Given the Frankenstein-like scenarios regarding the rise of the machines, we may be in more need than ever to reflect upon whether we can still control the devices of our making – or if they now control us. Discovering what it means to be human seems to be the most challenging task given the uncertainties about whether the tools and systems of our design have not, in some way, changed or challenged basic aspects of our humanity.
Despite the common assumption that our current problems are not like anything in history, these social and political manifestations are older than we usually recognize. Indeed, these issues are derived from a progressive worldview. Technology itself is only a manifestation underpinning anxieties embedded in our “new modern world.” The “problem” of our age is not that “technology” or some other feature of modern life challenged our humanity, yet rather as human-beings we often tend to forget the past.
According to cyber-utopians, digital spaces would create a new space for pluralism which may already have happened. Yet, the alarm bell rings for the kind of issues in which radicalization of groups is the rule and social ethics is the collateral damage. We are beginning to lose not only civility but also the skill of disagreement.
The roots of such a pluralistic debate go back to half a century earlier when Huxley or Orwell predicted the 20th-century dystopias of modern society or Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned in his Democracy in America a century earlier. Such debates generated by individualism and consequentialism focus on two broad options:
- tyranny in which the civil-religious order precludes pluralism outside the boundary of state-defined limits,
- fragmentation in which citizens opt out of larger social and political concerns.
When it comes to a loss of freedom, the main anxiety is the fact that, given the power and scale of those systems and machines, human-beings may no longer be able to escape them, due to the fact that the tools we designed have some kind of politics already embedded within them.
In both Orwell’s and Huxley’s worlds, technology was a key facilitator as these societies would also not exist without the ability to control information. The crucial aspect of technology within the context of the modern moral order is not that somehow these problems are unique to technological societies. Rather, we have designed systems of such magnifying scale that we are no longer able to get outside of the problems endemic to them. We feel trapped in a kind of deterministic cycle.
To be human in this digital age requires us to be attentive to the double edge of this technological apocalypse. On the one hand, there is the anxiety, the fear, the uncertainty—the stakes we have made and are making in our world. On the other hand, there is also a longing for comfort and hope. Our machines may be mighty, but they are not Almighty. The recovery of that humility also brings us hope in the midst of troubled times.
We have been given the responsibility to steer the direction of these new technologies. If we pursue whatever technology can do, we will allow it to steer us to places with troublesome consequences. If we steer it in more obedient ways, aligning with God’s intents, we will open up new opportunities for human flourishing.