The significance of the reformation in today’s digital world?

Quite frankly, the “Religion” department of the local library is not a place I commonly visit. However, after seeing a video of her appearance at re:publica17, I was curious to peek into protestant theologist Johanna Haberer‘s book on “Digital Theology” – the attempt to apply learnings from cultural changes in Luther’s age to the world of today. Another related publication co-authored by Haberer is “Das Netz als sozialer Raum”, a position paper by the protestant church of Germany.

Image caption: Haberer’s book “Digitale Theologie” is unfortunately only available in German.

Not being too well versed in christian theology myself, Haberer’s message still contains a range of thoughts that I find inspiring – not in a religious or spiritual way, but as philosophical analysis and historical perspective on the events of 1517 that changed the western world forever. In my opinion, design and tech – with their forward-looking, future-oriented world view – are way too often ignoring valuable lessons to be learned from history. Hence, philosophical considerations of a theological scholar can be useful for reflection. With Germany commemorating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s reformation with a public holiday yesterday, I took a moment to do just that.

Haberer compares the growing dominance of a few giant internet corporations with the dominance of the medieval catholic church. People in those times were living under a strict religious doctrine, which gave the church almost unlimited power and – through the sacrament of the confession – an all-empowering inside view on people’s most private affairs. The institution of the church knew everything about everybody, at the same time limiting their freedom of expression and information as it claimed the only truth to be their own. Today, we again have some powers that know everything about their subjects: social media platforms that continuously collect personal information – and I would add: even further empowered by the ability to use computational algorithms to extract implicit parts of knowledge from the information given by their users (in comparison to the medieval catholic church, this even allows them to know things about people that they themselves are not aware of).

Interestingly, as Haberer highlights, the printing press was invented 70 years before Luther’s reformation. In a way, this makes him appear as somebody who understood the liberating power of this new tool; I wonder would today’s start-up circles celebrate him as a “disruptor” making innovative use of the latest technology’s capabilities? Luther’s reformation was about the democratisation of communication: everybody has the right to articulate themselves, to freely gather information from the sources of their own choice. This is a freedom that the historic developments of the past 500 years have been built upon – with positive effects as well as sometimes negative.

The counter-reformation attempted to get the genie back into the bottle, but the journey towards informational freedom of the individual could no longer be stopped. Haberer points out an important historical aspect: the counter-reformation was rather successful in countries where there was only one printing press; in Germany however, split into a multitude of small territories in those times, the variety of printing presses effectively eroded the efficiency of censorship (most prominently that of the Edict of Worms, the world’s first ever formal policy on censorship). In the light of these historical circumstances, it does not take much to understand why the dominance of Facebook and Google could be seen as a danger to the freedoms gained through not just the printing press, but the reformation and its legacy in particular.

Furthermore, Haberer talks a lot about transparency. Where the system of control imposed on the people by the medieval catholic church was completely intransparent – in consequence extraditing them to the power of the church – parallels can be seen in the big tech coporations of today, who with their opaque algorithms effectively undermine the individual’s control over their informational freedom, instead making them subject to selective information and limiting their interpretive authority once again.

Three key insights that I take away from spending some time with Haberer’s historical perspective on the reformation are:

  • self-proclaimed superpowers collecting knowledge about people beyond their control resembles ancient power structures
  • monopolization of publication channels (“printing presses”) makes vulnerable for censorship
  • lack of transparency in algorithms is dangerous for the informational freedom of the individual

Asked what answers a theologically informed discourse could provide for technology today, Haberer expresses four important points:

  • the measurement of individuals by algorithms (profiling/targeting) is in conflict with the idea of the human being as an independent and free actor
  • the protestant idea of allowing everybody to “start anew” (“Umkehr” in theological terms) is endangered by intransparent forces archiving and using personal information forever
  • self-determination in communications is an important human value that is not self-evident; it has only been around for 500 years
  • a human being must be allowed to know what others know about them – this is for instance the very base of the German data protection laws; who would be surprised to find reformatory traces also in German legislation?

While only scratching the surface of medieval history in the context of individual informational freedom in my readings, I quite enjoyed this unusual excoursus into the realms of theology. No matter how one may stand in relation to religion, Luther’s reformation was an important milestone in the development of western cultures and most importantly the concept of individual freedoms.

I leave it to theology scholars to debate the appropriateness of Haberer’s analogies with digital technology. Yet, I believe that the single thought that some of the current trends resemble the situation pre-reformation in Europe (loss of individual freedom to some opaque power controling human individuals) should be an important impulse for everybody working with digital technology: “reformatory” thinking, the idea that no individual should be subject to external control and limitation of their freedoms, is probably needed in 2017 just as much as it was in 1517. These are the big questions in technological development, beyond trends, products, or day-to-day design challenges at hand.

PS: Marking the 500-year anniversary, the Guardian also ran an interesting long piece on why a 21st century Luther would be needed.

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