The Machine and the Massage

I’m aware that some of the stuff I write this year is going to make me sound like a Luddite.

You might not know what a Luddite is — to save you googling, here’s me asking ChatGPT a couple of pertinent questions.

Me: who were the Luddites?

ChatGPT: The Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery, which they believed would cause unemployment and lower wages. The Luddites were known for destroying these machines as a form of protest.

Me: What might they say about AI systems and machine learning?

ChatGPT: If the Luddites were around today, they might have similar concerns about the impact of AI systems and machine learning on employment and wages. They might argue that these technologies will lead to widespread job loss, as machines and algorithms replace human workers. They also may be concern that the new system will be controlled by a small group of people or big companies, leading to a concentration of power and wealth.

Me: How would modern day luddites destroy machine learning systems?

ChatGPT: It is difficult to say exactly how modern-day Luddites would go about destroying machine learning systems, as the technology and infrastructure for these systems is quite different from the textile machinery that the historical Luddites protested against. However, some possible ways that they might attempt to disrupt or destroy machine learning systems include:

  • Physically damaging or vandalizing the data centers and server farms where machine learning models are trained and run.
  • Sabotaging or hacking into the networks and computers that run machine learning systems, with the goal of corrupting or destroying the data or code that makes the system function.
  • Launching denial-of-service (DoS) attacks on the websites and applications that use machine learning models, in order to overload and shut down the system.
  • Spreading misinformation or propaganda in order to discredit the technology and create public opposition to its use.
  • Lobbying for laws and regulations that would limit or prohibit the development and use of machine learning systems.

It is important to note that these actions will be illegal and potentially harmful to others, and the Luddite movement was mostly a peaceful protest, so those actions are highly unlikely.

I want to lay my cards on the table and declare that I am not. I’m the son of an early adopter, who, by a quirk of history (after writing a book on the Vic-20) became an award winning tech journalist (that was a side hustle — he’s also a Presbyterian minister). I have grown up around new and emerging technology. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. My greatest regret in a renovation project on our house a couple of years ago is that my smart lights (“ok Google, turn on my lights”) were replaced with dumb lights. I’ve enjoyed being able to voice operate my coffee machine. I’ve been blogging for longer than I’ve been married (16 years this year), or a pastor (10 years this year).

I’m not a hater.

I’ve been using Midjourney to generate graphics for my church since mid 2022, and playing with ChatGPT since its public launch — those who’re connected to me on Facebook will’ve seen my playing around with generating warrior dogs. Like this… Here’s an early dog paired with one generated by a later iteration of the technology (using a prompt generated by ChatGPT).

More recently I’ve been asking chatGPT to write me poetry for (and about) my wife, and prompts to generate more imagery.

Here’s a poem ChatGPT wrote about my wife using obscure metaphors and similies:

My wife, you are like a quark,
Small and elusive, with a beauty all your own,

Your smile is like a cosmic string,
Vibrating with energy, and never alone.

Your laugh is like a black hole,
Sucking me in, with a force that I can’t resist,

Your eyes are like dark matter,
Mysterious and hidden, with a depth that I can’t comprehend.

Your touch is like a supernova,
Exploding with passion, and lighting up the night,

Your kiss is like a neutron star,
Compact and dense, with a heat that burns so bright.

My wife, you are like a universe,
Endless and vast, with a beauty that astounds,

I am lucky to be a part of your world,
And to have you as my companion, my love, and my queen,
Forever and always, until the end of time.

This was the most exquisite scene ChatGPT could describe, as rendered by Midjourney.

ChatGPT even developed me a new sport — Sky Diving Racing. This was back before ChatGPT would save an archive of your conversations.

Pictured here by Midjourney.

I spent the first few days of a holiday road trip this year refining a movie concept for a post-robot apocalypse showdown between the Yakuza and a Samurai brotherhood in dystopian Tokyo that was entirely generated by ChatGPT — including synopsis, setting description, character names and descriptions, and a script for five acts — and then feeding the descriptions into Midjourney to create characters and scenery.

Also, here’s the AI-generated portrait of Tim Keller in plate mail picture that you did not know you needed until today.

I love playing with this new technology — and my schtick has been trying to engage these tools creatively by providing inputs that I hope are unique and playful. Midjourney has been transformative for visual design stuff connected to my work. I’m not a designer, we don’t have budget to pay one, but here’s what I can cobble together with Pixelmator (an Apple photoshop equivalent, and visuals developed by Midjourney).

I do wonder a bit what the availability of this technology — and its incorporation into my life and my rhythms (and relationships)— is going to do for me, and at what point the Luddites were maybe on to something. Nobody’s going to reduce their human-to-human relationships to AI generated scripting and direction. Yet. But what if it gets better at managing my relationships — and scripting my dialogue — than I am now? What if I could interact with my wife purely in phrases developed by a bot channeling Shakespeare or some great lover or poet from history? What if the outcomes of those actions were better than the outcomes of being me? What would that mean for the nature of our relationship?

And what about if I applied this to the life of our church — and I could generate sermons in the style of Keller, but based on my needs — I could even get the armour made, I guess. Would I be robbing my church community of something if I could give them Keller 2.0, but chose just to give them me in the flesh? Or would I be giving them something? What would it do for their spiritual formation if they knew they were getting me augmented by a machine? Aren’t people always getting humans augmented — massaged — by machines (and other people) anyway?

The technology isn’t quite good enough to provide a template for all my human-to-human interactions, or to write my sermons (or blog posts) yet — but it learns fast. It’s possible already to feed raw data — like recorded sermons, and written scripts (or blog posts) into machine learning products and have new audio and text generated in your voice. This kind of technology will only get better as more of us interact with it and it maps more kinds of interactions.

Every time a new technology is created — right back to the written alphabet — people complain about the changes wrought on the human by the new technology; and, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the massage” — that’s not a typo (he also said the medium is the message, more famously). His point is that new technologies mould and shape us as we use them to engage content. This impact is inevitable, and, for McLuhan, was built profoundly on the Biblical idea that we become what we behold. The challenge is to hold onto and behold the right stuff, or grab onto technologies and communication mediums that’ll shape us in directions that we want to take. The people of God have always faced this challenge — Israel’s relationship with gold, and golden artefacts, is a prime example — the Gold plundered from Egypt could be fashioned into a golden idol (bad), or the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the priestly garb (good). Followers of Jesus could employ written words recording “gospels” and epistles on paper, to be shot around the empire on Roman roads (good) while their Imperial counterparts could send their own gospels about Caesar’s victories on the same roads calling people to worship the deified emperor (bad). Sometimes our use of mediums can be deliberately subversive to the original designers (Roman roads and Gospels), other times they can be exactly the same and destructive (idol statues); sometimes the people of God can — as image bearers — create tools and technologies to be used for worship that become models for communication in the world around us. These tools and technologies are never just neutral though, and they’ll always shape us as we use them (as they shape our rituals and rhythms, and our bodies (think about your relationship with your smartphone), and at a deeper level — our brains (in the realm of neuroplasticity), and our imaginations (as, for example, new types of metaphors and imagery we have access to — like imagining your brain as a clock, or computer — you can’t do that without clocks or computers). These tools are never just neutral though (and there’s always an impact).

This massage works us over as individuals, and — when technologies are embraced in communities of practice — groups of people whose lives are being simultaneously massaged, or deliberately in the rhythms and practices of existing communities — like churches — the massage becomes a systemic thing that individuals within a system either conform to, or work against. This massage is, surely part of what Paul’s talking about when he invites followers of Jesus who now have the Spirit of God and are brought as individuals into a ‘singular’ living sacrifice — the body of Jesus — in our worship — and he urges us not to “conform to the patterns of this world,” but instead to be “transformed” — the patterns of this world conform us as we behold, and hold, things that deform us towards their own ends and purposes. We become what we behold; what we worship.

So what’s going to happen as these new technologies — AI generated text and imagery (including videos) become part of the fabric of modern life? What end do the developers and providers of these technologies have in mind that aren’t just being encoded in us via the ‘massage’ of the technology itself as we engage with it — but what’s going to be written in to these platforms to guide our usage — or to shape the algorithm? Microsoft’s early foray into this sort of tech with its chatbot, Tay, that learned from Twitter interactions, produced a racist and antisemitic digital persona that had to be shut down within a day.

What if the myth of the machine — at the heart of the modern world’s pursuit of progress and domination — doesn’t just cause ‘secularisation’ and the death of our concept of God (and anything supernatural), but actively puts us in the clutches of something dark and deadly? What if the animating power of these machines isn’t just algorithms and electricity — but something more Babylonian — something Spiritual and sinister, connected to the powers and principalities described in the Bible as connected to empires and their wealth creating military industrial complexes; what if both the human heart and the things we build as individuals and communities without God’s Spirit are ‘perpetual factories of idols’ because we’ve been corrupted not just by sin as some human creation, but by something beastly and dehumanising?

What impact will this sort of technology have on the life of our church communities — and on us as individuals — if it is true that technology disenchants? What sort of use of this technology might take us towards true human ends — towards being image bearers of the God who is love, whose character is on display in generativity, in light, in life, in abundance and hospitality in the creation story? How will we approach these tools shaped by the subversive story of a Gospel of a crucified king who comes to bring a kingdom, recreating image bearers by pouring out the Holy Spirit so that we no longer conform to dark and destructive patterns of death we see in the world?

How will we stop ourselves incorporating the power of this technology into our lives — and submitting to its massage — by asking abstract questions about principles and theories in the face of the efficiencies such new technology will absolutely produce for us? In a culture enamoured with technology and technique and the hunt for disenchanting machine-like efficiency, how will we resist?

What are the good and delightful uses of these technologies — perhaps subversive ones — that will help us be renewed and transformed into the image of Jesus, by his Spirit — as individuals and communities tasked with representing the life and character of our maker?

These are the questions I’m grappling with in my writing here in this season.

In the next post I’m going to explore the visions of future church offered by (or incorporating) some of this new technology, unpacking some of the theory that technology can either disenchant or re-enchant and pondering the implications this has for how we create and occupy spaces.

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