Smash Your Smartphone, Part 3: Artificial Intelligence
So far in this series I have argued that Christians need to make an intentional withdrawal
from digital technology, what I term “digital monasticism,” and that screens and social media are not like other tools because of their primary design to capture your attention.
This brings us to the second way that digital technology is different from other tools: artificial intelligence (AI). When I go to use a hammer, it will rest on the table until I use my intelligence to act upon it and wield it toward my ends. The hammer clearly resides “below” me as I act upon it “from above.” The advent of AI and algorithms moves digital technology from being an indifferent tool “below” me to being an intelligence acting upon me “from above.” The hammer will just sit on the table until I act upon it. The smartphone will ding, buzz, and “push” you notifications. Every bit of attention that you give, every search and watch, the AI takes into consideration and makes its ads and notifications personalized to your desires and opinions, shaping you in turn towards consumption and addiction. Again, the AI does not care what you look at. The AI is perfectly happy to ruin your life, marriage, family, or career. All it wants is your attention, your focus, your eyes, your data. AI is hungry and it needs to feed. This is no mere hammer sitting on the table. You are the hammer, and AI is picking you up. With the dark voice of the data of a billion users, it is shouting, demanding, “Look at me!”
Consider a metaphor from The Lord of the Rings: the palantir. These ancient black orbs were once powerful and magical means of communication between the men of Middle Earth. But some have been lost, making them sources of unknown and dangerous influence. The deep black of the orbs is a symbol of their ambivalence. Removing the veil and staring into its recesses opens one up to helpful revelation as well as to evil influence, thus they are highly protected. Is this not a perfect metaphor for the smartphone? Who among us has not seen our toddler drawn to the glow of the smartphone like Pippen to the palantir? Who among us has not seen a friend drawn deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of the internet like Sauroman or Denethor? Who has not stumbled onto some disturbing image and felt the burning stare of the Eye of Sauron staring back at them? The black mirror of power, a source of intense protection and suspicion in Middle Earth, is here received with casual indifference and given to toddlers. You may think you are using the technology for your own ends, but have you considered the dangerous power and nefarious forces acting upon you?
The idea of an intelligence acting upon you from above crosses uncomfortably into the territory of the spiritual. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” says St. Paul, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).” These AI algorithms, and its accumulated effect, is not flesh and blood, and yet it is exerting massive influence on the world, nations, families, parents, and children. It has real flesh and blood consequences. Trends are trapping teens. Memes are making men. Very little of it is good. While the technocratic man-makers seek to reform mankind into their own image, the ghost in the machine has its own agenda. In the end, technology becomes merely a sophisticated means for demonic influence.
Unfortunately, it is likely to get worse. The Metaverse, Transhumanism, the Singularity, Chat GPT…our Babel builders are full speed ahead. So how do we get off this train? Well, I will share more in conclusion next month. But I think you know the first step… smash your smartphone!