A Google engineer predicted, "We'll be uploading our entire minds to computers by 2045, and our bodies will be replaced by machines within 90 years." In response, some Christians warned that offloading our minds to computers and bolstering our own bodies with technology presents us with a high-tech sense of Gnosticism.
At the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in June, Russell Moore briefly mentioned, in a list of future challenges for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the question of whether artificially intelligent cyborgs should be baptized.
Given a trajectory that seems straight out of sci-fi, I'm worried about the future—specifically what technological advancements mean for our embodied, thinking, knowing, feeling human minds.
These days, we still say things like "I don't know how" and "I can't remember it," but our ignorance rarely lasts long. Seconds later, it gets pulled up on Google or YouTube. The information we don't know is so close—quite literally at our fingertips—that we forget we don't know it. The dozens of phone numbers saved in my address book. The recipes saved on my Pinterest board. Google Maps to the nearest whatever. That Bible verse I'm trying to think of.
We instinctually ask our laptops and smartphones to tell us and teach us, things we once relied on other people to do. In a piece in The Atlanticentitled "YouTube Is My Father," Michael Anthony Adams describes how he learned to tie a tie and fix a flat from online video clips—an experience we've all had for some task or another (for me, it's how to apply makeup).
The Internet, in all its lifesaving assistance, in all its infinite wisdom, has become a digital realm of information. We jokingly ask each other, "What did we do before it?" and "What would we do without it?," knowing that we're irreversibly hooked. A TIME magazine survey confirms our smartphone addiction:
1 in 4 people check it every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 every 10 minutes. A third of respondents admitted that being without their mobile for even short periods leaves them feeling anxious. It is a form of sustenance, that constant feed of news and notes and nonsense, to the point that twice as many people would pick their phone over their lunch if forced to choose. Three-quarters of 25-to-29-year-olds sleep with their phones.
We walk, talk, and sleep in a constantly connected world. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes, "The boons are real. But they come at a price…. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought." Just as word processing made it pretty much impossible for us to write without a computer screen and a delete key, the searchable Internet is changing how we think.
The pieces of knowledge once tucked away in our minds have been uploaded to computers as sequences of ones and zeros. Katherine Hayles, a scholar of the postmodern and posthuman, writes that even our conceptualization of information changed forever with computers. No longer is information something we know; it now exists as a distinct, independent entity. The information we once knew by heart doesn't require a heart or a body at all.
To a much smaller extent, a similar phenomenon took place as media emerged over the ages. But unlike scrolls, books, 8-track tapes, or anything that came before it, the Internet exists in no one particular place, but everywhere at once. Its ubiquitous nature makes it difficult for us to recognize it as outside of ourselves. We move so seamlessly between our own minds and the webpages we pull up that—as Hayles has been warning for decades—the line between the two becomes blurred.
As we rely on computers for more and more of our knowledge recall and as our minds get shaped by an expectation of instant gratification, I worry that we risk missing out on the experience of knowing things for ourselves. I'm not concerned about accessing or preserving the information we know as humans (I actually think technology will do a good job of that), but about how the Internet changes our attitudes. When the Internet becomes our repository for knowledge, it's easy to overestimate our abilities. The limits of our own minds force us to recognize our humble humanity; it is impossible for us to know it all.
Moreover, I believe embodied knowledge allows for a fuller human experience. Our all-knowing, wisdom-loving God intends for us to "find wisdom" and "gain understanding" (Prov. 3:13). Actually learning something and recalling it is part of what it means to be human. It's the comfortable, fulfilling rhythm of performing a favorite activity or reciting a favorite passage of Scripture that's so committed to memory that we do it without thinking.
Valuing these aspects of the human mind doesn't require our dismissal of the Internet; we couldn't do that if we wanted to. As historian Edward Tenner put it, "The issue isn't whether most information belongs online rather than in the head. We were storing externally even before Gutenberg. It's whether we're offloading the memory that we need to process the other memory we need."
I know how easily we get sucked into a link-clicking Internet rabbit hole or a binge-watching session on Netflix, but the Internet shouldn't just lead us to more Internet. As Katherine Hayles said:
Our challenge now, it seems to me, is to think carefully about how these technologies can be used to enhance human well-being and the fullness and richness of human-being-in-the-world, which can never be reduced merely to information processing or information machines.
In other words, the ease of the Internet can free us up to dedicate our time, minds, and bodies to the things that mean the most to us. As technology continues to bring easier, quicker ways to do everything, we must recognize how and how much we use itmaking sure the convenience of the online ultimately enables us to focus on the incarnational, real-world things we live out offline.