Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Porn Wall and Christian Politics in the Digital World

Robert J. Joustra


August 2, 2013

By Robert J. Joustra

David Cameron’s ambitious plan to block the naughty bits from the British internet inked up headlines again with one of our most pervasive anxieties: can we still control the machines and systems of our own making? Look no further than drone strikes, the surveillance society, or Facebook psychoses; this angst is real and manifest. The specter of Weber’s iron cage haunts social and political debate. 

None of this is nearly so novel as the technocrats suggest, and Derek Schuurman’s important new book, Shaping a Digital World, gets that right on the nose. The politics of apocalyptic frenzy that have accompanied technology’s rise polarize between humankind’s divinity, our godlike technocratic ascension, and our depravity, becoming death and destroyer of worlds. Somewhere between cyber-utopia and cyber-dystopia, says Schuurman, lies technology as a human artifact and as craft.

This long absent, humanizing tone comes from a man who is, blessedly, neither a full-time pundit nor an exclusive philosopher of technology. He is trained first and foremost as an electrical engineer. When a 747 takes to the air, the uninitiated and the ignorant may be awe-struck as though Prometheus himself gifts flight by fire; that kind of technical power inspires mystical faith. But without robbing any of the dignity behind the engineers and the intellect that bring this improbable fantasy to life to life, Schuurman refocuses that act as one of human craftsmanship and co-creation. While still dignifying technology, he demystifies the work of technology and its powers of social and political meaning. “Why is programming fun?” he asks, quoting Frederick Brooks. “What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward? First is the sheer joy of making things.”

The political consequences of demystifying and rehumanizing technology are manifold. Wonks and geeks have been pushing policies like the Google Doctrine, a belief that freedom of virtual information will lead to democracy. The latest issue (July/August) of Foreign Policy makes the ballsy front cover ask, “Can Silicon Valley Save the World?” From defeating terrorism, to economic growth, to eliminating poverty, there is seemingly no task too great for technology’s Promethean powers. 

But technology as craft, as a system of systems, with its own human-made logic and personalized assumptions, historicizes some of this hubris. Startlingly, Schuurman makes this case with a practical and altogether lucid read of the somewhat obscure Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Schuurman argues that cyber-utopian (and dystopian) accounts tend to read technology reductively, neglecting that technology has intrinsic norms and that it functions across a range of “modalities” or aspects of human experience. The norms for crafting good technology, for example, are not the same norms that function for making good families, or running a government. The norms for a good market economy are not the same norms that govern beautiful music or excellent poetry.

However, because of the pervasive power of technology, computers have indeed altered the way we think about many aspects of human experience. The progressivism in historical and cultural norms, the sociological equivalent of Moore’s Law, predicates the exponential growth of the number of transistors on an integrated circuit. Anyone who knows (or regularly uses) the acronyms IMHO and ICYMI already knows a little something about how technology is changing communication norms, and as far as social norms go? Facebook. Enough said. Yes, right down through economic, aesthetic, ethical, and religious norms, technology has built a new landscape, shifted moral questions, and rushed the pace of them.

The politics of the digital world therefore need the kind of careful Christian consideration that Schuurman offers. We should be concerned when technology norms like function and efficiency begin to bleed into other areas. We certainly would not want to make decisions about euthanasia on this basis, as ethicists like Margaret Sommerville argue. Neither are these the best norms for how to think about politics, as some leaders have become in the habit of doing, rendering the normative aims of politics to be little more than an ever-enlarging GDP. If we default to the internet to bring democracy, then Google has indeed made us stupid.

Technology is a political tool worth sustaining, but it is neither the panacea nor the salvation for the deep-rooted problems of human nature. Like all of the systems human beings design and build, it has embedded its own logic and equations of human nature, its own affective and religious orientation, its own manifestation of the spirits of the age, both good and bad. But that line between good and evil, between cyber-dystopia and utopia, cuts both ways. And though we are formed and reformed in our habits and our rituals of technology, made and unmade by porn walls and Google doctrines, the first act of making remains. Because at the end of all our scientific powers, technology is still a human craft, and we are still creatures.

-  Robert J. Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”