Between God and Google: Reflections on the Technology Project of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture

Article excerpt

  "... many people's recollected nightmares are soundless, with   suggestions of thick glass or deep water and these media's   effect on sound." -David Foster Wallace (1) 

Sniff

  In my working life, designing and fabricating objects   and images for liturgical settings, I periodically spend long   stretches at the computer. Drafting, administrating, perhaps   researching, can require sometimes up to a month at the desk.   This is usually followed by a more lengthy period in the studio   actually making the thing, which is likely to be a physical,   dusty, material process. Not long ago, having recently completed   this desk-work and having embarked on the journey of bringing the   idea into the reality of the studio space, I found myself   confronted with the somewhat tedious task of milling, on a drill   press, the ends of some forty turned spindles. Care needed to be   taken in setting the machine up, and after troubling through a   series of progressively minute adjustments and test cuts, I was   good to go. I ran the stack of spindles through the machine,   one at a time. I then broke the machine down, loosening its fence   and table in preparation for the next step. But I realized, a   moment late, that the very first spindle, which I had pulled   from the stack to use as a gauge, had been left aside while   the others were milled. It remained, unmilled, at the side of   the machine. I had forgotten to machine the 40th piece.    Mildly vexed, I stepped back bodily. And I stepped back mentally.   I faced the prospect of going through the lengthy set-up process   all over again, now the more demanding for having to duplicate the   results of the others, exactly. Suspended, I found myself looking   for the tab for "Edit > scroll down > Undo." In the video monitor   of my minds-eye, I was looking for the "undo" tab to correct my   mistake. 

This brief moment, which might have been so easily overlooked or forgotten, lingers with me these many years later. A fleeting instant in a workaday world, it seemed to encapsulate a larger process, a bigger story. I described this event to a friend who spends his entire worklife computer-bound. He responded with his own anecdote of a related moment, suspended likewise in a bodega, staring at the melons stacked high along the produce aisle.

He searched, he told me, for the "File > scroll-down > Sniff" command.

We all know it is happening. The digital revolution is changing us in ways both trivial and essential. From freedom of speech to addictive compulsion, from the role of relationships to the nature of reality, new technologies are shaping and informing wide swaths of human concern and endeavor. It is reapportioning agency and ability, coercion and compulsion, information and ignorance, in society at large and in each of us individually. Our relationships with our bodies, our attention spans and capacity for reflection; narrative structure and spatial reasoning; social cohesion and surveillance, knowledge and fellowship--all these basic human concerns are undergoing significant shifts.

There is no shortage of commentary on these changes. Much of it supports the Solomonic claim that there is nothing fundamentally new to this dynamic, save the scale. Throughout history and even before it, our technologies have shaped the very substance of who we are. Socially, psychologically, and even anatomically, we have evolved to conform to the new worlds we create. These changes can be so deep and pervasive as to go essentially unnoticed. Even now, we struggle to understand the frill impact of the cultivation of fire (2) and the invention of language.

While these observations have been written about widely, there has been, to date, little attention focused specifically on the ways in which we discuss the influences of technology and how these manners of speaking shape our experience.

The Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture has been engaged in an extended inquiry into the Influence of Technology on Religion and the Arts. …