Because I’m a Mac user, I listened with interest to Apple’s recent iPad announcement, just as I do to all of their product announcements. I’m very loyal to that brand, and Apple’s tools are the tools with which I manage not only my workflow, but also my day-to-day life.
What’s interesting about listening to the discussions and analysis of these sort of announcements, though, is the quasi-religious fervor that they can cause. As much of a Mac lover as I am, I will never wait in line at an Apple store for hours just to be one of the first to get a new product. At the end of the day, the product is just a tool to help me do life. A very elegant, beautifully designed and functional tool, but a tool nonetheless. So, when I hear others begin to personify their devices, I find it interesting, and a bit concerning.
And, in the interest of self-disclosure, Karen and I name our computers, so its not like I’m removed from this phenomenon.
I think, though, that its a natural progression of our creative impulse. A few years ago, Karen and I put together and directed a workshop on the spiritual components of creativity. One of our basic starting points was that everyone is creative. I think that plays out in our technological developments, because it proves that collectively, as a culture, we are creative. We find creative solutions to manage our evolving lifestyles, to make our work easier, and to then solve the problems that those solutions create. Just as we were created, we in turn make things in our own image.
And that theology really begins to play out as we enter the realm of potentially self-aware artificial intelligence that science fiction authors have predicted for years. There begins to be a point when the technology we create begins to be something that we worship, at which point it stops being a tool that we use and begins to make us a tool at its disposal. In a sort of twisted progression, we have deified ourselves in our ability to make technological progress, only to lose our power to the technology that we’ve created.
A natural progression of this was discussed this morning in this NPR piece about how researchers are already considering a concept of “robot rights.” How will we treat the machines that do our dirty work if those machines are one day self-aware, feel something like emotion, and expect the same rights that other sentient beings hold?
Its easy to feel like technology has a life of its own, especially as it progresses so quickly. What I see to be almost universally true is that the technology outpaces the other cultural structures within which it is developed: the legal system cannot keep up with the Internet (i.e.: copyright law), philosophy and theology struggle to keep up with our explosions of creation (i.e.: can a robot have a soul?), and now sociology struggles to anticipate how we will incorporate the devices that become increasingly a part of us into our cultural structure (i.e.: how do we define personhood?).
This is something that is as almost as frightening as it is fascinating to watch unfold.