Friday, January 25, 2008

Jolt Quote XVII

"Giving is not just what you can live without, but what you can't live without, or don't want to live without, something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice, which will have value before God. Giving until it hurts is what I call love in action."

(Mother Teresa, A Simple Path, New York: Ballantine, 1995, 99-100)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Is Technology Really Neutral?

Scriptural Comparison with Money
Many people choose to see technology like money as something that is not evil in itself, that it is 'neutral.' The common argument is that the love of money is the root of all evil. It is tempting to see 'mammon' as a neutral thing. Paul's warning in 1 Tim 6:10 about the love of money makes us think that Jesus's use of the word 'mammon' is also used here. The trouble with this linkage is that in Paul's writings, Paul did not use mammon. He did not say the "love of mammon is the root of evil." The word 'mammon is never used by Paul. Instead, he used "phlarguria" which is translated as "love of money" or more accurately "covetousness." In fact, the only use of the word 'mammon' in the entire Greek text is from Jesus. [see Matthew 6:24; Lk 16:9,11,13]. Lk 16:11 translates this more emphatically as 'unrighteous mammon.' This strongly suggests that 'mammon' is not neutral. It is not neutral because it stirs up the 'philarguria' inside of us. This purpose of this article is to argue for a critical assessment of our use of technology. Too many people have become uncritical users of technology, assuming that it is more good than evil. I will argue that it has a negative connotation from the very start. It is only when we consciously, constantly and consistently discern our use of it, will we be able to eke out some good from the use of it.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus affirms that no one can serve two masters. Man will either love one and despise the other. It is not a "both-and" choice. It is "Either-Or." All of us have to choose one and reject the other. The word 'money' is translated from the Aramaic 'mammon', referring to earthly possessions or wealth. In this verse, 'mammon' is used in a strongly negative sense, reflecting a certain evil temptation or power it possess.

Reading Luke 16:9 on the use of the word 'mammon' reveals the following:

"I tell you, use worldly wealth (mammon) to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:9)
Even if I were to grant that in its strictest technical sense, that if mammon is something that is devoid of all human inklings and empty of all kinds of spiritual possesion, all it takes is one look or one peep at it, it will no longer be neutral in the eyes of the beholder. That is, if we put a lifeless stone in front of mammon, that mammon will not budge anything. After all, the lifeless stone is never going to get emotional about the mammon in the first place. However, put a living person next to mammon, the whole equation now shifts. This new non-neutrality status have to be actively dealt with. The person beholding the mammon must make a conscious attempt to do something good out of the use of mammon. This is the same with technology. The moment we lay our eyes or to make use of it, we must beware of its power to corrupt our human selves.

Non-Neutrality Argument
People like Jacques Ellul, Marva Dawn and Neil Postman are some of the folks who will argue that technology is never neutral. Technology can influence one's worldview considerably. Using the hammer/nail metaphor, according to the perspective of the hammer, everything looks like a nail. If we embrace technology to the point that its use start to shape our worldview, everything will begin to look like a problem that needs to be solved. For example, communications technology can easily mislead us to think that our human communications have improved just because we have the latest cellphones. More often than not, instead of yakking on the phone to build intimacy with others, I have seen many cell users play games or avoid the people around them as they interact with the mobile device. Take a dinner conversation between two persons. When the phone rings in the middle of an intimate time, the priority goes to the distant person rather than the person sitting next to us. Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Message shows us that the message itself in the hands of the medium will change, to the point that the original message is not quite the same after it goes through the medium.

Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death argues against technology, saying that the television medium for instance, confuses education with entertainment, and has strong negative social implications. In contrast to the printed word, television has bred a new generation of visually stimulated individuals. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman's main argument is "Technology giveth and technology taketh away" and users tend to come out on the losing end. Not everyone will agree with Postman, though his warnings will be appreciated. I think he has something valid, especially to technology users who use tools uncritically. Marva Dawn is an unrelenting proponent that technology is not neutral. She attributes the modern fetteredness and distractedness due to the misuse of technology. Quoting a Ellen Ullman as one who prefers to see computers as neutral, she said that there is a notion of principalities and powers that reside inside technological stuff.
"that computers are neutral, a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image... It forms an irresistable horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life." (Marva Dawn quoting Ellen Ullman in Unfettered Hope, p5)
Technology is Neutral?
This view is mostly held by technologists. The more one depends on technology for daily living, the more one swears by it. They will be one of the first to vehemently defend technology as a neutral device. They see technology mainly as a means to an end. My problem with this view is that it is difficult for technologists to have an unbiased assessment of technology when they have so much vested interest in technology in the first place. How can we say that technology is neutral when it influences one's worldview? A mobile phone changes how one communicates. The use of computers may speed up some things, but it also speed up one's ability to sin. For example, stealing money by hacking accounts, all from the convenience of an Internet connection. With increasing use of technology, it is becoming harder to fight plagiarism. Even terrorism has taken on new forms, thanks to the Internet.

From a practical standpoint, I do not deny that there are inherent benefits to the use of technology. Yes, we have to be vigilant against it. In order to assist this proactive stance of discernment and careful use, we cannot see technology as neutral. If we do so, we can easily let our guard down. At least, at the starting point, we ought to see technology as 49-51 in the equation. 49% positive use and 51% negative connotation. If we start with the attitude of technological suspicion, we activate our discerning process from the very start.

From the biblical standpoint, we have to take serious note on Jesus's use of 'mammon' that we must not lower our defenses against it. Mammon has a tendency to whisper into our ears: "Did God really say?", which starts the corruption of the heart in motion.

In summary, I will tend to tilt toward the argument that technology is not absolutely neutral. This is because the moment we look at it, something inside us changes. I remember a joke about a man looking for a perfect church. He said that once he finds the perfect church, he will start going to church. Instead, he was told by a wise man, that if he ever finds a perfect church, DO NOT join it, as he will end up contaminating that church, making it imperfect. I think this in some way apply to technology. Even if technology is neutral, for argument's sake, when humans touch it, it no longer becomes neutral. When we try to possess it, it could possess us. How do we know we have used technology wisely? A short answer is, "Whenever we are able to help our fellow humans with it in an ethically beneficial way."

Use your computers wisely with constant discernment.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Happiest Country in Asia?

Singapore is featured in this ABC news as being the happiest country in Asia. Check it out here.

I smiled as I read this. Simply because this news-video is only a tiny glimpse of some quick survey. It seems to be a hastily put together snippet of life in Singapore, reflecting little scholarship and contains insufficient credible sources. Many people in Singapore will disagree with the findings. While they may have their viewpoints and continue their posture of discontent, I think this is an opportunity to be thankful for this small island country and what they have achieved so far. We cannot deny that life has been good, even though tough, in the draconian state. We cannot let a good life make the people arrogant. We cannot be complacent that what is obtained today will remain the same tomorrow. Singaporeans have been witnessed being rude and arrogant when they go on holidays in other countries. They have been cited for lack of manners and social graces. Even the Mentor Minister has said that in his lifetime, he does not see any improvement. True, costs of living have gone up. Basic stuff are getting more expensive. Even education where many people cherished has now become something to fight over, where parents ensure that their children get the 'best' education possible. Let us not be deceived, and to be too narrow in our definition of what 'best' means. The best education is NOT necessarily to be accepted and enrolled in a premier school. The best results are not the multiple strings of distinctions at the end of each examination year. The best environment is not to simply surround oneself with top academics but humble learners. We have to measure our understanding of 'best' and taper it according to the word 'appropriate.' I have always believed that an A-student is called to get the best A he can get. The B-student is to get the best 'B' he can possibly get. The C-student is to get the best 'C.' Not everyone is called to be in the premier tracks of life, no matter how badly we want it for our loved ones. Not everybody can get the rare scholarship on offer. There is only one first prize. Yes some of us are called to do just that. Not everybody. It is not a reflection of our worth in life. We cannot let society define us based on what we do, or what the job title on our name card says. We are at the bottom line, loved by God. Trusting God to reveal who we are in the light of his will remains one of the most important education we can ever have for ourselves and for our kids. If we can gradually change our life vocabulary, preferring a thoughtful 'most appropriate' instead of a thoughtless 'best kind', we will be better servants for all. What good is the best gift on earth in the hands of one who is simply not ready to receive it? What society declares 'best' may not be the same for different individuals. I take comfort that our heavenly Father knows what is best for each of us. Just like an earthly father who long to give good gifts to their children, our heavenly father gave us his Son, defenseless, humble and loving Christ. He gave the disciples the best available fishes and loaves of bread at that time. He distributed the most appropriate symbolism of himself in simple bread and wine at the last Supper. No fancy top-quality Salmon or Japanese sushi. No high class multi-grained expensive bread. No famous Californian Cabernet or French wine. It is simply the most humble elements served with a golden heart. This is our Christian calling. Our small hands must be directed by a big heart of love. Our words must be communicated with a generous consideration for the integrity for our neighbour.

Finally, I believe that as a Christian, wherever we go or are called to live in, we ought to see following God's call as being the safest and best place on earth. It could be in first world, second, third or otherwise, what is most important is to be in the center of God's choice. Far better, wherever we go, we become a channel for God's kingdom to flow. This should be the perspective of anyone questioning where is the best place to live. This should be the paradigm hat that people contemplating emigration should wear. This should be the purpose that Christians are to live by. The safest, best and happiest place on earth is to be in the center of God's will.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Purpose of Prayer

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created. (St Ignatius Spiritual Exercises #23)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

NY Resolution: Letting the LORD be my Shepherd

Beginning the Year with Ps 23:1
In many urban places, a hurried life is part of a culture of getting lots of things done quickly. People do not simply say ‘As soon as possible’ preferring the short form ASAP. Pronouncing the abbreviation shortens it even more. At the traffic junction in a busy city, some people even define a ‘microsecond’ as the time between the traffic lights turning green and hearing the first horn from the rear vehicle.

Time for quiet conversations can be drowned in a sea of pushing and shoving. Even meetings can be held in a rush. If the planning, the scheduling and the arrangements are likened to traveling on the outside of a swirling whirlpool, the actual moment for dialogue can succumb to getting swallowed into the middle at a split second. A fear that I have is that the rising use of technological tools may have unwittingly decreased our ability to hold and develop a good conversation. Have we swapped intimacy with one another for ecstasy arising from our fascination with technological inventions daily? Can a technological generation hold their conversational sway without their modern gadgets?

Our technological devices may give us a feeling of supremacy over our time and traditional barriers. People are able to type and correct their typing much faster with modern word processors. Communications can be sent speedily via phone messaging, email, cellular phones and many different means. Games are easily available to help us ‘kill time.’ How will we know if technology has become an idol in our lives?

Playing Fast or Playing Strong?
My computer has a chess program where a preference setting can be used to adjust the skill level of the game to be played. At the minimal level are the words “Computer to Play Faster.” At the other end are the words “Computer to Play Stronger.” If I were to move the selection toward the ‘Stronger’-side, the computer will clobber my game in quick time. If I were to choose the ‘Faster’ side, my chances of winning increase significantly. If the computer plays faster, it will have less time to consider the permutations necessary. Grabbing the fastest tactic available, the computer rushes headlong toward the competition. Every move, subjected to the hasty time control, compounds the risks as the game progresses. On the other hand, if the computer is given the time to process every possible move, armed with its mass of computing prowess and storage capacity, it will be able to defeat its opponent speedily.

Likewise, if we choose to speed ourselves up, life in urban society can easily become a mass of disconnected point-to-point dashes. We rush to get each subsequent deed done. The more we get done, the more we think we are fulfilled. The faster we do things, the happier we feel when we clock a personal best time. (This might explain the popularity of self-help manuals on time management and various resources on efficient living.) Unlike children, the adult version of joining-the-dots or dashes activity, do not necessarily give a complete picture or a portrait. The relentless sprints from place to place, and the minute-by-minute busyness via fast-paced activities can trick us into thinking that we are accomplishing lots of meaningful things in less time. If not, they could resemble unwitting forms of ‘huffs-and-puffs’ against a stoic brick wall, never able to overcome the height of the obstacle of life’s unrelenting demands on our time and resources? We become an agent to speed others up rather than to pace one another to natural speed. Pushing one another in the name of competition is hardly ever helpful in helping one another discern their callings in life. When this happens we allow technology in the name of competitive advantage to enthrone itself in our hearts of discontent. However, all is not lost.

The Shepherd
In the Shepherd psalm, it is interesting to note the strong imagery of a quiet place and pasture before the soul is restored in verse 3.
Psa. 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Psa. 23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
Psa. 23:3 He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

We all need quiet moments to stay awake to our passions and our desires. We all need peaceful settings that keeps out the distractions and hurried activities. A hurried lifestyle tends to blur our abilities to discern the important from the urgent, to confuse our wise choices with foolish ones, and to jumble up the meaningful and the meaningless. The psalm begins with an affirmation that the LORD is our Shepherd, where one will lack nothing. It is with this state of contentment in the LORD that we will then be willing to be led out to greener pastures. Without this safe refuge and confidence in God, we will be vulnerable not only to the external demands on our time and resources, we can also succumb to our maimed sense of self-fulfilling, doing whatever our minds and eyes deem fit all the time. Like Judges, it is tempting that when there is no king, one tends to do whatever is right in one’s own eyes, leading to disastrous circumstances. (Judges 17:6)

I cannot imagine a Shepherd psalm that does not begin with an affirmation that the LORD is our Shepherd. Suppose we were to have a rushed person re-write Ps 23, it will be devoid of all the calming imagery that the original psalmist affords us. A widely available version for the busy Christian is as follows. Note that this is widely quoted like here, here and here.
The Lord is my Pacesetter, I will not rush.
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with stillness, which restores my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency, through calmness of mind;
and His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here.
His timelessness, His all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity
By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours,
And I shall walk in the peace of the Lord for ever.

Some of us may laugh it off. Personally, I do not like this version. Firstly, making the LORD our ‘pacesetter’ denigrates the Christian God to simply a device to maintain our velocity in life. Does pacesetting contain any of the care, the warmth and the love that a Shepherd exuberates? Secondly, making one stop and rest without reference to a place shows the shallowness of the understanding of true rest. Being human, we all need an appropriate place in order to achieve a state of rest. We cannot underestimate the importance of place. Good writers know where and when to find their most creative literary moments. Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer began inside a garage. Starbucks started with a single store, and even Nike was said to begin in a car boot. There is even a venture capitalist that calls themselves ‘’ recognizing that brilliant new ventures often began in a garage environment. For Christians, while on the one hand we can say that God is with us everywhere we go, we cannot deny that great moments with God are frequently in the quiet streams and towering mountains. When we embrace creation to contemplate the Creator, we are tending the earth at our very best. There are a lot of other points I can bring out, but suffice to say, that there are many things in life that cannot be compressed. Scripture is definitely not to be reduced in any way, even in a rushed culture. By diminishing Scripture, it is a telling sign that one has given in to some forms of idolatry.

My dear readers, Ps 23:1 calls us to seeing God as our Shepherd first before anything else. Let this awareness sink in deep until we are lost to our worldliness and wholly found in our identities in God. Then we will be willing to be led toward greener and quiet pastures. We will be eager to drink from the streams of living water. We will be well rested inside even as the outside world rushes by and pushes us along. Having this state of contentment keeps us awake to the things of God and sleepy toward the things of the world. Under the mighty shadow of God’s wings, we will have security, not available with metal detectors, bomb shelters or material abundance . Knowing and believing that the Lord is our Shepherd, we will not be deprived of things needful for fruitful living. Like the Israelites in the wilderness who survived 40 years with plain quail and manna, we can take comfort in the providence of God who promises us all things that we need according to his perfect time.

Is there a tip for living in this rushed culture? Perhaps I can throw one in. Expand on the Sabbatical principle of 6+1. Work six days, rest one day. Do that every week. This has to be repeated. It is the longest of all the ten commandments.


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