In Between Digital Persons
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
What's going on within and without us? How are our withins spilling out? And by what are we constituted in this new, weird, least private of eras?
I was recently privileged to have a paper shared with me called "Digital Spiritual Embodiment: Power, Difference, and Interdependence" by Kate Ott, a Christian Social Ethics professor at Drew Theological School (the paper can be found here). In it, Dr. Ott makes compelling claims regarding the co-constitutive relationship between humans and technology (how technology and humanity collaboratively shape one another) and new theological understandings of selfhood in the digital age. Particularly, she argues that performance of various selfhoods by each of us in the digital age has confirmed and magnified feminisms' critique of the Enlightenment subject—as many manifestations of feminist and womanist criticism have moved away from the radical individualism and disembodied rationalism of modernity's constructed (male) "person." Feminisms have argued instead for a self that, while not wholly in line with the totally fragmented subject of postmodernism, is understood as thoroughly "relational, interdependent, multiple, and particular." Life in the internet age especially amplifies and codifies the relationality and multiplicity of the subject, recording a variety of selves across platforms that (for a single person) change depending on the people with whom that permutation of a person—that avatar—is networked, the level of exposure and/or anonymity related to the online activity, and even whether or not that digitally embodied self knows that it is digitally embodied (here referring to the impressions of us that are preserved by data surveillance and utilized by corporations and governments for influence or control). Ott proceeds, then, to explore relationality and multiplicity through the writings of Ivone Gebara and M. Shawn Copeland, considering the socio-political particularity of being through these mujerista and womanist lenses (respectively), drawing from their firmly gospel-rooted claims to posit that a theological anthropology of relationality that takes real, historical suffering into account might "guide us in discerning the productive and deformative aspects of digital existence." The interconnectivity and multiplicity of digital life is a morally-neutral observation, however, and our increasing entanglement can be utilized for good (amplifications of silenced suffering—scholarly, artistic, and familial connections and collaborations) or evil (in one example, she invokes the virtual sexual violence, and threats of physical violence, committed against female gaming journalist Anita Sarkeesian).
I found Dr. Ott's article deeply thought-provoking and convicting. In considering the extent to which digital technology is a significant piece of our embodiment and an overwhelming shaper of our personhood, however, I have a peculiar concern.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's meditations on original sin and theological anthropology in Creation and Fall consider a kind of modernist humanity realized in relationship. For Bonhoeffer, the first sin was not a moment of disobedience against our rightful master but rather a manifestation of humanity's mistaken sense of entitlement to godlike status. We humans are created in our essence as animals, creatures who have a proper, limited ordinance in God's world among other creatures with their right places. We do not become animals after the fall, Bonhoeffer says, we were that way the whole time. Humanity's proper living with-and-for one another (and I would extend that to all our networks of relationship in our mostly nonhuman world), our meeting the divine in the other and serving her need, produces a quality of relationship that reflects the image of God, and in this way humans are imago dei. To overstep our proper bounds and seek ultimate knowledge, to violate the one thing we were asked not to violate, humans (says Bonhoeffer) became twisted, godlike creators in ourselves—sicut deus. I bring this up because, if we think about the quality of our relationships being our doorway to God's presence and of digital technology as being one of the primary mediators of a new kind of human relationship, how is it possible for digitally embodied relationship to reflect godliness given the ethical cost of producing our devices.
The ecological impact of mining, shipping, and eventual disposing of materials used for devices, the perpetual political instability in regions where they are mined, and the atrocious conditions in the factories where devices are produced are well-documented and infamous. What does it mean for our collective personhoods, and the possibility of ethical relationships in digital spaces, to be mediated by artifacts of exploitation? Is the redemption of our political and economic systems from this evil necessary for any just relation to take place on the internet, or would the kind of high-speed, high-population networking that is only possible on the internet be necessary to abolish this evil? And if so, how is such repentance corporately achieved? (It should be noted that Dr. Ott's book Christian Ethics for a Digital Society seems to address some of these issues in the last chapter, although I have to confess I haven't had a chance to finish it yet).
Anyway, it's worth thinking about. Check out the video below of Dr. Ott lecturing on the subject and enjoy the reflection.