Mike Wagenman takes a timely look at the power of big tech in the context of public theology.

I’m honoured to introduce myself in this forum and suggest a way that Christian faith and the public academic vocation can fit together.  My research takes place within the (Dutch) Reformed theological and philosophical tradition renewed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920).  I am specifically interested in forms of institutional power within society.  I teach courses in theology (of society/culture), philosophy (of power), and (New Testament) biblical interpretation in Canada after having completed my PhD at the University of Bristol.

In 1880, Kuyper launched the Free University of Amsterdam (“free” from both church and state control).  In his founding speech, Kuyper articulated a philosophy of culture and society that has come to be known as Sphere Sovereignty.

This idea recognizes the multiformity of God’s creation not only in the wide variety of plants and animals but also in the many “spheres” of human culture.  There is a “sphere” of the arts, of education, of politics, of the family, of faith/religion, etc. From each sphere, various distinct civic institutions emerge that together comprise society.  Within each sphere, a unique power norms and animates human creativity.

In this way (that predates the postmodernists by nearly a century), Kuyper was keenly attentive to power dynamics in modern culture and society.  His most scathing social critiques sought to arrest the over-reaching of one sphere’s power from imposing itself in another sphere (for example, when a church operates like a government or a family is managed like a business).  Kuyper helps us yet today to be perceptive about power dynamics at work in culture and society and to avoid reducing our understanding of all “power” to mere “coercive force.”

There is a new form of power emerging in Western society today.  It is “instrumentarian power” at work within Surveillance Capitalism (Google, Facebook, and other “big data” corporations).  The pioneering Harvard scholar, Shoshana Zuboff, has recently published a lengthy analysis of this in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), revealing how social media are persuasively capturing and shaping our attention for their own market share, profits, and purposes.  It’s not just that our devices are watching us (we’ve known about this for years) but that they are intentionally changing us in profound yet unconscious ways.

As a Christian and a scholar of power within culture and society, I welcome this analysis.  “Instrumentarian power,” as a unique form of power that emerges from Surveillance Capitalism (the marriage of capitalism and technology), is the sort of phenomenon that comes into view when viewed through the lens of Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty framework.  It names how corporations no longer amass great wealth just through increasing efficiencies (Industrial Capitalism) or the expansion of desire (Free Market Capitalism), but now through sophisticated manipulation of our psychology to keep us “scrolling”, which, in turn, translates our personal data into corporate capital.

As Christians, we need to be aware of this unprecedented form of power at work in our society.  Our news feeds are being adjusted in real time, through complicated algorithms and gigantic stores of data from millions of users, to conduct covert experiments on our attention patterns to further refine persuasive corporate power.  But also, this data that we unknowingly but voluntarily provide to these corporations by giving our attention to their cunningly crafted stream of images, headlines, and videos allows cultural attitudes and values to be manipulated and shaped at the granular level with nearly guaranteed effect.  (This partly forms the basis of the disturbing socio-political divides we see emerging in societies deeply embedded in and reliant on social media.)

Much debate has raged about what exactly Paul was referring to in Ephesians 6:12 (“the rulers” and “the authorities” and “the powers”) and Colossians 2:8 (“the elemental spiritual forces of this world”).  The standard interpretations can, unfortunately, blind Christians to the discernment required to exercise our historical responsibility at the social level as God’s image-bearers commissioned to fill the earth with flourishing life (see Genesis 1:26-28) across all the multiple spheres of Creation.

Part of my own vocational discernment as a Christian scholar involves this kind of analysis above for the flourishing of God’s entire Creation that’s currently groaning under human domination.  The Christian scholar is called to contribute to further study within a particular field as part of a wider process of learning about the world in community with other academics.  The Christian scholar, though, is called to then bring that discipline’s entire enterprise before the lordship and sovereignty of Jesus so as to discern, with all wisdom and insight through the gospel, both the life-giving as well as the distorting forces at work within that discipline so that the discipline itself might be renewed, corrected, transformed, extended, or aided for the flourishing of Creation.

Mike Wagenman earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the church’s proclamation as a form of communicative power within culture and society. His most recent book is The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper (Pickwick, 2020).​

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​