How enlightened, adult and autonomous, is tech?

Not least in a talk at Conway Hall on 15th June, Dr Beth Singer has spoken about the way in which tropes that seem archetypal and have been religious are now being transferred to Artificial Intelligence: religion, … ‘[t]hat vast moth-eaten brocade / [c]reated to pretend we never die’, Philip Larkin wrote in Aubade (as a Christmas present for Times Literary Supplement readers one year). The ‘technological singularity’ of transhumanism may replace it.

It was religion which the anarchists crying ‘no gods and no masters’ had accused of making us infantile. It was a crutch, sceptics claimed, that people used instead of facing reality, a prop they appealed to rather than have to get on with real lives. It imagined a parent, to keep us all as children. Growing up — taking our lives into our own hands — meant rejecting these concepts.

Carl Jung had a famous dream in which Heaven defecated on a church. The Reformation got rid of the priest between God and the people, and Jungians got rid of Lutheranism, too.

Yet Dr Singer suggests that people may become quite happy to abdicate their responsibility to AI.

This does make sense. People had given their responsibilities away to politicians, in return for hand-outs from a welfare state. There was an auction of promises, as ultra-conservatives at the start of democracy had predicted, the welfare state became larger than the existing class system could support, the class system would not change, and people became disillusioned with their sugar daddies and generous mummies in Parliament.

In the UK, the year 2001 was the nadir, with fewer people voting that ever. This was fifteen years before the populists now in power began their vote-winning speeches against ‘experts’. Those attacks won them votes because they associated experts in the public mind with the politicians whom they wanted to replace, and they could do that because in the 1990s everyone seemed to agree that we had moved beyond Left and Right and entered an endless time of managerial technocracy. People were questioning the value of liberal democracy. Earlier than Brexit books were written that extolled the model in China, or Singapore.

All that disillusionment is still there, pregnant for the moment that these populists do lose power — and the pandemic has led the public to a renewed and marvellous trust in experts. In the fear about illness which politicians encouraged, the public were anxious to believe in neutral figures who had the answers. They are equally desperate to believe, we might think, that artificial intelligences will be those neutral experts. They will be the mediators between us and the complexity of facts. AI will be for us the scholar and the priest.

When we need to do something, we consult opinions. We look up the reviews on the company site and the comparison sites. If there were a robot to do the calculation for us, we might well feel that this was another — to use the phrase from the 1950s — ‘labour-saving device’. It really might be a straight line from the washing machine, the fridge or the icebox, the dishwasher, and the SatNav, to the robot who sets out the best plan for our day. Apps get round having to learn grammar in languages; an app may avoid my having to structure my day. Self-help, self-care and laziness could congeal. AI will be our bard and king.

This is the familiar stuff of dystopian books and films. What Dr Singer brought out, speaking as an anthropologist, was the functional identity of this trend in our society, and religion in previous society. For Freud religion was a public neurosis, an acting-out of blips in development, a series of ill behaviours caused by the double failure either to grow up from being ‘King Baby’ or to be wholly convinced by civilisation’s taboos. Religions dramatise both the uncivilised instincts and an idealised view of ourselves, saving us the trouble of changing them. For the ‘new atheists’ religion has been a pitiful cowardice, an intellectual failure in that believers do not see that they are not the centre of the world but instead — and the atheists get this from Feuerbach — they imagine a God for the centre and themselves as God’s offspring. They once thought the sun went round the earth and they have not really lost that idea.

Yet if there is any image right now which encapsulates self-centred self-indulgence it may very well be (though I do not want to upset anyone’s feelings) a Western consumer asking Alexa what the best options are for buying another thing that she does not need — while war goes on in Ukraine, death in Yemen, and the seeds of starvation everywhere. If there is an institution which exploits our beliefs, legitimates our activities so that it can milk them for revenue, and takes advantage of our ignorance, it may very well be the present state of tech. If there is still a priesthood which has abrogated the commons and the common wealth to itself, it is the tech clerisy. If there is a religion oblivious to the world, it may be the way we live now.

Religion has been prophetic. It has reformed itself time and again, but time after time it has needed reform desperately. It has been critical of itself as often as its societies. Of course it has been co-opted by the powerful — the Francos, and the Putins. In its prophetic form, however, it has cleansed its own temples in the end. Its mystics have questioned the deceitfulness of religious words themselves. It has pointed to a bigger picture than the self, for those who are not too selfish to practise their faith. Will this be true of our entanglement with tech? God could not be bought — though fake gods could be paid for. AI was a creature of state and private capital before it began. God is found within. God can awaken conscience, even regarding religion. Tech has an owner. You cannot serve God and Mammon.


Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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