‘Thinking’ has morphed. We traditionally defined it as a neural function strictly within the brain, in which we had the capability (and consciousness) to to think about our own thoughts. Aquinas calls this capacity ‘reditio completa’ meaning that the human intellect is capable of ‘returning’ to its cognitive act and placing such act as the object of the intellect.
However, in a society that is so dependent on its tools (a 2016, research revealed that we touch our smartphones around 2,617 times a day[i]. When the study was repeated in 2018 researchers[ii] found that most users now ‘never stop touching [their] phones, even when they’re off’), technology has become a neural extension of ourselves. ‘Thinking’ therefore, is not something we merely do biologically in our brain, but rather an act which we complete with the extended tools attached to it. This ‘fusion’ of man and machine has altered our epistemological self-awareness to the extent that research demonstrates that digital users conflate their own knowledge with that available to the tools they use[iii], and rarely develop their own wisdom.
Therefore, the proliferation of devices is not merely an economic condition to be observed but one that changes profound societal bonds, perceptions and structures. Thus, since technology filters our experiences and often shapes how we live, it has enormous ethical significance. It is for this reason that the pervasive reality of the digital world must present a key area of interest to the Church.
Malta’s own connectivity to digital social media channels is well above the EU average. We are now able to tell the world what we’re eating, what we’re seeing, what we’re wearing (or not wearing), at all times. This underscores the idea that everything personal is shareable; but should it be?
We are witnessing the development of a self-centred world-view which can radicalise us into an echo-chamber culture in which we rarely listen to anyone that disagrees with us, or rarely listen at all. Pariser[iv], indeed argues that we’re speaking (and listening) to less people than we were before the Internet. This begs the question; is social really social?
Privacy: The Victim of Social Connectivity
And as social platforms encourage the sharing of that which was not previously considered fit for public consumption, data footprints from every selfie, like, share or re-tweet define our online lives.
Social scientist Shoshana Zuboff coined the term ‘surveillance capitalism’ in 2014[v] to denote a “radically disembedded and extractive variant of information capitalism” based on the commodification of “social reality” and its transformation into behavioural data for analysis and eventual commercialisation. This evolution of the capitalist theory requires the Internet to act as a distributed and largely uncontested expression of power, the cheerful use by millions, and the acquisition of personal data assets – often without explicit consent.
Behavioural patterns extracted from use of ‘free’ platforms create ‘prediction products’ that anticipate present and future user-needs and thus become tradable assets on a futures marketplace. Zuboff argues that this notion challenges the political bases of self-determination itself and debases the individuality of the human as a consumer.
On Being Present
Within this endless stream of change and digital activity, it stands to reason that there exists a way of being present in the digital world. World religions have a great deal of insight on this topic. Christianity, for example, espouses a form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others and which in turn is a representation of values which have stood the test of time. These notions, in turn, are underpinned by the search and respect of the ‘truth’.
This truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its “popularity” or from the amount of attention it receives. We must make this truth known in its entirety and with integrity, instead of seeking to make it acceptable or diluting it. It must become daily nourishment and not a fleeting attraction[vi]. We require a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience.
Truth Within a World of Confusing Facts
The role of choosing and filtering stories for us to read has moved from the hands of an educated editor to the algorithmic muscle of the channel we most commonly use; Facebook. As we abdicate this selection to commercially driven third parties, we become more susceptible to disinformation and fake-news which may thwart us into a specific way of thinking, seeing and being.
Most digital platforms have vowed to limit false news through better fact-checking. This commitment results from a growing concern that digital disinformation is impacting democracy and re-defining politics.
Politicians and political campaign teams are often the victims (or perpetrators) of such confused fact activity (also known as ‘trolling’). A Harvard study from 2017 found that the Chinese Government orchestrates 448 million troll social posts a year, with a view to distract and confuse[vii]. It’s terrible when disinformation is sowed by business but when this is done by Government (or for a Government) it takes an entirely different (and worrying) angle. The relationship between an elected Government and its citizens is largely shaped by the ongoing communication between the two, so when this space is digitally manipulated it is a matter of global concern as it affects the Hobbesian notion of a social contract.
In its basic (and biological state) consciousness is the state of being sentient, that is aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings. Traditionally philosophers have used the term ‘consciousness’ to describe four main areas: (i) knowledge in general, (ii) intentionality, (iii) introspection (and the knowledge it specifically generates) and (iv) phenomenal experience.
In the analysis of these four areas we also seek to describe the derivative forms of consciousness such as the various contingent emotional states, or ‘raw’ intelligence. The pressing question technology poses today is whether it will attain such levels of human consciousness. Subsequently, how will the Church reflect on its role within this new eco-system? The matter isn’t inconsequential as it touches on the realms of morality and how such relates to immortal human existence. The following four areas illustrate this quandary:
Can technology be self-aware?
Humans beings know that they know, while less complex animals don’t seem to share that awareness. But can a machine be the subject of its own thought and think about itself? Computer software can be written so that it can report on its own internal states (such as a debugger program which finds errors in itself). Though arguably self-awareness presumes more capability; such as ascribing meaning to the present state, considering the contextual nature of one’s existence now; how it compares to past states or plans for the future. Thus, one would argue that technology can’t presently be fully self-aware.
Can technology be creative?
The English mathematician, logician and computer scientist, Alan Turing famously reduced this question to “can a computer surprise us?” Technology is remarkably capable to understand, represent and combine ideas in new ways (which is often the basic workflow of the creative human process). We have seen technology used to write film scripts or devise graphic artwork, or even develop new culinary recipes. In 2009, scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales and the UK’s University of Cambridge designed a robot called Adam that they believe to be the first machine to independently come up with new scientific findings (on gene discovery) without human involvement. Thus, one may state that technology can be independently creative and original.
Can technology gain intentionality?
Can a machine “deliberately” set out to do harm and thus express intention? Intentionality – or the ability to be purposive towards some object or person – goes back to the very fundamental concept of consciousness.
Almost a decade ago, the Asilomar Conference of 2009 in Monterey Bay, California, established that some machines have acquired forms of semi-autonomy, including being able to find power sources on their own and being able to independently choose targets to attack with weapons. Indeed, some computer viruses can evade elimination and have achieved ‘cockroach intelligence’. This is semi-intentional or semi-autonomous capability which will change and improve through further scientific advancement in technology.
Is technology intelligent?
If intelligence is understood as pure, algorithmic computation there’s no reason to believe technology can’t be as intelligent as humans. Indeed, it is often more intelligent than the average human.
However, if intelligence is elevated to contain consciousness on intelligence (thinking about intelligence) then technology cannot be defined to be intelligent. Consciousness has subjective, first-person causal powers and consciousness is not inherently computational the way computer programs are. The human mind has a number of intrinsic characteristics, such as subjectivity, intentionality, teleology and rationality, which a computer can only simulate. Subsequently machines do not have access to the metaphysical nature of reality. Mirroring reason is not the same as reasoning. And reasoning is not the same thing as consciousness.
Critical Thinking and Contemplation
The technical devices we use are laden with meaningful content: photos, family messages, books, prayers, and songs. Research[viii] reveals that as smartphones evoke more personal memories, users extend more of their identity onto their smartphones. The evolution of devices and their use has happened so quickly (partly fueled by decreasing hardware prices), that many of us have not yet understood how to govern the relationship with our devices and consequently capitulate to them. However, this capitulation has a causal tie to our own decision making as shifting the onus of thinking affects our ability to think. Thus the better Netflix becomes at recommending movies to us, to less interested we are in making our own selection. The better Google becomes at predicting our questions, the less able we are to form them. We once searched Google, but now Google searches us and provides the answer before the question. In 1854 with a fair amount of foresight, Henry David Thoreau, wrote[ix] that man has become ‘the tool of [his] tool’.
Yet perhaps in this cacophony of endless activity the antithesis is also the antidote: silence. The restless human being, endlessly searching for information, may find it hard to develop meditative and profound meaning. In contemplative silence, we can discover the possibility of speaking with God, on God, and the meaning of human existence. This silent contemplation leads to a powerful presence of awareness in which the plan of salvation and our own history may be sensed.
[iii] ‘Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge’. Fisher, Matthew,Goddu, Mariel K.,Keil, Frank C. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 144(3), Jun 2015, 674-687 https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxge0000070
[iv] Pariser Eli, The Filter Bubble
[v] Zuboff, Shoshana (15 September 2014). “A Digital Declaration: Big Data as Surveillance Capitalism”. FAZ.NET (in German). ISSN 0174-4909. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-debate/shoshan-zuboff-on-big-data-as-surveillance-capitalism-13152525.html
[vi] Benedictus XVI, Message of his Holiness Pope Benedit XVI for the 45th World Communications Day
[vii] King, Pan, Roberts, April 2017, How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument: http://gking.harvard.edu/files/gking/files/50c.pdf?m=1463587807
[viii] Seunghee Han et al, Understanding Nomophobia: Structural Equation Modeling and Semantic Network Analysis of Smartphone Separation Anxiety, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking (2017), https://phys.org/news/2017-08-smartphone-anxiety-smartphones-people.html
[ix] Walden, or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau, 1854