Category Archives for "Spirituality"

Online Spirituality

Over the last few weeks I’ve explored some aspects of online spirituality.  This is the final round-up and the temptation is to state the obvious.  Spirituality is about relationships and the Internet at its best supports relationships.

However, many people believe spirituality is about our relationships not so much with each other as with God.

We become aware of God’s presence when we pay attention, through our awareness of the world around us.  This is prayer and meditation’s essence.  As we pray, we become aware of what is happening and of how easily we  distract ourselves, allowing our minds to override experience.

There is probably nothing more distracting than the Internet.  Walk down any high street these days and you will encounter dozens of people whose attention is held by their mobile phone or some such device.  We speak to friends, text them, play games, listen or even watch recordings as we walk the streets (or many people do!)

The problem is not the Internet as such but screens.  This was first true of television.  Screens draw the eyes and where eyes focus, so too does attention.

Spiritual traditions have been aware of this for hundreds of years and spiritual techniques such as prayer or meditation, centre on controlling the senses, especially vision, to allow space for attention to focus on the world and not on distractions.

The paradox is spiritual techniques focus on awareness of the material world.  The problem is we often base our lives on how we think the world is, losing track of reality.  Indeed this has become so common it is dofficult to believe there is a reality to focus upon!

Our brains filter everything we perceive.  If our brains did not filter our perceptions, we would be overwhelmed but filtering means we do not always perceive everything around us.

We might call this passive filtering.  We have not made any conscious decisions about what we filter, it is just what happens.

Active filtering is where we adopt a worldview and filter everything to fit it.  Problems start when we equate our filtered world with reality.  This is common among religious people who believe they have the truth and so see everything that way.

This is a stage in faith development and most traditions recognise the need to let go of these prejudices as faith develops.  This progress from certainty to awareness is sometimes called formation.  The idea is you experience it through your chosen tradition.  As you go deeper into your chosen tradition, you find you are able to reach out to others with confidence because your faith is no longer threatened by reality.

The Internet provides us with a great deal of information but it does not give us the means to process it.  The screen itself compels us to consume information and disables our ability to process it.

Like a lot of things, the power of the screen is not so great once we become aware of it.


There are things we can do to reduce the power of the screen.  It is not simply “don’t watch it”, that would mean many of us would be unable to run our businesses or take part in modern society.  But here are a few things you can try.  Some are more religious than others but none are specific to any particular tradition:

  • Spend time walking everyday (or any kind of exercise): Solvitur Ambulando.  This allows time to process what we learn. By walking we pay attention not only to the natural world but also to our thinking.
  • Spend time sitting in silence. This does not have to be a great deal of time.  You will find paying attention to your own thoughts incredibly frustrating.  It’s much harder than when you are walking.  However it is worth doing because you become aware of the infernal racket in your own head.
  • Some people find focusing on an icon helps. Most religious traditions have loads.  If you’re not religious focus on something like a flower or a shell.  Best not to use candle flames as they have a similar effect to screens.
  • Speak a liturgy to help you focus. Loads of traditions prepare material for private devotions.  One version is a mantra, a meaningful phrase repeated many times to focus the mind.
  • Read books because sustained reading helps focus attention.  Real books are best but e-reader screens are perhaps the least-worst screens.
  • Enhance these by doing them with other people.

Screens can be tyrannical but they can be our friends if we use them properly.  They are a portal into the Internet.  Once we break the hold screens have on our minds, we can be more discerning about the content we view on them.

The aim is to be alert to the reality around us, using the Internet to inform and enhance our lives and work.  How do you do this?  How do you make sure you are not driven by the pressures of modern technology but use it to enhance life activity?

The Internet and the Social Economy

Local economies are our opportunity to build a truly social economy.  Their social dimension distinguishes local economies from neo-liberal economic practices.  These favour accumulation of wealth and power in remote places, beyond democratic accountability.

What Makes an Economy Local?

Ideally, local or social economies

  • Pay their staff the real living wage (higher than the government’s national living wage) or more. This is an effective way to get money circulating in the economy.
  • Pay their taxes. Tax avoidance is legal but distinguish using avoidance intended by legislation, eg ISAs, from using legislation in ways never intended, eg complex offshore accounts.  Taxes keep money circulating by redistributing it throughout the economy.  Whilst we might argue with specific applications of tax, even applications we disapprove of keep money circulating.  What is not acceptable are tax avoidance methods that take money out of circulation.
  • Invest in the local economy, both time and money.
  • Use local suppliers

Local businesses benefit more people than entrepreneurs and their immediate families.  It seems we live at a time when this is not generally understood.  Contrast the era of great industrial families, whose names are still found in buildings and parks around our cities.  They took pride in their cities.  This is not to say they were perfect, conditions in their factories were often appalling but their vision was wider than immediate family.

The characteristics listed are aspirations for many local businesses.  I would love to employ staff, pay taxes and invest locally but my business cannot support these at present.

This does not amount to a full description of the local economy.  Those elements not described as business are missing.  Community activity, sometimes called the core economy,  builds relationships and supports local businesses.

Much remains unchanged since the growth of the Internet.  Businesses and their customers still need to meet face-to-face and the networking and referral approaches that worked before the Internet, still do.

How the Internet Contributes

Here are some approaches, where the Internet supports the local economy:

  • Brochures are perhaps the easiest to represent online. A brochure site has several advantages.  It is cheaper than paper, requires little maintenance and can support more adventurous forays into online local marketing.  Brochures work best as part of a vigorous in-person marketing campaign.  Refer contacts to your site to learn more, before or after a one-to-one meeting.  Good brochure sites help referral marketers refer a business to a potential customer.
  • Make purchases – this is the obvious one for organisations that offer information products or deliver physical products to the doorstep.
  • Registration on the website helps maintain contact with customers. Invite people to sign-up at meetings or complete a form online.  Many businesses invite visitors to their site to sign-up as a way of maintaining contact.  Registration with a purchase, maintains contact with customers.
  • Websites can offer opportunities to join a membership organisation with online privileges.
  • Email lists can be valuable and there are opportunities to use them locally. A shop might tell subscribers of special offers or new products or services.  Or it could provide services, eg a food shop might publish recipes and offer special deals on the ingredients.
  • CRM – Customer Relations Management – is a massive area covering the storing of information and providing services to customers. It includes ability to chat with customers online.
  • Locating businesses – imagine you can use an app on your mobile phone to find the nearest business matching your requirements.
  • Mapping – or an app that shows you a map of the neighbourhood and the businesses in it.
  • Portmanteau sites are where several businesses with something in common, eg location, develop a joint portal to promote their collective presence.
  • Local currencies are usually managed online.

How to Work Locally

What do we want to do locally and how can it be supported online?  Begin with the local, in-person dimension and ask how to support it online.

The big advantage of the local economy is its potential to develop in-person relationships.  Customers use local services because they know like and trust the owners.  These relationships are the bedrock of local economies.  When we trade with local businesses, we have a good idea where the economic benefit is going and as much as possible will circulate locally.

The Internet can support local economic activity but is not central to it.  The strength of the local economy is its capacity to build relationships that keep it going.  Relationships come first; when business comes first, it inevitably leads to burnout at best and dishonesty at worst.

Businesses are part of a web of relationships that can make business practice much easier.  Well-designed interventions, such as local currencies, build on existing community relationships.  They depend on trust, which is why they have no financial value outside of their community of origin.

What are the practical advantages to putting relationships first in business?

Four Reasons Social Media is Not as Brilliant as You Think It Is

Not so long ago, social media was fun!  I don’t normally approve of fun because I find it usually gets in the way of enjoying life.  But look, I joined Facebook to throw sheep at my friends!  That’s what we did!  It’s several years since I last threw a sheep at anyone or had one thrown at me!

Facebook these days is terribly stuffy.  It invites us to join groups where people share their interest in worthy causes.  A medium that was once at the cutting edge of young people happily throwing sheep, is now full of elderly people burdened with causes.

And as if that is not enough, there is the advertising.  Today Facebook thinks I need to know how to launch a business online, not a bad guess as I’m sure Facebook knows I’m interested in marketing.  Apparently I also need to drive a Nissan Pulsar, which appears to be some kind of car.

Facebook is now one of the most effective ways of advertising your business online.  Unlike Google AdWords, Facebook enables you to match your business to specific people who are likely to be in your market.  Grumpy old men drive Nissan Pulsars.

It’s not so long ago that the only social medium was the telephone.  It was fastened to the wall and so if we were expecting a call we had to hang around until it rang.  Other media such as televisions and newspapers were not social.  They communicated with us and if we wanted to communicate with them we had to write a letter.

What is Social Media Like?

Some say it is fast, instant even.  I say it is opaque.

It may be fast in the sense that what I write can be shared with hundreds of people instantly at the touch of a button.  But that does assume the hundreds of people are reading their social media.  Let’s face it most of the time I have no idea what is going on in social media because I don’t check it.  Occasionally, that is several times a day, some algorithm sends me a seemingly random sample of what I’ve been missing.  I could put them all on my mobile phone and check them when I have an idle moment.  The problem with that approach is I rarely have idle moments.

Social Media is essentially anonymous. 

When you’re talking to a human being they are there in front of you and you know who they are.  Even on the phone, you can check out the speaker’s identity.  On social media you don’t actually know who is communicating with you.  Mostly it is the named person but you can never be sure.  I’m in touch with loads of people I’ve never met or don’t remember meeting.  How do I know they are who they say they are?  I’m sure most of the time they are.  But what if one isn’t?  How do I know?

Social Media is an intimate medium; it can hurt.

We hear a lot about young people being victimised.  This actually plays to social media strengths – it does support local relationships.  Sounds like good news unless your local relationships are bad news.

Some argue you need to use social media to communicate with young people.  But that assumes young people want to communicate with old people.  At one time, young people used Facebook.  Then middle-aged Methodists moved in and young people moved to Twitter.  Quick as a flash the oldies moved to Twitter.  Rumour has it young people are currently hiding on Instagram, whatever that is.  They seek spaces where they can communicate unprovoked by concerned parents and professionals.

I’m sure social media will be a lot more congenial once grandparents run it.  It currently lacks the atmosphere of the tea dance, although some would say Facebook is shaping up nicely.

Social Media are communication tools and so have a certain utility.  They have transformed the way information passes around and particularly the way we consume news.  They have, with reservations, transformed the way we do business, share information and make contact with like-minded people.

But it is a bit like treading grapes in Wellingtons or shaking hands wearing rubber gloves.

Effective but somehow lacking the immediacy of real life conversations.  For housebound people it may be a way to keep in touch and play a part in the world.  For younger people it helps support social life but does not replace it.

In time I think it will enhance older peoples’ lives far more than younger people’s.  Social media will become the preserve of older people as the computer generation grows older.  Younger people will maintain their privacy by meeting in real life.

Using Social Media

Social media’s purpose is to enhance human connections.  It’s sometimes misused but primarily because it is not understood.  There is massive distinction between understanding how social media works and understanding what it does.  Most of these media have been around for very few years and so it will take time before they are fully absorbed into society.

An important question to ask is: what are my real life priorities and how can social media support them?  This implies understanding their limitations, so that you can use these media properly.

When we don’t do that, we view relationships as things to be manipulated.  We won’t so much enjoy others’ presence as demand rights of access to them.  Because we don’t encounter the person directly, the danger is we will take an instrumental view of them.  The danger is not so much that machines become conscious as we dehumanise other people.

Social Media has its dangers but as a society we have adjusted to many forms of media.  It is hard to imagine anything having the impact on society television has had.

The word “social” implies community.  Our challenge is to work out how these new media can support the building of human community in our neighbourhoods.

If you have read this post through Social Media, do tell me about it – I’ll be delighted!

Digital Communication

Last Wednesday I discussed artificial intelligence and suggested personality emerges as we interact as conscious beings.  One major impact of the Internet is digital communication, which has enlarged our circles; we can chat daily with people from all over the planet.

I remember studying computer science in the mid-1970s, a few years before silicon chips were announced.  There was talk of the coming merging of computing and communications.  Computers at the time were huge machines and terminals communicated directly with them.  There were a few midi and microcomputers, using solid state transistors.  These were usually boxes used to drive other equipment.  Screen monitors were rare.

Tele-printers could link to one another but it was all rather laborious.

Over the following decades IT morphed into ICT and today there are many ways we can communicate with people all over the world.  There is no need to list all the methods available to us.  I want to ask what differences enhanced communications have made.

Enhanced Understanding

Low cost communication systems mean people can stay in touch with families and friends with greater ease then they could in the past.  With the right equipment, they can speak to and see each other every day if they choose.

It is possible to make friends with people you have never met in the flesh.  This must enhance understanding between nations.

How much of a person’s real presence can camera and sound alone communicate?  Actors have been doing this for years.  But actors usually project fictional personas, so to what extent do we truly know them?

My experience suggests it is possible to maintain online relationships and those relationships can include a great deal of what we experience through in-person contact.  As so much can be shared, it is worth having these relationships in our lives.

But it is like seeing people on a stage – there is always so much we cannot possibly see or experience.  We capture a glimpse of a room but maybe never see the other side of it.  We don’t see their communities, their streets, their parks.  Or if we do we see only what they choose for us to see.

We see both more and less of a person when we know them online.  I’d hesitate to say it’s better if we have at least met them.  These relationships are different and need to be accepted for what they are.

They are not precursors of the science fiction world where we all live in bubbles and communicate solely with images of our friends.

Pocket-Sized Computers

Mobile phones enhance communications with people we meet in-person.  Whilst people can use them to communicate with people elsewhere in the world who they never meet in-person, the mobile primarily enhances personal contact.

Perhaps their greatest value is in arranging meetings.  It is easy to send text reminders and if someone doesn’t turn up, phone and ask them what’s happened.  It is hard to remember how we organised meetings without mobiles in the recent past!

Mobiles support local economies.  There may be more we can do, apps yet to be invented or even conceived.  But imagine taking a bus across town and being able to find a café to your liking.  These applications are close if not already with us.  The aim is to get beyond advertising and simply get information about what is there.

It is miniaturisation that allows us to carry so much computing power around in our pockets.  Most of us take for granted computing power far more than what was on the moon rockets in the 1960s, instantly available at the press of a button.

Erosion of Professions

You may have spotted I am avoiding the downside of these changes.  The cyber-bullying, frustration when having to step around so many people who are not looking where they are going.  These problems are likely to be with us for a long time.  We need to understand the consequences if we were to sacrifice our access to this computing power because of its misuse.

However, not all the downsides are a result of misuse.  For many, computers undermine professions as they place more power into the hands of amateurs.  There are many examples.  Most phones carry a video camera.  Most of us could quickly teach ourselves how to make a watchable video.  It doesn’t need to be brilliant.

Professionals in the video industry are perhaps not challenged so far.  It still takes time and effort to produce a really good video.  Whilst a poor but watchable video may have some worth, it is not always the best vehicle for businesses and other organisations.

Professional video producers offer the human side of the equation.  They know how to produce a video that powerfully conveys our message.  Most people do not know how to produce such a good film.  To do so requires human interaction.  Perhaps most organisations don’t need many such videos but most would benefit from at least one.

Perhaps enhanced technological power implies greater human interaction when they produce quality products and services.  The question is whether the net numbers of livelihoods will increase or decrease at the relentless development of new computing power.

What do you think are the advantages of ICT?  How have human relationships developed with these new technologies?

Artificial Intelligence

Have you noticed the term “artificial intelligence” is oxymoronic?  Artificial flowers are not flowers.  If intelligence is artificial it is not intelligence.  If something intelligent emerged from a machine, it would not be artificial.  Although different from human intelligence, it would be the real thing.

Clever but Not Intelligent

First, we must distinguish cleverness from intelligence.  We can develop machines that are not just clever but cleverer than we are.  However, these are still computing machines, machines that help us work things out.  These machines can be dangerous.  There is nothing to stop us programming them to kill.  I have every confidence the military have that under control or they will have until someone nicks one and works out how to control it.

But note however clever these machines may be they are still controlled by human beings.

In science fiction the autonomous machine has a long-term pedigree.  I suppose the earliest was the Golem, programmed by a scroll of scripture and so subject to human control.

Isaac Asimov’s robot series is perhaps one of the more sophisticated approaches to the genre.  His three laws of robotics are still influential.

So, is a fully autonomous artificial being possible?  I don’t doubt it is possible to build a machine that replicates autonomy.  The Turing test was designed to demonstrate this.  Turing argued that if we can’t tell the difference between a machine and a human, when we don’t know which is communicating, then we have the real deal.


I have my doubts.  Human consciousness is the product of living in community.  A machine would need to live among us to develop its own personality.  It is hard to imagine what true autonomy would be like without personality.  Such a being would raise issues such as whether switching off the machine would be murder.

A human child’s personality emerges over several years and their personality continues to grow as it accumulates experiences throughout their life.  A parent, looking back can discern the seeds of the adult child in the baby.  Could a machine evolve its personality faster?  Maybe but it would still need others to interact with and this interaction would set the pace at which the machine became conscious.

Does AI Already Exist?

I doubt anyone really knows what they are trying to program to make a machine autonomous.  Most people think it is some function of complexity.  But the Internet is complex and there is no way it could ever become conscious.

There is a great deal of human experience that cannot be digitised; our perception of colour, for example.  A machine can recognise the colour red from its wavelength but does not experience red as we do.  These experiences are sometimes called qualia and they are one thing that distinguishes conscious beings from machines.  It seems many animals experience qualia but machines so far cannot.  But how would we know?

If AI is possible, how do we know we don’t have it already?  In science fiction it is usually associated with a humanoid body.  This is something still far from reality.  Perhaps the machine needs a body of some sort to become conscious but if AI is possible why not any hardware format?

If AI is possible it may exist already in a box in someone’s lab.  How would they know it was autonomous?  It would be terribly clever and might be able to work out how to propagate itself but how would we know?

Perhaps the most useful aspect of this debate is the insight it gives us into our own consciousness.  What is it that makes us human and unique?  Maybe we’re the product of a unique accident or perhaps there are others like us aware of their own mortality.  And perhaps it is our mortality that forms our consciousness and makes us unique.

What do you think about AI?  Why do you think it is or is not in principle practical?  If it is, do you think it may already exist?

The Digital Revolution

During my lifetime there has been a digital revolution.  Until mechanical computers most measurements were analogue.  I suppose people didn’t think about it, it was just the way you measured things!  Perhaps it is easiest to think about a clock face.  The hands move around the dial and cover every possibly position in each circuit.

Analogue and Digital

I can remember when digital watches first appeared.  You had to press a button to tell the time!  Analogue watches were always superior not only because they don’t need a button but also they are easier to read.  We read the angle between the hands and that is enough unless we need to speak the time.

The ticking of a clock perhaps divides time into discrete units but a single tick does not have to equal one second.  We still tell the time by glancing at the dial.

It is only through computers we have found a credible alternative to analogue measurements.  Today it seems natural to think of measurements as many small packets (quanta) of whatever we measure.  Quantum mechanics suggests space is granular because there are minimum amounts of distance, for example.

Machines can read analogue measurements but they are harder to manipulate.  Usually they convert them to digital and digital calculations usually offer a close enough approximation to analogue.  If we need more accuracy, we simply divide things up into finer grains.

If you are reading this on a computer screen, everything you can see is digital.  All the words, images, colours … all break down into digital, noughts and ones.

Programs and Applications

A single digital digit is a bit.  It has one of two values, 0 or 1.  Usually, computers process bits in groups of 8, called a byte.  (4 bits is a nibble, but you don’t need to know that!)  As each bit in a byte can be 0 or 1, a byte can have 256 values.  This is ample to represent the alphabet and various other punctuation symbols.

These are the basic building blocks from which everything else we see on the screen can be built.  It was a major breakthrough, when someone worked out computer programs can be expressed in bits.  So, the same noughts and ones that code as symbols and images on the screen, program the machine to generate that particular screen.

Programming Languages

Programming languages have similarly evolved.  It is in theory possible to program using noughts and ones.  However, no-one is likely to get very far.  Perhaps the earliest languages were assembly languages, where there is a one-to-one equivalence between the language and the basic digital code.  It is possible to program in assembly languages and they are perhaps still used to program new languages.  But there is little need for them.  Most people who code use a higher level language such as Algol or Basic or C!

But even that is no longer the limit.  These days most of us get by using little if any code.  With an application, such as a word processor, most of us have no need for code.

Notice how each step becomes the foundation for a new step.  Something new opens the door to innovative uses; applications change the real world and change is not always predictable.  Maybe the paperless office has not come about in the way some anticipated.  But compare a typical office today with an office 20 or 30 years ago.

Professionals and Amateurs

One big change is everyone types.  There was a time when touch typing was a valued skill.  Maybe it still is.  But most of us use keyboards and never bother to train in touch typing.  I didn’t and I mostly type by looking at the screen with only an occasional glance at the keys.

So a reporter used to write copy by hand and pass it to a typist.  Now they do their own typing, possibly in the place where the action is happening.  Everyone has a screen and uses it.

What I want to underline here is our relationship with machines has changed the way we work and how we relax.  Not only can we select how we entertain ourselves, not constrained by what’s on a few channels but also we use machines to generate entertainment in ways we were unable to a few years ago.  Most of us carry a video camera, even if we don’t use it.

We always use tools as to extend our bodies and now we have increased potential.  This has happened to the extent that many of us can do things that previously specialists did.  Whether the specialist was a touch typist or a film producer, we can do it because the potential is in our grasp.

The specialist these days must show they can do it better than we can or save us time by doing it for us.

The amazing thing is digital technology, ultimately on billions of noughts and ones, powers these innovations.  It is important to hold this in mind as we turn to the topic of artificial intelligence.

How has the digital revolution supported local economies?

Spiritual Awareness

I can remember Alistair Hardy’s book, “The Biology of God”, published in 1966.  I must have read it in the early seventies and I read it because it had the word Biology in the title.  If memory serves it relates stories of spiritual awareness and argues that spirituality is biologically determined.  This does not imply the truth of any particular tradition, just that there are biological reasons why we have such experiences.


David Hay mentions Hardy in his paper “The Spirituality of Adults in Britain – Recent Research” , one of the references in Gordon Ferguson’s recent comment on my post Spiritual Assets.  Gordon writes:

Spirituality is not just about ‘paying attention’ or awareness, but about the response to what the attention reveals – spirituality is relational. David Hay called spirituality ‘relational consciousness’ … and contrasts it with individualism.  The individual stops with just the attention and then leaps straight to the political.

In my reply I suggested paying attention, or awareness, is an essential precursor to caring or love or empathy.  I’ve given this more thought and wish to shift my ground somewhat.

Awareness is a single act, not the first step in a chain of activities that results in caring.  Gordon refers to a Wikipedia entry about the Ethics of Care.  This mentions Tronto’s four ethical elements of care: attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness.  I don’t think this is a sequence, they are four elements that need to be in place for care to happen.  The problem with such lists, apart from the polysyllabic psychobabble, is they break down what is essentially a single act.

Caring or Loving?

Gordon argues:

The response that spirituality brings is one of ‘care’. … I think ‘care’ is better than ‘love’ since the word ‘love’ has been far to abused and misused. ‘Care’ is also the term used by feminists – it is men that leap straight to the political – women, routed in caring community, are more sensible.

So, the argument seems to be paying attention brings something to mind and then the observer makes a choice to take a political or a caring route.  Gordon implies caring can be followed by politics but politics alone does not hack it.

The inadequacies of the English word love have often been highlighted.  New Testament Greek has three words for love.  Translating all these using one word makes nonsense of some passages.  I’m not sure any of the three readily translates as caring but there you go.  I would not use caring to describe this response or outcome of awareness.


The word I would use to describe the response to awareness is obedience.    There is another issue with translation here.  The word obedience has a Latin root that means to listen.  The opposite of obedience is not disobedience but it is to act inappropriately as a result of not paying attention.  Obedience is not about doing as you are told but it is to respond appropriately to the situation, which might include someone barking orders at you.

Awareness demands obedience.  When I walk past someone begging in the street, I see them and avoid them.  If I was truly aware of their humanity I would do something for them.  So, paying attention or awareness is not passive, it demands obedience and that obedience is at the same time caring and political.

Christians would argue you can see this radical obedience in the stories of Jesus.  We see it too in the painstaking experimental approach of the scientist and where those who see something is wrong set out to fix it.  Sometimes circumstances force awareness onto someone, who might lose a loved one and fight to make sure the cause of their loss does not endanger others.

Mutual Affection?

One special case is those who notice how our landscapes slowly change over the decades.  The elderly may reminisce, indulge in nostalgia but I suspect many wrestle with working out how the world has changed.  We do not see how money leaves the local economy because many of us do not remember a time when it was different.  This motivates those who do see it and there are many ways to the same conclusion, to seek ways to change the status quo and find ways to retain money locally.

Is this the same as Hay’s “relational consciousness”?  Well holy obedience is certainly relational, it is a life lived for the good of community, nurturing the relationships that build community.  But as Hay puts it:

Spirituality demands more than functionality and organisation, it can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual affection.
This adds another dimension to relationship.  Is mutual affection essential?  We’re back round to love again.  And as every preacher knows love is not the same as mutual affection.  Love is when you care for the other even though mutual affection is absent.  That is the essence of obedience.

A Brief History of Computing

Today I’m moving to a new topic, still under the general heading of spirituality. The new theme is the relationship between spirituality and computing. Whilst I will dwell on the Internet in later posts, it is important to understand what computing actually is. Hence I offer today a brief history of computing.

A computer is something that computes. What we call computers are a special case of something far more important to human society. People compute and one big advantage they have over machines is they (usually) understand what they are doing.

Indeed there would be no computing at all if people didn’t do it. So, everything we might call a computer is in fact an aid to human computing. Without us machines would have nothing to do!

Number Systems

Number systems are not machines but they are a great help to computing. They help us follow consistent rules and that means it is possible for machines to follow them.

People still use many simple number systems today. Various tally systems (sometimes called five barred gates) through to elaborate counting systems such as the one in the video, are still used and always will be.

Many counting system are based on letters of the alphabet. The Roman number system is the best known letter-based system. It is still used on some clocks and ordered lists. The main problem was some complex calculations, eg division!

I understand the Arabic number system originated in North India, developed by Hindus. The Christian Church of the East took it into the heart of the great Islāmic empire in the Middle East. From there Islam carried it into North Africa and from there to Spain. Europeans first encountered it as the Arabic number system.

We can see in this story the degree of collaboration between different cultures, as they improved their computing skills.

Engineers also benefitted from mathematical progress. Until pocket calculators and personal computers, engineers, scientists and teachers often carried a slide-rule in their pockets. These used logarithms and at school we had to understand them, laboriously converting maths problems into logs, adding or subtracting and then converting them back again.

Computing Machines

The other thing we might associate with these times is computing machines. The abacus was essential because the Roman numeral system made paper calculations too difficult. The abacus was actually rather efficient and big computations could be done by simply linking together several abaci and their human operators.

We should not make the mistake of thinking people were unable to carry out complex calculations. Computation might take longer and need a lot of people but it could be done.

Another mistake to avoid is the idea that there is straight line evolution of computers. Many machines in the early industrial revolution were programmable. Punch cards controlled some looms, for example, just like the earliest computers.

Indeed Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer, helped Charles Babbage program his first difference engine and it is likely programmable looms inspired her approach.

Babbage’s difference engine was in principle the first computer, although in practice it was difficult to build because he could not manufacture the parts to the required tolerance.  His later analytical engine proved impossible to build for the same reason.

Later developments included mechanical and electromechanical calculating machines.

Early Computers

The earliest computers used valves and later solid state circuitry. The problem was heat and while in principle it was possible to reduce the size of a university computer to that of an orange, it would need to kept in liquid nitrogen! Silicon chips in the late seventies changed all that and paved the way to personal computing, the Internet and mobile phones.

Next time I’ll look in more depth at how computers work.

In the meantime, share any thoughts or ideas about the history of computing here.

Spiritual Assets

In the last six posts I have drawn on my experience of community development to discuss the six kinds of asset identified by Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).

Maybe they don’t mention spiritual assets because all assets are spiritual. However, spirituality is important to help us find assets in our communities.

One common mistake is to think of spirituality as something inchoate, out there. Spirit floats around, influencing us in certain difficult to define ways.

Paying Attention

This is fantasy, not spirituality. I’ve suggested in a previous post that spirituality is paying attention. Perhaps we could say spirituality draws our attention to things and embodies meaning in things. Science often gets the blame for disenchanting the world. Science works because scientists pay attention.

No, it is the false spirituality that opposes the spiritual and material that disenchants the world.

It is easy to plan bleak housing estates through utilitarian analysis, where everyone gets exactly what they need to be happy. It doesn’t work and never has.

So, what does work? People live meaningful lives in communities where people work together to contribute to their local economy. The neo-liberal mindset associates wealth with the corporations, who draw wealth out of our neighbourhoods. They don’t see the sustainable wealth rooted in every neighbourhood.

Unstructured Meeting Places

The first priority of every neighbourhood is to provide the spaces in which community takes place. Unstructured meeting places allow people to identify problems and new opportunities. It is where care for those who need it can be worked out.

This is not to say we must isolate every neighbourhood from the world. Each neighbourhood has its unique combination of assets and these form the offers it makes to other neighbourhoods. Residents work in other neighbourhoods and contribute to their local economies.

We must see the economy not as corporations and financial markets. An economy that supports everyone is fractal. Each small part has smaller parts that contribute to the whole. This way we have an economy able to withstand fluctuations; the failure of one business should have a limited impact.

Spirituality and Economics

It is interesting that as we understand spirituality as immaterial and somehow out there, we do the same to economics. These days we conceive it as something that happens between stock exchanges and mediated by machines. We see “boom and bust” market fluctuations and think they are a law of nature.  “Boom and bust” is inevitable if unaccountable people gamble on financial markets.

How can we help local economies resist the fluctuations generated by the formal economy? There are experiments with local currencies and other approaches to make an economic space in which local economies can grow.  These are the means to can capitalise on previously unrecognised local assets.

If they are going to work, it means we need to pay attention to the local assets that can build each neighbourhood into the new national localised economy.

If you know of any experiments designed to support local economies, why not share them here?

The Stories and Heritage of Local Places

This is the final post in a sequence where I’ve drawn on my community development experience to consider six categories of community assets.  It focuses on the stories and heritage of local places. You can find the full list of categories towards the end of my post, What Are Community Assets?  stories and heritage

Of all the six types of local assets I’ve considered, this one most directly addresses my underlying theme of spirituality. It’s not that stories and heritage are more spiritual than the other types of asset, so much as we tend to associate stories with spirituality more than we do hillsides or buildings.


I have discussed the value of stories in earlier posts and so it should be no surprise that just as businesses benefit from a story they use for their branding, so neighbourhoods benefit from the stories its residents and those nearby tell about it.


I live in a neighbourhood with two names. People who live in Pitsmoor use its original name, although it has a poor reputation. No-one wants to live in Pitsmoor because it is a place where there is crime, mostly related to drugs. Not so long ago South Yorkshire police had four armed response vehicles and assigned one to be deployed solely in Pitsmoor.

A few years ago the city’s newspaper had a front page headline that said the police has advised a potential house buyer not to live in Pitsmoor. It turned out it was a lay receptionist who had said this and arguably the vendors did more damage than the people who pulled out of the sale, by going to the paper.

But the residents of Pitsmoor tell a different story. It is a community that welcomes immigrants and refugees. This means part of the population constantly turns over but many people commit to the area for life and positively love living here.


Burngreave on the other hand is a well-to-do place and this can be seen in the many town houses that used to be owned by owners of the steel industries that surround the area. There is an air of faded gentility about the place.

Burngreave is the name of the ward and residents are sometimes chided for not respecting the area by calling it by its proper name. When the national government decided to spend £50 million on the area, it went to Burngreave and not Pitsmoor, even though the money did not go to all the Burngreave Ward but pretty much solely to Pitsmoor.

Stories Matter

I don’t expect you to follow all this. The point is every neighbourhood tells its own story. The story of Pitsmoor is further complicated by the many migrant communities. Some are new and others have been there for generations. Each brought their own stories into the area and has a story to tell about their experience of life in the area.

All these stories matter. They have a direct impact on the area. When the local paper tells people not to live in Pitsmoor it makes a difference. Whether that is a positive or negative difference is hard to tell.

The Wicker Arches, from Spital Hill

The Wicker Arches, Sheffield’s Brandenburg Gates!

Note there is a difference between the stories told from outside the area and those told by local residents. The Wicker Arches are sometimes called Sheffield’s Brandenburg Gates, separating wealthy from poor Sheffield. I remember standing with my mother in the town centre, when I was very young, pointing towards the arches and asking “what’s down there?” “Nothing”, she answered.

That nothing is where I live now and pretty much everything to me.


Heritage is the stories we tell about our neighbourhoods’ histories. Buildings and the spaces where buildings used to be, the routes of the roads; all embody the heritage of their place. The Roman Ridge, is a Roman thoroughfare that passes through Pitsmoor from the city centre to Greasborough in Rotherham.

Heritage is in the rivers and the associated industry. Thus Pitsmoor is a steel community and there are many clues in the buildings to its past glories. Some people remember a lot of this and others have memories imported into the area. Memories of persecution or of other cultures, other places with their own memories or heritage.

Heritage is the shared identity, an identity that belongs to everyone who lives here. Of course it is possible to live here and not be aware of its heritage. It is possible to shuffle past the buildings and never look above the thresholds of the shops and wonder when and why they were built.

Compare Sheffield with Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe is small-scale. It looks as if the town centre is a temporary place, where any day the population will up sticks and move on. Sheffield feels as if it has put down deep roots. Its city centre dwarfs Scunthorpe’s in every way.

But compare Sheffield with Manchester. The size and opulence of Manchester’s Centre makes Sheffield feel like a minor place.

Neither comparison is a value judgement. The differences originate from the histories of these three places. It is possible to prefer any of the three over the other two. But they are different and it is these differences that contribute to their identity.

History Matters

Sheffield’s history matters. The Hallam constituency, entirely within the city boundaries, is one of the wealthiest in the country. Why? Originally it was the captains of the steel companies and perhaps now the university and teaching hospital contribute. Does this wealthy area bring new industry to the city?

These massive contrasts of wealth and poverty across the city contribute to its local economies. Their influence  cannot be denied.

They are part of our heritage and form the stories we tell of our city and its neighbourhoods. Telling compelling stories about our neighbourhoods allows them an identity, drawing interest from businesses and customers.  It is important we tell the right stories that draw and don’t repel.

Can you tell stories of your place? How do they impact upon the local economy?

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