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Embodiment Snatchers

Technology and how it shapes our perception.

Technology has brought remarkable changes to the world, and these changes are accelerating with new advances in medicine, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the worldwide “internet of things,” to name only a few. The most dramatic change, however, may be invisible to us – a change to the way we think.

Technology is not just a tool that we wield; it is the medium through which we sense and interact with the world. As technology mediates our experiences and actions, it slowly shapes how we perceive things. Gradually, changes in perception can change how we think about reality, and ultimately ourselves.

Take the telescope, for example. It provided an extension for the eye, allowing us to peer much further into the cosmos. The telescope allowed early astronomers like Galileo to observe that the earth, and by extension humanity, was not the centre of the universe. Look how immense the universe really is, and how small we are in comparison! The telescope changed our perception of ourselves.

Likewise, “the pill” not only provided a means of contraception, but, by separating sex from procreation, it changed behaviour and attitudes surrounding sex, family and marriage. As thinking changed, so did the prevailing culture.

Modern digital technology has also had an impact on how we perceive ourselves. Smartphones encourage us to disregard our surroundings and social media allows us to curate our own personas. Cyberspace allows us to travel without our bodies and virtual reality allows us to create our own imaginary worlds. All these technologies can distract us and subtly change our thinking about embodied human existence.

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C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters imagines a series of letters between a junior devil, Wormwood, and his Uncle Screwtape. In one letter, Screwtape advises his nephew to tempt his target by “withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real.’”

Many of our modern devices do just that: “fix our attention on the stream” and present it as “real life.”

The devaluing of embodied existence is not new. An early church heresy called gnosticism arose from both Greek and pagan influences and viewed matter as evil and the spirit as good. Bodies were seen as a necessary evil until the spirit could eventually be freed. Like the gnostics of old, there are now futurists who are yearning for a day when they can discard the limits of their bodies, but rather than freeing the spirit they aspire to download their brains into a computer where they hope to live forever. As modern digital technologies unwittingly nudge us towards disembodied experiences, we may detect a change in thinking towards a kind of neo-gnostism.

As we celebrate Easter and remember Christ’s resurrection, Christians are reminded of the importance of our bodies. Christ’s incarnation points to a God who deeply values our embodied existence. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Nicene creed, written in part to contradict gnosticism, states that Christ “became incarnate” and “was made human.” Furthermore, Jesus ascended into heaven in human form. If the medium is the message, then Christ’s incarnation, resurrection and bodily ascension point the importance of embodied human existence.

The famous media philosopher Marshall McLuhan once observed that the “content of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” As technology continues to unfold we need to be alert, and master our devices rather than allowing them to master us.

Finally, we need to celebrate the technologies and practices that affirm our embodied human existence in the here and now, even as we look forward to the “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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