BoschAsk Anonymous
By Anonymous Bosch

Dear Anonymous,

Are there any noncontroversial things of interest happening at Calvin? I’m sick of conflict and trouble, and I’d be glad to hear about ordinary and reassuring stuff for a change. I don’t think I’m alone in this, either.

--Weary in Waterloo

Dear Weary,

I’m with you on that front, and so are a few others; our name must be Legion, because we are many. Moreover, if it’s true that misery loves company, it’s also true that usually it’s great to have friends around when the misery stops. So you’ll read nothing here today about gender, origins and evolution, or about the gendered origins of evolution, or about the origin and evolution of gender, and nothing about Origen, gender and eunuchs either, for that matter.

No. Today let’s consider what Calvin College is doing about the future. To get right to the point, Calvin College has recently been presented with the challenge of controlling the future, apparently to avoid the trouble of things not going our way. One team of outside consultants has recommended that controlling the future be at the center of the college’s next five-year plan, and for good reason. Controlling the future, they say, will almost certainly solve all of our budget, enrollment and scholarly problems for quite some time, if not indefinitely. However, this proposal, for all of its merits, will have to be vetted and sussed out by a variety of college stakeholders—institutes, study committees, task forces, centers, institutes, divisions, departments, constituents and synodical study committees—a process that will take so long that very little usable future may be left by the end of deliberations. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that the habits of thought I gained in my formative years make me uneasy with not just the substance but also the assumptions of this proposal; I’ve learned somewhere that it’s not our job to control the past or the future. But I could have been taught wrong.

In the meantime, while the infinite bureaucratic wheels of process eternally spin and grind, the college already has some deep investments in the near and distant future, specifically the enhanced and improved versions of future humanity that we usually associate with cyborgs, with all manner of prostheses, physical as well as mental. These investments and initiatives are admittedly scattered, piecemeal and partial; there is not yet a department of cyborg studies, a Human Upgrade Institute, or a Calvin College Center for Corporeal and Cognitive Enhancement. But all around the college there are people and projects ready to populate such departments and centers, and this may be exactly the noncontroversial news you’re looking for.

It’s probably no coincidence, Weary, that these developments at Calvin are occurring at approximately the same time that (and at approximately the same rate as) the Baby Boomers in North America are aging and beginning to notice what could euphemistically be referred to as their limitations, both physical and cognitive. The Boomers are slowing down, but they seem to have no interest in slowing down to a complete stop. They are personally offended that, for instance, their hearing is no longer acute, and there is already a well-established marketing-industrial complex aimed at saving, restoring and enhancing their aural world. The same situation obtains, to varying degrees, with the rest of their senses. Using Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 as a template, Calvin researchers are searching for corrections, implants, therapeutic interventions and replacement parts to address the range of complaints that the Teacher enumerated so long ago: that the sun is darkened, the grinders cease, the doors are shut in the street, and “desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.” If past generations found it necessary to accept these losses and diminishments, we no longer find such acceptance acceptable, we no longer simply acquiesce in the arrival of the evil days so soon after the days of our youth. Why not revoke the iron law of necessity by making it possible for the oldest and weakest to become young and strong again, or at least not yield to decline and other dark, entropic forces, finally defeating the horrible doctrine that diminishment and death are part of the human benefits package?

We’ve seen quite a bit on the cyborg front already—artificial knees and hips; body enhancements and reductions; genetic engineering; cloning; pacemakers, mechanical hearts, synthetic heart valves; grafts, stents and workarounds; miraculous eye surgeries; psychotropic drugs and brain implants. There are also many similar developments on the various cognitive science fronts. Artificial Intelligence is flourishing, and computers are powerful enough today to keep humans humble—beating us humans now in checkers, chess and Jeopardy—but promising us a future in which the powerful machines we’re building for ourselves will make our own cognitive limitations increasingly superfluous, meaningless. There should be no doubt about it; the symbiotic relationships we are now working and playing with will change us all, and those changes are here already. But to anyone who’s paying attention, it’s clear that this is only the beginning. We are all cyborgs already.

Which is why it’s so fascinating to see the range of experiments being worked on at the college. Thousands of students have been enrolled in an ongoing trial of having a live digital connection humming and buzzing and in hand more than 18 hours per day, seven days a week, year-round. Students who are never disconnected from the world of digital information during their conscious hours have begun to enjoy the strange new world in which they exist—not the world of real things and people in their immediate surroundings, but the world of communication, information, distraction and constant entertainment that is mediated to them through the small screen of a smartphone or a tablet. Whatever disadvantages there may be in this separation from conventional reality, the benefits are obvious—a world of nonstop stimulation, although mainly of a very low sort, to prevent sensory overload. True, there are still too many students who have not mastered the complex task of walking and driving safely in a world of physical objects while staring where the screen entices. And some students complain about the difficulties of resting or sleeping without the constant presence of digital content. But most students are discovering what their parents and grandparents will soon discover as well, namely, that a digitally enhanced world is superior to the simple material world, at least in part because their own cognitive limitations matter less and less when almost everything that enhanced humans need is provided by ubiquitous computing, readily available Wi-Fi, and better and better content providers.

This may be the right point to mention that a new study is now under way at the college, a study to determine how worldview, habits of the heart, and our deepest allegiances fare in this brave new cyborg world. Some studies suggest that many forms of Christianity are completely at home in the digitally enhanced world, but it’s too early to tell if this is the final word on the matter. Some doubters at the college wonder if this digital reality, created by humans, after all, directly or indirectly, may be entirely good for us, but I’ve promised you only noncontroversial answers today, and I intend to keep my word.

— Sincerely yours,Anonymous Bosch            

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