9.5 Theses about Technology in the Midst of a Pandemic and Protests

The COVID-19 pandemic, the related infodemic, the digital transformation these have accelerated, and the social and especially racial inequities these have highlighted have caused me to rethink, reorder, and refine my 9.5 theses about technology. (I share some thoughts about the most significant changes here.)

Here is the current version of these, including many updated links to relevant posts:

1. We are living through a unique and transformative moment in history. New digital and networked information and communication technologies, increasingly powered by autonomous and intelligent systems, are profoundly and irrevocably changing our lives and world.

2. Our present revelatory or apocalyptic moment uncovers old patterns of injustice and alerts us to how technologies create asymmetries of power that exacerbate old and create new social inequities. With digital technologies, we see these in divides relate to access, literacy, and wisdom.

3. Technology has been with us—and defining what it means to be a human—from the beginning. Technology had a significant role in human evolution, enabling us to become human and more human.

4. Technologies are neither inevitable nor neutral. We design and use them, creating and engaging with affordances that both enable and limit our agency. In a period of technological disenchantment, we are awakening to the responsibilities of designers and users.

5. There is cause for hope for our technological future. To move beyond naïve optimism, we need new narratives and new eschatologies that look beyond utopian and dystopian visions and are truly apocalyptic.

6. We are digitally naïve. Individually and collectively, we need to reflect on how we are shaping new information and communication technologies and how they are shaping us, and we need to close the current ethical gap between our intentions and actions. We need to become digitally literate as well as digitally wise agents.

7. Attention management is the greatest challenge facing us individually and culturally. We need to cultivate cultivating active and receptive forms of attention and upgrade our formative practices along with our material technologies. Instead of digital withdrawal or rejection, we should pursue our appropriate digital vocation.

8. There is a new digital dimension to reality, blending, enveloping, and transforming our physical lives and world.

9. Our lives are characterized by a digital device paradigm. We interact with surface layers of technology supported by invisible substructures and surrounding environments of surveillance.

9.5. We should be humbled by our finitude and history of corruption. Innovation should be balanced with curation, acknowledging that appropriate limits are ambiguous

Here is a presentation on these I prepared for one my classes:

9.5 Theses about Technology

In 2017, during the quincentennial of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the Protestant Reformation, I drafted 9.5 theses about our present technological moment.

Since then, during a period which largely seemed to be about making the case for a digital reformation, I continued to refine these theses through discussions with colleagues, teaching, and writing.

Here are my 9.5 theses in their present form. I’d be happy for a disputation with anyone interested in one! You’re welcome to comment here or on any of the linked posts below.

1. Technology has been with us—and defining what it means to be a human—from the beginning. Technology had a significant role in human evolution, enabling us to become human and more human.

2. Technologies are neither inevitable nor neutral. We design and use them, creating affordances that enable and limit our agency. During this time of tech backlashes, we are awakening to the responsibilities of both designers and users.

3. We are living through a unique and transformative moment in history. New digital and networked information and communication technologies, powered by autonomous and intelligent systems, are profoundly and irrevocably changing our lives and world.

4. Attention management is the greatest challenge facing us individually and culturally. We need to upgrade our formative technologies along with our material technologies. This includes cultivating active and receptive forms of attention as well as new practical wisdom and formative practices. Digital withdrawal is not an option.

5. There is a new digital dimension to reality, blending with and enhancing our embodied lives and physical world.

6. Our lives are characterized by a digital device paradigm. We interact with surface layers of technology supported by invisible substructures and surrounding environments of surveillance.

7. New technologies create new asymmetries of power and social inequities—digital divides related to access, literacy, and wisdom.

8. We are digitally naïve. Individually and collectively, we need to reflect on how we are shaping our technologies, how they are shaping us, and close the current ethical gap between our intentions and actions. We need to become digitally literate and digitally wise.

9. There is cause for hope for our technological future. To move beyond naïve optimism, we need greater narratives that look beyond utopian and dystopian visions and are truly apocalyptic.

9.5. Innovation should be balanced with curation, and human creation should be constrained. This is something of a half-thesis, because appropriate balance and limits are ambiguous.

M.M.XVIII
Updated October 2019

Most recent (2020) version available at Digital Wisdom.

Scholarly Trajectories

I am, primarily, an academic administrator. I enjoy my work very much, but it means that scholarly activities typically fall into the category of “other duties as not assigned.”

My earliest research focused on the history of books and libraries. But as my responsibilities and the digital age progressed, I became more interested in the future of libraries, the increasingly digital dimension of our lives and world, and ethical issues related to new information and communication technologies.

At present, I find my research interests developing in two different—but not entirely unrelated—directions.

One direction concerns the future of libraries: What is the role of this ancient institution in a digital information environment? Or, as McLuhan put the question back in the 1960s, what is the future of this “old figure in a new ground”?

The other direction concerns technology and ethics. Due to my sense of vocation and institutional context—i.e., leading and teaching at a faith-based university—my approach to this topic is theological. While a theological approach to technology is not unrelated to the future of the library, it does result in a divergent scholarly trajectory.

Earlier this year, with a couple of my colleagues, I started blogging at Patheos about technology and theology. The blog is called Digital Wisdom.

I’ve not grasped the art of blogging yet, but I’ve come to the realization that what I’d like post would be of potential interest to two distinct audiences. So I’ve set up this blog on my own site for posts related to library futures. I’ll continue to post more theologically oriented posts about information and technology at Digital Wisdom.