Category: Digital


AMDG

Amazon.com arguably is changing the world now more than Google or Facebook.  The online retailer is now more akin to a conglomerate, having long left behind just being a place to go and buy books. Now it is the world’s leading provider of cloud computing, this year it will spend twice as much on television as HBO, a cable channel, and developing its own range of Amazon-brand physical products including batteries, almonds, suits and speakers linked to a virtual voice-activated assistant.  This last product, Alexa, has a ‘must-buy’ buzz around it, many of my friends got it for Christmas. Alexa can control, among other things, your lamps and sprinklers, ‘she’ is your own digital personal assistant. However, before I start pontificating about the technological dystopia we are heading into, at least we can acknowledge that Alexa has some theological literacy as this great story shows.

Of course, the ‘tech-lash’ is just beginning, with grave concerns about Amazons growing dominance, it being both marketplace and retailer has an anti-competitive feel about it, and its ability to steamroll future regulators is worrying.  However more than the other tech giants, I think to understand Amazon you look no further than its intense bordering on sociopathic founder.  One of the most disruptive companies, it has been dreamt up and run by one of the ‘disrupters in chief’ Jeff Bezos. It’s revealing that the original name he dreamed up for his company was Relentless.com, in fact if you put that into Google you are taken directly to Amazon.   That one word, relentless, says something about Bezos that explains his success but also sums up something about his unsettling dark side.

I have recently finished reading a fascinating book, ‘The everything store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon‘.  The author Brad Stone has done a good job portraying the strength of this character – his unbounded drive and ambition, his unnerving search for truth at whatever expense. Stone recounts one incident which sums this up and is chilling and compelling. He describes how Bezos publicly humiliated one of his senior execs by calling Amazon’s number during a team meeting, in front of his colleagues, to check the man’s assertion that its phones were being picked up promptly. “Bezos took his watch off and made a deliberate show of tracking the time. A brutal minute passed, then two … Bezos’s face grew red; the vein in his forehead, a hurricane warning system, popped out”

What I found most poignant about the book was the narrative around his two fathers. His biological father was a circus unicyclist, Ted Jorgensen, who abandoned his mother when he was only one. His stepfather was a Cuban-American Miguel Bezos who was rescued from Cuba by a scheme sponsored by the Catholic Church, ‘Operation Pedro Pan’.  From December 1960 to October 1962, more than fourteen thousand Cuban youths arrived alone in the United States, it was the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.  It puts the current British governments’ paltry response to the refugee crisis to shame.  Miguel Bezos left the Jesuit school (that, ironically, Fidel Castro had also attended) and was relocated and educated in the United States under the leadership of a young Irish priest, Fr Bryan O Walsh.   The Diocese of Miami organised the program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination.  O’ Walsh died in 2001  and was an old boy of the Crescent, the Jesuit school in Limerick.

When you hear the backstory of his stepfather, meticulously researched by Brad Stone, you get an insight into this relentless drive. The stable and aspirational background Miguel and his mother gave him, with a strong awareness that all could be taken away from them at any stage. However most poignant, for me reading the book, was the courage it took the now famous Jeff Bezos to track down his real father – maybe it is that wound of abandonment that explains his uncompromising search for truth. Jeff Bezos is a disruptive leader and Amazon has ripped up the retailer’s rulebook in many ways.  Not least because it was the first online company to allow hostile reviews of products that it sold.  Relentless and truth at any cost – but perhaps driven by deep and disruptive events in his own childhood.

AMDG

the-bumpy-transition-from-childhood-to-adolescence-20130110065041-jpg-q75dx720y432u1r1ggcWorking with so many  young people for so long has led me to reflect more on the nature of adolescence, the good, the bad and the ugly!  It seems that the main task of  adolescence  is gaining independence.  Its a journey from a dependent childhood to adulthood, for some it is a long journey, maybe even lasting 20 years or longer. In the UK many factors recently have prolonged the process, expanding higher education, prolonged debt and financial reliance on parents,  marriage happening later (if at all), a globalising job market which is more unstable and temporary.  Adolescences involves a painful trade off – from the comfort of enjoying the benefits of childhood to the uncertainty of emerging into adulthood.  It takes courage and resilience to leave the nest, and a success-addled culture is leaving less space for failure.

Its increasingly obvious that the main task at university, at least at undergraduate level, is socialisation.  Belonging, establishing the more responsible settled patterns of adulthood, this is whats going on at many universities – with 18- 22 year olds.  Lectures, essays and exams, although important, really take a back seat to the challenge of leaving the nest.  It is when they start to specialise at masters and postgraduate level that the knowledge acquisition and contribution come to the forefront.  I have observed that the big universities are very poorly equipped to take the pastoral duties of accompanying young people in their quest to become adults seriously.  Often this is reflected in their student satisfaction ratings.  Here in Manchester it is notable how many of the Chinese students seem so miserable.  The Confucian model of learning is more holistic, with a stress on virtues and the development of character, something that hard-pressed lecturers in many Uk lecturers don’t have enough time for.

1353088148turkle-alone_together_pbAdolescence in many ways an exciting time, with an emerging creativity often linked to rebelliousness, hope, idealism and a youthful beauty.  But there is a dark side of adolescence which American Bill Plotkin calls ‘pathoadolescence‘.  He defines this as being hostilely competitive,  violent, superficial,  materialistic,  greedy,  tribal and ultimately self-destructive.  Interestingly,  he argues that it spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are class-stratified, violent, racist, sexist, ageist.  Certainly, when one looks back at the political discourse of this last year this analysis seems to ring a few bells.  Perhaps the speed of our technological change fuels these trends, Sherry Turkles book  Alone Together –  is certainly worth reading.  Her basic thesis is that our digital age of relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ‘ramp down’.  Could this lead to a new phenomenon ‘Regressive Adolescence?’.

AMDG

Today’s Gospel should make us feel uncomfortable – the rich man who steps over the beggar at his gate. Like all of us he is uncomfortable when confronted with destitution, with extreme poverty….  I think Jesus wants us to feel uncomfortable when we hear his words today.

Cladownloadyton M Christensen , in 1995, coined the phrase disruptive technology.  These are innovations often produced by an outsider which changes the market, or the way we do things. So for instance in Academia, whose currency is the transmission of knowledge – Wikipedia is  a disruptive technology, open source, peer edited,  free access to knowledge, which led to end of to many traditional encyclopaedias being produced.  You can think of many examples digital photography and the demise of Kodak, Uber challenging the taxi industry, amazon and bookshops etc etc

The Gospels of Jesus Christ are meant to be disruptive –  Jesus in the tradition of Prophets from the Old Testament is warning us.  The Prophet Amos in th first reading says ‘Woe to the Complacent in Zion’  …. Our complacency our comfort in this world where there is such extreme wealth and extreme poverty is an offence to God.  Amos the prophet does not mince his words.

But Jesus is more sophisticated even as a prophet – he doesn’t want to harangue us, he doesn’t just want us to feel guilty and powerless that we can do nothing, he wants us to change our hearts – he wants a deeper transformation.  He wants us to ponder this parable, to reflect on it … to pray with it – so that our hearts change.

tentsofsomeofthehomelessnearmanchesterpiccadillyrailstationToday’s Gospel of the poor man at the rich man’s gate is meant to disrupt our complacency – We are meant to feel uncomfortable if we really listen to this.   We see poverty on the streets of Manchester all the time, there is even a small tented shanty town growing up near Piccadilly, and we also see bright new shiny buildings going up everywhere.  This paradox is perplexing …. If the economy in Manchester is booming – how come so many people are obviously being left out?  What has happened to the common good?

sermon-slide-deck-til-death-do-us-part-matthew-19112-19-638And if we are honest we developing coping mechanisms to cope with this – but the danger is that all these coping mechanisms take us in on ourselves ….  Saint Augustine said that sin is a life lived “inward” for self rather than “outward” for God and others. The theological phrase in Latin (if you are interested) is “Incurvatus in se” (Turned/curved inward on oneself).  How many things allow us to live like that now – we can control our environment – glued to our smart phones – living digital lives – we put our headphones in and we can even block the world out.  But let us acknowledge these are coping mechanisms.

But God has told us repeatedly through the prophets, through Moses, through Abraham, to have a deep attentiveness to the Poor….. but that makes us uncomfortable.   Jesus wants us time and time again about the isolating power of wealth …  the more we have we are that isolated from each other, and ultimately isolated from God – we create rich ghettoes, gated communities, bigger walls…. And we become miserable

How can we help?  There are so many ways so many initiatives flowering up around us ….  The Holy Name and the Chaplaincy are becoming a centre for many of these initiatives…..  just take the newsletter home and read it.  But even before that maybe we can pray for the grace of freedom – to leave the technological arms race where we have to constantly upgrade our phones, the grace of freedom to realise how we are trapped by consumerism, and how we become blind to our neighbours in need…   That could be our simple prayer for the week …  Lord make me free…  when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night.

Homily given at the Holy Name Sunday 25th September 12.00 mass