Get Ready For Sci-Fi Reality

A Response to Al Erisman’s article ‘The Face-to-Face Gospel and the Death of Distance’

Al Erisman is absolutely right to note the dramatic effects of emerging technologies and to use Information Technology (IT) as his example. It is the most developed and familiar of the new technologies; and since it is all about communications, it is plainly the most relevant to people with a message. An emerging key skill is knowing when to call, when to e-mail, when to IM, video-conference, tweet, blog—or when you need to slog through security and fly and meet someone face to face. One of the ironies of web-based communications is that some of us have ended up traveling more as a result. Our projects and (in some cases) friendships become transnational. For a difficult conversation, or a truly creative one, you just need to be there.

Of course, at one level, there is nothing new: Paul wrote letters to the churches, and he visited. What is fascinating is to see how similar the old technology is to the new. Phones pulled from the wall, and typewriters endowed with new powers—19th century technologies on steroids, whose final impact we can hardly start to grasp.

Yet the opportunities of e-mail and the Web, while they are enormous, merely scratch the surface of what is underway as we press further into a century which will see not just an explosion of new technologies but, as it were, a series of such explosions, each bigger than the last. Since Christians of most stripes have so far been distinguished only by their lack of interest in these questions, reflection on technological change is timely. Perhaps Cape Town 2010 will lead to a fresh recognition that the Christian’s commitment to the stewardship of God’s world is not merely over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, but over humankind and every level of human culture. Which in the 21st century means, especially, the frontier of science and technology.

So what else is out there? IT is fundamental, and is driving every technology. But there is little in the sci-fi literature that is not also, in one form or other, already in the lab. Synthetic biology may enable us to create novel complex organisms. Nanotechnology—engineering on the tiniest scale—is already seen as the most revolutionary technology of all, producing amazingly light and strong new materials. Tiny nanoscale machines could replicate themselves and be used to make pretty much anything else. Some visionaries see artificial intelligence—following the principle of Moore’s Law—compounding until machines are smarter than we are. (Ray Kurzweil is the leading advocate of this vision, and he is respected even by those who think he is too optimistic.) Robotics will lead to the confusion of humans and machines. Smart human look-alikes are already available for many domestic duties. Will they destroy low-paid work and strip our economies of labor and income for those at the bottom of the tree? Or make life easier for all of us?

Meanwhile, virtual reality—our ability to live part of our lives in a world of online imagination—is also rushing ahead. Second Life has been around for a while, but you have to type to make it work. Already there are video games that work with brainwaves. Once the link of human and machine is seamless (through thought control or a jack in your head), a Matrix-like world will have arrived. ’Transhumanists’ think it will be wonderful to have superhuman powers.

How far away is all this? That is hard to know, but some of it is not very far at all, and much of it will come our way in the next 10 to 20 years. The impact of these technologies will be like the Internet—which has hugely changed our lives—being reinvented over and over and over.

What’s a Christian to do and to think? Here are my three conclusions:

  1. We can get the Christian message out more easily through technology, and connect with fellow believers around the globe, but it is naïve to think of that as the main thing. The bad guys and many bad messages have just the same opportunities. And the focus on communications (IT) can be a distraction.
  2. Christian leaders need to work out what to make of these new possibilities, and that will take a lot of time and a lot of resources. Then we need to teach the church and prepare the people. We are far, far behind.
  3. I don’t think you can be an effective human leader—let alone a Christian leader!—unless you come to grips with these questions. Read sci-fi. Read Wired magazine. Think and teach. And pray that God will graciously kick the church’s thinking into the 21st century.

Some techno advancements will be good, some bad, some it is hard to tell. But the one thing we know is that they will transform the human community and perhaps human experience itself. Let’s get ready, under God, for the techno age. Al Erisman is so right when he says these changes are not going to slow down. Up the exponential curve we go.

Nigel Cameron, a former contributing editor to Christianity Today, directs the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, a nonpartisan and nonsectarian think tank in Washington, DC (c-pet.org).

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)

 

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