I REMEMBER MY first computer. 1994. It was larger and more beige than the laptop I write on now. I was excited to start using the World Wide Web. The internet featured few videos or memes or much of what we associate with it today. I recall some low-grade websites, mostly jokey in content. I wanted to get on the internet to send and receive email. It meant I would be able to send people messages that didn’t have to go through the US Post. It would be instantaneous.
The hype surrounding this new technology made me think that it would lead to more advanced forms of communication. Not holograms or video chats or anything like that. I believed somehow this new device would make written communication better and — specifically — deeper. It would make language count for more, help us unriddle the philosophical conundrums that had plagued us for centuries. It would make the chronicling of the beats of our hearts more substantial, more true. I had no reason to believe this other than the fact that the first big internet company — Amazon — sold books. The internet would advance the written word. What else was it for?
It only took a few emails from my friends to realize that we were all still the same flawed creatures from before dial-up, and our emails wouldn’t offer clearer, more direct paths to truth and beauty. Reading the dashed-off goofiness that people found necessary to zap over to me instantaneously revealed that the internet was not here to raise the bar. In fact, it might lower it.
Sometime around 2009, however, Meghan O’Gieblyn was clued into an entirely different level of possibility for the internet. A former college-level Bible school student who no longer believed, O’Gieblyn struggled to fill a God-sized place inside of her. A bartender passed her a paperback copy of Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines, which described a future that led to The Singularity, or the “uploading” of the essences of people to the digital world in a way that allowed them to live non-carbon-based lives forever — to, in a sense, ascend to a kind of afterlife, or even to become divine themselves. Thus began a decade-long exploration for O’Gieblyn that mined the parallels between this sort of digital process and those she associated with Christian theology. Was the internet, in effect, the coming of the prophecy found in the Book of Revelation, the resurrection and rapture and all the rest? It’s not what she or anyone expected it would look like, but did anyone expect the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament to look like Jesus?
That’s all I want to say about the specifics of O’Gieblyn’s personal journey. As vital as her personal account is to her book, it’s only the seed of the rich tree of knowledge that sprouts within God, Human, Animal, Machine. Instead of a cri de cœur, O’Gieblyn gathers, analyzes, and disseminates a broad swath of theological, intellectual, and technological history to offer some sense of the intellectual condition in which we find ourselves today — or just around the corner — with scarily lifelike digital pets, online “friendships” without actual people on the other end, and technology threatening to become an even greater part of our lives. I’m a big fan of a wide range of digital technology — prose editing, home recording, online banking — but never once have I mistaken such advances for heaven. That we can have such a conversation about this thing made up of one ones and zeros is in itself an intellectual coup unimaginable a few decades ago.
But it was imaginable, as chronicled by O’Gieblyn. She clarifies René Descartes’s pivotal role in starting us down the road to the Enlightenment with his distinction between the material world — which contains our bodies and all other corporeal things — and our souls — which he saw as made up of our rational minds and not in any way part of the material world. This distinction opened the floodgates for a series of philosophers to contest the idea that the soul was so separate from the physical world, or for that matter even existed. Hence, today it’s feasible philosophically to think one might be able to upload one’s complete self to digital heaven, and sooner rather than later. From such a perspective, as O’Gieblyn puts it, “All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.”
The strength of O’Gieblyn’s book rests on her ability to distill the arguments of a number of great thinkers on questions surrounding this technology, and she traces her ability to plumb these depths and emerge with something coherent to her time as a Christian in Bible school, when she learned to debate for hours ideas such as predestination and covenant theology. “People often decry the thoughtlessness of religion, but when I think back on my time in Bible school, it occurs to me that there exist few communities where thought is taken so seriously.” Back then, reason served as O’Gieblyn’s surest path to the most important things in life and beyond. Regardless of what she left behind at Bible school, as exhibited by her analysis of the ideas of everyone from John Calvin to Søren Kierkegaard to Christ, O’Gieblyn vigorously retains her faith in the thinking mind. If ever there emerges a way for her back to “enchantment,” which is the term she most uses for the hopes and comforts religion offers, it won’t be something that can so easily be disproven.
So, does O’Gieblyn think digital technology might cure the world of the disenchantment brought on by the Enlightenment? She’s more interested in emphasizing the weird end-around science has done to the fundamentalist Christian world. For decades if not centuries, Darwin and his empirical ilk have been the bad guys, the ones with the inconvenient theories about where we came from (monkeys) and where we’re going (not heaven). Through science’s invention of the digital realm and the possibility of its use as a portal to the afterlife, you could argue Christ was right all along. No wonder he spoke in vague parables. How else do you explain the internet to someone in 30 CE?
While O’Gieblyn’s book strikes me as compellingly broad and rigorous, it’s impossible for me to read it and not ponder more imaginatively what digital heaven might be like. I immediately come to problems. What if there are two Singularities, say, one run by Apple and the other by Google? Will they compete for my soul? How will they compete? Are there still computer viruses and, far more troubling, the digital souls who make them? The meanest people I’ve encountered over the past few decades I’ve encountered online. Are they allowed in my heaven, and are they still mean? The idea of the Singularity is so seductive because it shares much of its conceptual framework with heaven and other imagined utopias. If it’s possible to retain anything close to our consciousness once we digitally ascend, then there’s no reason to believe this place will be anything like a utopia. If it’s not possible, then the thing uploaded isn’t really us.
Many leaders in the tech world will tell you I’m thinking too hard about it. According to Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, the results of human empiricism now pale in comparison to what we can glean from artificial intelligence, and we should just let the computers do the intellectual heavy lifting for us. To him, according to O’Gieblyn, “our need to know why [is] misguided. Maybe we should stop trying to understand the world and instead trust the wisdom of algorithms.” From this vantage, our continuance to grapple with the important questions of life becomes a kind of human weakness. The machine knows, and we have to learn to live with that. Such a radical perspective puts the algorithmists — my phrase, not O’Gieblyn’s — at complete loggerheads with, believe it or not, science, which relies fundamentally on human hypotheses. As such, Anderson’s comments serve as the perfect example of the fascinating way that, with big data, science has pulled the rug out from under itself. It has worked its practice so well some believe it’s no longer needed. O’Gieblyn disagrees:
What we are abdicating, in the end, is our duty to create meaning from our empirical observations — to define for ourselves what constitutes justice, and morality, and quality of life — a task we forfeit each time we forget that meaning is an implicitly human category that cannot be reduced to quantification. To forget this truth is to use our tools to thwart our own interests, to build machines in our image that do nothing but dehumanize us.
God, Human, Animal, Machine offers a captivating portrait of how digital technology has fundamentally transformed both intellectual and religious thinking. Unbelievably, some in the tech world now rely on religious tropes to prove their points (“trust the wisdom of the algorithms”), and many religious thinkers who previously doubted or even rejected science are coming to appreciate the cosmological potential of its creations. In other words, these two factions have melded — or switched places — from just a few decades ago, which proves one of O’Gieblyn’s central points: science and religion were never far from each other in the first place.
Since my earliest underwhelming experiences with email, computers have come a long way, and I’ve often tried to put into perspective how impactful digital technology has been to our society. The only thing I can compare it to is money: its ubiquity; its ability to fold almost anything into its ontological framework; its tendency to reduce what’s most important in life to an uncomfortably simple essence that, when it comes down to it, might be all we need. It seems even that flattering comparison is selling digital technology short. It wants to skip right past the biggest questions of human existence and instead transport our limited selves straight to immortality. Do you want to, like Shakespeare and Einstein and all the greats, try your best to understand, then die; or do you want to live in ignorance forever? That’s a question I don’t want the answer to.