, where people tend to watch what is already popular. This feature of Youtube is an example of what Majchrzak et al.  call the 'affordance' of 'metavoicing', and they argue that such affordances are the potential for both good and bad actions.
Many scholars have discussed such issues, from various perspectives. It is perhaps time for contributions to be made from perspectives rooted in the Christian faith. Is it possible, therefore, that the Christian faith can provide insight into
- current understanding of ICT
- how ICT is, or should be, designed
- how ICT is, or should be, implemented
- how ICT is, or should be, used.
(Design is especially important in ICT since, unlike most earlier technologies, it is programmable and hence can be applied in a wide variety of ways and to a wide variety of types of application.)
Moreover, it is also possible that the understanding, design, implementation and use of ICT could and should inform the Christian faith, or at least perspectives rooted in it.
2. INTEGRATING CHRISTIAN FAITH WITH A TOPIC LIKE I.C.T.
There are a number of ways to integrate Christian faith, or perspectives based on it, with a topic like ICT.
2.1 Find Bible Verses the Speak About The Topic
For example, in farming, there are verses like "Do not over-glean; leave those for the poor". In warfare, "Do not cut down fruit trees to make a siege tower; the trees are not your enemies". However, there seem to be no verses that speak directly about ICT, not even technology as such. There are a few that describe people using various technologies, such as descendants of Cain doing metal working, and the builders of the Tower of Babel creating bricks and pitch, but these cannot give us any principles about technology. I googled a site which claims to give verses about technology and, though it cited some verses like these, and some that seemed to have liile bearing on technology, there was not one verse that said anything about technology as such. It is as though technology was just assumed as something that people do.
Even if we had verses that speak directly about the topic, we do not know whether God intended them to apply in this culture as well as in the original. That can only be answered in by reference to principles, world view or other things.
2.2 Find Biblical Principles For the Topic
Instead of verses that speak directly about the topic, we find Biblical principles that apply more generally. Some are stated in Scripture, while others are not. Let us consider a few that might be relevant to technology.
- "We should not play god." This seems to be a sound principle, and it is often used in arguments about genetically modified organisms. It could apply to other forms of technology that seem to give humans huge power, especially over life. While my attitude to GMOs inclines me to like this principle, I have to be honest and say that it is undermined by the important idea that humans are 'image of God'. What this means is discussed elsewhere in the New View Theology, but it does undermine the "Don't play god" principle a little.
- "Whatever ye do, do it ... as unto Christ, not unto men." "Whatever you do" can include technology. The problem with being guided by this principle is that it can be used as a excuse for evil technologies. For example, if I am developing more effective weapons of mass destruction or means of torture. Moreover, to use this verse to tell us something about the use or design of technology is rather taking it out of context.
- "Do good unto all men, especially those of the household of faith." [galatians 6:10]. This overcomes the problem about evil technologies, by stipulating 'do good'. However, it tends to focus our attention on immediate good at the expense of longer-term, indirect impacts of technology. Our good-doing might result, when multiplied by the number of good-doers, in deterimental impact of which we are not aware.
- "... by all means, save some." Here Paul was explaining his policy about doing unusual things that were not sinful. Technology, especially ICT, can be used as a means to save people. For example, evangelists can use social media, and the World Wide Web can be used to provide information that might help people to salvation.
Insofar as such principles are applicable to ICT at all, they are limited to the use of ICT, and can say nothing about understanding ICT, design of ICT or implementation of ICT. Even for use of ICT, their application is only to provide guidance in specific situations, especially when the Spirit of God wants to steer us in particular directions [He has been known to bring verses to mind at crucial times]. And even in these limited circumstances, it is difficult to differentiate the proper application prompted by the Holy Spirit, and a mere reinforcement of what we already believe, possibly erroneously. And, even then, each principle is limited to a specific issue, such as attitude or purpose.
I have not yet found any Biblical principles that can provide a good quality, wide-ranging Christian perspective on ICT.
2.3 Christian World View
Christian world view operates at a level deeper than principles. The most common Christian world view is CrFRR - Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. It could be applied to technology as follows, to each element of the world view. But for each, there is also a problem. The application and problems are shown in the following table.
ICT is part of creation, and therefore good, to be accepted.
But is it? Might it be part of the Fall? It was the descendants of rebellious Cain who developed technology, suggesting that the root of technology is evil. Many places where technology is mentioned - such as chariots, ships - it is seen as instruments of the evil of war. Or of human pride. Even if it is part of creation, how should it relate to other parts? And how should it be designed?
Because all is affected by the Fall, ICT is also. Even though it might be intrinsically good, ICT might be used in harmful ways.
But in what ways? Without specifying the ways in which ICT could be fallen, there is a danger that any and every thing we deem wrong can be blamed upon ICT. We need a better understanding. Crucially, we have to understand whether the fallenness lies in its use alone, or whether the actual design of ICT might also be fallen.
This gives hope that ICT, though fallen, can be still used in good ways. And that God's people can lead in turning it round towards the good.
But How? How can we redeem the design of ICT? How can we redeem the use of ICT? Is it any more than merely trying to prevent the kinds of evil that have already occurred? This seems to make redemption merely a response to evil, rather than something glorious. Would it not be better if we could identify and understand genuine extra good that ICT might bring, without reference first to evil?
? (We can only discuss this if we have a clear idea of what technology will be like in the New Earth and Heavens.)
It may also be seen that these attempts to apply elements of this Christian world view to ICT are very general, and even if most of the objections above are met, it cannot give useful guidance.
Moreover - and this is important - if we are to bring a Christian perspective onto ICT, the perspective needs to have a basis for discourse with extant thought and discourse about ICT in all its fields. Especially academic and professional discourse.
The main contribution that a Christian world view can make is inspirational or motivational. It urges us to take ICT - or any other topic - seriously rather than ignoring it as many do under the influence of the Sacred-Secular Divide. But it cannot, on its own, take us much further.
3. ENGAGING WITH SECULAR OR MAINSTREAM DISCOURSE ON ICT
If a Christian perspective is to contribute to understanding, designing, implementing and using ICT, then it needs to engage with extant discourse about these.
3.1 Christian (Non-)Engagement with Such Ideas
Christians tend to take one of two opposing attitudes to non-Christian thought:
- Antagonism - rejection of the theories or ideas generated in mainstream discourse. Example: evolution rejected.
- Acquiescence - assuming that the theories or rules are OK and can be adopted without question. Example: various business or management methods, various analysis methods. Example: Christian researchers just 'doing research' without any awareness of how their faith might relate to their research.
Either way, Christians make no real contribution to the development of ideas in the field. Merely publishing papers in journals does not make a Christian contribution.
Instead of either of these, this article calls for:
- Critical engamement - Make good critique of extant ideas, the kinds of critique that are meaningful to those working in the field, followed by equally meaningful suggestions.
3.2 Developing Ideas Within the Framework of Creation
The reason for calling for critical engagement is as follows. There is much insight and wisdom in such discourse, because those who research and practise ICT are doing so within the laws that God has written into the fabric of creation. As such, they are continually discovering these laws (whether or not they acknowledge God). In particular, from time to time, new paradigms arise, new ways of looking at the topic, which addresses the realities better. There is usually a cycle to such paradigm shifts:
- People begin to find that extant thought in a given body of knowledge fails to address certain aspects adequately.
- They clarify what the problem is, and explore it.
- They then provide solutions that address the problem - such as new theories, new procedures, etc.
- After a time of discourse about the problem and solutions, these become adopted into the body of knowledge that is extant thought.
The identification of problems is often constituted in the discovery of an aspect that the then current thought overlooks, down-plays or reduces. If we believe that this occurs within the fabric of God's creation, and that there is some desire for truth or 'eternity' in the hearts of people (Doctrine of Common Grace?), then that identification is likely to have some validity, even if it is somewhat awry.
However, the proposal of solutions is often distorted by presuppositions that pervade the scholarly community. Often such presuppositions are unnoticed, yet they limits the solutions that the community allows itself to consider. Often these presuppositions are of the antithesis of nature and grace, or form and matter or of freedom and determinism.
3.3 Towards Critical Engagement with Extant Thought
The Christian world view can perhaps begin to free people from this (e.g. the example of Michael Faraday, who was able to conceive of magnetism as a force acting at a distance rather than as particles). But, as argued above, it is unlikely to be able to take us further than inspiration or motivation. It cannot help us with critical engagement.
Instead, I suggest CFR be reinterpreted as follows, to give three elements of critical engagement: Affirm, Critique, Enrich: ACE:
- Affirm: Study not just the extant ideas, but the motivation behind its coming into being. Usually this will reveal something valid and good - which is often hidden by the noise of what we Christians might not like about it. It is useful to identify aspects of creation that the idea is good on (regardless of aspects in which it is bad).
- Critique: Uncover the deep presuppositions made by those working in this field, and show how they undermine the original motivations. Also identify aspects that are overlooked.
- Enrich: Argue the importance of aspects that are overlooked, so that those in the field will have a wider view. This does not replace or negate extant thought but widens it and situates it in a larger picture.
Most good, open-minded scholars would thank you for doing this.
Much reference has been made there to 'aspects'. Aspects are distinct ways of seeing things that cannot be reduced to each other; the word comes from architecture: aspects of a building or landscape. If we are to identify missing aspects, however, we need a clear idea of what aspects might be missing. I have found the suite of aspects by Dooyeweerd  to be very useful here. His suite is more comprehensive and better grounded than most others (including Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Hartmann's 'new ontology', those by Wilenius, etc.) Dooyeweerd's aspects can be found in The Dooyeweerd Pages, on its Aspects Page.
Dooyeweerd happens to be a Christian Philosopher. It was possible his presupposition of creation (and fall and redemption) - as a presupposition rather than as a world view - that freed him to take diversity of meaningfulness in everyday life seriously, which led to his delineation of his suite of aspects. He saw everyday life as important, and that is meaningfulness, normativity and diversity and coherence were to be taken seriously.
4. TOWARDS A WAY TO BRING CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES ONTO I.C.T.
I have used Dooyeweerd's aspects to affirm, critique and enrich the following topics in relation to ICT:
- Computer science
- Artificial Intelligence
- Data, Information, Knowledge
- Information Systems Development
- ICT Use
- ICT and Society
These will be explained in the lecture. For those who want more, the contribution to computer science is explained and discussed in CHapter VII of my book Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. The contributions to AI and Data, Information Knowledge, are explained and discussed in chapter V. Information systems development is discussed in chapter VI. ICT use is discussed in chapter IV. ICT and society is discussed in chapter VIII.