Virtual Idea Lab
Wednesday
Jul162014

Book Review of "Alone Together" by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle is written in an engaging yet scholarly style easily accessible to a broad audience.

Turkle’s focus is the constant yet shallow technological connectivity of today’s youth culture (particularly high school and college students), and its significant impact on interpersonal relationships as well as the whole of our society.

In the book’s introduction Turkle makes the profound statement, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.[1]” This strikes at the very heart of the matter: we humans crave intimacy but fear the risk and vulnerability that come along with it.

The author touches a nerve with both the young and the not-so-young in this work that is both incisive and insightful. Turkle herself admits to loving technology (in a 2012 TED talk she refers to getting an encouraging text from her daughter as being “like getting a hug”), but insists that too much can be problematic. Texts are convenient, and can be useful and even uplifting, but they do not work very well for truly getting to know someone.

In the internet’s early days, Turkle recounts that users would occasionally unplug, step back, and learn from the virtual world how they could be better human beings in the real world. With the more recent proliferation of mobile devices, she says that we are now allowing these technologies to take us to places we never wanted to go. 

Real life human relationships are rich, as well as messy. In our high-tech age of constant connection through the web, we assume the make-believe persona of avatars interacting in a virtual world. On-line we can edit and re-touch the thoughts and images of the versions of ourselves that we present to others. We hide behind our profiles, showing each other only the attributes we want others to see, rather than the real, whole person that each of us is. This absence of vulnerability results in a world lacking in true intimacy: a world in which one neither knows nor is known by anyone else.

We are fearful of being alone, but also fearful of the risks associated with intimacy. Turkle implicates the sense of control offered by technology in masquerading as the antidote to our fears and vulnerabilities. Even as we complain about the distractions of multi-tasking and never having anyone’s full attention, our mobile devices offer us a façade of control. They allow us to control exactly where we put our attention; to make sure we always have an audience (via our texts, posts, shares, etc.); and to always be connected, however superficially. Additionally, technology offers us distraction from a sometimes painful present reality, allowing us to postpone or even completely avoid contemplation or self-reflection. Turkle revises Rene Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” into the more contemporarily descriptive, “I share, therefore I am.”

The author points out that this controlled virtual connectedness gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of real world friendship. A step beyond on-line communities and social media, robot pets and companions appear to fill the need for someone who listens and shows compassion, but it is merely the clever pretense of programmed artificial intelligence.

Ironically, our technological ability to satisfy the need to be heard has turned us into very poor listeners and friends to anyone or anything other than what we selfishly find attractive and interesting. Turkle observes that it is in listening to the boring and imperfect parts of real human conversations that we really get to know each other.

Turkle worries that this pervasive craving for constant connection exacerbates our inability to be alone, asserting that if we are not able to be alone we are only going to end up more lonely.

Prescriptively, the author asserts that we need to create the time and space for greater awareness, reflection and conversation about how technology is changing us individually and as a society. Furthermore, we must insist that technology lead us back to the real world and our real lives.

As Christians, we have an even higher calling to make sure that our use of technology demonstrates love for our fellow humans, rather than exploiting our fellow humans through our love of technology.

This book is a very well written, thought provoking and enjoyable read. 

- Leslie Wickman, Ph.D., Center for Research in Science, Azusa Pacific University.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 1.

Monday
Mar312014

CNN op-ed on Discovery of Gravity Waves

Opinion by Leslie A. Wickmanspecial to CNN

(CNN) The remarkable discovery, announced this week, of ripples in the space-time fabric of the universe rocked the world of science  and the world of religion.

Touted as evidence for inflation (a faster-than-the-speed-of-light expansion of our universe), the new discovery of traces of gravity waves affirms scientific concepts in the fields of cosmology, general relativity, and particle physics.

The new discovery also has significant implications for the Judeo-Christian worldview, offering strong support for biblical beliefs.

Here's how.

The prevalent theory of cosmic origins prior to the Big Bang theory was the “Steady State,” which argued that the universe has always existed, without a beginning that necessitated a cause.

However, this new evidence strongly suggests that there was a beginning to our universe.

If the universe did indeed have a beginning, by the simple logic of cause and effect, there had to be an agent – separate and apart from the effect – that caused it.

That sounds a lot like Genesis 1:1 to me: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.”

So this latest discovery is good news for us believers, as it adds scientific support to the idea that the universe was caused – or created – by something or someone outside it and not dependent on it.

Atheist-turned-agnostic astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang,” famously stated, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics."

As Hoyle saw it, the Big Bang was not a chaotic explosion, but rather a very highly ordered event – one that could not have occurred by random chance.

We also need to remember that God reveals himself both through scripture and creation. The challenge is in seeing how they fit together. A better understanding of each can inform our understanding of the other.

It’s not just about cracking open the Bible and reading whatever we find there from a 21st-century American perspective. We have to study the context, the culture, the genre, the authorship and the original audience to understand the intent.

The creation message in Genesis tells us that God created a special place for humans to live and thrive and be in communion with him; that God wants a relationship with us, and makes provisions for us to have fellowship with him, even after we turn away from him.

So, we know that Genesis was never intended to be a detailed scientific handbook, describing how God created the universe. It imparts a theological, not a scientific, message.

(Imagine how confusing messages about gravity waves and dark matter might be to ancient Hebrew readers.)

As a modern believer and a scientist, when I look up at the sky on a clear starry night, I am reminded that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). I am in awe of the complexity of the physical world, and how all of its pieces fit together so perfectly and synergistically.

In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, the writer tells us that God “established (his) covenant with day and night, and with the fixed laws of heaven and earth.”

These physical laws established by God to govern interactions between matter and energy result in a finely tuned universe that provides the ideal conditions for life on our planet.

As we observe the complexity of the cosmos, from subatomic particles to dark matter and dark energy, we quickly conclude that there must be a more satisfying explanation than random chance. Properly practiced, science can be an act of worship in looking at God’s revelation of himself in nature.

If God is truly the creator, then he will reveal himself through what he’s created, and science is a tool we can use to uncover those wonders.

(Posted on CNN Belief Blog at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/03/20/does-the-big-bang-breakthrough-offer-proof-of-god/)

Saturday
Jan142012

High Sierra Stargazing

I took my Astronomy students stargazing the other night in the clear, dark skies of the High Sierra... We spotted the Pleiades, Pegasus, Taurus (Aldebaran), Orion (Betelgeuse & Rigel), Canis Major (Sirius), Canis Minor (Procyon), Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dippers, the Milky Way, Jupiter, and much more. The following morning we had chapel in the fresh air in the midst of spectacular mountain scenery... Does it get any better this side of eternity?!?

Saturday
Apr302011

The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking, co-author of The Grand Design with Leonard Mlodinow, is a contender for the dual monikers “smartest man in the world”, and “greatest scientist since Einstein.” His new book asserts that our universe – as well as others – could have come into existence spontaneously from nothing, without any help from God. Many other scientists who have come before him have also tried to remove God from the origins equation.

The authors start out this book by saying that while the big existential questions used to be left to philosophers, philosophy is now dead, because it hasn’t kept up with modern science, which is a very bold and controversial statement to say the least. Some might say that the authors haven’t kept up with philosophy!

The authors insist that any ideas that are incompatible with modern physics must be wrong, yet they ignore the historical track record of science’s iterative process, rife with errors and misconceptions, followed by corrections and paradigm shifts.

The Scientific Method never proves anything: we’re just looking for the best explanation given the evidence that we have so far, all the while realizing that new evidence could show up tomorrow that would turn what we think we know on its head.

He also neatly brushes aside the uncertainty introduced by the very quantum physics he needs for M-theory. Hawking paints a picture of a purely materialistic cosmos, where cause and effect determinism rules, and there is no room for free will. So, the big deal of this new book is that Hawking proclaims that “the laws of physics allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing”. Well, we already see that God works through the processes and physical laws that he’s established, and that only adds to our wonder and awe of Him. But, the thinking person’s first response should be, “Why are there laws of physics, and where did they come from? And why these particularly special laws that supposedly allow universes to appear from nothing?”

The only “explanation” Hawking gives is that these are the specific laws that must exist in order to get our universe, which is merely a tautology, or truism, not an actual explanation of the reason that these laws came to be. So, Hawking does nothing to address the cosmological questions of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Why is there order rather than chaos?” for these laws of physics. He simply states that there must be a law like gravity in order to have a universe with mass in it… He does not address the question of why there are any laws at all!

Neither does he address any of the other classical arguments for belief in God, such as:

  • the ontological argument of where man’s God-consciousness comes from;
  • nor the anthropological question, of where man’s moral conscience and religious experiences originate;
  • nor the teleological argument from design and purpose;
  • etc…

Also, let’s not forget the Principle of Logic that says you can’t prove a negative: thus, it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God.

All Hawking is really doing is simply promoting a materialistic worldview that attempts to make it easier for a physicist to discount God… There’s nothing substantially new here: it’s just re-packaged “Naturalism.” And to be fair, he does admit at the end of the book that his theory is yet to be confirmed by observation.

As Carlin Romano from The Chronicle Review concludes:

“Many (scientific cosmologists) would rather be bound, gagged, and abandoned in a rundown multiverse than take nonscientific cosmology seriously, or admit that some matters, if not matter itself, fall outside their expertise.”

Saturday
Apr302011

Dad passed away 9-11-00

My father, Walter L. Wickman, passed away the morning of September 11th, 2000. Due to God's perfect timing, my mom and I were blessed to be there as he passed from this life into the next. We stopped by the hospice care center for a short visit on my way back to the airport to fly home, after having spent the majority of the previous several days with him.

In the brief time we were there, Mom asked me to read Dad a heartfelt card expressing deep, shared emotions from one of our in-laws, and afterwards suggested that I sing to him. I sang "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" and "Lift High the Cross" (a song that was especially meaningful since Dad had just taught it to me some weeks earlier from his hospital bed, requesting that it be sung at his memorial service).  It was while I was singing to him that he quietly slipped away. It was really quite peaceful, in contrast to the past few days when he'd had seizure after seizure. As a friend who was also there visiting at the time reflected, we had the amazing privilege of escorting him into God's presence!

My brothers and I participated in the memorial service, with John sharing some favorite scripture verses, and Mark reflecting on the man that Dad was. I talked about the closeness Dad and I had gained in the last few weeks of his life, which I had been longing for essentially all of my life. I also sang the two songs I'd been singing as he passed away, with the help of a dear family friend.

At the end of the service, the guests had an opportunity to talk about their memories of Dad. Hearing these people remember Dad really blessed me, as I was able to see how he had given so much of himself to others, and touched so many lives in so many positive ways.

Since Dad has been gone, I've had a strong sense of our time here being very short, and that I need to make the most of it. I feel like I've been more "heavenly-minded", trying to focus more on things of lasting value. I find myself thinking more about what heaven will be like, and how the things we consider unfinished business here will either lose their importance, or somehow be brought to perfection in eternity. "For I am confident of this very thing: that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it…" (Phillipians 1:6).