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Monday Topsight, October 22, 2007

Smoky_The_Nanobot.jpgBecause technically it was still Monday when I started this.

• Oooh, Spooooky! What's more appropriate for Hallowe'en than Spooky Technology? Except this isn't ghosts and goblins (and Count Floyd!), it's research into communication, sensing and perhaps even weapons technologies that take advantage of weird quantum effects, famously referred to by Einstein as "spooky action at a distance." Wired's Danger Room blog quotes Cambridge University's Charles Tahan:

Spookytechnology encompasses all functional devices, systems, and materials whose utility relies in whole or in part on higher order quantum properties of matter and energy that have no counterpart in the classical world. These purely quantum traits may include superposition, entanglement, decoherence (along with the quantum aspects of measurement and error correction) or new behavior that emerges in engineered quantum many-body systems.

(Note that Tahan goes for the domain-name-friendly "spookytechnology," but doesn't bother with a courtesy intercap. Yes, spookytechnology.com and .net are both taken, but .org remains tantalizingly available.)

Tahan's full study is available at Arxiv (pdf). What's particularly interesting is that it's more about language than about actual technology. Tahan is especially anxious to avoid having "spooky-" fall victim to the same kind of inappropriate overuse that damned "nano-."

Nor do we want to incite a prefix-fest as in nano-everything. “Spooky,” being defined more specifically, has fewer tendencies towards this than “nano,” which alludes to an entire length scale. Terms like “spookynet” or “spookytronics” may make sense, but selectively.

I am so ready to start overusing "spookytronics."

• Sleeping In on Sunday: I'm not a religious person, but I recognize the importance religion has in understanding the future trajectories of culture, society and politics. So studies like the Barna Group's recent survey of religious views of 16-29 year olds really fascinate me -- especially when they show glimpses of a major cultural shift at work. And it's not one that'll make traditional Christian political-religious institutions very happy.

The Barna Group is an expressly Christian survey research firm, focusing on understanding American religiosity. In this survey, Barna finds a striking increase in critical views of Christianity among 16-29 year olds, far higher than earlier generations at the same point in life. These critical views are especially strong in non-Christian youth:

Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.

(Emphasis mine.) On topic after topic, young people in the US have a strongly negative view of mainstream and evangelical Christianity, using terms like "judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)." Similarly, the number of young people identifying as Christian has dropped dramatically. Barna's research suggests that this is not the kind of trend that will shift significantly as this generation ages.

For me, the most interesting point is that the critical factor for both Christian-identified and non-Christian youth in shaping their views of religion is the strident homophobia of institutional Christianity.

Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual." Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else.

This is a powerful indicator of a tremendous cultural shift underway in the United States today. The hardcore right-wing religious voters are set to become increasingly marginalized, and organizations offering distinctly different -- and inclusive -- forms of social networking and community are likely to become much more visible.

(Via Orcinus)

• Nano-Ecosystem: My first official essay as the Director of Impacts Analysis for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is now up over at Nanotech-Now. It's entitled "The Nanofactory Ecosystem," and it's a look at the non-technical aspects of what the development of a nanofactory is likely to take. For example...

• Health and safety evaluations
Who, ultimately, is responsible for regulating what can be made with nanofactories? Since a nanofactory can, in principle, self-replicate, would it be possible for modified versions of nanofactories to be evaluated for safety concerns while still "baking?" Relying on individual users to self-police and to undertake informed evaluations of new designs and nanofactory models is a pleasant fantasy, but what other options could there be? And what happens when self-policing and informed evaluation fails?

My goal with this essay was to ground the development of nanofactory technologies in the everyday world of consumers, regulations and safety. These kinds of tools will certainly have substantial economic and social impacts, but we can't let them exist in our minds as transcendent technologies. They're human-made tools, with all of the compromises and fuzzy thinking that can imply.

(By the way: if anyone can identify the artist who created the image used at the top of this post -- "modernmonkey.com" now is a spam site -- I would love to give a link and credit.)


The Barna study is fascinating. The United States is heading into 'post-Christian' (or, I think more accurately put, 'post-Christendom') territory -- much like Canada, Australia, NZ and Western Europe. I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing for the church as a whole. I'm not convinced, looking at the New Testament, that the 'original intent' for the church was to be politically or culturally 'strong'. One response to the trend has been the 'emerging church' phenom. -- type in 'emerging church' into wikipedia for a good definition.

I suspect you're right, but the trajectory may be somewhat different. The post-Christendom culture in European nations (inc A/NZ/C) emerged out of a religious world much more heavily dominated (politically) by the Catholic Church and forms of Protestantism that still carried many of the trappings of Catholicism. The Christendom that's now politically dominant in the US, at least in my observation, is a very different manifestation of Protestantism (and even if Catholicism remains a strong social presence, it doesn't have the same kind of political presence). Moreover -- and here's the critical difference -- the political strength of the European church was probably best thought of as a close alignment of Church and State. The political strength of the US church has been, in recent decades, more akin to a close alignment of Church and Politics/Politicians.

In some ways, this can be seen as "Christianism," in parallel to "Islamism," as a form of religious expression that seems to demote the state to subservient to religion.

I think I need to unpack 'post-Christian' or 'post-Christendom' a bit more; I've conflated some concepts. There's the political aspect of post-Christendom which (as you've rightly addressed) involves, in Western Europe, the waning fortunes of Catholic/high Protestant state church traditions. In the United States, with its intentional lack of a state church, political post-Christendom seems to reflect a growing dissatisfaction with "Moral Majority" Christianism [I like the phrase] to (primarily domestic) political problems. Walk the 'current events' aisle in Borders and the sheer number of 2006-2007critiques of evangelical-right involvement in politics would indicate a post-Christian meme at work.

That said, the Barna Report seems to address a different yet related facet -- post-Christendom's cultural side. The typical criticism of Christianity among 18-30 year olds isn't necessarily that the church has failed to provide political solutions, but that the Christian church lacks 'relevance' and can't compete with, for lack of a better phrase, the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of global urban culture. Presently, toleration appears to many to be a higher value than fidelity to, in the case of Christianity, the Bible. I anticipate that this trend will only accelerate.

I'm not sure if it's possible to tease apart the political and the cultural elements here. The problem identified by the 18-29 year olds isn't so much that the church has failed to provide solutions, but that the solutions that the church offers are at once presented as the cornerstone of political Christianism *and* antithetical to the cultural and political values embraced by this generation.

I find this process fascinating: how will these movements respond to this demographic shift? By pulling back from the political positions that defined the latter days of the movement, or by more narrowly defining the chosen? From the outside, the former seems more rational, but history suggests that the latter is more likely.


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