A Devil of Our Own

A few months ago, I was catching an indirect flight out of Atlanta to Portland, Oregon by way of Oakland, California. I was on my way to a wedding in Vancouver, Washington. Seeing that one of the happy couple getting hitched that weekend was my girlfriend’s oldest sister, I had planned to meet up with Olivia and her family a few days early to help set up. After the festivities, we all would then pile into the car and drive back to sunny Southern California for the rest of my spring break.

I had found my seat and, upon sliding my carry-on bag underneath the seat in front of me, began reading an assigned book on constructive political theology. After reading for several moments, I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye, looking perplexed. Glancing up, I noticed the middle-aged woman holding a bag pensively in one hand as she stared at the seat next to mine before glancing at the ticket in her other one.

“Is that seat open?” she said as I looked up from my book, “I’m hoping so. More leg room and all.”

“I’m not sure, but I’m sitting here by the window so you do you. If someone takes the seat, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

She smiled and placed her bag between us. Closing the book, I began to get up from my seat and extended my hand.

“Well, looks like we’ll be neighbors for the next couple of hours. I’m Timothy.”

Shaking my hand, she replied, “Jennifer.”

I began to sit back down and open my book again, looking for the last sentence I remembered reading. Finding my place, I looked back at the woman and asked, “You heading to California?”

“Yes. You?”

I shook my head.

“Just passing through on my way to Portland.”

Jennifer had gotten into her seat at this point and had pulled out her own book as the flight attendant came by to remind everyone to buckle their seatbelts.

“Oh, that will be nice,” she responded before finding her place in her own book and falling silent.

The two of us read in silence for the next two hours without much conversation between the two of us. Every so often, one of us would glance at the other’s book to try and discern what the other was interested in. About halfway through the flight, I looked up from Catherine Keller’s description of the undercommons to see Jennifer looking at me with a curious, if not cautious, expression.

“Are you a priest or something?”

I laughed.

“Not quite. I’m a student. This here is homework. I might be a pastor one day if things fall that way. What do you do?”

“I’m an independent consultant for virtual security.”

“You do stuff similar to Avast and all them?”

She nodded and said, “Well, kind of. I like to think I work for the sake of the little guy.”

“A noble pursuit, if ever there was one.”

“Yeah, I like working for the underdog.”   

There was a pause for a moment before I asked, “Would you mind if I asked why you wondered whether I was a priest?”

“Oh, I saw your book. Theology. And political at that! Two things that usually shut down conversation at Thanksgiving, am I right?”

We laughed and she continued, saying, “I went to Catholic school, but I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not really the superstitious type, you know.”

I shrugged.

“Fair enough,” I replied. “Thanks for letting me know. I was curious.”

I continued on with my reading for a few minutes. Catherine Keller was making some astute insights on the world with her second chapter. I found myself jotting notes in the margins and underlining more than a few times. Sometimes I think that the only difference between vandals and academics is that the latter can string a few more words together in a drier-sounding article.

Jennifer interrupted my stream of thought.

“Do you believe in the devil and all that?”

Looking back up from Keller, I looked back at my neighbor.

“I believe that there is a Satan and spiritual beings, yes. Why?”

She shrugged. “Well, I always wonder whether we need a devil nowadays. We seem to be making ones in our own image.”

I closed my book, smiling.

“Do tell. What do you mean by that?”

“Well, I told you I work as a virtual security consultant, right?”

I nodded.

“You know how sometimes you’re talking to somebody about how you want something and a couple hours later an ad for that exact thing pops up on Google? Well, I work in that space working against companies collecting info which makes those ads so relevant.”

I frowned “How so?”

“The thing is, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have these programs that collect data on everyone that uses them. And, these big data companies don’t really have much of an interest apart from compiling a profile of you based on your interests, background, and actions to figure out when to best market to you and how.”

“Sure, I get that, but how does this connect back to a devil made in our own image?”

“Well, look at it this way. Your Satan is meant to be an accuser type who finds ways to make you slip up and sin, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Now, these companies are finding what you’re weak to and when you’re weakest to it so that they can conveniently drop an ad right when you’re most susceptible to clicking it.”

“Interesting,” I remarked. “You’re making it seem like it has an agenda. What would you say to the claim that technology isn’t good or bad, but a force for whatever uses it?”

“Well, that the worst thing, data collection programs don’t have a morality. It’s just trying to get clicks as part of just doing its job when it’s advertising beer to the alcoholic or pornography to a sex-addict. Is that good? Effective, sure. But good? No. Helping someone find a stroller for a kid, maybe. Still, one has to wonder what you give up for the sake of convenience.”

Jennifer began drawing on a napkin she had left over from the complementary drink service. “An entity – a program – which knows exactly what you want and knows when you want it most based on details about you which you thought was private and has no interest in dissuading you from destructive habits. I don’t need to be superstitious to believe in a Satan figure, because we have one now of our own making.”

I blinked.

“But wouldn’t that make a more convincing argument that there is some type of actual entity out there?”

“Not necessarily,” she commented. “Would an entity that makes perfect sense to us be evidence of human design in the first place?”

“Touché,” I replied. “I think that figures like that are a bit more alien and malevolent to us than we usually give them credit for. They’re not just programs.”

I paused, mulling what she said over in my head.

“I think your critique is pretty valid though, when we reduce agents like that to this. Still, this is terrifying at the level that we have it now.”

She nodded. “And that’s why I do what I do.”

“And that’s one of the reasons why I’m studying what I’m studying too.” I smiled. “Thanks for the reminder.”

“No problem,” she said.

And with that, Jennifer and I went back to our books. I still wonder about that conversation though, and I’d like to think that I’m more conscious of what I do online. What is lost when we exchange privacy for convenience? What is created? What is a healthy relationship with technology look like? How does theology and computer science overlap?

While I am not one to see angels and demons behind every rock and tree, it’s a good reminder of the fact that in a sacramental universe, while things might not be inherently spiritual, everything we do has spiritual implications, including within a virtual space.

Adaptation

In recent months, I find myself in one of my university’s libraries on a regular basis. As the evening wears on, I make my way to the first floor of the building. There, I find a place to sit in the coffee shop which remains open until the early morning hours.

As I type up one assignment after another, I’ve noticed that I tend to flip quickly from Word to one of several tabs I have open. Facebook. YouTube. Reddit. A random article that I found interesting but got distracted by something else halfway through reading it. Netflix.

I would think that I would get through my assignments faster if I could buckle down and focus for a solid hour or so. At least, I would make a good dent of progress going in some direction. And yet, it feels like I’m working uphill most nights.

In one of my classes, the professor had us read an article penned for the Atlantic a decade ago, the title of which asked its readers whether “Google is Making Us Stupid?” Nicolas Carr, the author, made the observation that as we have increasingly integrated search engines like Google into our everyday lives, we have rewired our brains to operate in a manner that is not conducive to the deep reading that is needed within academia. Instead, we are primed to find instant answers, fill in the respective blank, and forget what we read soon thereafter.

“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” confesses Carr, noting that before his frequent Internet use that “My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”

In short, Carr (and many of us today who struggle through lengthy texts featured so prominently within the humanities) has re-trained his brain to retrieve information, at the cost of knowledge retention, as evidenced by his discomfort sitting with a text of any length.

While Google, among many others, allow us to search out information quickly, it does so in a decontextualized manner, retrieving the requested information with almost surgical precision without having to do the legwork of reading a book or body of text to understand it more fully within the larger discussion going on within its field.

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, had similar concerns about the invention of writing, saying that people who used writing were substituting the written word for actual experiential knowledge. Socrates feared that people would cease to use their memory and forget. Furthermore, disconnected from experience, they would have the impression that they are knowledgeable in areas where they aren’t.

In one respect, Socrates, in critiquing the pro-writing Greeks of his time, had a legitimate concern that writing made people stupid because it shifted the human mind to engage the world in a particular way which was foreign to the previous way of doing things. And yet, writing empowered humanity in ways that Socrates did not anticipate. For one, we know what Socrates said because Plato went ahead, much to his mentor’s chagrin, and wrote his thoughts down.

I can’t help but draw a line between the institution of writing and the internet today. While I am concerned for students who don’t seem to have the capacity to sit down and read through a passage of Scripture, I wonder how the Internet might change how the faith might be conveyed or engaged for new generations.

At the exact same time, I wonder what are necessary parts of the faith, in an attempt to understand how to teach the faith in an increasingly distracted world. Abraham Heschel claims this when he states that “spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or inherited knowledge.” Faith, then, cannot live within a search engine paradigm, where a propositional truth is retrieved and promptly forgotten by the one retrieving it.

We must do more. But what? And how realistic would that be? Might we find ourselves at a re-visitation to Medieval Christianity, in which many people were illiterate and yet were arguably still participating in the faith? What might that look like applied to ministry today?