catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 1 :: 2010.01.08 — 2010.01.21


Does Shane Claiborne use Google?

One of the “Ten things Google knows to be true” is that, “You can make money without doing evil.”  A little lower on their list, we also discover that Google believes “you can be serious without a suit,” and that “the need for information crosses all borders.”  Under that last point, Google claims half of their business happens outside the U.S. and that they offer their one-of-a-kind search interface in more than 110 languages. 

Google is huge.  In 2008, the Google roster included about 20,000 employees.  This impressive number, among other reasons, has led Jeff Jarvis to call the constantly broadening company the “U.S. Steel of our age.”  He’s certainly not alone in recognizing the tectonic effect Google has had on the way business is done in the 21st century.  While there are others like Jarvis, there are also those wary of the Google creep.  Adam Raff, in a piece written recently for the New York Times claims cautiously that

Because of its domination of the global search market and ability to penalize competitors while placing its own services at the top of its search results, Google has a virtually unassailable competitive advantage. And Google can deploy this advantage well beyond the confines of search to any service it chooses. Wherever it does so, incumbents are toppled, new entrants are suppressed and innovation is imperiled.

As with most things, different perspectives elicit different narratives.  Later in his piece, Raff reveals his frustration further by claiming the detrimental effect Google had on his own company called Foundum, and one begins to get a sense that the op-ed is more of a swansong of a Google-causality and less a prescriptive for change.  But Google moves at the speed of business.  And it ain’t no stock car race.   

For a really long time — arguably since Christ threw us the curveball of the incarnation — Christians have devoted a good part of their lives to divining over the role of “business” in a sanctified world.  What makes this task harder still is Christ’s wish that we take it all seriously.  And so, for the most part, and since we’re only human after all, we try to make do.  We attempt to live in the world like we care and get excited when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation off-loads $100 million to small-farm productivity projects in Africa.  We do the best we can to measure out our Christian duty appropriately and find the GAP’s Red Campaign or Sprint’s Reclaim — a corn-based, eco-friendly cell phone — tidy solutions to big problems.  But big business always remains and so do the poor; and for many a socially conscious Christian, so do the anxieties.

As a result, it’s not uncommon for some of us to foster a more radicalized approach.  In recent years, Christian sub-cultures have been vehicles to the flowering of “intentional communities,” chastened consumerism, social justice and the bolstering of local economies.  Patron saints of this approach have emerged (Shane Claiborne, Wendell Berry, Cornel West), as well as hordes of generally motivated young people thrilled at the prospect of joining the cadre of justice-fighters worldwide.  The modus operandi of these re-imagined communities is a renewed attention to exploitation, human and otherwise, environmental sustainability and the exercising of a prophetic faith.  Whether or not all of this is resulting in the sort of justice being sought is something different altogether.  The important thing to notice is that intentional living arguably found in Scripture is really happening; a reality that may not have been conceivable twenty years ago.  

There is a cohort of Christians seeking a mean, as well, normally self-identified as “socially progressive.”  I confess that this is where I find myself.  Always with an eye to justice, I also admit to the usefulness and elegance of a company like Google.  I own a Mac.  In college, I bought a used Volvo as a way to round out the image I thought was important (the car now belongs to my sister).  I can’t in good faith make many claims to purity.  I even have a Kohl’s charge card used expressly for socks and underwear (as I prefer to buy such things in bulk). 

It’s this pining for purity, though, that gets us in to trouble.  This is why it is apropos to this conversation to look at our hermeneutic duties as infinite tasks.  That is, to reduce the world to a way things “have” to be belies our Christian affirmations of God as surprising and perhaps, most importantly, indeterminable.  The moment we think we have God’s possibility for surprise surmised is also normally the moment our categories begin to crumble.  Merold Westphal reminds us that “interpretation is always approximation.”  This is true.  And such an idea ought to be carried over to our Christian understandings of Big Business.  All human institutions are admixtures of the sacred and the profane.  To affirm a complete knowledge of the real estate of the divine holds out little hope for the work of the Holy Spirit and trades one fundamentalism for another.   

Google might actually be a new sort of business, though it will be difficult to determine this for a few years as the next 12-24 months promise to be exciting and formative times for the company.  It is true, though: Google is different.  It’s also true that I could have chosen a considerably more ghastly example of Big-Business-gone-too-far to help make a different kind of point.  One of my reasons for not doing this is to open up space for optimism about our world and our economies.  Until very recently I tended to subsist on a diet of apocalyptic perspectives about the very possibility for justice in a Post-Christian world.  Most of these castles of thought were curiously motivated by a desire to “get reality right” and my “beliefs in order.”  But I have cordoned off despair more effectively lately by interrogating my reductionisms and reminding myself of the sovereignty of the God I actually claim to love, which I find surmised elegantly by Tennyson:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower-but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

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