The blue lights and constant humming. The clammy warmth, the type of moist heat that comes from too many bodies in too small of a room. These are the sensations you will notice when you walk into a server farm, as I did, when I started work for a digital technology company.
It was May of 2016. At that time, it had been 34 years since Joseph Ratzinger, a prominent theologian of the 20th century, had written his article on security and technology titled, “Technological Security as a Problem of Social Ethics.” In that article, the future Pope Benedict XVI proposed that for technology to be properly ordered, it must promote Christian morality by giving the security necessary to practice a virtuous life. Yet the late pontiff could not have predicted technology’s rapid advance in the 21st century, nor did he comment on cloud computing, blockchain and, of course, A.I. However, the silicon servers of my former employer were the lifeblood of the business, and indeed, this technology has since for nearly every conceivable business in the new millennium.
When Ratzinger speaks of “technological security,” he is not commenting on the types of safeguards and redundancies that technology systems have. He is not concerned about the antivirus software installed on computers. Instead, he is commenting on the security that technology and scientific-technological thinking makes possible. Quoting from Martin Kriele, a German lawyer and philosopher, Ratzinger explains as follows, “Scientific-technological thinking is actually able to free us from that dominion which nature exercises over us, insofar as it helps us to dominion over nature.”
However, what modernity has shown is that there is also a dangerous false comparison between technology and traditional Christian morality. It is a comparison that sees the physical liberation technology has provided; liberation from diseases, food insecurity, and all variety of minor inconveniences, while asking why the Christian morality of our ancestors had not done the same. Again here’s Ratzinger quoting from Kriele: “Traditional morality, guided by the concepts of good and evil, has not been able to bring about this liberation. It turned pale beside the brilliant reality of this liberation, then appeared superfluous and finally detrimental and ‘reactionary.’”
Now the question is, where has this false comparison and ever evolving forms of technology left us in the 21st century?
A New Utopia
The short, but powerful, historical arc of one of the newest forms of technology — digital — has built into its structure the false comparison between Christian morality and technological liberation. Digital, unlike previous forms of technology, at times has an explicitly anti-Chrisitan ethos built in because it’s programmable in a way other technologies were not.
The three digital technologies from the past 25 years that make this apparent are: the internet, cloud-based software, and A.I. However, A.I. is the most relevant and perhaps most misunderstood in the 2024 technological discourse.
In my day job developing software applications, the sacred incantation “A.I.” and its subsets, such as “natural language processing” and “machine learning,” get wielded with a near-religious fervor, as if just by their mention every knee should bend. Instead of the masses of 20th century Russian Bolsheviks crying, “Workers of the world, unite!” it is the Silicon Valley technologist typing similarly utopic shibboleth, “A.I. Superintelligence!” (the point when A.I. will surpass human intelligence), or “A.I. for Good!”
We see the utopian pining of this movement when Sam Altman, the CEO of Open A.I. who produced the popular ChatGPT, tweeted in early 2023, “I think A.I. is going to be the greatest force for economic empowerment and a lot of people getting rich we have ever seen.” And, he is not alone in that sentiment. Big consulting, big investment banks, and the rich and powerful share Altman’s hopes.
Ratzinger feared that modern technology would prove too convenient and lead to the eventual evaporation of our freedom as creations in the image and likeness of God. He feared that the security technology provides would become the determinative principle usurping Christian morality.
It is clear that our modern technologists are dreaming of the future Ratzinger had hoped to avoid. Altman’s 2023 tweet, that A.I., not humans, will be the greatest force for economic empowerment, shows as much. However, that does not prove that A.I. is necessarily any different than the technology or the technological thinking that has been present since the Enlightenment. To do that, you have to look at what the technology can do.
One of the warnings in the Gospels is to beware of those who want to trick you, to beware of false prophets. When I think about false prophets, I imagine a bible salesman trying to cash in or a cardboard sign weidling street preacher claiming to be the next messiah. However, what Scripture is warning about in passages like Matthew 7:15 and Colossians 2:8 that speak about false prophets is more in reference to the polished orator, political leader, or even church leader who is dishing out an ideology that is almost orthodox, but misses the mark in some subtle way, or what we would call a heresy.
Arius was one such false prophet. He had all the credentials as an ascetic and priest. His catchy phrase, “There was once when HE was not,” resonated with many who were struggling to believe in Christ’s divinity. Arianism took hold over a large part of the Church and the early Christian world because it was polished and authoritative. His arguments were convincing and polished.
A.I. has the ability to create similarly convincing arguments in a way that we have not seen with earlier forms of technology. If you have played with ChatGPT, you probably noticed how advanced its natural language processing — or its ability to comprehend and respond to text prompts — really is. In other words, ChatGPT is, like Arius, a sophisticated writer and communicator. Because of how the language model is trained, it can communicate in the style of any great author or wordsmith. Ask it to write in the detailed and rich styles of Charles Dickens. It sure can. If you want the allegory in the verse of Dante, GPT can do that as well. If you want a new gospel in the style of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, ChatGPT will, in a single button, type something that would be almost impossible to distinguish as machine-generated.
In this way, in its mimicry, A.I. is most dangerous. Where older forms of technology could have us question Christian morality, A.I. goes a step further and has the ability to propose an alternative morality. The airplane, the telephone, the lightbulb, and the wheel never had the ability to convince us to worship a new god. They did not have an ideology in-built, even if they were products of the scientific-technological thinking as explained by Ratzinger. You cannot ask your telephone, “What religion is true?” and you cannot ask a wheel if Christ rose from the dead. Yet, you can ask A.I. models these questions and, depending on how their algorithms are programmed, you will get an answer.
In the end, this is not to say that A.I. needs to be thrown out. A.I., and all forms of digital technologies, in the end, are only tools. However, they are tools that have the capacity to be programmed with a new ethic. An ethic that places security and progress as the determinative principle. To avoid such a fate, let us closely attend to the final warning Ratzinger makes in his essay, “Technological Security as a Problem of Social Ethics”, “To be set free from morality is not freedom, but rather the unlocking of the forces of destruction. The true security and freedom of man consists in the rule of morality (ethos). This inner security of man teaches him also the paths to the right means of external security, and it gives him, within that tension field between security and openness, the ability to judge the new claims upon his life.”