Through Glass, Darkly

There’s a scene a few chapters into the comedy science-fiction novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed former president of the galaxy, is in a spot of trouble. A few moments earlier, he had been standing on the bridge of a starship, now he suddenly found himself mysteriously teleported to a café on the strange, alien planet of Ursa Minor Beta. Puzzled at what has just happened, Zaphod instinctively reached into his pocket for his sunglasses:

[He] felt much more comfortable with them on. They were a double pair of Joo Janta Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which had been specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.[1]

What was science-fiction in 1980 when Douglas Adams wrote this passage has become reality in the twenty-first century. Augmented reality, to be precise, the new buzzword in computing. Augmented reality is a technology that allows computer-driven data to overlay your view of the real world. Originally developed for military applications (for example, projecting flight information onto the visor of a fighter jet pilot), augmented reality is now breaking in to the world of consumer gadgetry.

One example is Google Glass, launched back in 2013 by the California-based Internet search company.[2] At first glance, Glass appears fairly innocuous, looking like a pair of designer spectacles, albeit fashioned by a designer whose aesthetic was more “geek” than “chic”. Pop on Glass, however, and a small computer display just above one lens beams a constant stream of information into your field of view. Now you need never need be without the weather, news, travel information, the web, your latest email or tweets, all overlaying your view of the outside world.

Particular controversy has been caused because Google Glass comes equipped with a camera and that raises all manner of privacy issues. The US Congress actually sent a list of questions to Google, one of which was “Will it ship with facial recognition software?” Although Google replied “No”, other software developers have stepped into the gap.

One such developer is Stephen Balaban, whose company has launched facial recognition software for Google Glass. In an interview with technology website Ars Technica, the 23 year-old programmer explained his excitement at what a Google Glass headset equipped with his software could do. Balaban waxed lyrical about the wonder of having a conversation with a stranger, all the while your Glass headset looking them up and feeding you information about them:

I think that would be a fantastic experience to not only understand who you’re talking to but to bring context to a conversation. I would love to live in a world where the things that you have in common with somebody and the shared experiences are available on the fly. I think that makes conversation far more efficient. I think that makes interactions with conversations better. You can relate to them in ways that you couldn’t otherwise.[3]

Those words haunted me for days afterward: “makes conversation more efficient”. The subtext, the assumption, the worldview reflected here is one that Neil Postman famously called “technopoly”,[4] the idea that technology is king, that there is no human problem that technology cannot solve. Balaban’s statement assumes that what we lack, what we need is more information. I think he’s dead wrong. What most people are crying out for is not more information but deeper relationships.

Yet despite our relational need, we are drawn to technology like moths to a flame. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, sociologist Sherry Turkle describes the increasing trend we have to outsource relationships to technology, to computers and robots. In one chapter, she recounts the story of Callie, an eleven year-old girl who as part of a research project got to take home two robotic toys. Turkle describes what happened at the end of the three week study when it was time to return the robots:

Callie is very sad when her three weeks with My Real Baby and AIBO come to an end … Before leaving My Real Baby, Callie opens its box and gives the robot a final, emotional good-bye. She reassures My Real Baby that it will be missed and that ‘the researchers will take good care of you’. Callie has tried to work through a desire to feel loved by becoming indispensable to her robots. She fears that her parents forget her during their time away (they travel a lot for work); now, Callie’s concern is that My Real Baby and AIBO will forget her … Disappointed by people, she feels safest in the sanctuary of an as-if world.[5]

As human beings we are designed for relationship and any attempt to outsource this to or augment this basic need with technology is doomed to failure, because what we yearn for is not robots but relationship, not programmes but persons, not computers but communion. The Christian worldview explains where this desire for relationship, for intimacy comes from: because we are created in the image of a God who, as the doctrine of the Trinity makes clear, is himself persons-in-relation. Theologian Colin Gunton writes:

To be made in the image of God is to be endowed with a particular kind of personal reality. To be a person is to be made in the image of God: that is the heart of the matter. If God is a communion of persons inseparably related, then … it is in our relatedness to others that our being human consists.[6]

The God of the Bible is the God who is relational: walking and talking in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, appearing to Abraham, speaking to Moses “as a man talks to his friend” and, ultimately, stepping into history in the incarnation. In many other religions, such as Islam, you achieve salvation, wisdom, nirvana — whatever it is you are seeking — through knowing the right things, through information. In Christianity, by contrast, the question is not what you know but whom you know — Jesus Christ.

God so loved the world that He did not send mere information, did not simply augment reality with some new set of moral commandments, but instead He gave himself. And, says the Bible, this theme continues right through into the New Creation, where God will once again walk and talk with us. One day, we shall no longer see as in a glass darkly, but we shall see face to face. For relationship we were made and for relationship, with and through Christ, we are destined.


[1]      Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (London: Pan Books, 1980) 33.

[2]      Jason Koebler, ‘Google Opens “Glass” Project to “Explorers” Willing to Pay $1,500, US News, 20 Feb 2013.

[3]      Cyrus Farivar, ‘Google may not like it, but facial recognition is coming soon to Glass’, Ars Technica, 8 June 2013 (online at http://arstechnica.com/business/2013/06/google-may-not-like-it-but-facial-recognition-is-coming-soon-to-glass/, accessed 24 June 2013).

[4]      Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007).

[5]      Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011) 78-79.

[6]      Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 2d Ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997) 113.

Dr. Andy Bannister is a popular speaker, author and broadcaster. Andy is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Andy speaks and teaches regularly throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and the wider world on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society.