Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for November 2013

WordPress informs me that this is my 100th Blog post. Isn’t it ironic to be congratulated by a machine just after having written about surveillance technology?

I have also been reflecting recently on C. S. Lewis’s famous essay on The Abolition of Man.

Today happens to be Lewis’s fiftieth death anniversary. I discovered Lewis in my first year as an undergraduate student, and by the time I had graduated from university I had read all his Christian essays, poems and books, including his science-fiction trilogy and the Narnia Chronicles. Only his letters (collected and annotated much later) and his academic work on medieval literature eluded my voracious appetite.

I “outgrew” Lewis, especially after returning to Sri Lanka and finding myself confronted by a wholly different set of intellectual and practical challenges. While I retain a huge admiration for his writings, I am bemused by the cult of veneration that has grown up around him in some part of the evangelical church in the USA. The very people who shun Roman Catholic hagiographies have turned Lewis into a modern-day evangelical saint. If he were alive today, would they invite this pipe-smoking, pub-crawling, beer-swilling Anglo-Catholic to speak in their churches or teach in their seminaries? I very much doubt it.

Further, Lewis would have poured scorn on “inerrantist” views of the Bible. He would also never have read Genesis 1 or Job or Jonah as literal history. As a student of literature, he had no problems with recognizing truth as conveyed by myth and fable, extended metaphor and story, wherever these are found in the biblical writings. He understood also the importance of Church tradition in reading Scripture. He didn’t subscribe to the ridiculous idea that the Holy Spirit disappeared in the Patristic era and the Middle Ages, only to re-appear in the Reformation and the Anglo-American revivals. His view of salvation was not ecclesio-centric but inclusive without being universalist. Is a desiccated Lewis being read in American evangelical circles today?

Of all his writings, the one that I return to regularly, after a day or an evening spent defending, arguing and commending the Christian faith to others, is a little poem called “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”. I carry it in my Bible. I think it should be enshrined on the doors of all those churches and institutions that place too much emphasis on apologetics and preaching “techniques”:

“From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins, let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.”

I began Blogging in February 2009 and my first post drew attention to the war crimes being committed by all sides in the closing weeks of Sri Lanka’s bloody war. Four years later, those events are coming back to haunt the ruling regime. The latter’s lavish attempt to showcase Sri Lanka on the international stage at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last week failed miserably. The President’s smooth talk about post-war “development” was swept away by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who issued an ultimatum vis a vis a serious investigation of war crimes. The state-controlled media has fallen back on the usual rhetoric of “foreign conspiracy” and the hypocrisy and double standards practised by Western governments when it comes to talk of human rights abuses and war crimes.

I have said enough on my Blog about these hypocrisies and double standards, and the frustration we feel that Christians in the US and Europe are not more outspoken about these. At the same time, we are frustrated by large sections of the international media (and especially American TV channels like CNN and Fox) who, if they ever talk about Sri Lanka at all, narrowly focus on war crimes committed in the past and the lack of “ethnic reconciliation”. But the latter are only symptoms of the wider political malaise in which we find ourselves (nepotistic rule, emasculation of the judiciary, suppression of dissent and targeting of journalists and human rights activists) that I have chronicled, from time to time, on this Blog in recent years.

I often tell people that those who have had the biggest influence in my life are those, like Lewis, whom I never met. That is the simple power of the written word. It has an influence across space and time that the author never imagined possible. Lewis never travelled beyond the UK and Ireland. Perhaps the venerators of Lewis today can help us by wielding their pens (and computer keypads) as courageously as he did in exposing falsehoods, dispelling ignorance and opening up the imagination of their contemporaries to other societies/worlds that impinge on their own.

The continuing disclosures, thanks to Edward Snowden, of the global extent of American spying programs are faintly humorous. One would love to know, for instance, what possible benefits American governments have gained from ten years of listening in to Angela Merkel’s phone-calls, and how it has served the public interest (which, after all, is what governments are for)?

This is the kind of question that should be raised in the media, let alone in introductory university classes in moral philosophy. A truly fascinating question has to do with the central (and sometimes exclusive) place many ethicists and moral philosophers give to the notion of individual “autonomy”. This, it is often claimed, is what grounds the language of human rights. However, Ms. Merkel’s autonomy was in no way violated by the secret surveillance on her. She was not constrained or restricted in any way. And, yet, most of us sense that she was morally wronged. Is it possible to make sense of that sense of being wronged by invoking “autonomy”? Or does it require a robust notion of intrinsic personal dignity?

Wherever dignity is abused, trust decays and relationships suffer. Questions about dignity are what come to the fore in all discussions about technology. Does the development and use or this particular technology respect or diminish personal dignity? A broader question is an old one, but nevertheless one that takes us to the core of moral reasoning: does our capability to perform an action obligate us to do so? This is more than asking whether the end justifies the means. It is asking whether the means are all that exist.

It is technological development which lies at the heart of advanced economies. Technology carries a seductive momentum of its own; and in the absence of any countervailing social vision to the idolatries of “national security” and “economic growth”, how is it possible to resist that momentum, or even divert it towards greater goals? The NSA is a vast data-gathering bureaucracy. With its supercomputers and myriads of private security firms to which “intelligence” is outsourced, no single human being know what is going on. Assigning responsibility becomes difficult if not impossible. All we have is a vast impersonal system that assumes a life of its own as the technology it has developed takes over the mindless quest towards absolute security.

These questions about technology move us beyond the politics of “right” and “left” which have been largely irrelevant in the advanced economies. Technology is no longer about gadgets and machines. It is a totalizing system, the environment in which the citizens of these countries (and any of influenced by the forces of globalization) conduct their lives. We are all cyborgs now; not in the biological sense of carrying devices implanted within us, but in the functional or cultural sense of being totally dependent on devices all the time (try going for 24 hours without a wristwatch, cell-phone, car or computer). Technologies shape and control us more than, it seems, we do them.

George Orwell’s Big Brother metaphor and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon are often mentioned in discussions on surveillance. But I suggest that a more fitting image to describe the NSA comes from the novels of Franz Kafka, particularly The Trial and The Castle. Writing a generation or so before Orwell, Kafka hauntingly depicted the helplessness and uncertainty experienced by the individual before an all-encompassing, faceless bureaucracy. The system has grown to such proportions that the boundary between human and machine has disappeared. Bureaucracy and technology are thus intimately linked. Both exalt the spirit of techne, the reduction of life and work to rule-following behaviour.

I mentioned, in my last Blog post, the frustrating experience of obtaining visas to rich countries, where the entire process is “outsourced” to intermediaries. The latter are taught to blindly follow a set of procedures in dealing with applications but cannot respond to individuals in exceptional situations. Nothing would be missed if these intermediaries were to be replaced by robots, and that is probably how things will develop, given the cost-cutting ambitions of Western governments today. It is not surprising that the Pentagon is pouring huge sums into the production of robots and drones for battle field use- the ideal soldier of the future will be another Adolf Eichmann, but made of electronic circuits not blood vessels.

I write this on the day the Indian Space Agency has launched a satellite to Mars. It is the latest manifestation of the Indian technocratic elite’s infantile understanding of what makes for a “Superpower”. While India’s Constitution is liberal and democratic, its politicians and military-industrial establishment share the same mind-set as the North Korean regime when it comes to national priorities.

India is a country rich in innovative talent, but “imitating the West” is what the middle-classes aspire to in their consumption habits. There are plenty of amazing technical inventions that the poor in India have come up with and which could be marketed around the world (See http://www.ted.com/speakers/anil_gupta.html). But thinking “outside the box” is not the long suit of India’s military-funded technologists; so much easier to be propelled along by the momentum of a politics that identifies “national prestige” with imitating hi-tech US industries.

Once again, the “why” questions get buried under the “how”.


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