In an age where more than half the people in the world have access to the internet, what effect is the digital age having on our humanity?
This question was addressed and discussed in the 2019 Beach Lecture on the evening of 8th October at Newbold College of Higher Education. The lecturer was Andrew Graystone, BBC broadcaster and producer, media analyst, consultant and writer.
Graystone began his report with an overview of various technological advances and glimpses of ‘wizardries’ to come. He described computer scientists who dream of a time ‘more than 15-20 years ahead when a computer can act or think for itself more effectively than all human beings put together and that will be the “last machine” we ever need to build’. ‘How would we treat such a machine?’ asked Graystone.
This was the first of many questions in an exploration of the crucial debate we need to have about Artificial Intelligence. Graystone reminded us that ‘technology is not neutral – the tools we use change us’. He described our tendency to adapt our questions to accommodate to the answers technology can supply. Perhaps the most serious of his questions related to the our growing habit of using machines as measuring tools. ‘‘Fitbit can measure steps but never how kind you’ve been or how much you’ve felt loved. Do we end up saying those things can’t be quantified so they can’t be important?’ he asked.
Some people want to describe our technological age as a digital ‘revolution’ but Graystone did not. He argued that the term ‘revolution’ is a misnomer. In some respects, less has changed than we sometimes think. Despite the ubiquity of technology, many fundamental things in digital culture are simply developments of what went before. For instance, people who were powerful or disadvantaged before are just more powerful or more disadvantaged.
Graystone encouraged his audience to think about not the ingenuity of the technology but the culture it creates – a culture which tends to ‘disembody’ people – creating different kinds of ‘avatar’. Many business enterprises – the bank, the electricity company, the shop –are interested in different characteristics that don’t relate to their flesh and blood clients or customers.
He described a major feature of being human in a digital age as the ‘collapse of context’. Unlike a physical object – a book, for instance – ‘digital information can travel across great distances and arrive in exactly the same condition in which it was sent. It can sit on a storage device for months or years, and when recalled it will appear exactly the same’ regardless of ownership, time or geography.
Graystone suggested that the internet encourages the loss of distinction between a creator and what is created, between subject and object. We are all being easily manipulated by algorithms. And all of this dehumanising activity is carried on in a space where there are ‘huge commercial and political interests at play – interests that go far beyond the boundaries of geographical states’.
The lecture then went on to a complex and fascinating discussion about what sort of humanity a highly functioning machine could be said to have. It discussed the possibility of human beings plus their machines creating a form of what could be called ‘posthumanity. Such a development is highly conjectural and yet clearly on the near horizon of human development. The implications of dehumanisation in the light of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ ‘who came “at the right time” and to a physical place – the so-called “scandal of particularity” are thought-provoking. The incarnation offers ‘a contrast to digital culture in which nothing is particular, and no atoms at any time have more significance than any other.‘
The penultimate section of the lecture dealt with the practical and pastoral challenges to the church of the digital culture. ‘As our understanding of what is “real” and what is virtual are shaken up by new technology, Christians will need to think about new ways of meeting, organising ourselves and communicating the gospel.’
Graystone concluded with three challenging questions for church people: ‘How will a church that is constructed entirely around geography cope in an age when non-geographical communities are the norm? How will a church that is almost entirely driven by text communicate in an age when the symbol is king? What does the religion of the Incarnation have to say to a culture that relativises the human body?’
But the audience was left with more than questions. In conclusion, Graystone offered his own ‘seven principles for Christian engagement in the digital environment’. They are listed in full below.
Seven Principles for Christian Engagement in the Digital Environment
- Singularity of Personality
We should preach the singularity of personality as a goal in Christian holiness. Holiness requires that I won’t behave in one way in private and another in public – or behave online in ways that I wouldn’t behave off-line. I am one person, and the embodied me is the root of the genuine me, the me that God relates to.
- Humanising digital relationships
We should seek continually to humanize the relationship between those who create content and those who consume it. We should challenge the notion that digital self-expression is an end in itself, reasserting the responsibility of the content–creator towards the consumer. This might be characterised as a digital equivalent of the “fair-trade” movement.
We should engage in a wide-spread process of ‘conscientization’ that enables content-producers and consumers to understand the power-dynamics of the digital environment, and as much as possible to take control over their own presence in the digital environment.
- Authority and openness
We should reject ‘pseudonimity’ and repudiate the doctrine that secrecy produces safety online. Instead we should ensure that every expression of our digital identity should be “signed” so that it is traceable directly to our embodied reality.
- Digital justice
We should guard against the pre-eminence of the identity of persons as consumers. In the political questions such as the availability of super-fast broadband or mobile access we should argue for preferential treatment for the poor, lest they become dehumanized by becoming objects in every digital relationship.
- Mission and service
We should acknowledge that our “neighbours” now include the 1.8 billion people who are online, and the 4.8 billion who are accessible to us by mobile phone, whilst not failing to remember the impact that the digital community has on the 2 billion or more who as yet have little or no access to it.
- The priority of the embodied person
We should assert that those with whom we meet in embodied personhood – with whom we share houses, streets or bread and wine – will always remain our primary community.
10th October 2019
Andrew Graystone’s full and highly recommended Beach Lecture 2019 can be seen on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page.
Andrew Graystone has recently published a book on the subject of the lecture, Too Much Information? Ten Essential Questions for Digital Christians.
 Romans 5:6