The Power and the Glory

Image used courtesy of S. Gollakota

Imagine: at this very moment, reading this blog at your desk, on your sofa, or wherever you happen to be, there are untold numbers of electrical signals—from wi-fi to radio to cellular—penetrating your body.  Of course, we don’t think about such things very often because they don’t hurt, they don’t make noise, and we can’t see them.  In fact, as far as our sensory experience goes, such waves simply do not exist.  And yet, these hidden, pervasive waves—also known collectively as ambient backscatter—are being called into service by some rather clever little devices.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a way of using ambient backscatter to kill two birds with one electromagnetic stone.  Recognizing the increasing advantage of establishing networks of small communications devices designed to enable ‘wearable computing, smart homes and self-sustaining sensor networks’, the UW team has developed a way to use ambient backscatter both to power these devices and to allow them to communicate with one another.[1]

It strikes me that this technology, in a manner similar to a work of installation art, may serve to helpfully illustrate an aspect of the concept of the image of God.  According to the first creation account in Genesis, ‘God created man in his own image’.[2]  While this passage has been interpreted to mean many things to many people, one thing most scholars agree on is this: human beings are created by God in his image and are designed to reflect his glory.  Reflecting God’s glory is a relational function which involves manifesting his presence in the world.  However, this is not something a person can accomplish by way of his own power.  Just as Adam was dependent on God breathing ‘into his nostrils the breath of life’ in order to become ‘a living creature,’ so is each person dependent on God’s divine address and his showing forth his glory in order to respond and to reflect his glory.[3]

In a somewhat similar way, the ambient backscatter devices are not equipped with an independent power source.  They are not outfitted with batteries of any kind.  And yet, they are designed in such a way that, when they are in the presence of the right signals, they ‘come alive’.  The power they receive from these signals causes them to literally light up and, more than that, enables them to communicate with other similar devices.

It has been said that ‘in God we live and move and have our being’.  It can be easy to think about this in abstraction, or to take it as merely an interesting quote, cross stitch it, frame it, and hang it up on the wall.  But what if we take it to be true?  What if, at the most basic, creaturely level, each person is utterly dependent on the animating, sustaining power of God not merely to live, but to live fully?  What if we are more like these circuit boards than we care to imagine: lifeless and mute until we receive and then reflect the ever-present, ambient (and glorious) signal of God in Christ?  If this is the case, what might an embrace of this view of ourselves mean as it pertains to the process and resulting artifacts of artistic creation?


This post was written by Dave Reinhardt who is pursuing a PhD at the University of St Andrews with a focus on the theological significance of embodied expression.  Dave finds technology fascinating and wonders, in light of the animated devices described above, what it would take to make a circuit board bored.

[1] Michelle Ma, “Wireless Devices Go Battery-free With New Communication Technique,” (accessed August 21, 2013).

[2] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, a division or Good News Publishers, 2001), Gen. 1:27.

[3] Ibid., Gen. 2:7.

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