My name is Scott Midson and I'm in the third year of a PhD in Religions & Theology (R&T). In my research, I look at how technology changes the way that we think about ourselves. More specifically, I explore the idea of ‘creation’, which is an important religious idea, and ask what it means to re-create ourselves or to create things like robots.
I didn't always know I was going to be studying robots and religion, though! Going back a few years, I came to university (at Manchester) with an interest in the sociology of religion. I didn't study religion at A-Level but was given a place on the ‘BA Religions & Theology (Religion & Society)’ programme because of my interest in the subject. Here, I looked more and more at ideas about technology and how new media technologies influence our beliefs. I then took a year out and did some travelling, but when I returned to the department as a postgraduate, I came across a very interesting essay by Donna Haraway called ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, and I loved it so much that I ended up writing a PhD thesis on it!
In the essay, cyborgs are used as metaphors for the ways that we interact with technology and how we cannot separate ourselves from the technologies that we use everyday. Think about the technologies you use everyday: could you live without your computer, for example? Or your mobile phone? Or what if you had no access to a clock – how would this affect you and society? We are cyborgs, the argument goes, because we live so closely with our technologies.
But not everybody likes the idea that we are cyborgs. For some people, there is a limit to how much we should embrace technology – think here of dangerous robot-like cyborgs in ‘The Terminator’ or ‘Star Trek’. Or, imagine that a new technology becomes available that would surgically implant your phone in your body. Would you want it? Would it be any different to always having your phone with you in your pocket?
A lot of people fear invasive technologies like this, and a big part of my research is finding out why. This is where I link what I study to religion: in Christian theology, humans are described as created in the ‘image of God’. Although what the ‘image of God’ means is unclear, there seems to be a link between the ‘natural’ state of humans (i.e. when they were created by God) and the use of ‘unnatural’ technologies. I thus question religious ideas about the ‘natural’ human and the ‘image of God’ in order to look at how we can use the cyborg metaphor better and not fear it so much.
One of the best things about what I study is how frequently these themes and topics appear in popular culture. Most sci-fi films and books make reference to how technology changes the human, and you’d be surprised at how many of them involve religious and theological ideas in some way! If you’re interested in this topic, then a good place to start exploring further is to ask how technology is portrayed next time you watch a (sci-fi) film.
Other useful sources to get you started are:
Charlie Brooker’s TV miniseries ‘Black Mirror’ (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/black-mirror/) – all episodes are available online (but many do contain some shocking images and offensive language)
I keep a research blog where I post intermittently on films, programmes, and even billboards that catch my attention (http://scadhu.blogspot.co.uk) (I also tweet some stuff about my research - @scadhu)
This ‘cyborg anthropology’ site (http://cyborganthropology.com/Main_Page) gives a fairly good and accessible overview of the metaphor of the cyborgIf you’re interested more generally in the sort of stuff we get up to in Religions & Theology at Manchester (we don’t all want to be priests or vicars!), then check out this page (http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/subjects/religionstheology/). Alternatively, the Lincoln Theological Institute (LTI) page (http://religionandcivilsociety.com/lti/) shows some of the more specific work that some people in the department do. The LTI is a think-tank that does its own projects but is connected to the University of Manchester R&T department.