The “Doc Ock” Challenge of Cultural Engagement, by James K. A. Smith

Asking Tough Questions of our Technology

The doctor’s intimate association with his own creation (the octopus-like apparatus) was assumed in order to effect transformation; but the sad result is that the apparatus has changed him. What about us?

by James K. A. Smith, Ph.D. • Desiring the Kingdom*

[I]t is important to heighten our sense of the risks of cultural engagement by recognizing cultural institutions as formative spaces of worship. We might describe this as the “Doc Ock Challenge.”

Doctor_Octopus_2004_film

You may recall the infamous villain of Spiderman lore, particularly in the recent film version of Spiderman. Doctor Otto Octavius, a leading nuclear physicist and inventor, pursues high-level research in atomic physics. In order to push the envelope of that research, he develops a set of four mechanical arms that are resistant to radiation; in addition, they are highly precise, being controlled by a brain-computer interface that taps into Dr. Octavius’s mind through inputs into his central nervous system.

The apparatus straps onto his body, carefully inserting electrodes into his spine and neck, creating an interface with his brain that enables the arms to function as extensions of himself. He is, in a way, immersed in the technology. This enables him to pursue further research, all with the best of intentions.

spider-man-2_12But an experiment with the arms goes terribly wrong: a nuclear explosion fuses the arms to his body, cementing the electrodes into his central nervous system. In addition, the explosion causes the death of his wife, Rosie. Anger begins to overwhelm the doctor, who has now become a permanent, albeit artificial, octopus—“ Doc Ock.” His anger and rage are strangely harnessed by the arms, which seem to have a mind of their own. They speak to him, directing him to villainous actions, which are still justified by laudable ends.

The doctor’s intimate association with his own creation (the octopus-like apparatus) was assumed in order to effect transformation; but the sad result is that the apparatus has changed him. What about us?

  1. At what point does our attachment to cultural practices touch upon our central nervous system, so to speak?
  2. When does our engagement with culture become assimilation to culture?
  3. Is it possible that our laudable goal of transforming culture has unwittingly led, instead, to our transformation into its image, assuming its goals?

 

*Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009, p. 91-92.