Mark Ireland has just written a fascinating Grove booklet on Surveillance Capitalism and the Loving Gaze of God. He begins by noting both the positive and the negative aspects of the internet, both for living and for Christian discipleship and ministry.
I love technology—the connectedness, the ready flow of information and ideas. When I was growing up, if you wanted to influence public opinion your options were pretty limited. You could write a letter to the local paper, you could organize a petition, or you could plan a public demonstration. Now if I want to share a thought or idea, I can write something on a social media post or a blog, and it can travel round the world while I sleep. When I was a young teacher in a mission school in the foothills of the Himalayas, keeping in touch with my mother meant writing a letter (never my strong point) and then waiting for two or three weeks to receive a letter back, answering questions I may have forgotten asking. Today it is so different—I am able to keep in touch with a friend who is a young mission partner in an isolated part of East Africa instantly by WhatsApp.
And yet recent events in the news have highlighted dangers of the accumulation of power in the hands of a very few individuals and companies, for whom knowledge is power. In the USA a high-powered Congressional Committee summoned the four big tech titans from Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook and shone a spotlight on how their control of the market stifles competition and gives users no alternative to an increasingly surveillance-based society. Evidence given included, for example, that Amazon now accounts for 70% of online sales in the USA, that the Google search engine captures 90% of searches worldwide, and that 63% of searches on Google end up on a page controlled by Google.
I love being a disciple of Jesus and rejoice in the opportunities which the internet gives to deepen my own discipleship and help others to grow as disciples. Like so many clergy, during the pandemic I suddenly had to learn new skills which enabled me to lead worship via Zoom, via Facebook Live and via YouTube. In lockdown I discovered how to hold meetings without travelling, maintain contact with others through social media and share ideas and teaching resources through blogs and webinars. The pandemic has forced churches into the twenty-first century and enabled clergy and lay leaders to learn new ways of communicating the gospel, and many have been brought to faith and discipled online.
However, I have also become uneasily aware of how much our lives have become dependent on an internet which is increasingly controlled by a handful of incredibly large and influential corporations who accumulate far more knowledge about us than we realize by digital surveillance. The risk is that we become beholden to principalities and powers who give us what we want, but at a cost we do not see.
Surveillance is not bad in itself—every civilization has had ways of keeping eyes on the behaviour of its citizens for the welfare and stability of society. My concern is that while surveillance capitalism has brought the huge benefits of the digital revolution to the mass of the world’s population—so that even Bedouin in the desert and subsistence farmers in Africa now have smartphones—it has done so in ways which exploit the poor, concentrate power in the hands of a few, subvert democracy, fuel consumerism and harm the planet.
I want to contrast the unhealthy impacts of surveillance by big tech companies with a different kind of surveillance which we all live under, which is the lov- ing gaze of God. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and uses his power not to control our lives but to set us free. As a disciple of Jesus I long to see humanity liberated by God, who submitted himself to the wounded surveillance experienced by Jesus stripped naked and nailed high up on a cross.
Mark goes on to explore how surveillance capitalism has developed, why it presents some serious ethical issues, and how thinking theological can help us respond. He concludes by looking at how we can regulate, resist, and redeem this pervasive feature of our lives.
I was able to interview him about the subject, and about the booklet, below. You can buy the booklet for £3.95, post free in the UK, from the Grove website.