Humanity is nearing a technological tipping point. The blistering pace of technological, scientific, and social change is ushering in an era in which human bodies merge with devices, corporations know everything about us, and artificial intelligence develops human and even godlike potential. In possession of the most powerful tools history has ever seen, we will be faced with questions about wisdom, authority, faith, desire, and what it means to be human.
In Braving the Future, Douglas Estes equips Christians to thoughtfully and prayerfully prepare for a future of technological reign that is rapidly expanding. Drawing on Scripture, Christian tradition, and scientific literature, Estes offers a theology of work, creation, and personhood that is both prophetic and sturdy enough to keep pace with the technology of a future as yet unknown. He helps readers choose trust in God over fearful retreat and following Jesus over uncritical engagement with technology. The future may not look exactly like a science fiction movie, but are we ready to brave a future of limitless tech and boundless change?
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READY PLAYER ONE VIRTUAL REALITY AND THE ADDICTION OF TECH
Before long, billions of people around the world were working and playing in the OASIS every day. Some of them met, fell in love, and got married without ever setting foot on the same continent. The lines of distinction between a person's real identity and that of their avatar began to blur. It was the dawn of new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a videogame.
— ERNEST CLINE, READY PLAYER ONE
When Wade Watts enters the OASIS, Wade ends and Parzival begins. In the real world, Wade is a nerdy eighteen-year-old from the stacks, a mega-sized trailer park in Oklahoma City. But in the OASIS, a multiplayer online game, Parzival is a gunter (aka "Egg hunter"), who spends his time questing for a hidden Easter Egg that will reward its finder with control over the OASIS. If you met Wade in the real world and Parzival in the OASIS, you would notice that Parzival looks a bit like Wade — or at least an idealized form of Wade. The acne is gone, but the face and body styles are close, or close enough. With as much time as Wade spends in the OASIS, it begs the question: who is more real — Wade, or Parzival?
No one in the OASIS will ever know what a player's real-world form looks like unless the player allows it. In the OASIS, a player chooses how they will appear to others by creating an avatar, or representation, of themselves. In creating their avatar, the player can be whomever they want to be: they can be black, they can be white, they can be green, they can be fuchsia, they can be male, they can be female, they can be intersex, they can be none, they can be human, they can be minotaur, they can be Care Bear. With the amount of time people like Wade spend in the OASIS, this is more than mere aesthetics of avatar design. A person in the OASIS can go anywhere and do anything. The virtual sky — sometimes red, sometimes blue — is the limit. Parzival may not be a gangly, purple-skinned Cyclops dressed in a muumuu with a magic glow stick, but he's probably met one somewhere along the way.
Such is the world of Ready Player One, the film by Stephen Spielberg based on the book by Ernest Cline. Ready Player One depicts the year 2045, a future wherein a sprawling multiverse of virtual worlds — the OASIS — has enraptured the world. Billions of people spend as much of their waking hours as possible living in the OASIS, connected via their virtual reality visors and their haptic gloves. Parzival, Wade's avatar in the OASIS, was named in honor of Sir Percival, who quested for the Holy Grail, just as Parzival quests for the hidden Easter Egg placed in world by its designer, James Halliday. Parzival's quest brings meaning to Wade's life. Though Parzival chooses to quest for something meaningful (more meaningful, than say, killing thousands of low-level kobolds for copper pieces), most of the other billion people in the OASIS are questing for ... what? In this slightly dystopic view of the future, billions of people spend their lives in virtual reality, escaping the "real" reality that is outside their visor.
But if their real world is so much inferior to their virtual world, can we blame them? Is it wrong to spend time in virtual reality? Is it wrong to spend your life in virtual reality?
What if everyone else were spending their lives in the virtual world — would you adapt to it too? What if you had a friend who felt called to be a missionary in the OASIS — would it be wrong then?
SAMPLE TECH: VIRTUAL REALITY
Virtual reality creates a fully immersive experience for the user using the senses of sight, sound, and touch. Think of it as a technology that combines the power of the television, the internet, and the smartphone in one device and then amplifies this power. When a person enters a virtual world through a virtual reality device, the computer simulates an environment for the person that the person's senses confirms. Futurists believe that virtual reality is one of the next big things in tech evolution. Far more than its predecessors — including internet chat rooms and social media — virtual reality will transform the way we communicate.
Here in the first half of the twenty-first century, virtual reality is on the verge of rapid adoption. Virtual worlds such as Second Life that came online in the first decade of the twenty-first century captured the attention of millions, but their impact on the world at large was limited. In part, this was because the technology had not yet matured; the experience was neither immersive (it was depicted in low-resolution 2D on a small flat screen), nor responsive (the only two senses engaged were sight and sound, and sound was limited to that which emerged from computer speakers; there was no touch, taste, or smell). As a result, many people tend to lump virtual reality in with flying cars — a promised technology that never delivered.
This judgment, however, is probably premature. Most major tech companies that are household names — Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook — are investing significant resources in virtual reality. Each hopes to be the company that finally triggers mass adoption.
When it arrives to the masses, virtual reality will bring great advantages, just as the smartphone before it did. For example, I think of my own occupation as a professor who teaches biblical subjects. Frequently when I cover a subject like the preaching and communication strategies of the earliest Christians, I describe to my students what it was like to be an apostle who used oral rhetoric in a synagogue or an outdoor marketplace. For my current students, the best I can reasonably do is try to create descriptions with my words and show some pictures of archeological ruins. In a few situations, there are CGI (computer-generated imagery) reconstructions of ancient places, but these tend to be limited and are still 2D.
I look forward to the day when my students and I will don visors and walk together in an ancient marketplace, hearing the text of the New Testament come alive amid the dust and dung. Even better, my online students will be able to join us in this virtual classroom, such that the disadvantages that online students face today will largely vanish. We will all virtually go to the courtyard of the Jerusalem temple to see the moneychangers and temple patrons in action.
With the rewards of virtual reality, however, come increased risks. Right now, when we communicate with others online, the worst behavior we typically encounter is an ugly Twitter remark or blog post. This type of negative feedback can range from the annoying to the depressing. Because technology amplifies usage, virtual reality will increase the ability of abusers to abuse far more than they can now. Worse than the nameless Sixers that Parzival fought in Ready Player One, these abusers will give new meaning to the term trolls. One day we may be traveling the virtual world, trying to make it to our New Testament class on time, only to get held up by an ugly green-skinned monster.
There is one reason that people will adopt virtual reality without pause: it will increase interconnectivity. The telegraph, telephone, email, and social media became indispensable parts of our culture because they connected people. These technologies offer "intimacy," suggests WIRED editor Peter Rubin, which is why they are so powerful. At first blush, intimacy may sound like the wrong word, but each of these previous iterations of connective technologies do produce intimacy.
As a teenager, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking to my BFFs on the telephone. This created intimacy, though of a different sort than the kind we experience when we meet others in person or through social media. Even social media creates intimacy, though the technology limits and colors that intimacy. Think of it like this: The telegraph created a sort of intimacy, but nothing compared to its successor, the telephone. The telegraph is to the telephone what social media will be to virtual reality. Can you imagine what it was like before the telephone? I can't. And people born late in the twenty-first century will never be able to understand what it was like before virtual reality. It's that much of a game-changer.
I WANT A NEW DRUG
The evolution of technology shows no signs of abating. We are at a place in history in which, if futurists are correct, tech will only increase its scope and power to change our lives. This will also trigger a related effect: its speed of adoption by consumers. Once the telegraph proved so useful, consumers were quick to want the telephone. Now that social media has proven so useful, consumers will be quick to want the more immersive virtual world (once it reaches the requisite critical mass of adopters and content).
This acceleration of creation and adoption makes it a challenge for Christians to formulate thoughtful and wise responses to technology. It also makes for an unsettling feeling when new tech arrives. This is because once new technology begins to be adopted, it also becomes addictive. When I use the word addictive to describe our relationship with technology, I don't mean the word in the clinical sense — though that usage is appropriate in certain circumstances. Instead, I mean it in the everyday sense of a strong desire: "Wow, that dark chocolate brownie was so addictive!"
The advent of the smartphone in the last decade shows just how addictive technology can be. We've all been in public places where scores of people sat glued to their phones. And we have seen people using their phones while trying to walk down the street, bumping into things as they go (which would appear to be a sure sign of the zombie apocalypse).
Our smartphones are so vital a part of our daily lives that we cannot keep our hands off them. One study of smartphone use found that the average smartphone user touched their phone about 164 times an hour. That's 2,617 times a day — more if you sleeptext.
Let's put this in perspective.
Every day we touch our iPhones 300 times more than we wash our hands. Ewww! Not only is that a lot of germs on our phones — sparking magazine articles with headlines such as "Your Cell Phone Is 10 Times Dirtier Than a Toilet Seat" — it is also a lot of addiction. This level of addiction, built into a marvel of a tech that has changed our world, explains why tech philosophers sometimes speak of new technology as an extension of ourselves. At the rate we interact with our phones, they are almost like parts of ourselves.
There are other ways that technology is extremely addictive. Let's consider another (and less germy) marvel of modern tech: high definition television (HDTV). Today HDTV is the standard. Many people now have 4K and even 8K televisions, but almost no one still uses low-resolution TVs. Yet I, and maybe some readers of this book, grew up with low-resolution TVs. I spent many Sunday afternoons after church at my Mom-Mom's house, watching reruns of classic TV shows on a 27-inch color TV. That was great then. But there is no way that now I would watch Avengers: Infinity War on that kind of TV. Ever. As tech improves, we become addicted to the new standards that tech offers, and it becomes hard to go back to old technology. Sure, someone somewhere may like to visit their barber for a seasonal bloodletting or be interested in copper piping for the water lines of their new home. But let's agree: not many.
Our need for tech is so highly addictive that we can liken technology to a drug. This drug is really not a new drug — it has always been the case that new technology is addictive. I can assure you that three thousand years ago, the first time an Egyptian pharaoh saw an enemy on the battlefield use a chariot, that Egyptian pharaoh had to have one. And once he got one, he never went into battle without it again. He became addicted to the chariot because of the strategic advantages it offered.
Since the beginning of recorded history until the late nineteenth century, it is unlikely anyone would have spoken of technology as "addictive." Up until that point, tech progress was slow enough that new technologies only appeared once in a person's lifetime. As the pace of progress quickens, however, and the faster new inventions become a reality, the more addictive tech feels. And all this acceleration just feeds our addiction. This is why I can assure you that next week, the first time a CEO sees his corporate enemy in first class use the newest eThingamajig, that CEO will have to have one. And once he gets it, he'll never go in the boardroom without it — well, at least until the next technology comes along. More and more tech, at lower and lower costs, feeds our addiction.
IF WE MAKE IT, THEY WILL USE IT
Our addiction to new tech will ensure that corporations will continue to produce it. In general, the creation of new technology is a good thing. Most new technologies have the ability to make our lives better. But not all new tech seems to. Some new tech, such as genetically modified viruses, can be quite dangerous to people in many scenarios. And some new tech, such as SnapChat, can seem useful at first but then quickly take a wrong turn, to the point that it probably does more harm than good. And then there is new tech that has not arrived yet — like the de-extinction of saber-tooth tigers — that seems like a bad idea to even pursue.
So how can we tell what kind of tech is good and what kind is bad? How can we make sure we do not use bad tech, or use good tech badly?
As I mentioned in the introduction, we can think about technology and its relationship to our world in several different ways. Two of the most prominent views are known as instrumentalism and determinism. We can think of these two views as being on two ends of a spectrum.
Instrumentalism is the view that technology is merely a tool that people can use (or not), and the belief that its effects are limited by use. Determinism, on the other end of the spectrum, sees technology as an active agent that forms culture, molds human choice and interaction, and shapes the future. As you move left on this continuum, you view power over tech as resting more in the hands of people than in the lap of technology. As you move to the right, you view technology as holding the upper hand, exerting control over individuals and culture. Again, there are other views than these, but these are the predominant perspectives.
Before we jump to social media, self-driving cars, or Terminator-type cyborgs — the current low-hanging fruit of technological criticism — let's go back a few years. One of the greatest technologies ever invented was the composite bow. The adoption of this technology is lost to history, but it occurred sometime before the seventeenth century BC. Unlike the standard or "self-bow," the composite bow was made of materials working together that allowed a recurve form. This meant it was small, flexible, and extremely powerful, and made it possible for people to shoot on horseback and to create whole new battle tactics, such as the Parthian shot. Was this technology a tool that did a job at the behest of people, as instrumentalism would suggest? Or were these terrifying new weapons world-shapers, as determinism would maintain — things that, once used, altered the balance of power in the ancient world?
Another one of the greatest technologies ever invented came from the vision of Prince Henry at the beginning of the fifteenth century, in the little country of Portugal. This tech, called the caravel, was a sailing ship that improved so much on past vessels that it could efficiently explore whole oceans, not just seas. It sailed fast with a reduced crew. The creation of the caravel meant the entire world was now accessible by sea. Without the caravel, Columbus would never have sailed the ocean blue. Again, we ask the question: Was the caravel a simple tool for crossing oceans? Or was it a world-shaper that, once deployed, would have no choice but to change the course of history?
Many readers will read these examples and say, "Well, both!" It is indeed tempting to choose both — many philosophers of technology also try to do this, locating themselves somewhere between instrumentalism and determinism. At the end of the day, however, there is a choice to make, a question to answer. Do a composite bow, a caravel, Guttenberg's printing press, and my Wii have their own agency or not? If you think that my Wii has its own will, and shapes the world through its will, then you lean toward determinism. (My kids must be determinists, as they would love to claim that their videogames made them keep playing past their daily limit.) But if you believe that my Wii does not have agency and its effects depend on how we use it, then you lean toward instrumentalism.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Braving the Future"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: God, People, Tech 11
1 Ready Player One: Virtual Reality and the Addiction of Tech 31
2 Real Steel: Autonomous Machines and Happiness 51
3 Jurassic World: Gene Editing and Bioenhancement 71
4 Passengers: Artificial Intelligence and the Masters of the Universe 91
5 Marjorie Prime: Brain-Computer Interface and the Nature of People 115
6 Robot & Frank: Intelligent Robots and the Power of Story 137
7 Transcendence: Nanotechnology and Biohackers 161
8 Self/Less: Cybernetics and the Glory of Tech 181
Conclusion: Tools for the Sandbox 199
For Further Reading 205
The Author 231