Texts from a friend who was arrested at Hong Kong’s July 1st democracy march
- Friend: Hi richie, [am] being taken to police station, saw [our journalist friends] working.
- Friend: There is unspeakable peace n strength when all ppl resist tgt n unite tgt
- Friend: The inner peace of nonviolent is like this
- Richard: Whew.
- Richard: Grace, peace and strength to you! So proud. So good to hear from you!
- Richard: The peace: that is good, good news.
- Friend: U know, when they come, no fear at all, even they r violent
- Richard: Incredible.
- Friend: Take care, watch Beijing and CY [our Chief Executive] stance n respond to this 71 [July 1] marching [...]
- Richard: Will do. I suppose your phone will be taken away from you for a while, yes?
- Friend: Hmm i duno, but we r on police bus now
- Richard: Got it.
- Friend: Talk later
- Friend: Keep ur eyes on hk
What we do know is that Facebook, like many social media platforms, is an experiment engine: a machine for making A/B tests and algorithmic adjustments, fueled by our every keystroke. This has been used as a justification for this study, and all studies like it: Why object to this when you are always being messed with? If there is no ‘natural’ News Feed, or search result or trending topic, what difference does it make if you experience A or B?
The difference, for [Edward] Shils and others, comes down to power, deception and autonomy. Academics and medical researchers have spent decades addressing these issues through ethical codes of conduct and review boards, which were created to respond to damaging and inhumane experiments, from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to Milgram’s electric shocks. These review boards act as checks on the validity and possible harms of a study, with varying degrees of effectiveness, and they seek to establish traditions of ethical research. But what about when platforms are conducting experiments outside of an academic context, in the course of everyday business? How do you develop ethical practices for perpetual experiment engines?
It is a failure of imagination and methodology to claim that it is necessary to experiment on millions of people without their consent. There is no easy answer to this, but we could do worse than begin by asking the questions that Shils struggled with: What kinds of power are at work? What are the dynamics of trust, consent and deception? Who or what is at risk? While academic research is framed in the context of having a wider social responsibility, we can consider the ways the technology sector also has a social responsibility. To date, Silicon Valley has not done well in thinking about its own power and privilege, or what it owes to others. But this is an essential step if platforms are to understand their obligation to the communities of people who provide them with content, value and meaning.
Note: The author of this piece is both a good friend and a former member of my youth group. You’ll be hearing more about him on this blog as soon as I have time to write. This has been posted here with his permission.
The first time I felt like I was part of something bigger was in 2003. I was eight years old and halfway through Pokemon Blue. I didn’t want to wear black - I thought it was embarrassing to wear black in public as it reminded me of pajamas. But everyone else was wearing black in the sweltering heat so I gave in. A bunch of activists bought me a burger, and I was instantly won over - it was obvious that we were the good guys. The march was long for my short little legs - from Victoria Park to the Government’s Central offices on top of that little hill with the old oak trees and British Neo-Classical buildings. There were professionals and the elderly and the working class. While it was mostly Chinese, there were Indians, Americans and British people walking aside us too. To say that it was packed would be an understatement. The city was brought to a standstill as it swarmed with black. Familiar roads and valleys of skyscrapers were clogged up with the sound of constant anger as the human sea streamed down. I can remember people I saw on TV standing on top of trucks with loud speakers. People sidelined the streets and stood in the pedestrian bridges, shocked at the sheer human spectacle. I shuffled with them, playing Pokemon Blue and looking up only half the time.
Half a million people marched that day. And I beat the Elite Four as we marched up Government Hill.
Article 23 (more or less the proposed Hong Kong version of the Patriot Act) was repealed quickly after that. And in 2005, our Pro-Beijing puppet of a leader stepped down. Numbers matter. People are predicting that there may be more than 500,000 people at today’s march (in 2003 they predicted 20,000). The stakes couldn’t be higher for Hong Kong, eleven years later. There’s far more at risk than there was in 2003. To my friends and family at the march - thank you for marching. Thank you for being invested in somewhere you love. Thank you for not being afraid to upset the status quo. I’m praying for a non-violent and successful July 1st protest from this side of the world.
It follows also that this new vision of ‘natural theology’ is equally concerned, let me also state at the start here, to be flexible in a variety of ways for use in different contexts and genres, for different audiences, and by means of varying forms of communication. The term ‘apologetics’, unfortunately, tends to come with as much bag and baggage from the era of brash modernity as does its cousin ‘natural theology’; but its history of association with rationalistic brow-beating is one we need to live down. The art of giving a reasoned, philosophically- and scientifically-related, account of the ‘hope that is in us’ in a public space is a Christian duty, and it may take a great variety of forms. As discussed last time in relation to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s analysis of Thomas Aquinas’s own variety of uses for his own Five Ways, ‘natural theology’ must indeed at times be used apologetically and even polemically, when the occasion demands it: that is, if one is called to public debate in the university, in public political contestation, or in the press. There is a huge cultural interest in seeing theologians and philosophers of religion perform this undertaking in discussion with secular science, and we undermine our own credibility if we fail to take on this task with grace, clarity and humour.
But more often, I find, I am called to this task as a believer, as an academic, or as a priest, in quieter, less overt, but no less significant public contexts: in being asked intrigued questions about evolution and theology by the seeker who wanders into Ely cathedral looking for something, she knows not what; by the half-believer who wonders if science does indeed render Christianity invalid; by the generation of my children’s age for whom in so many cases the church has seemingly lost all intellectual and moral credibility; for those hoping to deepen their faith spiritually or make it more intellectually mature; and for the doubting amongst the faithful. The disposition, attentive prayerfulness and bodily grace with which these conversations must go on is especially crucial: this task is not about the soap-box, but it‟s not for the faint-hearted or defensive either. It has to be as philosophically and scientifically sophisticated as it is spiritually and theologically cogent; in short, it must not merely dazzle; it must more truly invite and allure.