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Podcast: We're Thinking about Technology All Wrong (Tony Reinke)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

How Should We View Technology?

In today's episode, Tony Reinke considers what the Bible has to say about human innovation and the things we create, why Christians are often so attracted to tech dystopianism, the future of AI, Facebook’s new metaverse, and more.

God, Technology, and the Christian Life

Tony Reinke

What does God think of human technology? Tony Reinke explores how the Bible unseats 12 common myths Christians hold about life in this age of innovation.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:11 - Defining Technology

Matt Tully
Tony, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Tony Reinke
I’m happy to be here, Matt. Thank you for having me.

Matt Tully
Anyone who knows you, has heard our previous interview, or has read any of your books or articles—you’ve written dozens of articles—would know that you have a keen interest in technology and the way that it is present in our lives, shaping our lives for good and ill. I want to get into a lot of those themes here today, but before we jump into that, it’s interesting to learn a little bit about your family’s connection to the rise of new technologies. This goes back quite some time, even to your grandfather. Tell us a little bit about him.

Tony Reinke
As I’ve gotten older I’ve spent more time in the architectural drawings and patents of my grandfather. He lost his memory in his old age when I was a teenager, and it was kind of too early for me to have any serious conversations with him about agricultural tech and farm irrigation (which was kind of his specialty) or in wind power tech and the battery tech that he was inventing. That was something that he tinkered with. In the 1970s he was dreaming of a day when homes would be powered by batteries charged by wind chargers. He was already working on that in 1998—on houses that didn’t even have running water. He was trying to electrify them with a windmill.

Matt Tully
That’s incredible!

Tony Reinke
Those similar dreams of his of what electricity could do are only really now coming true. I knew he had a machine shop. He was a tinkerer. I saw his aluminum projects up close as a boy, and his windmills—very creative windmills—but only recently have I studied the patents and news clippings of him and his incredible brothers and their inventiveness. My grandfather never went to school past 8th grade. He was a typical farm boy. He was called on by the military to reinvent aiming computers in World War II. This wasn't a microchip computer like we think of computers, but an aiming device that was used in World War II. He did that; he re-engineered it and was just really good at engineering at that level. He did most of his inventing on rural farmland in Nebraska. You can see my last name swinging on irrigation sprinklers in Nebraska, and that’s my grandfather’s brother, specifically, but the same family tree. I don’t think my story is unique though. A lot of readers of my book have told me that there is inventiveness in their own story, their own history, and their own grandfathers and fathers. If inventiveness is in our bloodlines so closely to so many of us and we live in a tech age like no other age has experienced before, it raises those questions of, Where does this impulse to invent things come from? How does this tech impulse live with faith? Does it co-exist with faith? Is it unbelief? Is it rebellion? Is it God-honoring? How are we supposed to have those innovations in a way that honors God? Are we even supposed to have these powers? Are we supposed to have battery powers and nuclear power? Are we supposed to have computer processors? Is this human rebellion at its core, or is it something that honors God? So, lots of questions get raised, and I think all of us live with some sort of inventiveness within our bloodstream and it just raises those questions pretty naturally.

Matt Tully
Maybe a conflict or uncertainty that we have within us about answers to some of those questions: Is technology good? Is it bad? Are there limits to what we should pursue? At some point does it become playing God? Before we jump into some of that stuff, I wonder if you could just simply define technology. I think it’s one of those words that we probably immediately think of the smartphone in our pocket. We think of electronics. We think of microchips. How would you define that general term—technology?

Tony Reinke
Technology is the making and using of a technique to amplify native human powers. We go back even to David’s sling against Goliath; that was a form of technology. Goliath, obviously, is the techno-giant. He is like an army in one man, this warrior who was bred to slay nations and who had collected the greatest war armory that anyone had ever seen. This guy would take over his enemy in the field, and then he would plunder and take whatever tech he wanted. So when Goliath steps out to go toe to toe with David, he is literally shroud in the greatest armory of his age. He is the F-22; he is the Raptor; he is the F-35—whatever jet, whatever drone, whatever military weapon you think of today, he was elite in that way. But David was not anti-technology; he was not without technology. He used a more primitive technology, which was a sling. It amplified the power of his arm and concentrated power to a single stone. For this battle, he shows himself to be the superior technologist because he knows that this is a battle where a sniper can beat someone who is going into battle as a hand-to-hand combat type of a warrior. Goliath could take out ten guys easier than David could, but David could take out one guy at a distance because he knows his technology better. He’s a master technologist in that way. Both of those are technologies. They amplify the power of its user. Goliath has this huge sword and he can kill lots of men. David has this sling and he can kill animals and humans with it, and he knows he can. So they’re both using technology. Both of them are technologies; both of them amplify the native powers that each of the men has. Before the battle Saul has this idea and says David, try on my stuff. Try on my tech, and David doesn’t have the skill to use it. So you have to have some sort of a skill to wield a sword, and David doesn’t have that yet, but he will. After he defeats Goliath he takes Goliath’s sword and David will have armor and a shield and a sword from there on out as a king of Israel, but he doesn’t at that point. He doesn’t have the practice. He doesn’t know how to wield a sword. He doesn’t have the muscle built up. He doesn’t have the technique to wield the technology. That’s kind of where I start in my book is defining technology in those two guys.

Matt Tully
It seems to me that so often when we think of that word technology in our own culture today—and this might get at some of the wrong ways that we then apply it and think about it later—we can be so focused on new technology. Is there a certain dynamic where old technology that we’re used to and that feels like it’s everywhere, we almost don’t think of it as tech anymore. It seems like it leaves that category and becomes some assumed thing. Have you noticed that dynamic?

Tony Reinke
That’s exactly right. One computer programmer humorously says, “Technology is anything that was made after you were born.” Anything invented after you were born is technology. We do lose a sense of just how much technology there is around us that was here before we were born. I go back and spend quite a bit of time looking at 1863–1913—this fifty year period which was basically the watershed of technological innovation in world history. It is absolutely incredible what happened between 1863 and 1913. Cities were electrified, light bulbs were invented to illuminate houses, electrical motors came to power industry, music was first recorded, photography was first employed, video recording was invented, movies were projected in that time frame, huge iron vessels went back and forth across the ocean, gas-powered engines started to pop, cars replaced carriages, tractors replaced farm horses, typewriters were invented, the corded keyboard that we use today was invented, gum was invented, Coca-Cola was invented, telegraph wires began sending electric messages—no one had sent a message electronically over great distances at unthinkable speeds—wireless radios drew huge crowds together, medical advances in germs and vaccines ended awful diseases and viruses. Literally everything in life changed between 1863 and 1913. What I find is that for a lot of Christians, when you mention tech they want to go immediately to the most dangerous and scary tech: nuclear tech, genetic engineering, cloning of humans, the metaverse, nuclear power and nuclear bombs. All of these scary tech tend to be the things that we go to naturally in our minds, so it’s helpful to sort of break out of that and go back to a period in which we don’t feel the threat of any of those things. We see the fruit of those innovations, and we live with all of that ever single day. You can get a better God-centered vision of technology and the benefits that we have from it by getting out of our age. I think that’s really important.

10:37 - Tech Dystopianism

Matt Tully
Let’s dig into that dystopianism that seems so prevalent in our culture when it comes to tech. First, you often see that dystopian impulse, or concern, in dystopian movies. We see so many tech dystopia movies, and maybe also in books as well and other kinds of media contexts. What’s your favorite tech dystopian movie (if you have one)? Why do you think that’s such a popular theme in our culture? What’s going on behind that?

Tony Reinke
That’s a huge question. I like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I haven’t seen the movie, but I like the book a lot.

Matt Tully
That’s a dark and depressing book.

Tony Reinke
It is. He’s a dark and depressing writer. I don’t know, maybe that’s more of my inner personality. The popularity with dystopian media today is owing to I think two different factors. Partly I think it’s just owing to the fact that there’s entertainment value in thrills and roller coasters and horror films. There’s just a lot of intrigue when you think about the burning landscape of a post-apocalyptic movie, or the novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There is something in us that wants to be frightened. We love a little self-induced panic attack every now and again. More widespread, I think we just love control. I think that’s what it comes down to. We love control. When you think of the serious preppers, the real serious preppers—the ones who have 1,000 pounds of dry beans in a bunker underground and they’re ready for the worst. Those folks are control freaks in full flex. In such an uncertain world that we have with potent natural disasters and social chaos that is so easily provoked, we think If I can only play out the very worst scenario, then I can prep for that thing. It’s about control, it’s about feelings of self-security; so off we go, hunting for the most fearful, worst plausible scenario that we can find. If I’m ready for that worst case scenario tomorrow, then I can live self-secure today. So it’s about control. The antithesis of faith is really what it is. I think that’s really deep in us. This control freak lives inside of us, and so we listen to our fortune tellers—the tech prophets. We want them to tell us what jobs are doomed by artificial intelligence in twenty years because if we know which jobs are doomed, we can begin to build new skills, we can cheat the system, we can beat the system and AI won’t get us. That’s a similar kind of control freakiness—without the beans and the bunker. It’s inevitable that our culture’s media is going to feed this. The appetite has always been there. It will get ratings. But I think it’s just one innovative way that sinners use to try and cope with a fallen world where we have no guarantees, where our fortunes can change in a flash. The appetite for tech dystopianism and sci-fi fiction, television, movies, novels—it’s as old as tech itself. I think it’s that inner prepper inside of us. It’s this desire for dystopian media, for doom-scrolling, for black mirror dramas. I think for even the pundits on cable TV, I think that drives it too. We’re recording this on January 6, 2022. If your pundits convince you that your political rivals are taking over the national government, then it seems right and justified to pull off a preemptive coup and use force if needed. So we’re very willing to entertain the most dire, plausible, possible forecast so that we can take control, take action. A little of that is in all of us. We all want control, and that’s why I think dystopian media is so popular, and it will be. It’s addictive appeal is always to our inner prepper, our inner control freak.

Matt Tully
You write in the book: “I know that this book would market better as an alarmist doomsday warning about how Satan hijacked the electrical grid, controls us through our smartphones, and wants to implant us with a digital mark of the beast.” That puts a point both on the tech side and this doomsday thinking. Do you think Christians in particular are especially susceptible to this tech dystopian mindset?

Tony Reinke
I think they do. Christians can fall in line with the sort of Godless tech dystopian vision that a lot of non-Christians live with where God is not in the picture, God’s dead, he’s not there, we are gods. We are the ones who are in charge of providence. We are the ones who are self-evolving. This follows out of the God is dead movement. If God is dead, we are the gods. We are the ones who are in control, which feels great for about a nanosecond. And then that feeling of power gives way to utter terror. The atheist will work for decades to undermine the faith and it has worked on many who have deconstructed and left the faith, but it also leads to this existential reality that if God is dead, we are the gods. Each of us now self-evolving gods, self-evolving by means of our latest technology—and once again, the survival of the fittest. It’s the survival of the most intricately programmed. It’s my race to be more sophisticated than you. That introduces a new degree of competitive, self-evolution within humanity. You have the users and the used; you have the adept and the naive; you have the programmers and the programs; you have the early adopter and the late adopter; the augmented and the un-augmented. All of us know we’re going to lose this race, so we’re left to wield providence of our own and to wield that providence over ourselves through our tech. It’s just not working. We’re not safer from ourselves. We’re not more self-assured. In fact, if you layer on top of that climate change in a way that views climate change as thought it’s basically irreversible—go to Mars, or die—that utter despair wins out in the end. So, it turns out that to be gods augmented with supernatural powers is not leading us to the self-saving confidence that we thought we would have. Instead we get TV shows like Black Mirror, and we get the tech dystopianism. What I’m pleading with Christians—and this is going back to your question—what I’m pleading with Christians to do is before you follow suit and follow the godless tech dystopians of the world into this despairing vision of the world, would you please consider something else? I am a tech optimist, and I’m a tech optimist because I know that God is not dead. He is the Creator, and his entire creation is contingent, meaning that the creation answers not for its own existence or for its own reason for being. The creation gives us no reason for why it exists. The creation is not sustained by itself, it’s not sustained by powers from its own order. It is governed by one who is outside of the created order who upholds things by the power of his word. So, do you, Christian, really believe that? At the end of the day, is God dead, or does God reign? That will shape everything that you think about how you engage with technology and what you think of human innovation because if you do believe God reigns, that’s going to change everything. And I do, and that glorious reality shapes everything that I know about big tech, Silicon Valley, and the story of human innovation. It’s all shaped by what I understand about God. So, what I’m saying is let’s stop following the tech dystopians who are now their own gods, and let’s think about this as Christians, with an open Bible—and particularly for those of us who are Reformed because we have a vision of God that answers for all of these questions that we face.

Matt Tully
I can imagine someone listening right now and responding to that with I do believe God is sovereign over all things and over all of history. I don’t think that this world is just governed by human innovation and our own efforts and abilities. God, in his sovereignty, has historically allowed terrible technologies to develop and be used for terrible evil. How is it still not okay for me to be pretty concerned about where we’re going and what’s in the future?

Tony Reinke
The question of how God reigns over technology goes back to the fact of contingent creation. The creation doesn’t just self-exist. God is here sustaining it, so everything that we invent and everything that we use—all of our tech, our science, our engineering, our innovation, things that are destruction and things that are virtuous—all of it is actually highly constrained. That’s one of the interesting things that I think readers will take away from the book. For all the human innovation that we have, all the things that we can employ which seems infinite to us—it seems like it’s unlimited and like we can do anything we want—it’s actually very narrowly channeled and constrained and controlled by God. It’s constrained in nine ways that I lay out in the book. The whole book is basically my argument that God has constrained our human inventiveness in nine ways in which he limits everything that we can create, everything that we can invent. He’s the one who decides. It takes a whole book to explain this, but that’s the sum. All of our tech-making is highly constrained and contained by God’s providential power and by his created patterns. If it does seem as though humans are just able to impose their will on creation and make whatever they want, it’s actually an opposite way of thinking that this world is highly constrained by what God makes available to us and what he makes possible in our creativity.

21:02 - A Biblical Theology of Technology

Matt Tully
In the book you make the case for the idea of a biblical theology of technology. My sense is that that could strike a lot of people as maybe a little bit odd. When we think of biblical theology we think of themes like salvation, judgment, God’s sovereignty, and that kind of thing. Technology doesn’t top the list of biblical themes that we would be able to study and learn something about from Scripture, and yet you say it’s there. I wonder if you could help us understand why you think that’s a valid way to approach Scripture.

Tony Reinke
It’s not only there, it’s there on like page two or three. It’s right there in Genesis 4. We find human culture-making within the scope and interest of biblical revelation. This is something that Herman Bavinck talks about. I think it’s in his Reformed Ethics volume 2 that he says *Look at Genesis 4. It’s amazing that God is pulling human inventiveness into the storyline of Scripture. He wants that to be part of the story of the Bible, right there in Genesis 4. That’s a simple but profound point. I’ve written a biblical theology of technology, as I call it, and what I mean is that I’ve looked at the Bible canonically from Genesis to Revelation to look at this theme of human innovation and how it’s described to us in God’s unfolding revelation to explain how he is at work in the drama of human industry. You find these cues and markers all throughout. One of the things that I found as I was researching this book and meditating on all of these themes—and this is spoiler alert—is that when it comes down to it, biblical theology of human innovation is really nothing different than a biblical theology of the city. As you watch the city develop in all of it’s tensions, early on God’s faithful men aren’t going to live in a city; they’re going to live in tents. And then you eventually see God’s people living in cities, and then you get to Revelation 2:3 where God’s people are being given commands and promises who live in cities. How do you live out the Christian life in cities? Innovation and cities are wrapped together. That’s true historically, that’s true in biblical theology is that the story of technology and the story of urban centers are basically one story. A biblical theology of technology may seem novel, but it really just is a biblical theology of the city.

Matt Tully
That in and of itself as a theme would probably not be something that many of us have thought much about when it comes to Scripture. We just think Oh, this person went to live there in a tent in the wilderness, and we don’t think anything of it. We just think that’s what happened, but you’re saying that there’s more to it than that?

Tony Reinke
It’s a very complicated story. When you start out and you see God’s initial commands to his children are stay away from the city; stay away from Cain’s cities because they’re centers of rebellion. The Bible ends kind of that way with Babylon. The city is the center of human rebellion, but it’s also a place that is leavened by the presence of God’s people. So, it’s a complex relationship. You have to understand the city. Honestly, a lot of the church’s tech pessimism today stems from an anti-urban bias. When we start pressing into that anti-technology bias, what’s there is an anti-urban bias, so that’s got to be worked through.

24:31 - Is Human Innovation Wrong?

Matt Tully
One of the other things that you do in your book is you explore twelve myths about technology that Christian often fall into and believe. I wanted to talk about just a couple of them, the first one being the myth that human innovation is an inorganic imposition forced onto the created order. I think this myth is particularly interesting because I’m not sure that we always know that we’re falling prey to it. I wonder if you would agree if this is what is behind perhaps the way that we can instinctively prefer things that are natural vs. synthetic, or maybe even when Christians charge scientists with playing God when developing new technologies. Are those examples related to what you’re talking about?

Tony Reinke
One hundred percent, exactly. When I look at the world around me, I see an incredibly rich material universe, which is a playground for us to invent inside. It’s a playground that’s carefully bounded by finite possibilities. When I look at the sunrise, I see God’s glory in a way that is untouched by humans. But when I pick up my smartphone, I see another form of his glory, which is reflected to my eyes in sixty elements that have been pulled from the creation that God patterned there for us to find. They have been refined and have now brought forth this technology called the iPhone that I hold in my hand. This is humans working in tandem with the created order that God has given us, such that we would not see God’s glory in the smartphone unless we invented the smartphone. Yes, there are sinful ways that you can abuse the iPhone, but the iPhone, for many of us, is an incredible gift that God has given us for ministry, for productivity, to serve our families, and to love others. If we can see God’s glory in that, that’s a win. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book. I want you to see God’s glory in the sunrise, I want you to see God’s glory in the sunset, I want you to see God’s glory in the iPhone in your hand. Do not grow blind to the glory of God in what’s in your hand. Don’t think of the material universe as something that’s evil or something that’s separate from God’s generosity. That’s what I’m trying to do is build eyes to see God’s glory. That was something that Reformed theologians were working through from Calvin and Abraham Keiper in earlier centuries. They had developed this idea of common grace, and Christians had eyes to see what God has given us. My theory is that what happened then was that we had World War I, we had World War II, then we had the Cold War. Once you see that an atomic bomb can incinerate 100,000 people in a hyper-blink, how you talk about technology is going to be more restrained. It’s going to be more sobered, by not just the possibilities of flourishing but the possibilities of destruction. So, what happened is that at the beginning in World War II and following, the church’s theologians simply lost a grip on common grace. They lost the vision of the beauty of God in our technological advances. We could no longer see him, we could see the powers of it. Then we got novels like C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, which is a great book on the misuse of technology. It’s a great book against post-transhumanism and this impulse to scientifically evade death, which is something that we still see alive today. He was a prophet going after technological abuses. But someone like C. S. Lewis really struggled to see anything positive or God glorifying in technology, and I think that was just pretty common among our theologians ending with Abraham Keiper, and then once the World Wars happened, it was very hard for the theologians to see God’s glory shining in technology. I think that’s why we have to go back to this earlier vision that was building in Calvin and came to ultimate fruition in church history and the works of Abraham Keiper. We need to have that vision and reclaim it.

Matt Tully
Are there limits to the good of technology? Not even talking about how it can be misused. I think we can all agree that a good thing can be misused and then that thing becomes a bad thing. Are there just fundamentally wrong ways to try to put together the things of creation that God has given to us because it’s so dangerous and, in some sense, pushing against (in a sinful way) the natural order of things that God has instilled in his creation that would make it inherently wrong?

Tony Reinke
The building of the Tower of Babel was explicitly a rejection of God’s word. We’re not going to spread across the globe. We’re going to compile ourselves into one city. We’re going to build a temple to human glory. They were using fire-baked bricks, which was a new technology for them. They were using that in a sinful way. They were using tar to put those bricks together in a sinful way in building their temple, and so that was a sinful use. In one of these climactic moments of humans using engineering in an anti-God way and in a way to reject God, God simply comes down and hacks the whole thing. Instead of having one city, he spreads those people all over the globe so that we have one thousand cities. Again, it’s this vision of yes, technology can be misused and sinfully so, and never more so than in the cross and what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ using metallurgy and Roman torture in a way to kill our Savior. So, technology can be used in very sinful ways and in the most sinful ways, but God is always there sovereignly hacking over those events—breaking in and turning them for good. There are misuses of technology, but to say that we’ve therefore stiff-armed God out of the picture is wrong. So that’s what I’m trying to resist, this idea of seeing technology misused and somehow God becoming powerless. He’s not.

31:05 - How Do COVID Vaccines Fit into the Tech Tree?

Matt Tully
It seems like the debate over natural vs. synthetic or technology vs. natural has been on full display over the last couple of years when it comes to the COVID pandemic and vaccine technology. Has anything about the way that Christians have responded to this whole issue surprised you?

Tony Reinke
There’s a lot to say about COVID. COVID vaccines were providential in the timing of my book project. My book began as a series of lectures, one of them I gave in Seattle as the city was shutting down. I’ll never forget it. It was the evening of March 11, 2020. I was getting ready for dinner, and I was going to teach on Genesis 4—the origins of industry—and I had ESPN playing in the background as I was getting ready. ESPN said, Breaking news! The city of Seattle is shutting down. I’m in the city! What does that mean? I’m stuck here. Does the airport shut down? How does that work? I’m looking out the window and the rush hour traffic is not as bad as it should be, so people are clearly at home. So the city is shutting down and I’m just like What is going on? It was so ominous. Then ESPN is saying, The NCAA basketball tournament is not going to happen this year. Major League Baseball is suspending operations. NBA, hockey, all of that is canceled. I was right there in Seattle when this was happening so I naturally sort of covered the virus from the inside of things, and it was really fascinating to do so as I wrote the book because there are powerful biases at work in politics and in science. Even from the early days of slowing the spread in New York City and shutting down cities like Seattle and then the vaccine roll-outs—all of it exposed certain biases at play in how we talk about God and human innovation. Are we battling this battle with God’s grace or by sheer human-devised science? Is this rebellion? Is it honoring to God? These are huge debates. Wherever you land on the mRNA vaccine right now, for Christians it was just so fascinating to watch this conversation play out. So I think there are a lot of different things to say about the vaccine itself. Vaccines remain under the polarity of Babylon, of the Tower of Babel. I go into this in the book in the sense that one of the gracious things that God does is he confuses the languages. He spreads the languages all over the world. One of the fall outs to that is each culture thinks differently about the world. There’s this natural built-in system when it comes to human innovation where it’s not like everybody now can say “Yes” in universal chorus. There is now these hedges, these checks and balances built into culture so that one culture may love biometric facial recognition, and another culture says Now way! Government coercion is going to happen if we do this. So there are these tensions, and we saw that kind of tension play out with the virus and with the vaccine. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of debate of Should we be using it? Should we not be using it? I think that’s healthy; that’s a healthy tension that we need, but we also need to think of where our place is in the tech tree of virus vaccinations? Where do we find ourselves in a history of unfolding innovations? Instead of saying That tech is threatening. Let’s stop it and shut it down, let’s say The mRNA vaccination—where does that fit in the tech tree? Is that going to lead to something greater and better in the future so that we can respond more quickly to global outbreaks? It’s hard for Christians to see themselves in an unfolding pattern that God has for innovation and just want to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on this vaccine and make a final judgment. So, it gets tricky because our temptation is to make a final judgment on it instead of seeing ourselves as part of a longer trajectory. But I would not necessarily discount the science of it and say It’s rebellion because it’s tinkering around with genetics. I don’t necessarily go there and I think there are good reasons for not just rushing to that conclusion.

35:40 - Artificial Intelligence

Matt Tully
Another topic that is often in the headlines and can produce a low-level nervousness among people—Christians included—is the topic of artificial intelligence. I think most of us appreciate the power of Siri and Alexa in our pockets and understand the benefit that brings, but there is also talk of AI destroying jobs, as you said, and harming our ability to think for ourselves as humans. Would you say that AI is fundamentally different from technological developments that have come in the past?

Tony Reinke
Not necessarily because, again, it’s an unfolding tech tree—it has predecessors earlier. Artificial intelligence is a label that bleeds into a couple of different categories that might be helpful to lay out. It pops up in two ways, the first being that AI is sometimes used to supercomputers that are processing huge amounts of data at lightning speeds. That’s all that is meant. You have huge media platforms that scrape data from its users, and then they use AI to process that data. That’s one use. Or, you can think of self-driving cars, which is maybe a little bit more tangible example. What amounts to an autonomous robot is basically what a self-driving car is. It’s self-directed by drawing huge amounts of input from sensors, and it gathers an immense data stream that then gets processed in real time by powerful computers that can steer a car or steer a semi-truck down a street. So that’s one very common category where you hear AI emerge, which is supercomputers processing lots of data to identify patterns and to carry out actions beyond the speed of human computation and response. But AI, more true to its definition, refers to the singularity—

Matt Tully
This is starting to sound a little bit like Star Trek. What does that term mean?

Tony Reinke
Singularity is the point in time in which computers collectively awaken into one unified, autonomous consciousness, with a new creativity beyond what the human engineers put into it. In that scenario, all of our jobs are gone. AI is going to take over the world and take over all of that. AI is going to be doing the podcast hosting, AI is going to be doing the podcast answering—AI does everything. So, the first definition of AI is becoming real, and you see it in self-driving cars, in the new cold war brewing between China and America—each trying to buy up as many computer chips as possible. It’s a race because our national defense systems require new intelligence that can perceive patterns in data and execute actions at superhuman speeds. You think of Israel’s Iron Dome. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video of Israel’s Iron Dome—that’s a very graphic, tangible example of an AI model. That’s here; it’s happening. However, the second definition of AI is science fiction. It’s not realistic. I just read Erik Larson’s new book, The Myth of Artificial Intelligence, and he says that right now, if you look at the fact that nothing has really been developed towards progress in this at all, he calls artificial intelligence (the second definition) at best a scientific unknown. But nevertheless, just for fun, in the book I do enter into the direst forecast. Let’s play it out. Let’s say AI takes all of our jobs away in the next thirty years. Does the church have anything to say?

39:35 - The Metaverse

Matt Tully
Maybe as a final question, a few weeks back Facebook—now re-branded as Meta—announced the upcoming launch of their metaverse. I think there were a lot of different responses to it, many of them mocking responses to this keynote that they delivered. First, for those who have heard the term but are confused as to what is going on, what is the metaverse? Then, how should Christians think about this whole new realm of online identities and engaging living in community online is some way?

Tony Reinke
I would define the metaverse as a new privatized surveillance state basically. That would be my definition. What it is is basically a place where you can live online through an avatar. You can have virtual real estate, you can own your own house, you can decorate your house, you can buy things for it. If you’ve read the book Ready Player One, it’s an example of these kinds of ideas where you are able to live in existence online. Gaming has opened the door. The metaverse is basically gaming writ large for non-gamers. We’re being pulled into the metaverse, which is gaming and entertainment, but it’s also work. Instead of Zooming, you actually go into a virtual room with your coworkers and it’s a little more immersive. It’s promising in some sense that I think there’s always going to be a need for virtual meet-up spaces. I don’t know to what extent this is going to develop. I think gaming goggles are a hard sell for a lot of people. They just don’t want to have a screen taped to their face. It’s kind of goofy. But there might be some other manifestation of the virtual space that is a little less awkward. So, it’s hard to say, but it’s worrisome in some ways. One is whoever is the keeper of this metaverse is going to have access to surveillance on behaviors like never before. It’s going to raise all sorts of questions about privacy. It’s like one of the many other technologies that raise questions for us: Isn’t social media destroying the social fabric of a democracy? Isn’t Amazon growing into a monopoly? Aren’t AI bots going to take over all of our jobs? Are we only going to survive in the workforce if we have this brain/machine interface with some part of our brain connected to a computer? On and on it goes. There is a lot of scary tech. There are things to be worried about. There are problems. But the challenge is the church always wants to talk about technology in light of the metaverse, in light of AI, in light of driverless cars, in light of Amazon, in light of all of the scary techs or things that are going to damage society in some way. We never break free from that discussion and go macro and ask, Where do these technologies come from? What is God’s plan? We need to see his glory in the electricity. We need to see his glory in the smartphone that we use and the computer and the cameras and the lights and the houses and businesses and the banking systems. We could just go through this list of things that we take for granted every single day, and what I don’t want is for Christians to get lost on the big headlines and miss the fact that they are the beneficiaries of some incredible tech. So that’s my biggest concern: Can we build a theology of tech, or is it every only going to come up when it’s time to pounce on some new, scary thing? That’s my task. The work before me is reaching the listener out there who has a podcast open, listening to us on their iPhone at 1.3x speed—that’s the speed I listen to everything in—driving down the highway in an SUV—a technologically advanced SUV—I don’t want that listener to come away from this conversation thinking Wow, that one tech is really scary. That one tech is really going to change things. That dystopian content sells because you provoke that inner prepper. Instead, what I’m after is a listener and a reader of the book to thank God for the ancient sludge that he put into the ground that was sucked up and refined to that he could propel himself down the highway at 50 mph with an exploding fireball in the engine in the front of the car. He’s going down the highway right now, listening to speakers of a recording that we’re making right now, on his iPhone—a digital file that somehow got sucked out of the air and into his iPhone. His iPhone is made up of sixty elements taken from creation. I want listeners to see that. For a lot of Christians, it’s going to be weird and uneasy to think of tech as a means of worship. But that’s good. That’s where I want to be. I want to press in on that. When we think about scary tech, the ultimate catastrophe that I see right now that I am pressing back on is not that AI is going to take our jobs away, not that the metaverse is going to dehumanize us and make us lose our embodiment. The catastrophe that I see right now today is that God’s glory and his kindness is shining on us through thousands of technological gifts and our hearts are simply too dull to see his generosity. That’s a huge problem and we need to call it out. If I can change that and if my book seeps into the groundwater of Christians and becomes a framework by which we can understand technology, I think in a few years we can have really good discussions about the metaverse, really good discussions about AI, really good discussions about the problem tech that we see, because they’re there. There is problem tech. But because of how we talk about them, we end up with a pretty lopsided and godless framework to go about those conversations.

Matt Tully
Thank you so much, Tony, for taking the time to talk with us today and help give us some of that framework and help us start thinking along those lines, perhaps in a new way for many of us. We appreciate your time.

Tony Reinke
It’s my joy, Matt. Thanks for having me on.


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