In May 2019, over 25 alumni of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship came together to discuss topics they were working on in their own personal or professional fields. Those conversations generated several podcasts, and this one, focusing on “Superheroes and Everyday Cyborgs,” features Adam Pryor, Tim Maness, and Ruth Shaver, and was hosted by Zack Jackson.
Our technologies – not just our phones, but even things like our glasses, help us enhance who we are. So what is the interplay between the things that make us human and the things that make us superhuman? And what are the moral and ethical questions that arise when we use the technologies that enhance who we are?Read Transcript
Adam Pryor: OK, so I started thinking about cyborgs, which –
Zack Jackson: As one does, right.
Adam Pryor: You know, when you’re a college professor and your office is in the basement and there are no windows, you just sort of look around you start thinking “ah, cyborgs,” right? You know, I really started thinking about cyborgs more when I started teaching. This is not getting any better as it goes on, right.
Zack Jackson: Oh, I love what goes on in your head!
Adam Pryor: So I was walking to my class, right, and I walk in, and it was disturbing to me, because I was teaching undergraduates – who despite technically being the same generation that I am, at this point, felt very, very distant from me. And I would walk into this classroom, it was like a lecture hall, it wasn’t huge, but like you know, 30 kids, and I would walk in like one minute before class started, to just get things rolling, because I’m habitually late. And inevitably, the lights would be off. Every student would be looking down at their phone until I flipped the lights on and then we could start.
So all of a sudden I’m walking across campus, like about 6-7 weeks into the semester, and this young lady waves to me from across the campus, and I wave back because it’s Kansas, and that’s what you do. But I thought to myself, “I don’t know who this is, why is she waving at me?” Because I had spent time on the East Coast so still this is disruptive to me that anybody would wave. And all the sudden she bends down to tie her shoe. And I look and I think “Oh, third row, two from the right.”
I realized I couldn’t recognize her face, but I could recognize the top of her head.
Ruth Shaver: This is not where I had gone in my head.
Adam Pryor: Because she was in the classroom looking at her phone every day before I showed up.
So of course I felt a little bad, and I was like “OK, well, at least I know who she is.” And then I got back to my office, I started thinking about cyborgs, right, because there’s this sort of sense, I think, particularly working with anybody who’s a millennial or Gen Z, that your phone is like this weird extension of your body. The average number of hours per day that people spend on their phone, in particular smartphones, has had this sort of curious effect to me, that I look at it and go like, “It’s almost as though you have another organ that is attached to you.”
And so this made me start thinking about and looking at cyborgs, right, and the different ways in which we put technology onto ourselves, and it seems to be happening more and more to me. So I’m curious, right, so this is my story, this is how I started thinking about cyborgs – I’m wondering if there are instances that you have where you’ve sort of noticed that technology – writ large, however you want to talk about it, right – has intruded into something that you do on a regular basis, or has suddenly shown up in a way that surprised you.
Wow, everyone can jump in on that one! This is way better than last time.
Tim Maness: So when I was in – gosh, what was it, it was 3rd or 4th grade, I think – I noticed that all of a sudden I was having just squint to read the chalkboard. And that was weird and disturbing for me, because I’d never had any trouble with this sort of thing before. And I eventually got to the point where, you know, I did something about it, which wasn’t right away, because, you know, the Midwest. So ever since then I’ve walked around with – and you can’t see this, dear listener, but I have two lenses in front of my face. And I really don’t consider myself to be a part of the world unless I’ve got them on. You know, I’m not allowed to drive unless they’re attached to my body. I can make things out across the room, I’m not legally blind, but certainly my function is absolutely debilitated without them.
And so I guess, does that make me a kind of cyborg? That this external appliance really functions as part of my body? I mean, it’s not a digital thing, right, you know, I lose power, nothing happens to my glasses (yet). But is it part of the same phenomenon?
Ruth Shaver: That’s a good question, because, you know, I’ve had lenses since I was in 2nd grade. I never thought about it that way, but it’s certainly interesting. And I’m going to make an assumption that all of you are millennials?
Tim Maness: I was born in ’81.
Ruth Shaver: So you’re right on the cusp. OK, I am solidly Gen X, and therefore I am reaching that point at which joints will need to be replaced. And I keep thinking “If I wait just long enough, I’m going to get some kind of joints in my knees that truly make me a cyborg a la the The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman!” (laughter) Because that’s my definition of a cyborg, from my generation.
Tim Maness: Can I at least implant something that will make the sound effect when you bend your knee?
Ruth Shaver: That would be very cool, much better than the snap, crackle and pop that I hear every morning.
But you know, it is funny, because I never, ever thought about the technological aids that we use just to function in the world. I mean, you know, for millennia, people went around without being able to see clearly, and therefore the advent of glasses was a huge improvement for people’s quality of life. So in that sense, yes, in some ways the smartphone makes my life much, much easier. I’m also an Apple convert, and I will be for life, but if I had to go without it, I think I could probably go without it, because I remember life before it. I’m not sure the generation [after us], especially younger millennials and Gen Z, could do it with nearly that kind of ease, because they’ve grown up with them basically attached to their hands as an extra appendage.
Zack Jackson: So here’s a question, because this discussion often gets framed in the negative, that kids these days are attached to their phones and they can’t function in a real society, right. They say “Oh, you’re going to fix the world, you can’t even run a lawn mower.”
Tim Maness: Let’s face it – more than half the time, when people use the word “Millennial,” what they really mean is “kids these days.”
Zack Jackson: Sure, yes, of course. But we always frame this in a negative [way] – that they can’t survive without their phones. Is there a positive light to being constantly connected? Glasses are the technology of yesteryear, so we take them for granted as if they’re just a part of being human, right? I’m with you 100%. I’m wearing a watch, right, that’s pretty artificial. But it’s also ancient, and so I don’t think anything of it. But when somebody wears a smartwatch – anybody have a smartwatch in here?
Ruth Shaver: No, but that’s only because I can’t wear watches.
Adam Pryor: Oh, I guess technically I do.
Zack Jackson: Right, and people are like “Oh, that says fancy technology,” right, but in a couple decades it won’t be.
Tim Maness: I mean, there really was a time when we were like, “Oooh, this person has a smartphone,” but that’s, you know…
Zack Jackson: And I’ve heard – listener at home, this is something that I heard. I don’t have a study to back this up, so somebody will correct me. But I have heard that younger people’s brains seem to be developing differently today. Instead of having a brain that can hold a lot of information like previous generations, their brains can hold less information, but can hold more information about where to find information. They’re much better finders than they are long-term retainers. So they’re not going to be the generation that memorizes the Iliad and the Odyssey, but they can find something like that and they’re much more resourceful in making quick decisions and making decisions about the validity of a source, for example, and then being able to fact-check on the fly. They’re much quicker in being able to do that, because of the way the brain is developed, in symbiosis with the phone.
Tim Maness: And if so, that’s only the most recent data point on a trend line that’s been going for a long time. There’s this ancient Egyptian text that I read about, it’s sort of humorous in intent, where – I forget who the interlocutor is, but it’s Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and scribes, basically saying “Hey, I came up with this great thing, it’s called writing.” And the other god says “You idiot, now people won’t have to remember things, they can just write them down.” And I seem to recall reading recently that there’s been a certain amount of brain science that’s been done recently that sort of fills in that picture a bit, that people who grew up in less literate societies, their memories develop differently.
Ruth Shaver: They’re trained differently.
Tim Maness: Yeah. I mean certainly, there was a huge deal in 17th century Europe – the ars memoriae, the art of memory, and you [would] get people like Giordano Bruno writing about this, where there are just these vast texts devoted to “How do you organize things in your memory in such a way that you can have access to vast amounts of information at the speed of thought?” And you know, as we do with our tools, we’ve taken that faculty of our bodies and we’ve outsourced it to a device.
Ruth Shaver: OK, I just realized how my life is intersecting with itself this week. So Thursday morning, I’m doing a presentation called “Singing the Bible” for a group of faith-formation specialists. And the primary focus of that is helping people in faith-formation classes remember Biblical themes and stories. And we do that really well in song. To this day, I’m a seminary graduate twice over, and I still have to sing the New Testament half the time to look something up, because I learned it when I was in kindergarten.
Zack Jackson: “Matthew, Mark and Luke and John, The Book of Acts and Epistle to the Romans…”
Ruth Shaver: I learned it as “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts through Corinthians” – different tune. It took me two years to get out of singing the Old Testament in seminary, because I refused to sing the chorus of “Did You Ever See a Lassie” in seminary. I thought, “Oh, I’m not going to do that.”
But you know, song used to be the way that we remembered things, because we remember with rhythm and pitch and that kind of thing. And it’s interesting to me that one of the things that has gone by the wayside, as teaching technology has become important, is elementary music. That seems to be the tradeoff in a lot of school systems, is they cut down on the elementary music to bring in technology. Now, sometimes they also do that to the visual arts, but a lot of times, it’s music that gets the tradeoff. And I don’t know why that is, but it just seems maybe technology –
Zack Jackson: I think that trend is starting to reverse. I see it in my local schools, and that’s kind of the extent of my vision of these things – everyone in the elementary school by my house gets a ukulele when they’re in 3rd grade or something.
Ruth Shaver: Much better than a recorder, right?
Adam Pryor: Much better than the recorder.
Zack Jackson: And a lot more expensive too. So they’re actually putting a lot more money into music, because they realize that being proficient in music helps with other learning. And it helps with emotional regulation. People who play instruments that require both hands moving independently are more emotionally regular, because your corpus callosum is more developed.
Adam Pryor: So I’m curious – so, hooray, we thought about ways that we improve with these technologies, which is great, and I am still curious about that. But I’m also curious to hear where you think these technologies are getting in the way.
Ruth Shaver: I have to make a conscious effort to put the phone down and walk away from it when I’m at home. I need to be bored, because boredom is a great foster medium for creativity. But it’s really easy to just pick up the phone and sit on Twitter. Because there’s some really funny people on Twitter, you know, and there’s really profound things on Twitter now. But I need the boredom.
Tim Maness: It’s easy for me to say, because I’ve never been a good multi-tasker in the best of times. So I can make, you know, a virtue of a vice by saying that the thing about a phone is that it can impair focus as well. And as is the case with your students, I imagine that though many of them put down the phone when you turn the lights on and begin to lecture, a certain number of them don’t.
Adam Pryor: Oh, no no no, they must all put them away. (laughs) Clearly, just the sheer magnetic force of my personality causes the listeners to –
Zack Jackson: That’s a magnificent tweed he’s wearing, corduroy jacket, mmm.
Tim Maness: But I’ve had less engaging and magnetic professors than Adam. At the university where I was TAing, one of my jobs in the course that I was TAing in – that took place in a huge lecture hall rather than a classroom – was making sort of a discreet rounds to check for people who were on their phones. And you know, certainly I’ve – there’s always that temptation to distraction, that sense that, you know, “I can keep half an eye on two of these things simultaneously.” And you know, in practice, I think half an eye works out to less than half an eye. You’re not getting the same amount of attention to either thing.
Zack Jackson: I think that technology, in particular Powerpoint, has made a lot of people really bad teachers. I don’t know how many professors that I’ve had that sat in their lectures, and they have presented bullet points on a slideshow, and read the bullet points, and then maybe said two or three sentences more, and then the next bullet point, and then the next bullet point. And I sit there and I’m thinking about my student loans, and how much I’m going to have to pay for the rest of my life to read someone else’s Powerpoint presentation. And it is such a – and now as a teacher, I get it, I totally get it. Because I am, you know, Baptist minister all the way to the 1700’s basically. We ramble. So when I stand up in front of a class and I don’t have that, I ramble. And then I realize, oh, uh, we, didn’t get to the thing we were going to get to. So Powerpoint helps to rein me in, but it also restricts me and it ties me to that. And when a professor uses Powerpoint, the Powerpoint is the authority, and the professor is just the one navigating you through –
Tim Maness: – is the interpreter of the whole text.
Zack Jackson: Is the interpreter, is the authority of the text, right. And I would always say “Would you upload this to Blackboard so that we can–?”. So I had a professor one time, he said that “Powerpoint has ruined professors. And so I’m going to…” he had one slide every class period, and it was always just a picture, and then he had his notes, and he was on task, and I learned more in that class than anyone I’ve ever taken. And it totally changed the way that I taught.
Tim Maness: So there might also be a difference here between good teachers and bad teachers. I certainly have read any number of stories set in the pre-Powerpoint era – PPE – (laughter) – in which people talk about lecturers who drone on and on and never seem to get to the point.
Ruth Shaver: Oh yes, yes. At our shared university, yes, there was a philosophy professor who walked in the room speaking, walked out of the room speaking, and kept speaking even though he told us to go on break. And so we would come back in the middle of a 3 hour class and he would be on to the next page of his notes, which were always at least 15 pages long for each class. And we always thought “there’s gotta be a technology that would help with this.” Turns out that the technology at the time was a little comic book of philosophical ideas, which is how we all passed that class. I don’t remember his name, but that’s how bad it was. I blocked it out.
But you know, there is something to the idea that technology, when well-used, is an enhancer. And I think the same thing is true in worship settings. True story, going back to my home church, they just installed screens. They were very happy with it, they said “oh, we use them every week, so you need to put together a Powerpoint or a Keynote” – mac users. Well, okay, so I’ll put together a Keynote. I had come from a church that didn’t have this technology. My only experience using it was in academic settings, that kind of thing, and a little bit of worship, with conference stuff. And I put together my Powerpoint and I used it, and they were like, “oh wow, you’ve done this really, really, really, well, can you run a workshop for us so we know how to do this?.” I’m like, “It’s not that hard.” And it dawned on me that just by exposure to people who did it well, I had absorbed the key pieces of that, and also having done a Powerpoint for presentation in a class during my DMin, where I did commit the cardinal sin of reading everything in one of the bullet points, and the only thing the professor said was “Yeah, don’t do that again” – OK, lesson learned.
But it enhanced it, because I did have the visuals, and I had a couple of the key words and some things in there. But I’ve also been in worship services where the visuals have been very distracting and not well used. We’re having that conversation in my church right now. When we put screens in (it’s not an if, it’s a when), how are we going to use it, how are we going to use it well, so that it enhances rather than detracts from it?
Adam Pryor: There’s something about how technology gets used that I think makes us more appreciative of the cyborg and/or terrified of the cyborg, right. Like, nobody has a problem with new knees, right. I think we all like that one. Nobody has a problem with the well used Powerpoint as opposed to that jerk who wears corduroy and just reads off of the screen over and over and over again. I am wearing corduroy, just to let people know I’m picking on myself. (laughter)
Zack Jackson: I’m so sorry I offended you.
Adam Pryor: No no no no, actually, clearly I can’t even do, like, podcasts and stuff, I just walk into the room and just start talking. There are no notes.
So I have a couple of examples, right, that I would be curious to sort of tease out – are these good uses of technology or are we scared of these technologies? Like, you know, a technology game show, [where] we can vote up or down. OK, so I was reading in The New Yorker recently about facial recognition software, right, which is being used – here we go – on dairy cows.
Ruth Shaver: OK, I think I can make a case for it.
Adam Pryor: We’re going to go with dairy cows, right. OK, so the reason why is because what they want to do is make sure that the bully cows were separated from the cows that were not getting enough food, because they were being bullied by cows pushing them out of the way. And if you could use the software to recognize different cows by their spots and by their faces and by their gaits, you could separate out those bullies and increase milk production across the whole herd.
Ruth Shaver: As opposed to the farmer having to be out there.
Zack Jackson: I’m against bullying in any form, so…
Tim Maness: I suppose it’s more efficient than having to go out and paste a QR code inside of the pen.
Adam Pryor: There you go.
Ruth Shaver: You’re going to see – my mind immediately went, OK, I can see that, because if you wind up with tainted milk or something, and you know the individual streams that they’re coming from, you could identify the cow and figure out, OK, what’s going on with this cow. But yeah, bullying… I guess, you know…
Zack Jackson: I can’t see a downside for cows. Humans, plenty of downsides.
Tim Maness: And that’s the question: is it possible to develop cow recognition technology that is not also applied to human beings? (laughs)
Adam Pryor: And this is the sort of interesting piece about this New Yorker article. They were interviewing the folks who developed this algorithm and they were saying, like, “Humans would almost be easier to do.” And at what point does the technology switch over? And, right, if you want to throw this into the cyborg question, at what point does it become so small that it can be attached to an officer’s body?
Tim Maness: Well, it’s already there. I mean, I take a picture on my phone, and Google backs it up, and then in Google Photos they use their facial recognition software, and then they automatically tag all of the people that are in it that I’ve also taken pictures of. They also tag all kinds of things. Earlier, when I was talking about that coloring book of Cain and Abel, all I did was go into my Google Photos and type “coloring book” and it came up that it had recognized that as a coloring book. Google’s in that. And that’s just on the consumer end. And that’s the consumer end that’s available to everyone, that’s not even, like, the high-end stuff. That’s not the government stuff, that’s –
Ruth Shaver: Right. Well, and we installed a New Hampshire conference minister on Saturday, and they said “Please take pictures, take videos, everything else and when you do this use the hashtag #NHCUCCInstall.”
Saturday night, I’m looking at Facebook, and four people I don’t know popped up with pictures that Facebook said “We think we recognize you in a picture, would you like to see this?” And all four of them were me. They were all, granted, face on, but I was like “that’s creepy,” you know.
I mean, I knew it was going to happen, and just by being there we had agreed to be available for that, but it was still like “Ooh, so now I wonder who else it has put me in a picture with?” You know, have I been walking down the street in New York City at some point in time and been in the same picture with somebody who is later identified as a terrorist, and will I therefore wind up on a terrorist watch list because I happen to be walking in the same block as somebody, you know? It’s like – minding my own business. That’s where the cyborg technology comes in, you know.
Tim Maness: And I think that there’s an additional danger in our particular culture in the US surrounding that, that we have a way of being captivated by high-tech solutions.
Zack Jackson: (laughs) We do. I do.
Tim Maness: And anyone who’s been to an airport has seen that. And the way that it seems to be [going], you know, [is] highly expensive machines administered by people who are paid and trained as little as we can get away with – seems to be the way that these things work.
Ruth Shaver: And I just read an article because, because I’m working on gender and identity stuff right now at the church. And it was written by a woman who is in transition to be a man. And she now identifies – he, sorry, now identifies in all of his documentation and everything as a man. But as he put it, “I haven’t had bottom surgery yet. So when I go through security, I’m going to get stopped, because if they look at me and press the wrong button, when they do the scan and don’t see what they expect to see, I’m going to get pulled over. If they go by my documentation and press the ‘male’ button and don’t see what they expect to see, that’s problem number one. If I happen to be wearing something that’s not super masculine and they visually identify me as a woman and press the ‘woman’ button, they’re going to see some things that they don’t expect to see, and I’m going to get flagged.” You know, at what point then does the technology then become discriminatory in and of itself?
Tim Maness: I’ve a few friends with toddler age kids. And these kids, all because of the the stage of development they’re in, are very into categorizing things. And it’s very much, you know, “Uncle Tim, you sit down over there, that’s your seat.” And you know, “Is this person a boy or a girl?” Not because that makes any difference to the child, but just [because] they want to know what category to put these things in. And I wonder if the need to categorize is being increased by all of these recording and monitoring technologies that we’re using, that we have to have, you know, the right metadata to put in for everybody. We have to be able to slot everybody into the right box, sub-box and sub-sub-box, just so that we’re not leaving any blank spaces – which are sort of offensive to our aesthetic.
Zack Jackson: Let’s give ourselves a break when it comes to categorizing. Our brains are not as powerful as we think they are. We need a lot of shortcuts in order to make it in the world. And so having those instant categories of a person of “it’s a boy,” “it’s a girl,” “how do I refer to them,” all those are kind of built in, and we’re fighting against it because we’re in a society and we know that things aren’t as binary as that. But our brains are not all that great.
Tim Maness: No, far be it for me to suggest that categorizing per se is bad thing.
Ruth Shaver: Spoken like a true philosopher.
Zack Jackson: Now, imagine, if you will, in the not-too distant future, when Google finally gets its act together with Google Glass and we all have smart glasses and they’re always connected to the Internet and whatnot. And you’re looking at people, and when you see that person, a heads-up display comes down with information about that person. It’s scanned their face and it’s pulled their information from their social media profile – their name, their age, their gender, their birthday, all of that stuff is displayed there on the screen. I have mixed feelings about that. A part of me is super excited, because I’m really bad with names. And if it could have something like “preferred pronoun” on there and I don’t have to always be messing these things up, that’s wonderful. Or like, “oh my gosh, their birthday is coming up, I gotta remember that,” you know. And then on the other hand there’s all kinds of abuses of that, and it’s really invasive.
Adam Pryor: There is a real issue of privacy that sort of immediately arises almost with it. It feels to me like with almost any sort of like cyborg technology that we sort of like talk about, like Google Glass is sort of like the prototypical [example] – people were getting punched in bars over Google Glass. It was bad.
Zack Jackson: You walk into a bathroom with one of those on your face, we don’t know if you’re not recording, right.
Adam Pryor: There was this sort of big issue that came up, right, like, I have a little Fitbit thing, and I’m just waiting for the day that my insurance company starts, you know, monitoring all of my steps each day to determine how up or down my premium is going to go.
Tim Maness: You’ve heard about the people who are able to determine the contours of the secret military base by looking at the path that soldiers with Fitbits had been walking?
Ruth Shaver: Yes! Oh yeah, and not only that, they didn’t know it had not been confirmed that that base existed until the Fitbit data was mapped. And then they got not only the contours of it, but the internal streets, and they discovered when the signal disappeared where the buildings were, because the buildings were shielded.
Zack Jackson: Yeah, that’s amazing. (laughs)
Ruth Shaver: So yeah, CIA, how’d you miss that technology?
Tim Maness: So there’s the information that you know you’re uploading and there’s the sort of second-order information that you don’t realize you’re uploading. I’m terrified by this sort of Black Mirror idea of glasses that identify everybody. I’ve often thought when I’m walking around, especially in a city I don’t know well, if only there was some way for me to stream the mapping system on my phone so that it would appear in a heads-up display on my glasses. But –
Ruth Shaver: Never mind the glasses – I want the contact lenses.
Tim Maness: Well, those of you who have the manual dexterity to stick their fingers in their eyes, right.
Zack Jackson: But how is that powered? That’s SHIELD technology.
Ruth Shaver: Yes, exactly.
Tim Maness: But yeah, there’s so much about – I love having a device in my pocket that contains maps of everywhere, at least everywhere I’m ever likely to be. But you know, that device is also, by virtue of the fact that I’m looking at my location on it, is tracking my location.
Adam Pryor: So what starts to happen when these become implantable technologies? Usually this is the place where people start really getting icked out, right.
Zack Jackson: Right, “Mark of the beast.”
Adam Pryor: So like for instance, it’s very popular in various Grindfests that people will –
Zack Jackson: In what now? You’re going to have to unpack that one. (laughs)
Adam Pryor: Grindfests, where people – OK, so this is what happens when you really go down the cyborg hole.
Zack Jackson: “I see the top of the student’s head”… is this more like dancing, or like meat?
Adam Pryor: So these are places where people are illegally implanting things into themselves because they’re not FDA approved. So for instance, it is a very popular practice to put a small capsule with an RFID chip in between your thumb and your forefinger, which can then be used to do things like remotely open doors or remotely start your car, right. It’s one thing, right, when I have this map in my pocket, and then I can decide to put it down. It feels very different, I think, for a lot of folks, when now this is suddenly inside your body in a way that’s no longer easily removable.
Ruth Shaver: Aren’t there companies that are like – I don’t know if they’re requiring it –
Zack Jackson: It’s an option, that they can use that to swipe in, or use it at the cafeteria.
Ruth Shaver: Yeah, right, implantable tech. I think I would draw the line at any church that said “Oh hi, welcome to our staff, and by the way, stick out your arm and let us inject you.” It’s like wait, wait wait wait wait.
Zack Jackson: That’s a Black Mirror episode.
Ruth Shaver: – okay, first of all the fact that it’s called Grindfest –
Adam Pryor: One of the main purveyors is called Grindhouse Wetware, so if that makes it feel any better.
Ruth Shaver: Wetware? Ugh!
Zack Jackson:I’m weirded out now in ways I didn’t know I could be. So thank you.
Ruth Shaver: I read too many spy novels, I think “wet operations,” OK. (laughs) Ughhh.
I guess we’re probably the last generations that will have the option, as I’m kind of guessing that in the future, they keep telling me “Oh, we’re going to get to a cashless society.” And we’re getting closer and closer to that. And a paperless society, which I’m not sure we’re getting any closer on that one, but all of these things that the technology is just improving and improving and improving. Will it get to the point where there is no need for debit cards and MP3 players and that kind of thing, because we do have the tech, either to wear or to implant? And if you choose not to participate in that, does that then make you an outcast in society? You become one of those dystopian rebel groups, you know, a Luddite of the 21st century or 22nd century?
Tim Maness: And how does class come into this? I mean, it’s one thing when [you’re talking about] the difference between the iPhone and the Huawei – and I’m sure that there are people who still carry flip phones. That difference is –
Ruth Shaver: My parents.
Adam Pryor: (holding up slide phone)
Zack Jackson: My man. The slide phone. Thank you for pulling that out for the people at home, by the way.
Adam Pryor: You’re welcome. They could hear it – the distinctive sound.
Tim Maness: Those are differences of things you carry in your pocket, but when these are differences in your body become a thing that you implant in your body, you know, you treat it – it becomes a part of your body, right, as we were talking about with glasses, it’s that distinction that kind of vanishes.
Ruth Shaver: And that I also wonder, too, if it’s going to be one of those things where it will be those with wealth and power who have the option to opt out, as opposed to those without wealth and power who are not allowed to opt in.
Zack Jackson: Eventually. I think it would be the opposite first.
Ruth Shaver: Well yeah, but you know –
Zack Jackson: Wealth and power get in the front door, and then when it gets weird and creepy –
Tim Maness: But it depends though, right?
Zack Jackson: I mean, how dystopian do you want to get?
Tim Maness: Can you imagine? I mean, I find it very easy to imagine a situation in which some state or some municipality says that every registered sex offender has to have a device that can be implanted that can be read. And especially in this country, if you can come up with a way of – “Here’s a way we can additionally dehumanize people who have been convicted of crimes,” then people are all for that.
Zack Jackson: Hmm, that’s a good point.
Ruth Shaver: Well, and part of the conversation about, you know, the children who have been removed from their parents on the border, people are coming up with this. And at first it was a casual throwaway line, and then I stopped to think about it and how awful the thought is, and how valid it is the same time. You can track your luggage through an entire airport system from the moment it gets tagged to the moment it arrives at a destination halfway around the world. Why can we not track these children?
Zack Jackson: Well, we don’t want to.
Ruth Shaver: Well, first of all we don’t put a little wrist thing on with a QR code or you know bar codes and stuff like that. But it is also that – people don’t care enough about those children to do that.
Zack Jackson: No, that’s intentional – they don’t want to unite them.
Ruth Shaver: I know.
Zack Jackson: They’ll pretend like they do to save face, but they’ll lose their edge of terror if the kids are reunited. It’s much more of a deterrent if they’re not. And that’s not just me throwing that out there, that’s an official documentation.
Ruth Shaver: But you know, it is that sense of “We have the technology to have made a different decision.” And it wouldn’t have –
Zack Jackson: We have the technology to cure hunger in the world, to eradicate disease. We could. The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.
Adam Pryor: So, I’m wondering a little bit too, right, so implicitly, I think these things make a real difference to any human being, kind of full stop. It’s usually not hard to get people pretty worked up about this, right. But do religious traditions of various stripes, right, do they have a special interest in these sorts of issues? Or in what ways does religious wisdom help us think about how we want to manage the use of these technologies – or maybe it doesn’t?
Ruth Shaver: Well Zack, I think you said something very early on about the “Mark of the Beast.”
Zack Jackson: Yeah, that has become – in certain circles that I used to run in, that’s technology. And technology is going to get to a place where you need to have this chip implanted either in your hand, or if you don’t have hands, in your forehead (like Revelation says), and then you won’t be able to buy or sell, because that will be a cashless society, unless you have that thing. And so any time you see that, you know that the end is coming and you need to run for the hills. I was taught that in 7th grade when we started talking about these sort of things.
Ruth Shaver: Well, and in the Left Behind series, they have that very thing, you know, that’s that brought to life. But even other dystopian novels have some elements of that, you know, 1984 and Brave New World and those kinds of things, where there’s some element of being marked somehow, and when you’re not marked you’re an outcast. So I think, religiously, we haven’t grappled with exactly what that means, unless we’re very Fundamentalist-Evangelical, is that how you would characterize that? I’m not even sure which group that would be part of.
Zack Jackson: We love to characterize, don’t we.
Ruth Shaver: I know, you know what that spectrum of Christian thought. Well, I don’t know that very many people in my moderate to liberal United Church of Christ congregation would think of it that way, because we don’t read Revelation that way.
Adam Pryor: I mean it’s really interesting to think about though that like it’s in a certain sense, right, groups that have a really strong eschatology, that have a way of dealing with these sorts of technological issues that we’re talking about, because we can immediately associate it with like a dystopianism, right, but a sort of more nuanced position that’s maybe not based strictly on an eschatology, doesn’t actually at that’s really not.
Zack Jackson: Right, so much of Christian theology is about being changed, being reformed, becoming something new, casting off the old and living into this new, resurrected potential. But all of that, all of those references, and every time I’m trying to think of a person that was changed and transformed, it’s always God as the actor, acting on somebody. It’s never a person coming into their own or augmenting somebody else in any kind of a way, it’s always God doing the action.
And so I wonder if there might be some fear in that, that we are overstepping our bounds in doing the work that God would normally do, and we don’t have the same knowledge that we’re not going to do it wrong, right. And we’re going to screw everything up.
Tim Maness: And there’s this idea that everybody belongs, everybody and everything, belongs in a particular category, and that changing from one category to another is the work of God.
Zack Jackson: Now, I might be in the minority here, but if the technology existed and I could afford it to augment my body with awesome technology, I’m doing it.
Ruth Shaver: So are you volunteering to be Iron Man?
Zack Jackson: No, because Iron Man was in a mech suit. He wasn’t augmented.
Ruth Shaver: Oh, so you want to be Captain America or Spiderman.
Zack Jackson: See, none of these are technology. You have to think like –
Ruth Shaver: Lee Majors. (laughs)
Zack Jackson: Wolverine. Give me some Adamantium, right. X-Men. I don’t know what kind of things – spinners and rims and subwoofers, I don’t know what you put in a person. But for the Borg, yeah, the ability to see again, farther, to get these cyborg eyes or whatever, or to get implants into my muscles so that I’m stronger and faster. Yeah, if that were affordable, and I could do that, and it were tested, and it had about as many risks as getting a new hip, then yeah, I’m in it. I don’t care what that does to my sense of humanity, I’m there if it makes my life better. But I’m also an early adopter of new technologies too, and I’m that American who thinks that technology is going to fix everything.
Tim Maness: Though I’m noticing here that it’s very true that looking at things through this eschatological lens, that really provides a lot of context for people in, for example, Evangelical cultures. But I noticed that in this talk, we’ve kept bringing up the Borg, Marvel, William Gibson, Blade Runner – we haven’t mentioned that, well, now we have.
Zack Jackson: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (laughs)
Ruth Shaver: “Phenomenal cosmic power in an itty-bitty living space.”
Tim Maness: So I suspect that science fiction, to a large extent, functions in a similar way for secular society.
Zack Jackson: As an eschatological thing, that it helps us to grapple with an uncertain future? Hmm.
Ruth Shaver: There’s an entire thought piece, and I can’t remember where I found it, but I quoted it in my dissertation. And it’s Bill Prady, who’s the executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, talking about the fact that when the guys sit down and talk about science fiction, the comic book heroes, that kind of thing, they’re actually working through the problems of society in a way that religions did 100 years ago, because that has become the new way that we use stories to work through the dilemmas, because our religions only get us to a certain point. You know, the Bible doesn’t get us to cyborgs. The Bible doesn’t get us to these technological issues of preserving life versus allowing a natural death, to when life begins, because the Bible is not even concise on that.
Zack Jackson: So in the past, it would have been compelling to think about the Empire as an all-consuming dragon, but now it’s more compelling to think about the Empire as Ultron taking over the Internet and spreading all throughout and telling people what they need to do, right.
Tim Maness: Or as a bunch of people in white armor and gray spaceships.
Adam Pryor: Which to me, actually, it makes me think that religion has to reinvent itself a little bit when it comes to these sorts of issues, right. If the place that it usually got to go was to eschatology, right, this is the narrative that it could provide. If religion is to stay relevant, it has to offer something else into the way that we think about these particular issues.
Zack Jackson: Kurt Vonnegut, in A Man Without a Country, was talking about how he was so annoyed that he got classified as a science fiction author, because he thought that he just got pigeonholed. And then people didn’t take him seriously. And he only got called a science fiction author because he talked about technology, because he says “You know, I grew up around factories, and so I talk about technology.” And he said that not including technology in fiction today is as ridiculous as Victorian authors not talking about sex. It’s there and you need to talk about it. It needs to be a part of your vernacular.
Adam Pryor: I’ll go to bat for Ursula K. LeGuin as one of the great novelists of the 20th century, science fiction or no science fiction.
Ruth Shaver: And people like N.K. Jemisin now, who are you know, I haven’t read any of her stuff, she’s on my list. But John Scalzi, who recommends her highly – his latest series is about disembodiment. And I have not read that series, but I’ve read the Old Man’s War series. And the technology to implant a fully formed human soul, with all of its memories intact, into a younger body is the premise of that entire series. And what does that mean, that these old lives are given new bodies to live again? And that in the tradeoff for that is that in this new body, you have to go to war. So that’s the sacrifice in that series. And confronting some of those life and death issues, but also that technologically enhance things, because these new bodies are technologically and genetically enhanced.
Zack Jackson: Oh man, and isn’t that the dilemma right now with drone warfare? That you can get some kid in a basement in Las Vegas playing with a joystick and murdering people in the Middle East.
Ruth Shaver: And having the same kind of PTSD as troops on the ground, because the human brain is not wired to deal with that.
Tim Maness: Right, and to bring it back to religion for a second, it’s worth noting that all of these stories are stories, right, that they work by giving us characters and providing narratives about them. As you know, I’m a philosophical theologian, I have a powerful love for religion as a set of ideas, right. The more abstract the better, and you know, God as the inconceivable other of whom it is almost blasphemous to try and reason. But that’s a useful corrective for me and for people like me, that, you know, it’s not enough just to convey religion as a set of – there’s an easy way to sort of characterize this as just a list of rules, but even just as a set of good ethical precepts or good philosophical statements about the way things are. That, you know, religion needs to be about characters.
Ruth Shaver: It’s the stories, yeah.
Adam Pryor: And there’s something about, I think, how those stories help us form communities of justice, that I think is really still powerful, right. That when I think about these sort of various science fiction novels – and I’m going to put Ursula LeGuin in a different camp because I think she’s one of the few who really does this. But often when I’m sort of like looking at these science fiction stories that seem startlingly real after reading about Grindfests, I look at them and go, “There is this religious dimension of like storytelling with justice that’s not there.” And that it’s a little disconcerting for me as a theologian, but it’s also something that I kind of go “Oh, there is a place for religion in this discussion that I think’s really important”. And that I think religious plurality is actually even more important in those contexts, right.
Tim Maness: You know, if the stories we tell start to be about domination, or about power fantasy, you know, unleavened by any kind of concern for justice, I tend to think that even a fig leaf of concern for justice is better than none.
Ruth Shaver: Well, you know, I think both of our generations have been shaped by the Star Wars narrative. And the first trilogy was black-and-white, good and evil. And then you move – what, 20 years later for the first one in the second trilogy, and you start to get grayer. And the third trilogy seems to be grayer, but moving toward – assuming that, you know, the last one gets there, slightly more black and white again. And I wonder if that traces some trajectory in our understanding of both human nature, and of how technology fits into that.
Zack Jackson: I don’t quite see that. I see the trend not coming back around, that we want our heroes now to be conflicted. We want our heroes to be a little bad, like we even had to make – Superman had to kill a guy, right, and Captain America went rogue.
Ruth Shaver: Civil War, right, exactly.
Zack Jackson: And he’s ripped the star off of his chest, you know, and he’s twisted and and conflicted. We wanted everyone to be Batman now.
Tim Maness: Now we see that the Punisher skull is this wide-ranging symbol in certain segments of the culture as symbolic of this sort of masculinity that’s out there to punish the bad guy, who is always conceived of as the Other.
Zack Jackson: But the Netflix Punisher is so complicated. He’s part bad, he’s part good, we don’t have any – I can’t think of any all-good characters or all-bad characters. Even Thanos is understandable at sad times. NO SPOILERS, no spoilers because –
Ruth Shaver: I was gonna to say, you spoil something, I’m going to be very unhappy.
Zack Jackson: Was it that Thanos was Galactus this whole time?
Ruth Shaver: “Thanotology?” But going back to Captain America for a second, when Captain America “went rogue,” he was rebelling against a government that was putting boundaries against the use of The Avengers, because the government couldn’t see the threat coming from outside. I mean, that was the argument between him and Tony Stark. So you’re right, there’s a gray area, but I think in the end Captain America was right. I will stand by that – go Chris Evans. But anyway…
Zack Jackson: But the Captain America of the Golden Age is totally just 100% good, right. He is just a caricature of good. The hair and everything is perfect. But we don’t believe that anymore. That’s why they haven’t been able to make a good Superman, because Superman is that, and when they try to make him complicated, then it ends up being, like, Batman that can fly. And nobody wants to watch that.
Adam Pryor: Are we straying far from the topic?
Zack Jackson: Well, how did we end up here?
Adam Pryor: We have a minute left. We did all right, we did all right.
Zack Jackson: OK, this is why I watched Endgame before hand, because I knew someone was going to spoil it for me.
Adam Pryor: So what I will say, though, is I actually think that narrative of “We want a more complicated superhero, we want a more complicated hero,” I think that’s actually really old. And I don’t think that’s like – I think it goes in waves, right, but like my colleagues in the humanities, right, there’s an 18th century literature historian. And she would point out immediately that you’re supposed to like the bad boy, right, in those Victorian novels. And there’s this element that we do actually want a more complicated character when we deal with this. And I think when we talk about something like cyborgs or these sort of, like, more futuristic sort of bits, that element continues, right. We sort of see that moral ambiguity, and we actually almost gravitate toward it.
Tim Maness: So I think – was it Orwell that said “human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time”?
Ruth Shaver: Right, yeah, exactly. I think that works, and I think that plays into, like, even the Wizard of Oz, and then the book and the movie Wicked, and how that changed – you know, we went from really clear black-and-white Good and Evil, or green-and-white good and evil, to very gray or very olivey green or whatever you wanna say. Because we do want these very complicated heroes.
Zack Jackson: Adam, that’s our cue, we’re late. So, final cyborg thoughts?
Adam Pryor: So I think what’s interesting to me is I’m hearing the way that sort of people broke this down, right. Some of it is that these technologies, whether we’re human or cyborg, everyone sort of put forward that right these technologies extend tendencies we already have, right. They just amplify, and maybe make a little bit more terrifying, or a little bit more exciting, these human tendencies that we already have – to not want to be good quite all the time, but mostly be good.
Zack Jackson: And that is a great way to end.