Sunday, July 26, 2009

Through A Glass Darkly

[With the exception of the July 20, 2009 post, Tranquility Base :: Magnificent Desolation, this is the final installment in a series of five posts that have run consecutively this month beginning July 4, 2009]

Though only three monumental innovations in glass have been discussed above, there is a similarly astounding feature that all three hold in common: Each of these culture-forming glass products was produced by a single companyCorning Glass Works of Corning, New York. As it relates to apologetics it seems fair to contemplate how a single source could have such a far-reaching technological impact on our culture, while the church seems to sit in passive awe of the trends that developed around it. Corning has never been a company bent on the destruction of Christendom. The town of Corning, New York and the founders of the company that adopted its name were each pictures of the great American traditions of ingenuity, hard work, and God-fearing immigrants who brought both to bear in a quest for dignity and success.*

The goods Corning produced were inherently incapable of fostering the humanistic outcomes that sprouted from them. Light bulbs, TV tubes and fiber optic cables are inanimate objects. The culture that these objects helped to form can only be seen in the light of man’s proclivity for abusing them. But it has not always been that way.

Most of the original glass produced by man was used in the realm of art. And some of the most exquisite glass artworks ever made were the stained glass windows in medieval churches and monasteries. Benedictine monks injected huge amounts of time, money and skill into those windows because they saw them as a way to glorify God.* Contrary to the passive, visual epistemology inherent to the TV age, glass was originally a thinking tool that revolutionized modern science.* And though it may have enabled the cause, glass itself did not give rise to the infatuation with the self, the individualism, the human autonomy and anonymity that it was later used to enhance. In fact, mirrors were originally thought to be abominable for their god-like ability to duplicate a living thing.*

It is not glass that sees darkness as a nuisance to be conquered. It is the human who flips the light switch, oblivious to the infrastructure that exists behind it, who has forgotten that God created the light. It is not glass that preys on the self-infatuated consumer of television. It is the humanistic idolater who accepts baser and baser forms of entertainment, unmindful of his own propensity to see his personal choices as his highest aspiration. It is not glass that gladly accepts a disconnected anonymity in relationships. It is the self-absorbed Internet surfer at his isolated desk, clicking icons on his personal computer, who makes the choice to do so.

Glass itself is not evil. The legacy of glass lives on in the way it reflects man’s tendency to use and admire the fruits of his own creative abilities. It is a testament to his being made in God’s image that man can create at all. Technology in general, and glass in particular, shines as a testament to the originality of the human mind and its ability to reflect the intentionality of God. But when the created object diverts our focus, the original image we were meant to honor becomes blurred. Just as a flaw in a mirror or lens distorts the object we seek to examine, so the image of God is lost in a self-generated fog. Glass is just one component of the "worldliness [that] has concealed its values so adroitly in the abundance, the comfort, and the wizardry of our age that even those who call themselves people of God seldom recognize them for what they are."*

As stated at the outset, the physical substance of glass is distinctive. It is not just matter, but a state of the matter’s being. Likewise, the unique story of glass is also a story of the way in which technology can twist our ontological state to be in complete opposition to the way God meant it. This is not unique. It is that same human proclivity that deformed the shalom* inherent in the Garden of Eden into the vile setting that became a killing field for Cain. But in the story of glass we can also seize Paul’s optimistic proposal that though we now "see through a glass darkly," in the future we shall see face to face. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, at the time we will be able to see our Creator in that way, the depiction of the setting we are given is one in which we lie prone in worship before a sea of crystal clear glass. We should approach our technological achievements, and the ways in which we use them, with the eternal perspective of that time and that place, fully before our minds.

{Dyer and Gross, 1-90}
{Macfarlane and Martin, 20, 14, 60}
{Wells, p. 29}
{Cornelius Plantinga. Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be. p. 10. Plantinga defines shalom as more than peace. "In the Bible," he says, "shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight."}

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tranquility Base :: "Magnificent Desolation"

There is a rectangular shadow in the middle of this picture ... the kind of thing that, when seen on a place like the Moon, tells you immediately that something unusual is up. Non-natural looking things don't belong in places where people haven't been. No matter what the materialists try to tell us, things that show the appearance of design usually do so because they are, well, designed. It's just an observation ... I'm just saying ... but the reason I bring it up is because the object casting that rectangular shadow is indeed man-made. It is the descent stage of the Eagle -- Apollo 11's Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) -- that touched down there 40 years ago today and will, in all probability, remain exactly where it is until the universe experiences heat death.

Forty years is less than a blip in cosmic time but it seems like forever ago to me. I was playing Monopoly with my parents that night. I was five days shy of my 10th birthday so staying up for what seemed like an eternity between the landing and Neil Armstrong's history-making "giant leap for mankind" was a big deal. I guess they knew there was no way they were going to keep me in bed on a night like that. It was the night I decided I would be the first man on Mars -- me and every other 10 year-old on Earth.

Shortly after touchdown on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility, we heard Flight Control's response from Houston:
"Roger ... Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"
We didn't know that night how close the whole thing came to being a complete disaster. The computer system had frozen up. Armstrong disconnected the autopilot -- a stunt that during practice back on terra firma had always ended in a tumbling crash -- and landed the contraption manually. When they touched down, they were almost out of fuel.

Tranquility Base.

There will be plenty documentaries and remembrances about Apollo 11 but what strikes me about it now are things I never considered important back then. While I know for sure that I imagined myself piloting a spaceship and being heroic, I don't remember ever considering the idea that all of us down here on Earth were spellbound by the enormity of the event. We could all look up at the Moon at the same time and know that two of our fellow earthlings were actually up there standing in the moon dust. Though it was an American accomplishment, it was more than that. It was an astounding triumph for humanity. The plaque on one leg of the LEM, signed by President Nixon, spoke for us all.

"We Came In Peace For All Mankind"

Forty years later we don't seem to all be looking up anymore. Peace seems like an alien concept. Our world is anything tranquil. For all the potential the mission of Apollo 11 had to remind us of our common human condition, it only lasted for a brief blip in time. Not long thereafter the whole thing became just another news story. By the time Apollo 17 completed its mission, no one seemed to be watching at all.

Everyone remembers what Neil Armstrong said when he became the 1st man on the Moon, but few remember the first words that came to Buzz Aldrin's mind when he became the 2nd man on the Moon: "Magnificent desolation"

It says something about us that we can dream so big, that we can achieve so much, that we can forget the things that should unite us so quickly, and that we can be so awed by the magnificence of the creation. We are flawed creatures who are too easily enthralled with our own importance and too distracted by trying to prove it that we lose any sense of what is really real. We are so busy working on the next thing we forget to reflect on the True thing. We become so overwhelmed with the past and the future that we forget about the now.

But every once in a while we stop.

We recognize our fallen nature and realize that in all our technological bluster and extravagance we still fail to find tranquility and peace. We realize that we are lost in the vastness of a purpose so big we cannot comprehend it. Overwhelmed, we dismiss it too easily. In our hearts we understand that we cannot begin to contemplate how lost we are and how badly we need to be saved ... but we do know it.

I was not, and will not be, the first man on Mars. But forty years later that plaque on the LEM is still up there casting that rectangular shadow -- a tiny marvel of technology amid a tranquil sea of magnificent desolation. My self-serving aim was destined to fail but the reality that hits me when I reconsider the meaning of it all is a sobering one that I will cling to forever and try to pass on to others ...

We are small, but we can still look up. Only then does it all make sense.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Warped Wide Web

[This is the 4th of 5 posts in this series]

As early as 1880, Alexander Graham Bell succeeded in reflecting light off a vibrating mirror to send a signal to a distant receiver. The idea of sending messages on a beam of light was an interesting but impractical innovation that faded into oblivion behind the success of radio and microwave communication. But in 1970, Donald Keck, Robert Maurer and Peter Schultz successfully transmitted light down a fused silica strand of the world’s purest glass.* These three scientists had invented the first fiber optic cable. The information carrying capacity of their invention was literally earth shattering. Today a single pound of fiber optic cable is capable of transmitting a volume of information that would otherwise require two metric tons of copper wire. In the thirty years since their breakthrough, more than thirty million kilometers of fiber optic cable have been deployed around the world. With that deployment, the high-bandwidth, lightning-fast Internet, capable of broadcasting audio, video and computer data, was born.*

Information is what drives the modern world. But raw information disconnected from context is dangerous. The receipt of information without reference to any social or intellectual function it might serve generates mere novelty, a fragmented collage of the sensational and impersonal. The Internet generates a sea of such decontextualized information that is perfectly capable of traveling around the globe unfettered by any effort to verify, explain or analyze it.* Devoid of checks and balances, and unhinged from any accountability to the truth, a flood of such information is available to us at the click of a button.

But information does not entail knowledge. And if properly functioning knowledge is wisdom, we should be highly suspect of the Internet’s ability to offer us either. Christianity’s distinctiveness from the world relies on the value it places on truth and the knowledge and wisdom that can be gained from it. Christians must realize that they are no less susceptible to this misinformation and lack of wisdom than the world around them. Fifty percent of households have Internet access in their homes, compared to forty eight percent among born again Christians.* The focus of the church is almost always on the content of the Internet. But it must also beware that, like television, the Internet offers subtle, but no less dangerous, ramifications from its use.

Fiber optics allows us to view information with stunning detail and an authoritative presentation that implies credibility where there may be none – and interpersonal communication where none really exists. The ubiquity of such information, and effortless access to it, has shrunk our world to the point that we can "experience" nearly anything we desire without ever leaving our desk. We can: shop for supplies, sell our possessions, buy products that arrive at our doorsteps within hours, contribute to charitable causes, earn college diplomas, carry on conversations stripped of body language, make "friends," destroy our marriages and families by falling in love and arranging sexual liaisons; all without any form of actual human contact. This ability is not just unique to our time, and not just possible because of technology, it is a capacity that would never have been conceivable without it. And it is completely antithetical to the Biblical concept of a human person.

Within the doctrine of the Trinity, and as consummated on the day Adam received his helper, the social dimension of the person is unique to our design. Yet the Internet allows us to bypass it at our will. Anonymity not only shuns accountability, it permits both an unchecked retreat into the dark corners of the corrupted human self, and the denial of reality concerning personhood. The Internet cannot be solely blamed for the tendency of man to withdraw into himself, but it is a devastatingly proficient modern vehicle for accelerating that inclination. Marriages, families and congregations of believers all suffer from the damaging effects of a technology driven mindset that cultivates an injured and isolated human soul.

{Juran, 42}
{Donald B. Keck. “Optical Fiber Spans 30 Years.” LightWave Special Reports, July, 2000}
{Postman, 65-70. Though his discussion here is in reference to the birth of telegraphy, the concepts he touches on are just as relevant, and even more far-reaching, with regard to the Internet.}
{Barna Research Group – 2000 Survey}

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Seeing Is Believing: The Boob Tube

[This is the 3rd of 5 posts in this series]

James Giffen
was a farmer turned glassmaker who dropped a lump of molten glass into a spinning mold one day and formed the first glass casserole dish. Giffen’s invention seemed mundanely useful until 1949 when the newly developing television industry needed an odd-shaped glass form in which to project its image. Ignoring the experts who denounced his improvisation, Giffen experimented with glass flow, redesigned his casserole mold into the shape of a funnel, and spun the first glass TV tube into existence.* Once again glass was at the forefront of a revolutionizing technology that would never allow the world to be the same again.

Much has been written about the content of TV and its ever-declining level of sordid entertainment, its success in transforming the verbal and print culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into today’s visual culture,* and of its ability to promote a feelings dominated view of reality over an intellectually based view. All of these are part of a larger, more consequential effect of TV – that it "serve[s] in our culture a role once reserved for God: the role of defining reality."*

Television is the primary means by which most of us know things. Both by what it shows us overtly and by what it fails to show us, TV controls what we consider to be real about this life. And, because the revenue stream it can generate is what primarily drives TV, it is the life force of capitalist consumerism. Television sells us things by appealing to our most base humanistic leanings. Its success as a medium lies there – in promoting the notion that the central reality of life is us and the choices we make for and about ourselves.

With TV everything is a commodity to be sold on personal appeal. Its power to sell commodities to needy buyers has permeated every aspect of the culture to include our view of the church. The shopper’s paradigm, reinforced by generations of TV-addicted churchgoers, has relegated religion to the state of just another commodity. And the church, ill equipped to resist the trend, responds in two self-defeating ways. On one view, it succumbs to the power of public tastes and assimilates the culture into the church. Here its acceptance of the seeker-sensitive consumer model too often leads to a seeker-centered church that fails to train disciples.* The church becomes "of the world, but not in the world."* On the other view, it races to construct barriers that isolate it from having any hope of influencing the surrounding society, and withdraws into irrelevance.*

Television as a visual medium can present a story, but not an argument. And the story it presents is one in which the consumer’s need is sovereign and the customer is always right. The customer can have anything he wants and he will be satisfied only when he gets it. In the TV marketplace, everything is for us, for our pleasure, and for our satisfaction.* To the contrary, Christianity offers us the high probability of suffering indignity, loss, damage, and pain.* It is a faith in which instant gratification and the customer’s satisfaction are not guaranteed in this life. If Jesus promises us that "in this world [we] will have trouble," that is a message we will never get while watching TV.

{Juran, 53}
{Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves To Death. p. 26}
{Kenneth Myers. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. p. 161}
{Greg Koukl. “What’s Wrong With Being Seeker Centered?” Radio transcript from Stand To Reason, 2004}
{Myers, p. 18}
{Vincent Miller. "Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture." Interview: Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 69, July/August 2004)}
{David Wells. God In The Wasteland. p. 114, 82, 115}

Thursday, July 9, 2009

When The Light Bulb Went On

[This is the 2nd of 5 posts in this series]

When Thomas Edison invented the slow-burning filament light in the late 19th Century, it was little more than a curious gadget in a clear globe. If his invention was to become practical, Edison needed a glass enclosure sturdy enough to withstand the atmospheric pressure that would crush it when the required vacuum was created inside it. Glassblowers found ways to produce several of these bulbs a day. But when Edison’s invention met William Woods’ ingenuity in 1922, the real cultural impact of the glass light bulb was realized. Woods’ Ribbon Machine allowed molten glass to sag through holes into moving molds and was capable of producing thousands of light bulbs per minute.* It was the first of many products that "…would transform [glass] from a handmade specialty product into a machine-made commodity."*

Here we see the first evidence of the transformational power glass would have on modern culture. The process that led to the Ribbon Machine began in 1880 when Edison first went out in a search of a bulb maker. So it can reasonably be said that the light bulb-producing Ribbon Machine, which preceded Ford’s assembly line, was one of the original catalysts of our fully industrialized society. Machines such as this wedded technology to capitalism, fostered efficiency and automation, and thereby transformed modern culture in profound ways. For it was the birth of an industrial society that soon helped divide "the private realm of family and faith from the public realm of business and industry."* Prior to that time, most work was done in small villages, on family farms, or in the home itself. But with the appearance of mass-production factories, men were drawn away from the home by their work.

This change led not only to a weakened view of the importance of the home itself, but also to a radical change in the roles of men and women.* The modern workplace became more economically and personally disconnected from the home. In order to protect the family from the disappearing values of modernity, women and children were legally prohibited from working in the factories. As a result society, with the blessing of the church, put forth a "doctrine of separate spheres" that purposefully pressed for a dissection of the public world of business and finance from the private world of home and family.*

The mass production of the glass light bulb was just one development in a general trend of industrialization that led to these cultural implications. But the light bulb itself can also be seen to play a more specific role in the cultural transformation – as an icon of man’s power over nature. That same light bulb, the production of which required the factories that stole men from their homes and families, was also used to transform those factories into twenty-four hour-a-day production facilities. In a subtle but profound way the light bulb became a symbol of human ingenuity’s promise to conquer nature itself. Light bulbs allowed factories to run continuously through the night with total disregard for what had previously been a natural limitation on efficient work. Darkness became nothing more than a nuisance.

The light bulb was not only party to the industrial revolution, but also specifically able to overcome some of the physical limitations of the world. If darkness could be overcome simply by man’s own proclamation to let there be light, there was no reason to suspect any other natural barrier might dare stand in the way of his progress. Today that attitude lives on in the minds of genetic engineers who see embryonic stems cells as nothing more than the latest means to reach a similar end.

Man’s view of nature was not the only casualty that resulted from the technological impact of glass. Glass has also been complicit in the modernist distortion of the proper view of Christianity and culture.

{Juran, p. 52}
{Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross. The Generations of Corning. p. 57}
{Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth. pp. 327, 329, 330}

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Window To The Soul

[This is the 1st of 5 posts in this series]

For the next several posts I am going to literally put technology under a magnifying glass. There is little doubt that technology has impacted our culture in both good and bad ways. My aim over the next few weeks is to use a single technological breakthrough as a powerful example of how that has happened. The technological marvel I will use to illustrate this is one that most of us probably do not think of when we think "high-tech": GLASS. But I hope you will be as surprised as I was to learn just how significant an impact glass has had on our culture. This series of posts springs from a paper I wrote during my graduate work in Christian Apologetics. I share it with you because the more I researched the topic while writing the paper, the more fascinating it became for me. I hope it has the same eye-opening effect on you as it did on me. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts about the topic (Editor's Note: Because this series of posts is based on a research paper, it draws from sources that would be very cumbersome to footnote properly on a blogsite. Where sources are used, I will annotate them with an * and list them at the bottom of each post. Anyone interested in further information contained in those sources should feel free to contact me for more detailed bibliographical information or explanation about the source ... thanks in advance). Here goes ...

Technically glass is neither a liquid nor a solid, but a hybrid state of matter with the random molecular structure of a liquid and all the rigidity of a solid.* Though its natural origins exist in the cooled lava of ancient volcanoes, man began to produce glass for himself about four thousand years ago. From the beginning, man’s quest to perfect and use glass to his advantage has also been a hybrid story. That story is more than a list of technological and artistic achievements. It is also a story of the profound ways in which glass has impacted man and his culture.

From the first rudimentary attempts by northern Europeans to allow light, and retain heat, in their homes, to the birth of the high speed Internet, glass has taken us from windows to Windows®. Historically, glass has played a veiled but weighty role in the philosophical and practical foundations of humanity’s ability to expand its reliable knowledge base.* The unique properties of glass – its transparency to allow viewing and its resistance to chemical change – helped make it an essential link in the chain of developments that led from man’s accurate knowledge of the laws of nature, to the resultant industrial revolution, and to the high-tech society in which we live. Of the twenty most important scientific experiments in human history, sixteen would not have been possible without glass.* Some consider glass to be a "sine qua non of the development of the experimental method we call science."*

But these modern transformations were not merely technological and they were never isolated. The same advancements in optics that led to our improved understanding of light, physics, cosmology and biology also led to revolutionary changes in the artistic representation of nature in Renaissance art.* The same mirrors that were used in the application of geometry to modern science also became instruments of human vanity and self-assessment.* A look at the history of glass reveals a distinctive pattern of repeatedly connecting the material and intellectual realms. Glass not only changed our understanding of the world, it changed the way we understand the world. Glass expanded what we know and forever altered how we know it. It is glass through which the light of the sun enters our homes, and the darkness of a perverted humanity enters our minds.

{Sylvia Juran (Editor). Innovations in Glass. p 7}
{Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin. Glass: A World History. p. 27}
{Macfarlane and Martin from: Rom Harré, Great Scientific Experiments That Changed Our View of the World}