Raging against the machine (but elsewhere)

I haven’t stopped writing about technology and how it impacts modern life (and faith in modern life). Since last posting here I’ve written a couple of pieces for the Centre for Public Christianity.

The first was about machine generated pornography; it’s published on CPX’s website. In this piece I considered the way AI image producers chop up lots of bits of different images and mash them up into one ‘new’ image and pondering the ethical implications of doing that to images of humans produced by a degrading and increasingly violent and idolatrous industry. My take is that these platforms might be ‘more ethical’ in that you could draw on the existing pool of human misery and ‘body parts’ out there waiting to be recombobulated for human consumption; but they are potentially even more damaging and dehumanising to our imaginations and empathy and our sense of what it means to be human (plus those people whose body parts are mashed up in future image generation are unlikely to be paid).

I drew on the work of former war correspondent Chris Hedges, and his bracing book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, where he wrote:

Porn reflects back the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons, denies health care to tens of millions of the poor, champions gun ownership over gun control, and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism. The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy… In porn the woman is stripped of her human attributes and made to beg for abuse. She has no identity as a distinct human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll.

I’m not sure the machine is a way out of these death works, but a next step into them.

“It is the disease of corporate and imperial power. It extinguishes the sacred and the human to worship power, control, force, and pain. It replaces empathy, eros, and compassion with the illusion that we are gods. Porn is the glittering façade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.”

I’m not sure the machine is a way out of these death works, but a next step into them.

I didn’t say as much as I might’ve liked about deepfakes, but AI generated deep fake pornography broke as a significant tech story a short time after this was published.

My follow up piece was one that took a philosophical thought experiment around the machine — a Paperclip Maximiser — a machine programmed, simply (and without limits) to make paperclips. The machine in this thought experiment eventually turns ever piece of matter in the universe into paperclips. It’s meant to remind us of the importance of human-established limits. I suggested poker machines are ‘profit maximising’ machines, and, with NSW Premier Dom Perottet’s “religious gut” becoming a bit of an election issue around gambling reform, I argued that religious guts are a good place to turn to find human limits for consuming machines. This piece ran at Eureka St.

I drew on the work of Natasha Dow Schüll, whose book Addiction By Design digs into the programmed intelligence of modern pokie machines; the way they now adapt to a user in order to become more addictive so that user will, in industry terms, “play to extinction.”

For pieces like this to be published in public facing media outlets that aren’t explicitly Christian you’ve got to thread a bit of a needle; so during the process we dropped off a thread in this piece about how the Old Testament prophets; who inform the religious gut of Jesus, and his followers, positioned idols as man-made death machines, just with less moving parts and bells and whistles; and how critiques of a Babylonian empire built on total domination and turning everything into Babylon, through the power of their military and religious machinery might help us think about profit maximising empires that create human misery in their wake.

I have some plans in the pipeline for a couple more pieces exploring the ‘machine’.