9.22pm on Sunday 22 September 2019

Example of Reflection in Action


Here is an example of Reflection in action offered by Jeff Astley.

Part 1 Story / Experience

 

Technology

Julie's story . . . It's not as though I haven't worked at this. I went on that course - two courses. I sat there in front of the screen being patronised by this fifteen-year-old. Well he looked fifteen. I expected an anorak, and glasses held together with Sellotape, but he was quite trendy. Mandy - she's my daughter, doing ‘A' levels this year - would probably fancy him. But then, she grew up in a world of computers. He couldn't have been fifteen - twenty-two perhaps. They all look about fifteen at my age.

Anyway, he wandered round the class explaining mouse pointers and windows and ‘dialog boxes' (American spelling, I noticed). And I felt such a fool. I couldn't get the hang of it at all at first. Even the keyboard seemed different - like a toy, not like a proper typewriter.

Anyway, eventually I squeezed something out of the thing. One letter. It took me half an hour! Me, with my typing at 50 wpm, and shorthand at 100 wpm - not that anyone wants that now. Mr Burgess prefers the dictaphone - ‘so you can be getting on with something else, Julie', and so he can um-and-ah all he likes without being embarrassed.

And that's another thing. Another machine. The dictaphone is simple enough when you've mastered it. (‘Mastered' - bound to be something to do with a man.) When you've sussed which black button with grey printing means ‘record' and which means ‘erase'. But it's always going wrong, especially the tapes. And Mr Burgess is no help. He always leaves the room when I'm struggling with the contact on the foot pedal. And it's me who has to take the headphones back when they don't work. ‘What's wrong with them?', sneers another fifteen-year-old technophile. As if I know. I came into this line of work because I was good at English, not Physics. ‘Have you checked the DIN plug?' Not unless it's in the DIN sink, I haven't.

Next thing, I'm told, will be a digital dictating machine. My friend Barbara's got one in her office. It took a posse of shaven-headed young men from IT to get it working, and her boss does have a PhD in Physics. Bound to come though, the ‘new technology'. Just when you've mistressed the old one.

So here I am, plugged into one machine by my ears (and foot - this new model has three pedals, I haven't dared try the right-hand one yet), and staring into the fixed idiot glare on the screen of another machine, which is telling me (very helpfully) that it has ‘experienced a fault' and will close down. If I closed down every time there was a fault in this office where would we be? And that was a forty page report, and I don't know where it's gone.

I used to be good at this job. If the typewriter jammed even I could fix it, or Johnnie could - the plump, nice one from Maintenance with screwdrivers in his top pocket. And the shorthand notebooks never went wrong, did they? OK, so sometimes I'd look at a page and not make much sense of it. But with Mr Burgess's letters that was usually his fault anyway. Sometimes it was mine. It didn't matter whether it was him or me - we were both people. People got things wrong, then. They made mistakes, fouled up. We were ‘only human'. And people got things right, ‘You've done it again, Julie, saved the day.' Machines aren't ‘only human'. So who can forgive them? Or praise them?

Now it's all machines. Most of the fouling up is down to machines. And none of us know what to do. How much did this one cost? Nearly a thousand, I think, with the ‘peripherals'. Margaret's in the next office was even more and it's no better. ‘Do you want to replace the normal template before closing?' No, or is it Yes? Too late - you've chosen the wrong answer, and lost those seven new addresses you put in the electronic whatsit.

There used to be a book - a ‘Manual', even though there were 860 pages of it. Now they don't even have that. Everything is ‘on screen'. Very useful when you can't see anything on the screen, except ‘error #Ø6'. There used to be a ‘helpline' too, another young man to patronise me. ‘Have you changed your autoexec.bat file.' ‘Pardon?' We stopped paying for it.

When this machine works it is faster, and easier, and less work for me. But I'm no longer in control of this desk, or this office. Nor is Mr Burgess. Not that he ever really was, but I could make him feel he was. He's just put his head round the door now to see why I'm cussing at this thing, and nipped off smartish for an early lunch before he gets asked any difficult questions. The machines run us both: computer, printer, dictaphone, telephone, fax, photocopier . . .

I know there were telephones before, but people mainly wrote letters. The telephone had a lot to answer for even before they started unplugging them from the wall and losing them in your handbag. You had time to answer people then, time to think. A piece of paper to look at. ‘Mm, so what is he really asking for?' Now they're on the phone ready to take offence if you ask them anything, or try to do any thinking yourself. Stick another machine in your ear Julie. You can't ignore this one, it will buzz at you. Letters never did that. And then the fax machine starts up, with some so-very-urgent missive (usually junk mail). I only need to go out to the loo and there's another six faxes waiting for me when I get back, and - of course - another twenty emails: all stuff that's so important it's got to be sent instantly. Another pile of unsolicited work.

I know emails aren't exactly machines, but it's the machines that encourage them. Everyone with a computer on the desk is three seconds away from sending a pointless, misspelled message across the Atlantic, or down the corridor. Can't wait, you see. And the computer just loves them, beeping urgently at me whenever it catches one in its inbox.

And the fax beeps at me too, like one of those silly Japanese toys they used to make, when it needs feeding. Like the photocopier and the laser printer. ‘Paperless office' my foot.

Do I complain too much? Do I want jam on it? Don't get me going, there are enough jams inside these machines to stock a supermarket shelf. Have you ever seen inside them? Mr Burgess hasn't - it's early lunch-time if he spots me with the top up and my rubber gloves on. (I thought men liked machines. My Graham loves rooting about under the bonnet of his car - better than driving it actually. But even he wouldn't tackle a paper jam in a photocopier . . .)

Well, yes, I can still do this job of course. But it's a different job now. The management don't realise that. Or don't care. If you count the hard disk backup and that stupid thermal binder that asphyxiates you and burns your fingers, I have eight machines in my office. ‘My' office? Their office, more like. I come in in the morning and switch them all on, and they sit there with their little red lights glaring, like angry hyenas. Doreen - she's the cleaner - won't touch them: ‘You'll have to dust them things yourself Mrs Williams, I don't want to mess with them.' I know how she feels . . .

No, it's not eight it's nine. I forgot the electric fan. I need a fan because of all the heat from these damn machines. In the summer it just dries you out. I'd open the window but the temptation to jump through it would be too strong.

Well, anyway . . . ‘The program is not responding' (American spelling again). Yes, I had noticed, thank you. What was that key combination? Control - Alt (what's ‘Alt' for goodness sake, and what does ‘Control' control?) - Delete. Or was that the last model? What do I do to stop this one? Press the ‘Start' icon? Surely not.

Do they still call it ‘re-booting'? Not as comforting as giving it a real booting, but it'll have to do. There it goes a - a morning's work lost. To Hell with the machines . . .

Well, except this one. Not nine, ten. I forgot the kettle. That's a machine I do need just now.

Part 2 Analysis

Techno-change

Technology has transformed all our lives. It always does. And there seems to be no end to its power to change us.

For many centuries agriculture was a matter solely of working on the land with your hands (‘horny-handed sons of the soil', ‘land girls', and so on). You needed manual skills and strength for it, along with a lot of very practical wisdom. And you needed to work with living things, especially animals: animals that were not just to breed or fatten or shear, but to plough and to carry. You had to know your horses; you had to get on with them.

Well, it has not all changed. Shepherds still need dogs, and farming is still a lot of sweat. But the machines have come in even there - especially those big tank-like monsters with searchlights, roaring up and down the land: machines that can't be doing with quaint little fields and rambly hedges.

As for industry; well, the Industrial Revolution made work into something completely different. It is, perhaps, no wonder that the Luddites broke up some of those first machines. Imagine painfully learning and painstakingly practising the skill of hand weaving or spinning, and then discovering that a new machine does it better and faster, and so with more profit. Like Julie, you would be ‘deskilled' - your skill suddenly redundant, irrelevant. Now you will need to learn to tend a machine. And, like Julie, you'll find that everyone thinks they can do it now; that your skills have been miraculously transferred to anyone who can push a button (so even dim Gavin down the corridor talks airily about ‘doing away with secretaries', because he's bought the latest voice recognition program - and because he is just a bit embarrassed that, although he's got a degree, he can't spell).

Whose Side?

Transport, communications, information-processing, financial transactions, even leisure - especially leisure - have all been transformed by technology. It has its own momentum, so that we hardly pause to do a proper ‘cost-benefit analysis'. We often don't even know what costs there are, because technology-talk is all about benefits. Most offices throw out all their technology every few years, to ‘begin over' - as the Americans say. But Julie knows the costs, at a mundane, everyday level. And infinitely more poignantly, so does anyone bereaved by the deadlier machines - in car or plane accidents, or factory injuries, or in the brutal, impersonal mass destruction of modern warfare. These machines, that were fashioned for our aid and protection, can also destroy and terrorise us.

But they were and are intended to be there for us. Even the computers . . . They work for us; and yes, they do take over the pointless drudgery and dangerous, body-destroying toil of so many jobs. Should human beings really be holed up deep underground, bent-double in mud, hammering at a coal seam? Should they really spend several hours every day walking miles burdened with containers of water?

Technology can take the strain. It can save lives. It can give us back our life.

Part 3 Reflection

Realistic Technology

One of the challenges Jesus presents us with is to see things as they are. It is a misreading of the Gospels to treat them as so full of idealism, of transcending vision and future hope that we lose sight of their realism. Jesus is a realist. For Jesus the realist, sinners are also - and first - people. For Jesus the realist, the Romans have the coins and the power, so pay your taxes, go the mile the occupying soldier can demand of you (and an extra one, to show he is a person as well as an enemy). Jesus also encourages a realistic view of Nature. Enjoy the blessings of Nature, both wild and cultivated; accept and learn from it when it is good. But when it harms, in storm or disease or madness, resist it. That's spiritual realism.

Be realistic, says Jesus. Make sure you see the good in things (and don't ever call that good bad, for this is ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit'); but make sure you see the bad too. Rejoice in what is positive and redeem what is negative. And don't be so silly as to say of anything, or anyone, that they are wholly bad or even wholly good (‘Why do you call me good, none is good but God alone'). As Christians, we are obliged to see things as they are, and for what they are: neither demonising them because we have spotted their flaws, nor unrealistically sanctifying them on account of their good qualities.

It is the same with technology; for it too can be both a boon and a curse - sometimes at one and the same time.

Ingenious Humanity

And that is because it comes from human hands, and therefore shares the ambiguity of what is human (saved but sinner; dust of the earth and ‘a little lower than the angels'). A piece of technology is a human artefact that expresses the human spirit just as much as does a painting or a symphony. Admittedly, there is less feeling there (which is why, some would say, men are more interested in machines than women are); but it is certainly an expression of mind - of logical thought and of ingenious leaps of imagination. Both art and technology show the inventiveness of the human spirit; and the gap between our ‘two cultures' of science and the Arts- that stupid and economically dangerous divide of mutual ignorance and disdain - should not lead us to ignore the spiritual significance of either type of human creation.

In Longitude, Dava Sobel's best-selling account of John Harrison and his struggle over fifty years to perfect a time piece that could be taken on board ship, we may read of the perseverance of the inventor. Like the artist, the technical innovator must discipline himself or herself to the task, always laborious and often unrewarding, of ‘trying again' until the work of art or contrivance is honed to perfection. Glory and grind belong to both sorts of creation, as they belong to all worthwhile human activity. Harrison was out to win the prize on offer from the ‘Board of Longitude', but he was also out to create: lovingly to coax into being as ordered and efficient an artefact as he was capable of making. He said of the 1759 time-keeper that ultimately won the prize, his ‘H-4':

I think I may make bold to say, that there is neither any other Mechanical or Mathematical thing in the World that is more beautiful or curious in texture than this my watch or Timekeeper for the Longitude . . . and I heartily thank Almighty God that I have lived so long, as in some measure to complete it.

(Dava Sobel, Longitude, London: Fourth Estate, 1996, p. 106)

All human creation is a reflection, even an expression, of God's creative power flowing through his world.

Part 4 Action / Response

Where are we going?

The development of technology really is leading us into an unknown future. Perhaps we should say it is ‘pushing' rather than ‘leading'. We should add, though, that such development is inspired by hope. The inventor is a man or woman of hope.

The history of technology is full of wonderful quotations from worldly-wise, practical folk who dismissed the aeroplane or motor car, telephone or television, even the light-bulb, as technically impossible, or a ‘passing fad', or something ‘of little practical use'. Of course, the prototypes of any new technology will usually seem to bear little promise. They are inevitably clumsy, expensive, and often pointless in isolation. After all, it is no use inventing one telephone, or creating new electric plugs that won't fit the old sockets.

But there is something ‘eschatological' about inventions, as the academic theologians put it. Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things'. Inventions share something about the future, the purpose, the End or Goal of creation. The head of IBM in the 1940s said that he could see a world market ‘for maybe five computers' at most. Today Julie has more than five computers, or bits-of-computers-inside-other-machines, in one room. New technology brings in a New Age. It inaugurates a new way of doing things. But that new age has yet fully to dawn.

‘It does not yet appear what we shall be', says St Paul about the future life. Our technological age carries the same thrust into an unknown, perhaps unimaginable, future. It too is frightening, and can seem threatening. But the arrow of time cannot be reversed, and it is to this unknown future that all things are moving.

Technological change, then, is another acted parable of life. Stand still and you're dead. Tomorrow is another world, and we will live in it. Transformation is inevitable.

May God go with us into this, his future.

© Jeff Astley and the North of England Institute for Christian Education, 2008

Jeff invites us to consider some further questions in relation to this reflection.

  • Which machines do people really hate, and which do they love? Which couldn't we do without?
  • By which Christian principles should we judge a new technology?
  • What are the likely future technological revolutions that will affect our lives, and how should Christians respond to them?

Add your comments on this reflection or respond to the questions Jeff raises.

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