When I imagine conversations that promote a climate of justice, I have assumed that the conversations would be in our “mother tongue”—the language that helped us become part of the world in which we live. For many of us, this world is changing dramatically through the development of a different language: the language of digital technologies.
I wrote the chapter, “Our humanity” in The Climate of Justice assuming a context of humans belonging to the earth and the biosphere and belonging to each other. Well, we also belong to the world of technology, and now, digital technology has its own language. What are we to make of that?
Meghan O’Gieblyn’s book, God Human Animal Machine (2021) provides a good opportunity to explore this question. The challenge is already in the book’s title: four categories without any connection, not even commas. Not the way we usually talk with one another.
And then there is the sub-title: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning. Now that I can relate to. The “search for meaning” was in the title of a book by Victor Frankl, who wrote about his search for meaning in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Quite a different search than O’Gieblyn’s search in the world of digital information.
O’Gieblyn’s book tells two stories. One is a very accessible account of the development of digital technology from Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, to our present experience with “bots.” She tells this story from her perspective, of course, and yet allows us to listen to the arguments of scientists and visionaries.
Readers learn about Kurzweil’s “transhumanism,” “emergentism,” Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, panpsychism, and more. This story of the development of “digital language” can be seen as a “search for meaning” in the various utopias of artificial intelligence.
The book’s second story touches on a few episodes in O’Gieblyn’s development. She grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community that demanded total obedience to a god beyond human understanding. She left this “world,” and after some time, joined the “world” of digital technology. She brought with her, however, the fundamentalist ideology of an omniscient god.
Throughout the book, she draws parallels between the god that demands obedience without understanding and “transhuman” machines that appear to make similar demands: to submit to their knowledge without understanding. I think she ultimately rebels against digital omniscience as she rebelled against her fundamentalist god. In both cases, O’Gieblyn rejects what I would call the language of domination and thereby leaves open the possibility for a more humane language That possibility only comes to light fully in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book. She writes: “And thank you most of all to Barrett, whose unfailing love has taught me, more than anything else has, what it means to be human.”
This acknowledgement of the importance of human relationships aligns with my chapter “Our Humanity” in The Climate of Justice. After pointing out that humans belong to the biosphere, I present the neurobiological research of Antonio Damasio, who sees the “autobiographical self” as the capacity to witness ourselves as living in an environment; Daniel Siegel, who sees the self as fundamentally interpersonal; and Attachment Theory, which affirms our primal need to relate to others. There is no transcendent god here nor ruling algorithms, only the desire for connection and reciprocity.
I agree that we need to figure out how to live in the world of technology. Our suggestions will largely depend on our experiences of human relationships, and how we talk about them. I think O’Geibyln is right to resist the domination of digital language as she resisted the god of fundamental Christianity. Still, there are other forms of Christianity than the fundamentalist kind; forms that see god as a suffering servant or an advocate for the poor, or even as a vulnerable child in Gaza and Israel. If your relationship to digital language is to be evaluated by your theology, god’s love for the vulnerable may be a better measurement than god’s transcendence.