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Northern 2004

Christians and Computers

Sheffield, 13 March 2004

2004 CiS Northern Conference Report

A second Christians in Science meeting in Sheffield took place on 13 March 2004 at Cemetery Road Baptist Church on the theme of “Christians and Computers”. The approximately 24 attendees ensured that the lively discussion could include the whole group. Three attendees from Denmark had found the meeting details on the CiS website the previous day while visiting Manchester!

I must confess a prejudice in favour of the two main speakers as Harold Thimbleby now runs the unit in UCL where I did my Master’s degree and David Pullinger wrote me a reference to get on the course. I may have ended up working in a different part of the rather diverse field of ergonomics / human factors but can still appreciate their insights. In fact in the early 1990s I heard Harold give a lecture entitled “Can humans think” to the Ergonomics Society.

On this occasion Harold took as his theme “Knowing computer technology”. In the context of Micah 6:8 he pointed out that computer science is both an artificial and an applied science which has changed our lifestyles dramatically. Computers can be hard to use but, fortunately, usability is understood and can be built in. He argued that since creating technology imposes structures on the users, technology can be either just or unjust. Therefore a proper Christian response to this is to oppose technology-driven systems which seek to lock the user in.

David Pullinger spoke on “Knowing others and the world through computer technology”. He pointed us to Ecclesiastes 7:10 to remind us of the folly of constantly looking backwards. Friendship patterns have changed due to the increased ease of long distance communication but we still have about 13 close friends at any one time. Also that people make use of technology in the ways that they find useful which may not be what the designers intended. He introduced us to the notion of the churches as a “scolding nanny” trying and failing to stop the children going too far when playing with their new technological toys and reminded us that people tend to view the world from the inside through the technology whereas scientists are always trying to put themselves on the outside to look inwards

Michael DeLashmutt has pastored a church in the USA and is now pursuing a PhD in Glasgow in the area of science and theology. He pointed out that “techno-theology” is opposed to traditional confessional Christian theology and argued, in effect, that conflict between science and theology is sometimes inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing.

There was passing mention of the curious question of whether a computer should be baptised if an AI program on it asked for baptism, which to my mind begs all manner of questions such as whether Christ died for computers, or what happens if you upgrade the operating system?

Thanks are due not only to the excellent speakers but also to Alan Brook for an encouraging epilogue and to Colin Russell for his vigorous and enjoyable chairing of the day. Also to my co-organisers, Tamzin Lafford, Rhoda Hawkins and Trevor Griffiths and to the Bridge Cafe at the church for providing refreshments.. The CiS committee are certainly keen that we make this a regular event. The enthusiasm shown by everyone there was certainly a positive pointer for the success of a future meeting.

Andrew Pinder