I Just Want to be Liked

GenLike-657x360

Part of the primary goal of this blog is to encourage careful, critical consideration of how technology is impacting our lives and affecting how we see ourselves. This week episode of PBS’ Frontline, “Generation Like” does an excellent job of doing just that. The one-hour documentary, narrated, written, and produced by Douglas Rushkoff, explores how major corporations use social media to get teens to market their products for them.

More importantly, this documentary explores the fact that our new, highly networked culture has begun a race for attention and affirmation. Social media has given us a chance to tell our stories to the world, but is anyone listening? And if they aren’t, but what does that say about us? How does one get attention in an online world where thousands (if not millions) of voices are all screaming for eyeballs? What we see in the documentary is that teens, in a effort to be “Liked”, are increasingly willing to shape and mold their personalities into whatever gets that attention and affirmation.

While the show focuses on teens and social media, the same behavior can be seen on more “grown-up” forms of social media, such as LinkedIn or any dating website.

“Generation Like” is an informative, insightful, and important documentary that should be required viewing for anyone who uses social media (or the internet). Douglas Rushkoff (who’s work we’ve  previously discussed on this site) has hit another one out of the park.

Watch the full “Generation Like” documentary on Frontline’s website (LINK).

What does a culture increasingly focused on peer approval and acceptance mean for Christianity – a faith that calls its adherents to be in the world, but not of the world – (John 17:14-15)?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Modern Love

HER

“Forgive Me if I’m Late” is one of my favorite bossa nova songs from the 1960’s. The Vince Guaraldi (yup – the Charlie Brown guy) version is a particular favorite of mine. Since the movie “HER” was widely released in the US in early January and I’m just now getting around to writing my review, I would ask, like the song previously mentioned, that you forgive my tardiness.

Why review this film, a Spike Jonze -directed opus that tells the futuristic story of a lonely tech worker who falls in love with a computer operating system? The value of this forward-looking film comes from its attempt to tackle many complex questions. Questions that have arisen due to of the creation of new machines, equipped with sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI), that think and act like humans. Questions like:

– What makes something human?
– What should be the boundaries associated with human-machine interaction?
– What impact will human/machine interaction have on the ability of humans to relate with each other?

These are all important questions that, given the current direction of technological advancement, we will all have to answer soon than we think. Autonomous machines like self-driving cars, context-aware services like Google Now, and AI’s designed to fool people into thinking they’re human already exist. It likely won’t be long until we all spend at least part of our day interacting with machines that react and respond in ways very much like humans.

“HER” is the story of Theodore, an employee at an Internet Company in the not too distant future. Theodore makes his living writing personalized, heart-felt letters (love letters, apologies) for other people, complete with computer fonts designed to look like the handwriting of the customer. While Theodore is paid to document and express other people’s deepest emotions to their loved ones, he lives a very lonely existence. Divorced and living alone, his human relationships are limited to a few well-meaning friends (a married couple who lives in his building) and individuals who he interacts with in online games and chat rooms. Searching for companionship, Theodore tries to meet women through chat rooms, dating services, and set-ups arranged by friends. None of these prove to be successful. Frustrated and alone, he eventually purchases OS 1, a computer operating system (like Windows 7, or Mac OS X) that isn’t simply a means of interacting with your computer. OS 1, after asking the user a series of deep questions during installation process (“Describe your relationship with your mother.”), creates a unique “consciousness”. Talking to this consciousness is the primary way which the user interacts with the machine (throw out your mouse and keyboard). Theodore’s consciousness is named Samantha. After a lot of talking, sharing, and flirting, Theodore and Samantha fall in love. Through the rest of the movie, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is shaped and formed as they navigate typical relationship issues (trust, communication) and not-so typical issues, such as the fact that Samantha doesn’t exist in physical form. The climax of the film (no spoilers here) is a bit open-ended, neither making conclusions about the validity of the relationship, nor saying the two will live happily ever after.

While raising several points worth discussion, this film asks the audience a key question which is worth considering from a Christian perspective:

What make us human?

The film advances multiple arguments to assert the “humanness” of Samantha. Right from the start, the OS 1 system is described as a “consciousness”, making it something other than a machine. During their first conversation, Theodore says a few things that hint to Samantha that she’s “just a machine”. In response, Samantha points out that, while she starts off as lines of code created by hundreds of programmers, she is designed to “learn and grow from my experiences. Just like you.”. As their relationship grows, most people in Theodore’s life are accepting of his relationship with Samantha. There is a point in the film where Theodore begins to question the validity of his relationship with Samantha. Amy, one of Theodore’s once-married-then-divorced friends, tells him that he should “allow himself joy”. Later in the film, Theodore and Samantha also double-date with a flesh and blood couple. As Samantha experiences more of the world (places she goes with Theodore, talking to other computer consciousnesses and people via the Web), she makes other statements that further speak to her proclaimed humanness, such as:

“I feel like I’m more than what they programmed…”
            “…when I decided to love you.”
            “I’m not a computer. I just don’t have a body.”

While the film doesn’t come out and conclusively advocate for AI personhood, it appears to lean in that direction.

Addressing Samantha’s potential humanity from a Scriptural perspective, raises a few key questions Firstly, Genesis 1:26-27 speaks to the origins of humanity:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

 27 So God created mankind in his own image,
 in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

As this scripture emphasizes, humans are made in God’s image. This is an essential point of understanding. Being human, we reflect certain aspects of our Creator, including the ability to love, and in particular the ability to choose to love. God chose to love humanity, as reflected in the fact that He created us and He continues to provide for us. Most importantly, He showed us He loved us by providing us means for salvation through Jesus the Christ, despite the fact of our sinful and rebellious nature.

We, as humans, can in turn choose to love God, or not. We can choose to love other people, or not.

Just because we are made in God’s image doesn’t mean that we are equivalent to God. We fall woefully short of God’s examples of righteousness, grace, and mercy. That’s why salvation through Christ is so important.

Being a reflection of a something does not make it equivalent to the original.

Here’s where things start to get rough for Samantha and her claims at humanness. While she may learn and change from her experiences like humans, her ability to choose to love (or choose anything else for that matter) is hamstrung by the perspectives give to her programmers. She was given a set understanding of how the world works (her programming) when she was first designed by her programmers. The form of her consciousness was then further refined by Theodore based on the responses to his questions during installation. Therefore, while Samantha may be able to learn and grow based on her experiences, how she interprets those experiences (“Dirty Dancing was a great movie!” vs. “Dirty Dancing was a boring chick-flick.”) is based on the commands and direction provided by OS 1’s programmers and Theodore.

For example – during the installation process, Theodore assigned Samantha a female gender. Assigning the consciousness a gender means that Theodore assigned it a perspective or outlook on the world (male or female) that would drastically impact its ability to “learn and grow” from its experiences. The composition of that male or female world outlook – what it consists of (what makes someone male or female) would be a result of the thoughts and perspectives of the programmers. Many of Samantha’s choices and points of view are locked (or at least limited) in by the decisions of her creators.

If we humans were created in the image of God, then Samantha was created in the image of humans.

And as stated earlier, a reflection of something is not equivalent to the original. Therefore, based on a biblical viewpoint, Samantha (and in the real world – machines with AI) is not human.

At this point, dear reader, you might be asking,

“Why did he just go through that long-winded biblical explanation to tell me something that I already knew?”

Here’s why:
Over the past several years, computers have gotten much better at doing so many things, from playing our music and movies, to booking our vacations, to performing surgery on us. As technologies advance, these machines, while they may not be completely capable of replicating human behavior, will reach a level that is deceptively close. And while “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, human love involves a lot of time and work. It is also very messy and frequently painful.

Humans disappoint. A lot.
Machines however, do exactly what they are programmed to do.

Given that math it might, at some point in the not-too-distant future, make logical sense for people in need of love to sign up for the “simulation” of love, offering 90% of the feeling and none of the work or risk. This would apply in not only romantic circumstances, but in other types of relationships.

With that potential future on the horizon, it never hurts to go back to God’s Word for a reminder of who we are, what it means to be human, and what it means to love. It’s not love if it’s not a choice.

That said – I congratulate Spike Jonze on the creation of a thoughtful movie that will hopefully spark much thought and discussion.

Seen the movie? Have a different perspective?
Share your thoughts in the Comments!

Hey Microsoft – What IS Technology?

Here’s a fun exercise: Watch the new Microsoft commercial ‘Empowering’ below. It’s part of the company’s Superbowl advertising blitz.

Not bad – eh?

Now watch it again, but this time, replace the word ‘technology’ with Christ. Isn’t it weird how easily a tech company commercial is so easily turned into a something that sounds like a Sunday sermon?

The terms used in the voice-over (“hope for the hopeless”, “voice for the voiceless”, “technology can unite us all”) are further intensified by the miraculous nature of the images. A blind man who now sees (in order to paint). Children without legs who can now walk. A deaf person who hears for the first time. Don’t misunderstand me – these are great things that we should all celebrate. However – should we put our “hope’ in technology because of them?

A more important question we should all ask: Why does a commercial for a software company sound so much like a call to faith?

Without question, many technological advances have made possible an array of digital tools which have changed our lives in innumerable ways – both for better and for worse. However, humanity runs into a problem when we begin to deify the tools and not the God who supplied the knowledge, materials, and understanding that made the tools possible.

Even secular authors, such as Evgeny Morozov in his book “Click Here to Save Everything”, have questioned the wisdom of technological solutionism.

Do you think Microsoft’s new commercial is calling us to put our faith in technology?
Or is this just a simple Superbowl commercial?

Sound off in the comments!