Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology, by Derek C. Schuurman. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013. Paperback. Pp. 138. $18.00.
For those interested in the relevance of worldview claims to cultural engagement, this book warrants careful study. Hence, our extended review.
The second of this volume’s six chapters features a discussion of computer technology and the unfolding of creation. The author registers this rather important perspectival claim: “Creation is everything God has ordained to exist, including families, governments, justice, art and also computers. God placed within the world the latent potential for technology and computers. . . . The possibilities ordained by God are not just limited to physical devices, but also the new vistas unlocked by complex computer software. These include such delightful things as computer graphics, imaginative virtual worlds, animations and games” (31).
Guided by the important distinction between structure and direction, the author underscores the relationship between computer technology and the structure of creation. Computer scientists catch glimpses into that awesome structure. They are in a unique position to behold creation’s patterns, majesty, and power. They discover, and are the first to enjoy, the “new” processes computers enable—processes involving human imagination, quantification, information, etc.
With deliberate dependence on the thought of Reformational philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, the author points to the danger of reductionism in evaluating computer technology, specifically in terms of the numerical aspect of things. If the only question worth asking is: How fast is it?, we risk falling into reductionism.
In his Christian philosophy, Dooyeweerd identified fifteen modal aspects of things in creation, arranged somewhat hierarchically as a modal scale of being. Things exist with greater or lesser complexity, depending on how far “up the scale” of modal aspects they exist, or how many aspects they possess. For example, a rock has fewer aspects than a human being.
Now, these aspects or modalities help us classify and organize and study everything in the universe.
Various modalities (aspects) come into play with computers: the numeric is most basic, the social is mid-range, as is the juridical, while the faith (trust) aspect is the most developed. All fifteen modal aspects are involved when working with information and computer technology. The numeric aspect belongs to the essence of computer science and engineering; the social aspect is involved in electronic communication and social networking; the juridical aspect involves legal issues of licensing and intellectual property. Ultimately, our faith shapes our values, and our values shape our tools and the technology (45).
At various intersections in the book, the author raises the distinction (drawn from Dooyeweerd) between laws and norms. “Whereas laws are in effect without human intervention, norms involve human freedom and responsibility. The first four or five aspects [on the modal scale], by their nature, are associated with creational laws that are fixed and must be obeyed. For example, the numeric aspect relates to mathematical laws. . . . However, the analytical aspect and later aspects have corresponding norms that involve human choices and freedom” (44). Creational laws are those that we have no choice but to obey, whereas norms involve human response-ability. Those aspects (modalities) involving creational norms are the historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical, and faith (80). Computer technology can be evaluated in terms of each of these aspects.
When Dr. Schuurman proceeds in chapter 3 to consider “Computer Techonology and the Fall,” he recalls the distinction between the creation’s structure and its direction. As Reformational thinker, Albert Wolters, has explained it, structure is “the constant creational constitution of any thing,” whereas direction refers to “the distortion of perversion of creation through the fall.”
Since humanity’s fall into sin, all of creation has been affected, marred, and distorted. This means that although the structure of creation remains as it was (a human being remains a human being, a tree remains a tree, etc.), the direction of creation has been distorted and misguided. Now, after the fall, everything in creation lies under the divine curse, and everything exhibits to one degree or another the effects of sin. “For we know,” writes the apostle Paul, “that the whole creation is groaning with [συστενάζει, systenazei] and suffering with [συνωδίνει, synōdinei] the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom. 8.22). (Incidentally, it is very instructive to consider the implications of this natal metaphor for the issue of continuity v. discontinuity between this present creation and the future creation.)
What many have termed “common grace” (referring to a kind of divine providential beneficence) enables unbelievers to develop creation via technology, sometimes better than God’s people do. Nevertheless, such “common grace” does not overcome the human heart-impulses whereby technology can become a tool abstracted from the Creator. This abstraction leads to absolutizing various features of created reality associated with technology, resulting in technicism (“the pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific-technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress” [Egbert Schuurman]), as well as informationism, scientism, and consumerism. Rather than viewing technology as a result of the fall, however, we should understand that: “Technology and rational methods are part of the structure of creation; however, they can be absolutized or misdirected. . . . [T]echnology is part of the latent potential of creation. Technology is not a result of the fall; rather, it is a human cultural activity that is part of the possibilities in creation” (64).