Many of us make use of electronic payment systems, such as credit or debit cards, on a daily basis. Whether buying groceries at the supermarket or transacting business through an online bank account, electronic payment is widely embedded into everyday life in many parts of the world. Such systems are one step removed from the physical coinage and notes representing the ascribed value of goods and services.
With the advent of Bitcoin, a fully digital currency, value itself also becomes virtual. The term Bitcoin first appeared in 2008, having been created by a programmer, or group of programmers, using the fictitious name Satoshi Nakamoto. The currency is stored in digital wallets and can be earned, exchanged with others or used to buy things.
The network has been programmed to create 21 million bitcoins, of which over half have been unearthed since 2009. The currency is released through a process of “mining,” whereby powerful computers are used to solve complex mathematical problems and create new coins. As coins are released, the difficulty of the mathematical problems increases. Miners earn payment in the currency and the system of release is thus self-sustained.
Bitcoin is a fledgling but fast-growing currency, with the value of all bitcoins in circulation believed to be equivalent to US$1.5 billion as of August 2013. Though far from universally accepted, businesses are incentivized to use the currency because it involves only minimal payment fees and is not subject to geographical borders or public holidays. Like gold, Bitcoin is also not subject to banks or a central authority—a point of regulatory freedom that is often perceived as a benefit. Instead, it is controlled by all of its users around the world, using peer-to-peer technology.
The creation of a virtual currency provides a renewed opportunity to consider what we as human beings attribute value to and strive for. Bitcoin really only has a value because people say it does. How many of our other value judgments can be classified in the same way? What is it about us that makes even a virtual currency subject to the greed, crime and corruption associated with gold or cold, hard cash? Likewise, what is it about governments, financial systems and society at large that turns us off and makes Bitcoin’s lack of central authority so attractive?
Recent events in Ukraine have felt all too familiar, but not for the reasons that many would claim.
The spark that ignited a blaze of posturing and accusation from all parts of the globe was the replacement in Kiev of the incumbent pro-Russian government by a new Western-friendly interim leadership—a move that was welcomed by some and attacked by others.
Russia, disturbed by the sudden loss of a key ally, blocked the exit of a Ukrainian warship in the Black Sea, encouraged pro-Russian troops to move into Crimea—the strategically and historically important Black Sea peninsula—and, it was reported, issued similar orders for the Ukrainian mainland. The West responded by promising “serious consequences” and raising the prospect of economic sanctions should Russia refuse to stand down. The Crimean parliament has since adopted an independence declaration from Ukraine, in preparation for an upcoming referendum in which residents will vote on the action.
The West, led by the United States, had denounced what they call “unauthorized aggression” on the part of Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the Ukrainian change of government a “military seizure of government” and said his forces were doing what was necessary “to protect Russian citizens and compatriots.”
The situation is fiendishly difficult to parse and is far more nuanced than the cloaked proclamations of politicians and hysterical news reporting on both sides suggest. The conflict is formed on age-old fault lines and, as in many long-running conflicts, much of what people say is so polarized that it seems divorced from current realities. What is clear, however, is that it is in many ways driven by a search for identity.
Crimea has not always been Ukrainian. In fact, it is barely Ukrainian at all, being a 1954 gift from Nikita Khrushchev (motivated by familial loyalty) to what was then an internal province. Its people predominantly see themselves as Russian, so the inclination to cede their territory to their declared mother nation is not surprising.
The same applies to many people in Ukraine, who also see themselves as Russian. Ukraine itself was first united as a recognizable polity under the Soviet republic and has only existed as an independent nation since 1991.
There are other concerns, certainly: Crimea has enormous strategic importance, being Russia’s only warm-water port, and Ukraine is a significant buyer of Russian natural gas and oil. And, of course, a Western-friendly Ukraine is a permanent geopolitical headache for a Russia still asserting itself in a post–Cold War world. The West, on the other hand, appears keen to isolate Russia as much as possible. That said, identity remains at the heart of the difficulty.
A similar struggle happened in 2008, when Western-oriented Georgia moved against the Russian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia reacted with force to protect what they view as their territory and their people, despite unabashed Western support for Georgia.
Russia is not alone in identity challenges. The pursuit, proclamation and protection of identity fuels differences and disputes across the world. Later this year Scotland will vote on a referendum to determine whether to secede from the United Kingdom. Continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria and Palestine derive from similar motivations. One might argue that the West, in isolating Russia, is pursuing its own identity, reverting to the old Cold War model even as they attempt to offset Russia’s aggression.
The protection of human identity is a perennial pursuit, but one that the Bible recommends discarding. It advises us to reject our own ways and take on a completely different identity and way of thinking—the way of God.
Any identity that is dependent on changeable external factors—in the Ukraine’s case, economics, geopolitical position, loyalties of other people and nations—is fated to suffer periodic unpreventable traumas. It is human to self-protect in these situations but, without underlying spiritual change and in a world that tends toward decay, any such effort will eventually fail.
The Bible reveals our self-destructive nature and contrasts it with God’s alternative. As much as people would like to amend or elide or ignore it, the way of life expressed in the Bible is the missing link in solving conflict. And it offers people and nations an identity that is not only sustainable, but everlasting.
Russia’s Identity Crisis
Russia’s struggle for national identity sheds light on our own need to know who we are and what’s expected of us. How does one form a sense of identity, whether as a nation or as an individual?
A company called Backyard Brains has developed a neuroscience learning kit for home or classroom—the RoboRoach—which, according to their advertisement, is “the world’s first commercially available cyborg.” For just under $100, anyone can purchase a kit to transform a living cockroach into a cybernetic organism that can be controlled by sending the animal remote signals via Bluetooth from an iPhone.
Another project uses a severed insect leg connected to electrodes to show the workings of motor and sensory neurons. The company’s slogan “Neuroscience for Everyone!” expresses the educational approach of cofounders Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, whose goal is to create interest in the study of the brain and the nervous system, particularly among school-age students.
But not everyone is excited to see insects being transformed into robotic slaves, or children participating in experiments that require severing a cockroach’s leg. It is understandable that some may have a feeling of distaste when they hear about the surgical procedure involved in removing the roach’s antennae and carefully inserting the electrodes that will control the movement of the animal remotely. On their website, the company willingly shares some of the criticisms they have received in relation to their projects, such as: “There are better ways of teaching neuroscience that do not use animals,” or “This enables and encourages kids to harm animals.” In response, the company cites peer-reviewed papers on the importance of hands-on experiments, explanations of their recommended procedure for anesthetizing subject insects, and reminders that their projects are learning tools as opposed to toys for entertainment.
In her 2013 book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, science journalist Emily Anthes discusses numerous potential benefits of animal biotech research, but she also brings out some of the ethical dilemmas involved: “We are heading toward a world in which anyone with a little time, money, and imagination can commandeer an animal’s brain. That’s as good a reason as any to start thinking about where we’d draw our ethical lines.”
Society seems to be gaining great benefit from animal biotech research. Cures for human neurological disorders and bionic prosthetics for individuals with missing limbs are just two examples of areas where science is making headway of late. The fields of study that lead to improvements in quality of life for ourselves and our loved ones are easily justified in relation to the cost, but as Anthes points out in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, this type of research often "puts animal welfare and human welfare in conflict.” In the same interview, Anthes also refers to ongoing research that looks into using cyborg insects with altered brains and neural systems as remote drones for the purpose of surveillance and for scouting out potentially hazardous conditions.
The follow-up question in all of this is Where do we draw the line ethically? When do we cross the line between being good caretakers of living resources and exploiting or forcing our will on them?
As it pertains to human relationships and in a broader sense to the world around us, the Bible teaches that care and dignity should be afforded in the interactions we have with all around us, and it prohibits oppression and exploitation (Exodus 22:21–22). It is important for us to consider whether our undertakings may cross this important line.
“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Chances are this statement strikes you as counterintuitive. Rest assured that its author, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, anticipated your skepticism. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind and human nature. He has been named Humanist of the Year and was listed among Prospect magazine’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers” and Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
His 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, charts the historical trajectory of violence and presents a case for a verifiable drop in the rate of reliance on violence in human civilization. Professor Pinker knows this conclusion will contradict the prevailing impression most people have of the perils of the present day. He considers the tendency to distort the danger of the modern era a “cognitive illusion” reinforced by the “if it bleeds it leads” media template.
While acknowledging that humankind’s capacity for destruction has increased (relative to the proliferation of nuclear weapons), Pinker insists that the rate at which humanity resorts to violence has been receding and continues to decline. He suggests that we erroneously glamorize the past as genteel and exaggerate the present as overly perilous. Among the factors to which he attributes the trend away from violence is what he calls the “escalator of reason”—the increasing cognitive capacity of human beings. As an evolutionary psychologist, Pinker foresees a path of human adaptation and development from aggression to increased empathy.
One example of enlightened human reasoning offered is humanity’s rejection of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures:
“The Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values. . . . Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence. . . .
“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. . . .
“If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.
“Christians downplay the wrathful deity of the Old Testament in favor of a newer conception of God, exemplified in the New Testament (the Christian Bible) by his son Jesus, the Prince of Peace.”
Here Pinker portrays Jesus as a human construct—a complete makeover of the God concept. Because the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is perceived as a violent bully, He is distasteful to modern sensitivities. Therefore, through the “escalator of reason,” humankind has reinvented and replaced Him with Jesus, who is more suited to our empathetic evolutionary state.
However, this theory fails to recognize the close relationship between Jesus of the Apostolic Writings and the two divine Beings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus said His mission and message came from the Father (John 5:19–20, 30). He tells His followers that if they have seen Him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9–11). Jesus is completely and consistently aligned with His Father (John 17:4–5, 11, 21). His definition of violence, too, differs from the mainstream; to Jesus, to hate another person is akin to murder.
For many, Pinker’s empirical premise and the suggestion that faith can be placed on enhanced human reasoning remains unsatisfying. Even while striving to be empathetic, they will lock their doors tonight and pray as Jesus taught, asking to be divinely delivered from evil in all its forms.
David Hulme and Tom Fitzpatrick
Victor Davis Hanson notes that “conflict will remain the familiar father of us all—as long as human nature stays constant and unchanging over time and across space and cultures.” This statement seems apt. Yet throughout history some have actively embraced the idea of war as father of all, rather than viewing it as a sad fact of the human condition in desperate need of remedy.
It was the pre-Socratic mystic, Heraclitus, who originally said that “war is the father of all and the king of all” (see John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, p. 136). Martin Heidegger, the twentieth century philosopher, and in his lifetime a proactive member of the Nazi party, had read Heraclitus’ word “all” as not simply a sociological observation as Davis Hanson does, but in the sense of fundamental being. In other words, Heidegger believed that Heraclitus described war as governing absolutely everything (see Gregory Fried, Heidegger's Polemos: From Being to Politics, p. 30).
Where did the active embracing of the idea of war as “law” ultimately lead? Richard Gelding notes that the philosopher Karl Popper had discerned an “elitism” inherent in the fragments of Heraclitus, and that Popper ‘”saw in Hitler the grim results of this elitism” (Remembering Heraclitus, p. 110). In a 1942 speech Adolf Hitler proclaimed that Heraclitus’ concept of war in the context of a world in which the stronger overcomes the weaker, amounted to “an iron law of logic” (Hitler and the Germans, p. 141).
The realities of warfare and violence form part of human relationships, national conflicts and the present state of physical nature. But the upholding of what might be termed a spirit of violence as a virtuous “truth”, as something to be embraced by human beings, is a deception that only ends in total catastrophe, as we know from the history of the twentieth century. In the final analysis, it comes down to who or what we allow to be father and king of us all.
David Hulme and Daniel Tompsett
How much can we learn unconsciously by just going through the motions? This type of passive learning is exactly what the Mobile Music Touch (MMT) device is able to help its users accomplish, according to Thad Starner an Associate Professor at Georgia Tech University’s School of Interactive Computing and pioneer in wearable computing. The MMT is worn on the hand and stimulates individual fingers in coordination with music to teach the wearer how to play a song on a piano while doing other tasks such as reading a book or watching television. Using the MMT for 30 minutes, students testing the device were able to learn a simple piano piece while at the same time studying for exams. The product of such unconscious learning is sometimes referred to as muscle memory. Professor Starner terms it Passive Haptic Learning. Devices similar to the MMT may have major implications for the field of Neurological Rehabilitation for patients who have suffered strokes or other traumatic brain and nerve damage. Theoretically, haptic learning devices could help neuro-trauma patients by stimulating neural pathways and helping muscles to go through normal motions. The brain’s continual ability to form new information pathways—neuroplasticity—makes this type of rehabilitation and learning possible.
If our minds can learn unconsciously by simple stimulation of our muscles, what other things might we be learning without even realizing it? Generally, we think about actively putting our minds to whatever we want to learn. It appears that our minds can also effectively learn by passively soaking up information. This is worthwhile considering while we are just going through the motions. For example, what effect might passive observation of violence and brutality have on us?
It seems not a day goes by without a news report about environmental pollution in one form or another. Beijing is well-known for its shockingly poor air quality. As a result, last year saw highways closed and flights canceled due to diminished visibility. Other cities try to cope with trash mountains — Mexico City recently shut down its Bordo Poniente landfill, the largest in the world, due to its encroaching on human habitation and seepage into the local aquifer. But authorities failed to make adequate alternative arrangements, compounding the disposal problem.
Pollution of the entire earth’s water supply is evident in the fact that there is not a clean river anywhere on the planet and in the fact of frequent catastrophic oil well and oil tanker spills, not to mention huge oceanic garbage patches of floating plastic microfibers. The problem of seaborne plastic pollution is growing alarmingly each year.
Plastic is not readily biodegradable and is swallowed by marine life, thus entering the food chain. The concern is that the chemical composition of acrylic, polyethylene, polypropylene, polyamide and polyester may be harmful to marine life and human life once ingested.
If that were not enough, now we’re told that Americans, who spend 90 percent of their time indoors, are subject to sufficient air pollution from carpets, paint, wood products, cleaning products, computers, etc., to pose a serious health threat.
And there are more pollution issues to concern us:
There’s surely no question that life has speeded up of late. In the minds of many, it seems to be linked with the technology of delivering more and more easily accessible information. We have long been told that we are in the Information Age.
About 20 years ago I interviewed the late Neil Postman, who had written Amusing Ourselves to Death and later Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. He warned back then that so much information was raining down on us from so many sources that we were becoming overwhelmed. He said that without context, it is impossible to make sense of it all. Today we have e-mail, smartphones, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to add to the mix. Many of us are connected all the time, constantly attentive, always replying, never quiet.
But is this always helpful or valuable? Usually, there is a price to pay. As the editors of the Hedgehog Review write in their Summer 2011 issue, “We spend more and more time in front of screens and less and less time in face-to-face communication, as well as less and less time by ourselves without some means of electronic communication to distract us from any possibility of solitude.”
Postman also made the comment that all scientific or technological progress is not necessarily human progress. Just because technology is available does not mean that it is of benefit to the human being. In any case, we should not allow machines to dictate our pace of life. We should not become tools of our tools. God made us to function within limits. His created world operates within certain time frames. Trees grow at a regulated rate. There is nothing to be gained from hurrying. Human beings take about nine months to develop in the womb. It is not helpful to rush the process to completion. Our minds and bodies operate within limits. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. We need to dream. We cannot operate for long without rest. And we are not made to be perpetually connected.
When Postman spoke of the need for context, he meant the way in which we frame life. How is information and its flow governed by the frame within which we live? For those who want to live according to biblical principles, the frame is exactly that: the Bible. What does God’s Word tell us about time to fulfill our responsibilities and time to think?
One scripture that comes to mind is Ephesians 5:15–16: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (English Standard Version). The sense is redeeming, buying back or buying up time so that it can be effectively used, because we are living in a difficult world that does not reflect God’s values. So in respect of how we use time, we should be getting our priorities right, not wasting time that could be more beneficially used.
And there is more to consider when we talk about having the time to think. The Bible is filled with exhortations to meditate on God’s way so that we can live wisely. But meditation takes time—time that has been set aside for this specific purpose. It cannot be done when our days are filled to the maximum with distractions.
Perhaps we all need to take time to consider whether communication technologies and pace of life have been taking us away from the source of our life.
New documentary evidence revises what was known about Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62). His drive to surpass Britain in industrial and agricultural output within 15 years meant mobilizing millions of peasants and housing them in communes. They moved billions of cubic meters of earth by hand in ill-advised water conservation schemes that ultimately failed. They melted down metal of all kinds in backyard furnaces in an effort to boost steel output, but produced mostly useless pig iron. Ever-higher grain quotas were demanded for export. All of this was done at great individual cost, only to bring on the ravages of possibly the worst famine in human history.
Mao’s Great Famine (2010) by historian Frank Dikötter, chronicles the ghastly four-year period that resulted in the peacetime death of millions. The word “famine” disguises the brutality of the catastrophe, for many were deliberately deprived of food and rest. The revised estimate of those lost is more than 45 million -- a number based solidly on Chinese sources.
Mao was not able to bring about the progress he proposed. Nor did he care about the human suffering he was engendering. According to Dikötter, “At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’”
Like so many other false messiahs throughout history, Mao did not deliver on his version of Utopia and destroyed untold lives in the process.
Despite the early 21st century’s worldwide economic disruption, the 2010 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts annual worldwide military expenditure at $1.63 trillion—up more than 50 percent since 2000.
In a world that yearns for disarmament and peace, warfare has become a globalized problem. The defense industry is a key element in the equation, answering the demands of military establishments and various governments that need jobs creation and the growth of defense-related exports to further domestic prosperity.
This raises fundamental moral questions, though not for the first time. Following World War II, American general Omar Bradley summarized the moral deficit that had emerged after that conflict. In 1948 he said, “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”
Despite Bradley’s perceptive analysis, a wartime colleague, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61), oversaw the phenomenal postwar growth and development of the American military-industrial complex. Yet when it came time to step down from office, he made a speech in which he warned about the dangers inherent in the relentless pursuit of supremacy by military-industrial means. He said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Today the military-industrial complex is far more powerful and influential than Eisenhower could have imagined. SIPRI calculates the U.S. share of 2010 armaments purchases at 43 percent of the world’s total. China comes a distant second at an estimated 7.3 percent! The reason usually given is that the United States has obligations worldwide, whereas other nations do not. And while there have been ups and downs in spending and development over the past several decades, the future of the industry now seems to depend on five factors. According to military and defense analyst Richard Bitzinger, they are the hierarchical nature of the global arms industry, defense spending, the global arms market, the globalization of armaments production, and the emerging information technologies–based revolution in military affairs.
Read more in the series Global Problems, Global Solutions.