I've been teaching a class on theology and media, focusing primarily on television and digital media, exploring the acceleration of change and the theological implications of living mediated lives. As I come to this class every eighteen months or so I am aware of how quickly things shift and change. We now find ourselves in the era of 'cloud' technology, the digitality of the present/future seems to be this strange notion of the cloud-our information, our lives, disappearing into internet vapour and no longer living on our computers.
Surely one of the more interesting dynamics of digital living is the growing disconnect with materiality when it comes to our stuff--our music library is made up of files rather than tape or vinyl, our photos are digital, our letters and communications are e-mail, text, tweets-seldom tangible, mediated via machines--mobile devices, laptops, ipads etc. And then there is the cloud-we are intensely suspicious of this sudden appearing, because like much of digital technology it appears to us in a finished form and we are caught up in it before we even know what's really go on and our thoughts about it are usually retroactive-it's only when it works against us rather than for us that we realize its dark side--the recent leak of celebrity nude pics, hacked from the cloud basically--you might delete something from your phone, but it's not gone, nothing is ever 'gone', it's stored in the cloud which surrounds us, consumes, subsumes us in its vaporous nothingness.
Now it seems to me that there is something of a connect here with some forms of theological reflection. There is a history of 'cloud theology,' be it works, like The Cloude of Unknowyng, the anonymous Middle-English book on contemplative prayer, or Nichols Cusa's 'cloud of impossibility' which addresses the concept of learned ignorance (not-knowing to put it in contemporary terms perhaps), a sort of return to Socratic inquiry.
Cloud computing places everything within our reach but removes it from our grasp-we have to access it through a process, it doesn't live on our devices, they become tools of access.
The interesting thing about cloud technology is that it’s not a place or location, it’s a highway system. Look at the Google data center in the image above-it's all tubes and pipes. The Cloud contains loads of information and files, but that reality only articulates itself when I go to my computer, launch a programme and resume work on something at the point I left it on my ipad earlier. And we are not really supposed to be thinking about this very much, even though every digital outlet from Apple to Google to Amazon is championing its benefits, we’re simply meant to realize that we can have our data where we need it, when we need it.
Socrates declared that "All I know is that I know nothing," which was the inspiration for Cusa's move to learned ignorance, the premise being that what we know is contingent and we cannot know things precisely because what we know of anything is through relations. For Cusa, the cloud is defined by blindness, darkness and ignorance (an apt metaphor it seems to me for our understanding of the digital cloud), and it is this cloud that we must deal with when we consider the sacred--the darkness itself, if you like, is illuminating.
The cloud confronts us with contradictions-both the theological cloud of unknowing and the digital cloud---we don't know enough but we are in relation, and we need to reflect on our not-knowing, our ignorance rather than jump to conclusions and simplistic answers.
In his wonderful book, Nudities, Giorgio Agamben writes,
"The ways in which we do not know things are just as important (and perhaps even more important) as the ways in which we know them...it is possible, in fact, that the way in which we are able to be ignorant is precisely what defines the rank of what we are able to know and that the articulation of a zone of non-knowledge is the condition and at the same time the touchstone of all our knowledge...The act of living is, in this sense, the capacity to keep ourselves in harmonious relationship with what escapes us."
It's virtually impossible not to enter the digital cloud these days, unless one opts out of all connectivities related to the Internet, but avoidance and resistance has seldom seemed the right move to me, and when it comes to digitality I think it is not possible, better then to take some time to frame our ignorance. The same would be true for me when it comes to issues of the sacred-a learned ignorance, and informed not-knowing might just be the pathway not only to fresh understandings but also out of old cul-de-sacs.