30 April 2009

76 questions to ask about any technology

I recently came across the following list of critical questions to be asked of any technology, which has been doing the rounds in the blogosphere. Folk seem to be attributing it to Jacques Ellul but, while it certainly feels like the kind of thing he would have written, I can’t trace it back to one of his writings.

Ecological
  • What are its effects on the health of the planet and of the person?
  • Does it preserve or destroy biodiversity?
  • Does it preserve or reduce ecosystem integrity?
  • What are its effects on the land?
  • What are its effects on wildlife?
  • How much, and what kind of waste does it generate?
  • Does it incorporate the principles of ecological design?
  • Does it break the bond of renewal between humans and nature?
  • Does it preserve or reduce cultural diversity?
  • What is the totality of its effects, its “ecology”?

Social

  • Does it serve community?
  • Does it empower community members?
  • How does it affect our perception of our needs?
  • Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?
  • What are its effects on relationships?
  • Does it undermine conviviality?
  • Does it undermine traditional forms of community?
  • How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?
  • Does it foster a diversity of forms of knowledge?
  • Does it build on, or contribute to, the renewal of traditional forms of knowledge?
  • Does it serve to commodify knowledge or relationships?
  • To what extent does it redefine reality?
  • Does it erase a sense of time and history?
  • What is its potential to become addictive?

Practical

  • What does it make?
  • Who does it benefit?
  • What is its purpose?
  • Where was it produced?
  • Where is it used?
  • Where must it go when it’s broken or obsolete?
  • How expensive is it?
  • Can it be repaired?
  • By an ordinary person?

Moral

  • What values does its use foster?
  • What is gained by its use?
  • What are its effects beyond its utility to the individual?
  • What is lost in using it?
  • What are its effects on the least advantaged in society?

Ethical

  • How complicated is it?
  • What does it allow us to ignore?
  • To what extent does it distance agent from effect?
  • Can we assume personal, or communal responsibility for its effects?
  • Can its effects be directly apprehended?
  • What ancillary technologies does it require?
  • What behavior might it make possible in the future?
  • What other technologies might it make possible?
  • Does it alter our sense of time and relationships in ways conducive to nihilism?

Vocational

  • What is its impact on craft?
  • Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance human creativity?
  • Is it the least imposing technology available for the task?
  • Does it replace, or does it aid human hands and human beings?
  • Can it be responsive to organic circumstance?
  • Does it depress or enhance the quality of goods?
  • Does it depress or enhance the meaning of work?

Metaphysical

  • What aspect of the inner self does it reflect?
  • Does it express love?
  • Does it express rage?
  • What aspect of our past does it reflect?
  • Does it reflect cyclical or linear thinking?

Political

  • Does it concentrate or equalize power?
  • Does it require, or institute a knowledge elite?
  • Is it totalitarian?
  • Does it require a bureaucracy for its perpetuation?
  • What legal empowerments does it require?
  • Does it undermine traditional moral authority?
  • Does it require military defense?
  • Does it enhance, or serve military purposes?
  • How does it affect warfare?
  • Is it massifying?
  • Is it consistent with the creation of a global economy?
  • Does it empower transnational corporations?
  • What kind of capital does it require?

Aesthetic

  • Is it ugly?
  • Does it cause ugliness?
  • What noise does it make?
  • What pace does it set?
  • How does it affect the quality of life (as distinct from the standard of living)?
It strikes me as an interesting and potentially very useful list for anyone debating the implementation of a new piece of technology. And, with a bit of adaptation, it should also work as an examen for anyone trying to make their lifestyle technologically simpler.

More on hybridity

Charlie Stross is blogging at Tor.com this month and has just posted an answer to the question ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ which ties in nicely with my recent post quoting Orhan Pamuk. Says Charlie:

Unlike Roger Zelazny I don’t leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies out by the door; unlike Harlan Ellison I don’t use a mail order supplier in Poughkeepsie. (Or is it the other way around?) I don’t invent invent neat new ideas at all. Instead, I trip over them—because they’re lying around in heaps. The trick is to pick several up at the same time and smush them together until some of them stick to each other—creating something new and interesting.

But, lest anyone think that the art of writing speculative fiction is no more than being able to create interesting new hybrid constellations of ideas, he concludes with the warning:

Ideas, hah. The real challenge in this line of work is being able to weed the productive ones from the chaff, to decide which you’re going to spend the next six to nine months turning into something that people will pay for.

28 April 2009

Doing God’s will

From time to time I find myself asking what God wants me to be doing with my life. It’s the kind of question that surfaces at moments of uncertainty or when I begin to suspect that the things I am doing are largely meaningless. I have just been going through one of those phases and, once again, found myself asking what work God really wants me to be doing.

This time the answer (or, at least, a response) came through the unlikely medium of a blog entry. Country Contemplative recently posted a quotation from Thomas Merton, which reminded me that

If you want to know what is meant by “God’s will”, this is one way to get a good idea of it. “God’s will” is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. …Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other person effectively as a human being, “is willed for me by God under the natural law.” …I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when those who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice. (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76–7)

The point for me is that asking what work, what thing(s), God wants me to do is the wrong question. God is really much more interested in our relationships than in our work. What is God’s will for our lives? Jesus answered the question definitively when he said,

The first [commandment] is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12.29–31)

23 April 2009

Free software for writers

I am something of a sucker for new pieces of software, particularly programs that promise to make the writing process easier and don’t cost anything. So here for your edification are some notes on some free programs that I have come across in my continuing search for the perfect piece of novel writing software.

My current favourite is yWriter. I have already said a bit about it in previous blog entries (here and here). It is now into version 5 and just keeps getting better and better.

Chapter by Chapter is an interesting alternative for folk who really must work in Word. Essentially it is an add-on for Word, which does much the same as Word’s Master Document feature but does it better and far more reliably. Very useful if you want to keep track of a project that consists of multiple Word documents. In fact, I may start using it for journal editing.

Celtx describes itself as ‘the most complete media pre-production software program available anywhere’. It probably does more than the average writer will want, but if you are interested in screenwriting this is definitely a program to look at seriously.

At the other extreme, for people who like a simple text editor without any bells or whistles to distract them from their writing, there is Q10. I seem to recall Gary Gibson recommending this program a couple of years ago. Not really my thing.

I have recently come across a piece of writing software that takes quite a different tack from the above. It is called Papel and works with a really intriguing visual metaphor. Essentially the various elements of your story are represented by icons that can be shuffled around on a storyboard and organized in a variety of ways. I am very tempted to give it a try (perhaps because I’m an inveterate mindmapper). It seems like quite a mature product, which is just as well as the author seems to have stopped developing it in 2006.

21 April 2009

On creative impurity

In one of his books, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk makes the following comment:

Nothing is pure . . . In the realm of the book arts, whenever a masterpiece is made, whenever a splendid picture makes my eyes water out of joy and causes a chill to run down my spine, I can be certain of the following: Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous. (My Name is Red, p. 194)

When I read this, it certainly rang bells with me. (I would be inclined to speak of ‘hybridity’ rather than ‘impurity’, but the latter would be anachronistic for Pamuk’s character.) The books (or passages) that have had most impact on me are those that have taken two (or more) ideas or genres or spheres of life that hitherto I have not connected and fuse them together in a creative manner. One recent example would be Ursula Le Guin’s new novel, Lavinia (of which more later).

20 April 2009

Against theological hubris

A recent blog post by Michael Jensen reminded me of an article in First Things, in which the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart makes the following comments about theology:

theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word ‘God,’ one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.

Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild. And . . . the absence or near-absence of theology from the general curriculum has done incalculable harm to students’ ability to understand their own fields. This is perhaps especially—or at least most obviously—true in the case of literary studies; but, in fact, it would be hard to name a discipline outside the hard sciences or mathematics that can be mastered adequately without some degree of theological literacy.

This is an impossible standard to meet and any theologian who thinks it is achievable is guilty of the most appalling hubris. In light of such a standard, even something as monumental as Barth’s Church Dogmatics is only the stumblings of a relative beginner. In light of such a standard, theology can only be, as Barth put it ‘an act of repentant humility’ (God in Action, p. 44).

12 April 2009

Easter Sunday: resurrection and real presence

A quotation for Easter from Timothy Radcliffe:
To encounter the risen Christ . . . is to be present to the one in whom lies, cowardice, misunderstanding and even death are defeated. He is thus really present, more present than we are to each other, more bodily. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the ‘real presence’ of Jesus. On Easter Sunday he overcame all the absences – the distances, silences, misunderstandings, disloyalties – by which we are separate from one another and from God. He is truly the embodied Word of God which breaks through every barrier. That is what it means for him to say, ‘Peace be with you.’ For him to be risen is, then, not just to be alive once more: it is to be the place of peace in which we meet. (Why Go To Church?, p. 166)

09 April 2009

The Winnieagram: A note on Pooh and sexism

A Note on Pooh and Sexism

Some critics have accused the Pooh corpus of being incorrigibly sexist (see, for example, Germaine Bear’s Pooh and Patriarchy). However, in spite of the great erudition and scholarship shown by Ms Bear and her colleagues, I find their arguments unsatisfactory and essentially superficial, based as they are upon the predominance of the masculine pronoun in Milne’s books.

Against this it is sufficient to point out that, while formally addressed as males (excepting, of course, Kanga), all the characters are in fact soft toys. As is well known soft toys do not, as a rule, display sexual differentiation. They are, therefore, better thought of as androgynous and their social relations, as portrayed in the Pooh corpus, clearly transcend the sexual politics of patriarchy and matriarchy. This Ursinian androgyny again highlights the psychological significance of the Pooh corpus, anticipating as it does Jung’s insights into the androgynous nature of the fully individuated self (see, for example, his Mysterium Coniunctionis).

Another possible line of argument would be to accept the view of some radical feminists that men and women are essentially two different species. If this is granted, then sexism may be understood as a special case of speciesism. And, as Tyerman Williams has pointed out, a charge of speciesism cannot be sustained against Winnie the Pooh.

08 April 2009

The Winnieagram: Christopher Robin and personal growth

Christopher Robin and Personal Growth

The eight ‘Poohsonalities’ are essentially eight different ways in which we respond to the problems and challenges of everyday life. To the extent that we tend to rely on one of these responses to the exclusion of others, we become unbalanced, less than fully human.

The most positive aspect of the Winnieagram is its strong affirmation that every one of us contains all of these ‘Poohsonalities’. Inside every Tigger there is an Eeyore struggling to get out (and vice versa). As we exercise our neglected ‘Poohsonalities’ we become more balanced, better integrated individuals. And the end result of that process? In addition to the individual ‘Poohsonalities’, the Pooh corpus also gives us a picture of the well-integrated, fully rounded human being – that picture is Christopher Robin.

In common with Jung, the Pooh corpus sees a deeper significance in this individuated self. Here the self is identified as Christopher, literally the Christ bearer. Similarly Jung identifies the archetype of the self as the divine image in the human psyche.

However, the process of individuation is fraught with difficulties. Jung and Pooh agree that anyone who embarks on the process confronts a wide range of dangers. In the Pooh corpus these dangers are represented by a variety of metaphors, ranging from Pooh’s often frustrated searches for ‘hunny’ to the disastrous heffalump hunt. As the outcome of the latter reveals, in such circumstances only the guidance of someone who has already reached the Christopher Robin state can enable the individual to move forward (escape from the heffalump trap). Thus, just as Jung insisted that analysis of the unconscious should not attempted without the assistance of a qualified depth psychologist, so Ursinian psychology stresses that development towards the Christopher Robin state requires the guidance of an accredited Winnieagram counsellor.

07 April 2009

The Winnieagram: The eight types

The Eight Types

The Winnieagram is based upon a set of eight distinct personality (or, ‘Poohsonality’) types, which derive their names from the characters that represent them in the books.


Pooh

Pooh types are sociable, down-to-earth and caring. Like Winnie the Pooh, they allow their feelings to guide their actions. This sometimes has disastrous consequences (as, for example, when Pooh decided that Eeyore needed a house to protect him from the snow). They tend to be materialistic with an overdeveloped sensitivity to their own physical well-being (a trait well illustrated by Pooh’s constant awareness of the state of his stomach).


Piglet

Piglet types are quiet, reliable and faithful. They tend to be followers rather than leaders. However, they are capable of great acts of courage and self-sacrifice (it was Piglet who went for Christopher Robin when a flood threatened the Hundred Acre Wood; and it was Piglet who gave up his own home when Owl’s was blown down). They are also people of deep faith – as witness: ‘If Christopher Robin’s coming’, said Piglet, ‘I don’t mind anything.’ and ‘It’s Christopher Robin,’ said Piglet. ‘He’ll know what to do.’ (In both citations, Christopher Robin is clearly symbolic of the divine.)

Theirs is a future-oriented spirituality as revealed by the following dialogue:
‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’
‘What’s for breakfast?’, said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’
‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Tigger

Tigger types are the archetypal creative personalities. This is illustrated in the Pooh corpus by Tigger’s experimental approach to language in such phrases as ‘Worraworraworraworraworra!’ They tend to be bouncy and manic-depressive, characteristics that combine with their native creativity to make them appear larger than life. Or, as Pooh puts it
Whatever his weight
in pounds, shillings, and ounces.
He always seems bigger
because of his bounces.

Rabbit

Rabbits are unusually complex. They are very conscious of their connectedness to others (they tend to think in terms of friends and relations) and yet are also aware of their own uniqueness. They are more intellectual than most (in the Hundred Acre Wood only Owl and Rabbit can read) but combine this with much common sense. This combination marks them out as natural leaders, able to see clearly what needs to be done and how to achieve that goal and able also to direct others to that end. As you would expect, it was Rabbit who took the lead in the unbouncing of Tigger.


Kanga

Kanga is the only explicitly female character in the Hundred Acre Wood (the author hopes, in a future paper, to explore fully the implications of this fact for an Ursinian perspective on sexuality). She thus represents the essentially maternal type of person. Kanga types tend to be enthusiasts for rules and regulations. They can also be fiercely protective of those in their care. At times this combination can make them seem rather authoritarian. Many Kanga types find their way into the caring professions (particularly social work and the priesthood).


Roo

For every Kanga there must be a Roo. Roo types are the necessary complement for Kanga types – they are the type Kanga exists to serve. The Roo type tends to be childlike, dependent on others and irresponsible. He or she exists entirely for present experience.


Owl

Owls are the most intellectual of the types. They are somewhat aloof and, in their conversation, may fly over the heads of others.


Eeyore

Eeyore represents the need of every human being for solitude and quiet reflection. However, taken to extremes he becomes the archetypal recluse and misanthrope. Eeyore types tend to be cynical and pessimistic. They often have intellectual pretensions but this is merely a thin veneer over a deep anti-intellectualism. For example, Eeyore’s response to his discovery that Rabbit could read was as follows:
‘Clever’, said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. ‘Education!’ said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. ‘What is learning?’ asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks in the air. ‘A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!’

The Winnieagram: An Introduction

Some years ago I attended an enneagram workshop for reasons that now elude me. I’m afraid my experiences that weekend simply confirmed my suspicions that that approach to personality types simply did not cohere with my worldview.

One thing did emerge from that weekend: I wrote a little parody of the enneagram based on Winnie-the-Pooh. And, since I’m feeling a bit frivolous at the moment, I’ve decided to post it on my blog. Here’s the introduction:


The Winnieagram: An Introduction

Ursinian scholarship has advanced rapidly since the publication in 1979 of Frederick Crews’ seminal The Pooh Perplex. One has only to think of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh (1982) and The Te of Piglet (1992) to realise that Winnie-the-Pooh is no mere children’s classic but rather a text that encapsulates a wealth of human wisdom. That insight has been fruitfully applied to theology (in Christopher Idle’s influential sequence of papers ‘An Ongoing Theology of Winnie the Pooh’) and philosophy (notably in John Tyerman Williams’s Pooh and the Philosophers (1995)). However, as far as the author is aware, no one has previously noted Winnie the Pooh’s crucial role in the history of psychology. And yet there can be little doubt that Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner deserve to be treated as seminal psychology texts on a par with Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life or Jung’s Symbols of Transformation. The present paper seeks to address in a modest way this unfortunate lacuna in Ursinian studies.

The task of giving a detailed exposition of the wealth of psychological insight to be gleaned from Winnie the Pooh and his friends is beyond the scope of a single paper. Instead I propose to outline a typology of human personality inspired by the Ursinian tradition. Known as the Winnieagram, the history of this typology is shrouded in mystery. However the clear dependence of other psychological typologies (such as the classical Hellenistic doctrine of temperaments and the Sufi-inspired Enneagram) upon the Winnieagram bears witness to its ancient origins.

One tradition traces the usual graphical representation of the Winnieagram (an eight-pointed star arranged around a ninth central point) to the layout of a Neolithic stone circle that once stood at the heart of what is now the Hundred Acre Wood. Sadly all traces of this circle have long since vanished and it is now quite impossible to confirm this suggestion.

An alternative history, favoured by the neo-theosophical school of Ursinian Studies, relies upon the hypothesis that Winnie the Pooh is, in fact, a Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos). Thus, it is argued, Winnie the Pooh’s psychological insights may traced to Tibet, that home of so much mystical wisdom.

The Kingdom of Nature

I recently discovered that my PhD thesis is available online via EthOS, the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online Service. You have to register to use the service, but that is a fairly painless procedure and then you can search for my thesis, The Kingdom of Nature: God’s Providential Care for the Non-Human or, indeed, any other thesis you would rather read. My thesis has already been digitized and is available free of charge as a 15Mb pdf file. If what you are looking for hasn’t yet been digitized there may be some delay in getting hold of it, and some institutions make a charge for downloading a thesis.

03 April 2009

Good news from Westminster

No, not the city but the Roman Catholic archdiocese. I’ve just heard that Vincent Nichols, currently Archbishop of Birmingham, is to be the new Archbishop of Westminster. This has got to be a good thing for Roman Catholicism in England and Wales. I got to know him slightly at the end of the 1980s when he was Secretary to the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales and I was working for The Gospel and Our Culture.

Sections of the media have tried to portray him as ambitious and divisive, perhaps because he has had the courage to speak out against some of the shibboleths of contemporary secularism. By contrast, my memories of him are of a good listener, someone who is thoughtful, someone who has a gift for chairing difficult meetings and somehow bringing them to a constructive conclusion.