Month: September 2016

When your insides are on your outsides…

So I’ve been checking out the latest trends in exoskeletons these days. Who isn’t?

An exoskeleton is simply a structure or framework that is external to the person using it. Bones on the outside, not the inside. Think Tony Stark in the cave scene of Iron Man…without the power chords (or power cords).

You see exoskeletons every time you watch an ant colony go to work, or when you stroll past a grasshopper that clumsily plops on the tree trunk. The hard outside keeps the bug guts on the inside. Only on rare occasions, however, do you find a human who is using an exoskeleton, usually an awkward combination of metal bars and hinges running down the legs à la young Forrest Gump. Polio and muscular dystrophy, for example, break down a body until it’s forced to use external structural aids to keep the body upright. But if technology continues to roll in advances at break-neck speed, perhaps these wearable devices will mitigate the restrictions of such ailments as a relic of the past. Perhaps these prosthetics will afford the paraplegic a modern-day medical miracle.

So who is developing these technologies, and for what purpose?

The usual suspects have lined up in an orderly fashion:

  • The idealists: Exoskeleton suits are being manufactured by several tech companies (e.g., Ekso, ReWalk and SuitX) with the expressed goal of giving motion to those who have mobility problems. For example, a soldier is paralyzed while serving his country, then, through the use of such a contraption…boom, human ingenuity and will strike back. Stroke victims, accident victims, even our elderly – the list of possible beneficiaries is a mile long.
  • The gamers: The Teslasuit (not connected to the car company) is a wearable, full body suit that allows gamers to feel electronic pulses that coincide with virtual reality gaming experience. Now, when you see an explosion, you feel the heat. When you walk into a gunfight, the consequences of poor cover means a slight feeling of pain as virtual 9mm rounds ‘hit’ you. Not really a skeleton per se, but certainly a second skin.
  • The sex industry: If the Teslasuit is an emerging market for gamers, just imagine what an easy step it will be for the pornography industry. Virtual sex already has real-life, multi-sensory experiences available for subscription fee; just point and click. In ten years’ time, however, the customization packages for individual clients will be staggering—and society won’t know how to cope with a radically new sexual ethic…one that involves the full feeling of sex without actual bodies touching.
  • The military-industrial complex: Exoskeleton technology is being actively funded by DARPA (footnote) in an attempt to create soldiers that can haul great loads with normal human effort…whether those loads are bodies, bullets, boxes or bombs. Just because something is developed in the military does not automatically ascribe some sort of nefarious quality to the developer’s motive. In other words, war is two-sided. You must kill the other person while preserving your own; it is both life-saving and life-taking depending on the context.

What can we expect in the future? A birds-eye view of the emerging trends in technology would be a wise move. They are actually stronger than trends, but probably weaker than ‘rules.’ Here they are:

  • Trend #1: Technologies tend to get smaller, leaner, and more efficient.
  • Trend #2: Power sources double in strength every 18 months.
  • Trend #3: Technologies seek to become more invisible with each improvement.
  • Trend #4: Every technological advance drives the price down on earlier models; exoskeletons will only be a product of the rich for a short time.

Exoskeleton technology bucks the trend in at least one noticeable way. Companies that specialize in body-altering technologies are increasingly moving exterior to interior. In other words, their work seeks an answer to Trend #3 by placing the technologies inside their bodies, not outside. Exoskeletons, in their present form, augment a person’s strength by the use of external structures and external power sources. But, is it that far of a stretch to think that tech companies are looking into ways that bring these structures inward? It sounds like X-Men territory, but consider we already have the widespread use of plates, screws, and pins for those who need skeletal support. I’m looking at your collarbone, Tony Romo!

If these above rules/trends actually work in the case of exoskeletons, we may be within a decade of people walking by us on the street—people who are actually paralyzed from the waist down—and we would never know. The wounded warrior returns to being John. The paralyzed neighbor in apartment 3B returns to being Sarah. These techs paradoxically afford people the ability to be normal once again, seen for their personality and not their paralysis.


Of course, we must temper our optimism at this point and offer up some prolonged, difficult engagement with the (perhaps) undesired consequences of such opportunities. Like all products, tech development is driven by profit. An individual designer simply cannot proceed with his/her research unless it is funded by an outside source that sees long-term market viability. That’s code for: They want to make money. The surest bet to make money is to tap into the markets I mentioned above: gaming, sex, and war. Each of these industries have huge cultural import; they imperceptibly lead us to view the world in a certain way.

What would the widespread use of affordable exoskeletons do to us, as a species? First, I guarantee you’ve never been asked that question before, so welcome to my strange world of hypotheticals. Consider yourself on the cutting edge of virtuous prognosticating. Second, I don’t know. I’m not sure that it will do anything to our human nature…though it might actually reflect or reinforce some latent beliefs that are already there–at least in the scientific community.

“We see the world of robotics as having a giant wave of human augmentation.” This is from Nate Harding, chief exec and co-founder of Ekso Bionics. It’s hard to see technology as a neutral tool when you hear such phrases. Each technology we accept has the potential to change what we value in the world and what we cast off as secondary—or even worse, as obsolete.

Each technology we accept has the potential to change what we value in the world and what we cast off as secondary—or even worse, as obsolete.”

My wife and I have been battling through the easy-yet-so-hard question of: ‘Why does my body matter?’ This type of technology forces us to make decisions about the nature of our structural selves, whether our bodies are a thing to be overcome (transcendence) or an essential feature of the physical-spiritual creatures we call homo sapiens. Perhaps an either-or distinction is not helpful and it’s some mix of the two. My body matters as it is, yet I still think my decision to have LASIK surgery on my eyes was a decision made in Christian freedom. Why?

back2I tend to think that external body modifiers are, on the whole, a good thing. A very good thing, in certain regards. My quarrel with body technologies comes when two conditions are present together: 1) they move interior to the body itself (as in ‘under the skin’), and 2) when they allow a person to exceed the ability of a normal functioning human to something extraordinary. In such an instance, I would quickly question whether or not the actual humanity of the person is being modified past God’s intentions for his creature.

In the present discussion, maybe exoskeletons, insofar as they are still exo-, are good and fruitful contributions to society. I am, for the time-being, restricting myself from commenting on the dangerous iterations that will emerge from the sex and military industries, respectively.

Help from the outside (from the exo­-, if you will) is not something to be summarily condemned, even if it does call into question the relationship we have with our technologies. Were we not created, sustained, redeemed, and loved by a God who exists external to the created universe?


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Knowing When to Hide

Christians preach exposure. But I’m not necessarily sure that’s a good thing.hide4

Some of my fondest childhood memories were created at my grandparents’ home in Orange, California. Back when Orange was a lazy little town full of citrus groves and chicken farms, they owned a tract of land on Meats Avenue, practically backing up to the current property of Orange Lutheran High School. What set this property apart was that, over the course of many years, it transformed from an agricultural plot of land into a beautifully manicured, wonderfully private home. You could barely see the house from the street, shrouded in tall trees from above and fields of thick ivy from below. For a 6-year old, the driveway alone felt like it spanned several different zip codes, gently winding back to a cozy back porch and a pool.

I saw it today. I had business at Orange Lutheran and intentionally drove past the house, just to see if it still had that mysterious magic that delighted me as a youngster. To my disappointment, the ivy was pulled up and the trees were trimmed back; the house looked like any other home in the neighborhood—‘nice’ but certainly missing some of the charms that adorned her yards for decades.

I know why I loved that house. So many places to hide. So much mystery…and danger. The ivy’s vast tentacle network would swallow our wiffle balls. I spent hours (yes, hours) looking for a Star Wars figurine’s plastic weapon (Boba Fett’s blaster) that dropped into the foliage, never finding it. In fact, this perplexing event actually upped the mystique of Grimm house. There were rooms that kids weren’t allowed to walk because the carpet was too plush. Sawdust-laden workshops and huge garden spiders. A dark garage that had its own mysteries. All at my grandma and grandpa’s.

Mystery and hiddenness make up much a child’s imagination. In fact, if you consider your favorite childhood books and/or fairy tales, my guess is that a good portion of them contained stories about secret gardens or buried treasure, places that only children could find or places where only children could hide. Perhaps the unanswered, unexposed quality of these stories—or of these physical environments—provokes a certain need for creative imagining. It’s as if these dark places won’t tell us the full story, so we’re forced to fill in the details. That’s why our kids look at carpet and see lava; it’s why they look at a forest and see fairies and trolls.

hide2Hidden things are so threatening. And exhilarating. Hide-and-go-seek is such a great game with three year-olds. They hide and smile, knowing that they are keeping some secret from their parents. But often, they can’t stand it more than a few seconds before they expose themselves to the ‘delight’ of their parents. They want to be found. Hiddenness is equated with something that’s not-quite-right. After all, what’s the first thing that Adam and Eve did after they ate the forbidden fruit?

Christianity, in many of its present manifestations, demands a certain openness. Endless praise songs speak to the need to be laid bare with an open orientation toward God and neighbor, so that the former might be approached in honesty and the latter might appreciate our oh-so-humble transparency. Pastors lift up the exposed heart as the highest form of virtue, so that in solidarity with all other Christians, we might find God’s embrace in that moment. I certainly welcome the openness we are to have before God, but as for my neighbor, I’m not so certain…

Quite simply, people are over-exposing ourselves. Christians, too.

  • In the name of demystifying sexuality, young men and women lose their clothes with stunning ease. The prophets of nakedness claim that they are the harbingers of a new era where sexuality breaks free from institutional norms. In a world where everyone is naked, however, no one is sexy. The mystery is lost, and everybody’s body has been mapped out, exposed and violated, and the wedding bed becomes just another sleepover with nicer lingerie.
  • In the name of transparency, the political citizen demands full accountability of corporations and institutions. And rightly so. Except that this attitude has leaked into other areas of social living. Now we are consumers of other people’s privacy; TMZ allows us full access to the lives of celebrities because we have a right to know everything about everyone. And the hammer drops—no one is allowed to experience life apart from the threat of a running iPhone video recorder. We’ve lost the ability to act in quiet solitude because we assume we have an ever-present audience.
  • In the name of community and friendship, an entire generation is turning toward social media to make every mundane act, evening eating your own lunch, into a cause for social commentary. We tell ourselves that this is the new community, where we no longer limited by our bodies—we can be in multiple virtual conversations, even places, at once. And an entire generation has lost the ability to make simple, virtue-driven decisions apart from the masses. Our electronic tethers act more like nooses.
  • In the name of open communication, Christians have looked for a mandate to pry into the lives of their fellow believers. They want it all—your deepest hurt, your most intense emotion, access to your still-healing scars and still-bleeding wounds—then put the perfect band-aid on it by saying piously, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ The prayer list becomes a bulletin board of over-exposed hurting people, as if a church member’s reading of the list will give him/her a proper portion of empathy to those who just lost their baby to a miscarriage. How great we must consider ourselves.

We have lost the art of being mysterious. We have lost the art of being a deep well of hidden treasure. Instead, we’ve become the yard sale where everything is on sale and nothing is valuable.

In a world where everyone is naked, no one is sexy.

Friendships require the withholding of information. Let me be more specific. In order for friendships to work, the two people must be able to share information that is privileged…only with that other person. The bonds of friendship are forged in the trustworthy protection of the other’s most prized possessions, whether that be the other’s emotions, beliefs, intimate struggles, even physical touch. But a possession is not a possession if it is public domain. Friends rightly withhold information from acquaintances for the precise reason of dignifying their one-on-one relationships with people who share their heart.

hide3Perhaps this is why I think that public confession in church is good, in so far as it remains relatively free from an outright cataloging of specific misdeeds. 400 people do not need to know my individual acts of rebellion unless 400 people were directly affected by my sinning and can rightly demand my particularly directed repentance. To confess specific sins before the multitude simply invites that multitude into a temptation that they will not be able to overcome: The temptation to over-expose, over-judge, and over-compare-themselves with the afflicted. There is a time and place for the deep intimacy of confession; it is done one-on-one or in exceptionally small, tight groups. In these precious moments, your exposure becomes their exposure. They treat both the sin and the sinner with proper respect because they know who you are and where you have been. And they bear that burden, not gawk at it.

The joy of the Christian is to bear the burdens with and for other Christians, proclaiming to your brother and sister that the word of God still rings true and beautiful in the midst of deep shame. The prudence of a Christian is to allow others to participate in the divine-human conversation behind closed doors and not on the street corner.

Encourage your Christian brothers and sisters to be open and honest about their condition. But do not let this encouragement be a vehicle for your obsession for more info cloaked in false piety. Offer yourself as a confessor, ask another trusted soul to be yours. In a world where everyone demands everything from everyone, be a voice that lifts up the virtues of discretion and prudence so that others may hear the words of God’s healing gospel rather than the flat and empty promises of a person who mindlessly says (or texts), ‘I’ll pray for you!’

Hear me on this. I’m not saying it’s good to be alone as a way of being, particularly in your sin and subsequent guilt. Not at all. I am saying that it’s not good to be exposed for the sake of exposure, to become the subject of an intensely curious public who is trying to satiate its growing appetite for spiritual voyeurism.

Nakedness was only good before the Fall. God himself makes clothes for man and woman after their sin. Perhaps a certain measure of privacy is a necessary concession. God gives us protection, not from his holy gaze, but from the uncensored, penetrating gawk of other sinners.


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Leviathan gets virtuous!

whale1The boys at Virtue in the Wasteland podcast invited me to talk about a variety of subjects, including the future of sex. You can check out the full podcast here! As prep, check out these Leviathan posts from February. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

We’ll see you next week with more tales from the deep. Keep fishing!