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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Technological Advances

Mankind has not killed God; he’s explained Him out of existence. What was once considered a grand plan, a purposeful creation, has instead become a random event, a “Big Bang”, and we have the ability to destroy it at any time with the push of a button. With no God to guide or judge our actions, man is free to do as he pleases and determine what is right and wrong, what can be justified, what should be overlooked or explained away. The contributions of our ancestors hold little meaning, minimal value and have no real bearing on how man should behave today; they didn’t understand the world as the modern man does, they were na├»ve, backwards and unenlightened! We are infallible, we are wise, we have stripped bare the secrets of the human body, Mother Earth, the universe and the soul; we know everything now. This is the Age of Globalism; Technology is our God. As the world enters the second millennium, we have reached our “Terrible Twos”.

Never before in history has time seemed to move so fast. Throughout history some technologies have taken centuries to become commonly accessible and convenient; like the mass production of books or an easy way to travel from one continent to another. However, in this modern world technological advances come and go within a few years; like the fax machine and VHS tapes. Within just the last few decades life has changed by leaps and bounds as we find ourselves unable to cope without our cell phones, computers, PDAs, MP3 players and the Internet. Perhaps it’s like the chicken and the egg; which came first Globalization or Technology? Without one, you would not have the other.

One of the facets of Globalization is that it constantly feeds upon itself, and some might argue that it is growing out of control. Take telephones for example; invented in the 1870s the telephone allowed people to speak to each other over great distances for the first time in history. Perfected over the following several decades, telephones were eventually to be found in every home across America, and throughout the world. Predating the television, the telephone might be considered the first real technology to enter into common use. Today nearly everyone, in most parts of the world, carries a cell phone. In an example of modern art and the impact that cell phones have had on society, Noriko Yamaguchi created a body suit made completely of cell phone keypads.

No longer simply a means to communicate, the telephone has become a vital instrument in the daily life of millions. Yamaguchi implies in her art that cell phones are destined to be implanted in our bodies, giving us full access to the world, and it to us, before long. As man becomes more dependent upon cell phones that are now capable of taking pictures, playing music, television and movies, surfing the web and holding our most valuable information, the price is privacy. Nearly everyone is accessible anytime, anywhere; we are all “plugged in” to the world

If there is one symbol of the Age of Globalization, it would arguably be the computer. A relatively new technology, computers have taken the world by storm and have quickly become invaluable in business and personal life. This one invention has had immeasurable impact on the everyday life of man, from the handling of correspondence and accounting, to the automation of manufacturing, the creation of art, entertainment and hundreds of other uses. Generations will grow up not having had computers in their lives and find themselves at a loss as to how people survived without them.

However the 1995 movie The Net, among others, points out that our reliance upon computers can also prove dangerous. As man becomes dependent upon anything, he gives up a certain measure of control to that thing as well. As the main character in The Net attests, her identity has been altered and replaced, making her a victim of the technology that is so much a part of all of our lives. Frightening less for its action scenes and more because of its plausibility, The Net is a twist on identity theft and the inherent risks we all take when we use our computers to handle the details of our lives we once took care of in person; like banking.

Perhaps the crowning achievement, to date, of Globalism is the Internet. Connecting people like nothing before has, the Internet is making the world smaller every day. Information travels around the word in seconds via the Internet. Pictures, videos, sound, music, artwork, pornography, entertainment, history, information, news and virtually every book ever written is available via the internet. It has infiltrated into our daily lives as we pay our bills, manage our finances, perform our jobs, stay in contact with our friends, meet new people, shop, attend college and do a host of other things on it every day. A worldwide network of interconnected computers, the Internet seems to touch virtually everything, and yet it is still hard to define.

Perhaps it is no wonder then that some people have begun to view the Internet as a form of art, termed net.art. In addition there are those who use it to express themselves, and isn’t that what art truly is? There are entire communities that exist only in cyberspace and within those communities can be found virtually every aspect of life that can be found in the physical world. Second Life, a free online virtual reality video game, allows users to create a virtual-self, called an avatar that they then use to interact with other people, create content such as houses, stores or even virtual art galleries, engage in relationships and sometimes even make real-world money for virtual-reality items and entertainment. More than 1 million people live a second life on just this one program alone, and it’s not the only one of its kind. As technology seeps into virtually every aspect of our lives, is it any wonder that some people have chosen to recreate themselves online?

Only the passage of time will tell the full effect these advances have had on Western philosophical, social and psychological thinking, but it would seem that the sense of estrangement from God and isolation from man that began after the Second World War has only increased. The technology that has become so much a part of our lives is also helping to answer the questions our ancestors took on faith; questions like how the world was created, how the human body works and how the mind functions. Medical knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds, allowing man to live longer, cure once fatal diseases and perhaps someday soon, grow new organs to replace faulty ones.

Yet technology has cost man his privacy and, for many, his faith in God. Throughout history religion has formed the backbone of civilizations and was often a central part of the government. However that is no longer the case, at least in many countries. While it can be argued that the division is good, it can also be said that with religion comes a moral and ethical code by with the faithful are expected to live by. If there is no real penalty for bad behavior, no impetus to live a “right” life, a means to escape the person you and live a virtual second life, what will the Age of Globalism lead us to?

Nevertheless, all hope is not yet lost. Virtuous people of faith have begun using technology to spread their message, people use the Internet to create virtual communities of likeminded people who support each other, though they may never actually meet, and as man searches for answers it might be said that at least he is searching and hasn’t yet given up. Ironically the popularity of novels like Dan Browns The Da Vinci Code may suggest that the lure of history and religion is still strong. Perhaps it is that man wants to believe, but when miracles are easily explained it’s harder to have blind faith. Although in the end I believe that for every question answered, man shall ask another; and just as any parent would a toddler, God will smile and indulge our curiosity.

Christian Worldview Economics Integration

The United States has found itself in a tremulous economy over the last two years. Perhaps in an attempt to forestall the downward slide of things, Americans elected a President in 2008 who wants to take the profits of small-business owners and “spread the wealth around” to those with smaller incomes (Bandyk, 2008). So it may be a good time to discuss whether it is society’s responsibility to redistribute property and wealth to make things more balanced.

I would agree that there is some responsibility inherent upon every man to try to make life more balanced for everyone. There is a standard of living that should be readily available to every single person on earth; a roof over their head, clean water to drink and enough food to sustain them. I would also argue that everyone should have certain resources within their grasp and that a strong moral framework is imperative to making the world a better place to live.

The Old Testament has been used as a moral compass for entire civilizations for several millennia. Written between the 10th and the 2nd century BC, it is the cornerstone on which Judaism and Christianity are built (Upshur, Terry, Holoka, Goff, & Cassar, 2002). While neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament (collectively called”The Bible”) contains a chapter specific to economics, it does offer some advice in the form of parables and stories. However it seems that the Bible references to wealth most commonly used suggest that it is inherently evil.

Long has there been division between economics and Christianity because of it. The clergy is one example, giving up all worldly possessions in service to God. Christian Charities abound, offering food, clothing and shelter to the poor. At no time is a Christian a better example, it would seem, than when they are helping those less fortunate than themselves. After centuries of discussion and rampant interpretation of the books of the Bible, there is still an implied shame upon those who are “rich”.

Can there be no common ground between Christianity and economics? Surprisingly there seems to be a movement, at least in some quarters, towards compromise. “Christians today need to place the modern world within a narrative of faith,” suggest the authors of Economic Theory and Christian Belief (Britton & Sedgwick, 2003, p. 291). Yet another article suggests that one must put the teachings of the Bible into perspective of today’s world where the common man does not herd sheep or own an ox. “What does this mean about my behavior in my life today?” the article asks (Blank, 1992).

At least half of the Bible is thousands of years old. Even the New Testament was written many centuries ago. Were it not a religious book, but a historical one, there would be no question that the stories told within are not always relevant to modern day situations. Just as the story of the tortoise and the hare suggests that “slow and steady wins the race” suggests a moral guideline to follow, so does the Bible (Aesop). I believe the most prolific advice the Bible has for living a moral life is in the form of the Ten Commandments from The Book of Exodus. Short, sweet and to the point, these ten items pretty much sum it up for those of faith.

Even if one does not believe in the Christian God and disregards the first four commandments as irrelevant, the rest of them are solid advice to all of mankind; regardless of whom or what they believe in. Religions have been the basis for morality since the beginning of time. Each religion suggests, at a minimum, a philosophy on how to live one’s life and offers a reason for doing so; whether that reason be the lure of Heaven, the threat of Hell, the promise of reincarnation or a means to break the cycle of life, death and rebirth (Hopfe & Woodward, 2009).

The Eastern religions of Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism tend more towards introspection, right living and balance between man and the universe. The four tend to believe that man is intrinsically good by nature, and that outside influences are evil. All of these religions are more a way of life or a philosophy than a religion.

Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Buddhism and Hinduism all have aspects of karma and reincarnation to them; it would seem to be the common thread between them. In addition, each of these religions suggests a way of life, and often a structure of government, such as the caste system of the Hindus and the feudal system suggested by Confucianism. These religions are all very spiritual, with emphasis on universal energies and natural flows. While rituals are a part of some of these religions, there is much focus on the inner man, finding ones place in the universe and on moral living.

Each of these religions, or ways of life, suggests a moral standard to live by with salvation left to man to obtain though his own actions and choices. Regardless of whether one believes in one God, or many, or none, or chooses to believe in the energies of the universe, karma and reincarnation, and looks forward to Heaven or a final release from life or something in between, there is a common thread of morality and choice. Is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” very different from “what comes around goes around?” Each of these religions would suggest not.

So why would it be hard to reconcile what would seem an almost universal agreement to live a moral life to economics? The short answer is greed; the proliferation of it as well as the fear of it. Bible parables suggest that rich men have little hope of getting into heaven, but it seems grossly unfair to equate wealth to damnation. Does the gain of wealth break the commandment “thou shalt not steal? (Holy Bible)” No, the gain of profit in business, by either enterprise or individual, does not imply that anyone was robbed.

The primary goal of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value, however this does not and should not mean that it is the only goal of a corporation; nor does it alleviate the company from ethical, moral, legal or environmental responsibilities. During the last few decades companies have learned the hard way that unethical, immoral and illegal behavior can destroy a company. If there’s no company, there’s no shareholder value. Yes, managers should grow a company, but they should do it the right way. Profits and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive.

In a perfect society everyone would have the same basic privileges; shelter, food and water. Just as salvation is typically considered up to the individual in the spiritual world, financial security and opportunity are up to the individual in the material world. One makes one’s own destiny. Those willing to work for a better life should be entitled to it. Those unwilling will at least have the basics.

Perhaps one of the best examples I have heard of redistributing wealth is the Mormon food bank system. I am not Mormon and confess that the bulk of my understanding of Mormonism is based on one friend and her family. We have had many long talks about religion and society over the past few years and I have gained a respect for her and her church through the process. While I would balk at giving ten percent of my income to charity, Mormons do it every week. They also make a specific point to save up to a year’s worth of food in their homes for use during an emergency or when times get rough. Times like the recent recession.

Another facet of the Mormon religion is what resembles a private welfare system. Food, counseling, employment services and other facilities are made available to Mormons with the intent to make them more self-sufficient. The food is provided by Mormon owned farms and the services volunteered by other members. In the middle of modern day society, rampant with greed and selfishness, there exists a society that at least attempts to redistribute property and wealth to balance the material and spiritual lives of its followers. With the country in a recession, the program has seen a twenty percent increase in demand over the last year, but has “seamlessly” kept up with demands (Kuruvila, 2009).

Motivated by faith, it appears to me that the Mormons have done what the premise of this paper asks is possible. Whether I believe in all of their teachings or not, I believe that in this they have been a silent role model. So perhaps it is faith that is missing from the economic models of today; and with faith comes moral values. As society pushes ever forward revealing all of the mysteries of life with science, promoting and rewarding selfish behavior, ridiculing old fashioned values and beliefs and discarding the values of our ancestors I believe we are moving further away from a society where things can be balanced, but I do believe it’s possible, if we just have faith.

References

Aesop. Aesop's Fables.

Bandyk, M. (2008, October 16). Capital Commerce. Retrieved August 16, 2009, from U.S. News & World Report: http://www.usnews.com/blogs/capital-commerce/2008/10/16/did-barack-spread-the-wealth-obama-just-blow-the-election.html

Blank, R. (1992). What does the Bible say about economics? Retrieved August 16, 2009, from Progressive Christian Witness: http://www.progressivechristianwitness.org/pcw/pdf/Blank_Economics.pdf

Britton, A., & Sedgwick, P. (2003). Economic theory and Christian belief. Bern, Oxford Peter Lang.

Holy Bible.

Hopfe, L. M., & Woodward, M. R. (2009). Religions of the world, eleventh edition. VangoBooks.

Kuruvila, M. (2009, March 9). Mormon food bank a private welfare system. Retrieved August 16, 2009, from SFGate.com: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/03/08/MNP1168NEP.DTL

Upshur, J.-H. L., Terry, J. J., Holoka, J. P., Goff, R. D., & Cassar, G. H. (2002). World History Before 1600: The Development of Civilization, Fourth Edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Again with the religion.. Oy!

Integrity is very important to me, as are truth and ethics. I try very hard not to be a hypocrite, as that's a real pet peeve of mine as well. However, I feel that much of society today is self-centered and seems absolutely unaware of those around them. I believe that a lot of this has to do with the erosion of faith in communities. I am not a very religious person actually, but as mankind has focused more on science, disproving old notions and ideas and trying to uncover every little secret the world holds, there has been a departure from religions as a whole and the moral values that they teach and enforce. As man has determined that there is no God, or that the rules don't apply to them the free-will we have been gifted with has slowly evolved into an attitude that we can do whatever we want with no repercussions. I am not here to promote any religion over another, but one thing that almost every religion fosters is "right living" and suggested consequences for failing to live "right". Without religion there are no rules, laws or not, because life is short. I actually believe in Karma and reincarnation, thus I am convinced that I am here to learn lessons and those that I fail to learn this life I will revisit again in another until I get it right.

In the artwork and symbology of the 21st century there's a focus on man being alone or solidary. By forsaking God in our lives we've made ourselves alone in a way unlike any of the prior periods. With religion comes a sense of belonging and community; being part of something bigger than oneself. The prevalence of sexuality and violence, I believe, stems from that as man searches for meaning in all the wrong places.

So you might ask me... "Wendy, if you believe all this, why don't you go to church?" Good question. Sadly for all that I believe that religion provides a very important aspect to humanity, I also believe that many of the religions are corrupted and have lost sight of what their mission should be. That and I have yet to find a religion that I can embrace without reservation.