"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Monday, January 30, 2012

Electronics, Ethics, and Our Responsibility

When I was in college I was heavily involved in the anti-sweatshop labor movement. At my small Christian university I gave speeches on the unethical practices of companies like Nike and other clothing companies concerning the management of their factories, particularly in places like China, where labor practices are not as regulated as they are in the United States. And as a result of my protests, one voice among thousands at the time, Nike changed its practices and became much more transparent and colleges and universities started carrying products made more ethically. Since that time though, I had learned to acquiesce and accept that exploitation of labor is just the way our world works. I can't possibly protest everything, can't possibly boycott everything that has origins that I find unethical. This is because our entire society is built upon such unethical practices. And I simply feel paralyzed by it. Troubled, deeply troubled, but paralyzed.

Recently, in a conversation with my brother, we were discussing the trilogy of books known as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In these books, "The Capitol" is a wealthy district in a post-apocalyptic North America, which is supported by twelve other very poor districts which produce the goods, food, and resources of the Capitol, often at their own peril and enduring physical abuse. In the context of our conversation about these books my brother said, "I kept reading and thinking how terrible the Capitol is and then I realized that Suzanne Collins is a genius...because what she is saying is that WE, the United States, are the Capitol...and the rest of the world is the twelve districts." And I think he is right.

I bring all of this up because recently Apple has been receiving negative press for the factories that produce various iGoods in China. You can read about it at the New York Times and listen to a story about it on This American Life and sign a petition about it. And I am glad that we are finally discussing it. But while Apple, like Nike in my college years, may change its practices and become more transparent about the origins of all things with the prefix i, the problem is not simply Apple's problem. The problem is that almost everything that we use on a daily basis is built upon the backs of someone else. And the problem is not that someone in another country is making our products; the problem is that that person is working in conditions barely above slavery. And that is the part that must stop.

And so the connection between religion and science is a connection about what it takes to make all of our technology in this contemporary society and what obligation we, in the Capitol, have to the rest of the world. The ethical question, especially for those of us whose religions call us to care for the poor, is a question about how we can live our lives in this way...and say nothing about it. I think that our obligation is a substantial one. Our entire society may be built upon the backs of near-slave labor, but earlier societies have been built upon slave labor...and they have had to change, often substantially and with sacrifices, in order for justice and equality to exist. The antebellum period in American history is dotted with voices, often religious voices, denouncing slavery and a way of life that exploits human beings. Now, it's our turn to raise our voices and demand a better world and the recognition of safe labor practices for all workers, whether they be American or not.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Do So Many People Have Trouble with Evolution?

There is an NPR article up today called "Why do so Many People Have Trouble with Evolution?" There is nothing incredibly new here, but I thought it would make an interesting discussion. I do like that the author doesn't make the typical assumption that religion and evolution cannot go together. Rather, he says, "The problem seems to be related to the age-old God-of-the-Gaps agenda, that the more we understand of the world the less room there is for a creator God. This is bad theology, as it links belief to the development of science." What do you think about his statement that this is bad theology? I tend to agree, but I am curious what you will say.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Religious Thought vs. Religious Propaganda

Today in one of my classes we had a long discussion on the dichotomy in the title of this post, prompted by  this article by Marilynne Robinson. She says, "In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition." What was interesting about the class discussion was that even after a full fifty minutes of discussing this topic, we still were not able to find clear distinctions. We circled around the ideas, and were able to place some words like "Socratic" and "critical" under religious thought and words like "force" and "manipulation" under religious propaganda, the line remained blurry and shifting. It is clear that there is a distinction. But what is that distinction and how do you define it?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Hunger Games

Over Christmas Break, I read the entire Hunger Games Trilogy. These books ignited something in me that I had not felt in a long time--that feeling that you get when you realize that  as you have been reading something you have held your breath and suddenly have to remind yourself to let it out.

I. Loved. These. Books.

But why am I mentioning them here? In the world of The Hunger Games reality television has morphed to such an extent that society is willing to watch teenagers kill one another for the sake of entertainment (as well as political oppression). So there is Neil Postman's old question of what technology gives us and what it takes away from us. But there is also something about the distinction between The Capitol, where technology thrives in its most advanced forms, which also often take on the forms of weapons, and the districts, which are much poorer, have rudimentary technology (but for the obligatory televisions), and are in many ways the victims of the technology of the Capitol. And so there is also the link that Stanley Kubrick makes in 2001: A Space Odyssey between technology and violence as a means of control. I don't mean to imply that all technology is connected to violence. And I think many forms of technology are great. They allow us to explore space, to see the depths of the oceans, to fly to visit our families at Christmas, etc. I am only mean to point out that there is some connection between technology and violence that we need to be aware of. This trilogy (and I hope the upcoming film as well) points out this connection between wealth, power, violence, and technology, and shows us what it means on a very human, personal level. It may be that technology is neutral...but so often we make it a weapon. In The Hunger Games it is not only a weapon in the traditional sense, but in more subtle ways; reality television has become a means to keep the districts in check....because they are forced to watch their children die each year through this means of technology.

Here's the trailer from the upcoming film:

New Year at NASA

Over at Wired there is an article by my friend, Adam Mann about NASA's projects this coming year. There are some very cool pictures to go along with it. Check it out!