Jesus, Computers and Communication

Many important characteristics and tensions in computational and other conceptions of communication find remarkable resonance in the words of the Jewish carpenter from Galilee. For example, Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory and a proponent of digital computation (i.e. not analog, but “on” or “off”), was fond of quoting Matthew 5:37:

Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

More recently, John Durham Peters (and after him, Sybille Krämer) has considered how Jesus articulated a powerful counter-model to “erotic” dialogical and consensual conceptions of communication that have been dominant from Socrates to Habermas. As indicated in the illustration above, and as described by Peters, this counter-model is enacted through a kind of expansive multiplication and dissemination:

“Socrates” in Plato’s Phaedrus offers one horizon of thinking about human discursive activity since then: the erotic life of dialogue. Parables attributed to “Jesus” by the synoptic Gospels provide a countervision: invariant and open dissemination, addressed to whom it may concern. These two conceptions of communication—tightly coupled dialogue and loosely coupled dissemination—continue today…

Jesus is represented in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8) as delivering the parable of the sower by the seashore to a vast and mixed audience. A sower, he says, goes forth to sow, broadcasting seed everywhere, so that it lands on all kinds of ground. Most of the seeds never bear fruit. Only a rare few land on receptive soil, take root, and bring forth fruit abundantly, variously yielding a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. In a mighty display of self-reflexive dissemination, Jesus concludes, Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!

The meaning of the parable is quite literally the audience’s problem. In other words, when the distance between speaker and listener is great, the audience bears the interpretive burden. …It becomes the hearer’s responsibility to close the loop without the aid of the speaker. The point of such “indirect communication,” said Kierkegaard, “lies in making the recipient self-active.”

This same model also underpins Apostle Paul’s evangelical epistles, which were broadcast to churches around the Roman Empire, and from there to all nations. The multiplication of these words, like Jesus’ parables –and his fishes and loaves of bread—stil` l resonates with contemporary ways of thinking, for example, about knowledge, truth or culture (of whatever quality) being “free.” However, this understanding still sits uneasily with other conceptions that would see communication more as a dialogical or intimate joining of minds, at once precious and irreplaceable.

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