Saturday, April 30, 2022


Is there a relationship between technology and theology. Technology has come to dominate some aspects of life, after all. Social media creates and destroys reputations, for example. The Internet allows many windows for their ideas (including me) but the ideas which can be shared are, in some cases, extreme and dangerous to the functioning of society and democracy. It could be suggested that in the Twentieth Century the God of traditional monotheism was abandoned and replaced by the gods of science and technology. Theology, on this view, would be totally squeezed out.

There are further views around as well. Technology, in the form of artificial intelligence is predicted to become more intelligent than humans in the next decade, or fifty years, or century, or whenever, depending on how optimistic the commentator is. Furthermore, being the intelligent species we are we can use our technology to enhance ourselves, becoming computer – human hybrids with some sorts of superpowers, such as amazing sight, memory and reasoning skills.

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Sometimes it seems that such commentators have rather forgotten themselves in their excitement. Some of the claims, after all, are a bit contradictory and, as we all know, predicting the future is rather tricky. It may also be that, given a lot of the authors of these sorts of ideas refer a lot to science fiction, they have rather blurred the line between what is possible and what is simply a good story.

Technology has changed aspects of the world beyond recognition in, say, the last thirty years, since the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web. That does not mean the world has changed out of all recognition, nor, in fact, that computers are taking over the world. After all, computers can and will only do what they are programmed to do, and ultimately that is a question of human decision. This is where theology might sneak back into the picture. How do humans decide?

This is at heart an ethical and metaphysical decision. What do I, or we as a society, want from our computing networks, from artificial intelligence and other sorts of technology (for example, cloning)? There is a debate here. Two sides are frequently drawn in rather stark contrast to each other. Firstly those who argue that, essentially, if we can do something we should. These writers often seem to relish the idea that we can create technology that will make us superfluous. This is a bit odd, perhaps, but it is a point of view.

The other side of the conversation is among those who are skeptical of the claims that technology is going to do a great deal more than it already has, and, probably, that technology has already done significant harm. This side point to, for example, cyberbullying, people’s addiction to their mobile phones, the widespread availability of internet pornography, the spread of extremist ideas and the control of news by authoritarian regimes, among other issues. Technology has already advanced beyond our capability to control it, they suggest, and perhaps we need to adjust our societies and expectations to make due regard for that.

Creating computer software, say, an application (‘app’) for a mobile device is an application of the human mind to a perceived problem. The human mind identifies it and creates a solution using tools which are around, say, a programming language, a platform and a few other tools. In some senses, then, this is little different than a caveman chipping bits of flint to butcher the antelope he has just killed to feed his family. Humanity has been, historically, quite good a creating tools to solve problems.

In a post-industrial society we have a few other problems than the cave dwellers had. Mostly, these relate to relative boredom. We do not have to spend our days hunting and gathering, so we find other amusements and distractions, many of which are, these days, on the internet. We have more leisure time, on average, than we used to. We can suggest that perhaps we do not make the best use of it, but that, again, comes back to human choice.

There are limits to what computers can do for us. They might be able to amuse us, but we have to engage with them (even if it is a mindless game) to allow them. These sorts of things have probably been moral panics since newspaper crosswords were invented, if not before. I recall a television program called ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and do something more interesting instead?’, latter abbreviated to ‘Why don’t you?’.

Could computers become more intelligent than us? Well, there are artificial intelligence experiments where the AI can learn. Famously, Microsoft launched an internet ‘chatbot’ called Tay which could add things said to it to its memory and use them in future responses. It had to be removed after a few hours as it had been taught to use racist and antisemitic language.

Perhaps here is the lesson for both technology and theology. Yes, we can create technology to do all sorts of things, both good and evil. Technology itself is neutral. The same person can code, and the same computer can run, an application which enables disabled people to communicate easily, and one which encourages people to commit suicide. Which is deployed is a matter of human choice.

It is at this point that a technologically informed theology can help. Theology is concerned about transcendence and what it means to be human, after all. Being human is not just about the mechanical and physical sides of life. Most humans have dreams and aspirations which are not simply about money and stuff (although increasingly it does not seem like it, admittedly). Theology can inform the sorts of decisions which go into writing software: is this a good idea? Should this be done? What impact will this have on people’s lives. A knowledge of how software (for example) is created can inform how theology responds to technology. A knowledge of theological themes, such as the meanings of being human, can inform the inputs to creating applications.

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