Remember Your Finitude
We may always work with machines, but we must never become machines. The human body is remarkable in similarities to an efficient machine, but we are physical beings with finite limitations and eternal souls. We process slower than supercomputers, but that’s no flaw in our design.
Ever since the miner created the first vocation set free from the circadian rhythms of day and night, man has been tempted to overwork. We are always tempted to be something more than human. AI pushes this desire to new heights, calling for humans to begin intellectually keeping pace with the warp speed of machine learning. Today Elon Musk wants us to think, “We are literally a brain in a vat. The vat is your skull. Everything you think is real is an electrical signal.”1 And if you don’t agree with his human-computer model, Musk gives an ominous forecast. “Under any rate of advancement in AI, we will be left behind by a lot,” he said of humans. “The benign situation with ultra-intelligent AI is that we would be so far below in intelligence, we’d be like a pet, or a house cat. I don’t love the idea of being a house cat.”2
In order to compete with superintelligence, we must become more than brains in a vat. We must become cyborgs, brains augmented with high-power computing capabilities. To remain relevant, humans must adapt to the warp-speed advances of our technologies. Humans must identify computer-morphically. We must become machines.
If we fail to resist this techno-tyranny, we will become cyborgified machines. We will live like Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 silent film Modern Times, in the scene when his frantic bolt-tightening pace is too slow and he gets sucked by a conveyor belt down into the gears of the machine, twisted and curved like a human chain. We are not machines. Our relevance is not determined by our unstopping output. But man has always been tempted to work like a machine, even back in the age of the steam engine.
From the pulpit Spurgeon once admitted: “I am always ready to try a new machine.”3 He was an early tech adopter and loved new gadgets. I can imagine no better Londoner to hear Edison’s first recording. His own preaching style was so radical that a newspaper editorial cartoon once satirized him preaching while sitting atop a rushing express train.4 Spurgeon was innovative, fast, and revolutionary, but he knew how to pull the brakes. He used the steam engine as a metaphor of caution to warn his church of this tendency for humans to morph into the image of their machines.
We process slower than supercomputers, but that’s no flaw in our design.
“Ours is not a religion of mechanics and hydrostatics: it is spiritual, and must be sustained by spiritual means.”5One hundred days before the golden spike was driven to connect America’s First Transcontinental Railroad, opening new doors for express travel on the rails, Spurgeon preached this concern: “In these days, when everybody travels by express and works like a steam-engine, the mental wear and tear are terrible, and the advice of the Great Master to the disciples to go into the desert and rest awhile is full of wisdom, and ought to have our earnest attention.”6 Techno-dehumanization is older than sliced bread, for tech has always tried to tempt us with the stale bread of anxious toil.7
In the digital age, man is told to become a hyper-processor like a computer. In the Industrial Age, man was told to become hyperkinetic like a factory. And in the age of the steam engine, man was told to maintain the hypertorque of unstopping pistons. The message of fear was the same: “Accelerate or be run over.” In the age of steam, machines, and computers, the church reminds the world of the Sabbath rest.
For all its good, the technium will never understand the Sabbath, nor will it understand anthropology 101, why humans are not angels or animals or robots or machines or computer processors. Preserving the nature and purpose of man will be the work of the church for a long time to come. We slow down. We stop. We let the boiler tank of marketable activity stop and cool down. Our day of rest reminds us and the world that we are humans made for something greater than hyper-accelerated, nonstop computation and production.
- Elon Musk, @elonmusk, Twitter (Dec. 12, 2019).
- James Titcomb, “Elon Musk: Become Cyborgs or Risk Humans Being Turned into Robots’ Pets,” telegraph.co.uk (June 2, 2016)
- C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 26 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1880), 392.
- See the satirized sketch of Spurgeon titled “The Fast Train” at the British Museum.
- C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 13 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1867), 231.
- C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 15 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1869), 62.
- Ps. 127:2.
This article is adapted from God, Technology, and the Christian Life by Tony Reinke.
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