Algorithms Who Art in Apps, Hallowed Be Thy Code

If you want to understand the status of algorithms in our collective imagination, Ian Bogost proposes the following exercise in his recent essay in the Atlantic: “The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with ‘God’ and ask yourself if the sense changes any?”

If Bogost is right, then more often than not you will find the sense of the statement entirely unchanged. This is because, in his view, “Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.” Bogost goes on to say that this development is part of a “larger trend” whereby “Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites.” Science and technology, he fears, “have turned into a new type of theology.”

It’s not the algorithms themselves that Bogost is targeting; it is how we think and talk about them that worries him. In fact, Bogost’s chief concern is that how we talk about algorithms is impeding our ability to think clearly about them and their place in society. This is where the god-talk comes in. Bogost deploys a variety of religious categories to characterize the present fascination with algorithms.

Bogost believes “algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.” Later on he writes, “the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action.” Additionally, “Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially ‘big data,’ whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity.” “We don’t want an algorithmic culture,” he concludes, “especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate theocracy.” The analogy to religious belief is a compelling rhetorical move. It vividly illuminates Bogost’s key claim: the idea of an “algorithm” now functions as a metaphor that conceals more than it reveals.

He prepares the ground for this claim by reminding us of earlier technological metaphors that ultimately obscured important realities. The metaphor of the mind as computer, for example, “reaches the rank of religious fervor when we choose to believe, as some do, that we can simulate cognition through computation and achieve the singularity.” Similarly, the metaphor of the machine, which is really to say the abstract idea of a machine, yields a profound misunderstanding of mechanical automation in the realm of manufacturing. Bogost reminds us that bringing consumer goods to market still “requires intricate, repetitive human effort.” Manufacturing, as it turns out, “isn’t as machinic nor as automated as we think it is.”

Likewise, the idea of an algorithm, as it is bandied about in public discourse, is a metaphorical abstraction that obscures how various digital and analog components, including human action, come together to produce the effects we carelessly attribute to algorithms. Near the end of the essay, Bogost sums it up this way:

“the algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it wear the garb of divinity. Concepts like ‘algorithm’ have become sloppy shorthands, slang terms for the act of mistaking multipart complex systems for simple, singular ones. Of treating computation theologically rather than scientifically or culturally.”

But why does any of this matter? It matters, Bogost insists, because this way of thinking blinds us in two important ways. First, our sloppy shorthand “allows us to chalk up any kind of computational social change as pre-determined and inevitable,” allowing the perpetual deflection of responsibility for the consequences of technological change. The apotheosis of the algorithm encourages what I’ve elsewhere labeled a Borg Complex, an attitude toward technological change aptly summed by the phrase, “Resistance is futile.” It’s a way of thinking about technology that forecloses the possibility of thinking about and taking responsibility for our choices regarding the development, adoption, and implementation of new technologies. Secondly, Bogost rightly fears that this “theological” way of thinking about algorithms may cause us to forget that computational systems can offer only one, necessarily limited perspective on the world. “The first error,” Bogost writes, “turns computers into gods, the second treats their outputs as scripture.”

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Bogost is right to challenge the quasi-religious reverence sometimes exhibited toward technology. It is, as he fears, an impediment to clear thinking. Indeed, he is not the only one calling for the secularization of our technological endeavors. Jaron Lanier has spoken at length about the introduction of religious thinking into the field of AI. In a recent interview, Lanier expressed his concerns this way:

“There is a social and psychological phenomenon that has been going on for some decades now:  A core of technically proficient, digitally-minded people reject traditional religions and superstitions. They set out to come up with a better, more scientific framework. But then they re-create versions of those old religious superstitions! In the technical world these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.”

While Lanier’s concerns are similar to Bogost’s, it may be worth noting that Lanier’s use of religious categories is rather more concrete. As far as I can tell, Bogost deploys a religious frame as a rhetorical device, and rather effectively so. Lanier’s criticisms, however, have been aroused by religiously intoned expressions of a desire for transcendence voiced by denizens of the tech world themselves.

But such expressions are hardly new, nor are they relegated to the realm of AI. In The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, David Noble rightly insisted that “modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.”

So that no one would misunderstand his meaning, he added,

“This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”

Along with chapters on the space program, atomic weapons, and biotechnology, Noble devoted a chapter to the history AI, titled “The Immortal Mind.” Noble found that AI research had often been inspired by a curious fixation on the achievement of god-like, disembodied intelligence as a step toward personal immortality. Many of the sentiments and aspirations that Noble identifies in figures as diverse as George Boole, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Edward Fredkin, Marvin Minsky, Daniel Crevier, Danny Hillis, and Hans Moravec–all of them influential theorists and practitioners in the development of AI–find their consummation in the Singularity movement. The movement envisions a time, 2045 is frequently suggested, when the distinction between machines and humans will blur and humanity as we know it will eclipsed. Before Ray Kurzweil, the chief prophet of the Singularity, wrote about “spiritual machines,” Noble had astutely anticipated how the trajectories of AI, Internet, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Life research were all converging on the age-old quest for the immortal life. Noble, who died in 2010, must have read the work of Kurzweil and company as a remarkable validation of his thesis in The Religion of Technology.

Interestingly, the sentiments that Noble documented alternated between the heady thrill of creating non-human Minds and non-human Life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the equally heady thrill of pursuing the possibility of radical life-extension and even immortality. Frankenstein meets Faust we might say. Humanity plays god in order to bestow god’s gifts on itself. Noble cites one Artificial Life researcher who explains, “I fee like God; in fact, I am God to the universes I create,” and another who declares, “Technology will soon enable human beings to change into something else altogether [and thereby] escape the human condition.” Ultimately, these two aspirations come together into a grand techno-eschatological vision, expressed here by Hans Moravec:

“Our speculation ends in a supercivilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outward from the sun, converting non-life into mind …. This process might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity … the thinking universe … an eternity of pure cerebration.”

Little wonder that Pamela McCorduck, who has been chronicling the progress of AI since the early 1980s, can say, “The enterprise is a god-like one. The invention–the finding within–of gods represents our reach for the transcendent.” And, lest we forget where we began, a more earth-bound, but no less eschatological hope was expressed by Edward Fredkin in his MIT and Stanford courses on “saving the world.” He hoped for a “global algorithm” that “would lead to peace and harmony.” I would suggest that similar aspirations are expressed by those who believe that Big Data will yield a God’s-eye view of human society, providing wisdom and guidance that would be otherwise inaccessible to ordinary human forms of knowing and thinking.

Perhaps this should not be altogether surprising. As the old saying has it, the Grand Canyon wasn’t formed by someone dragging a stick. This is just a way of saying that causes must be commensurate to the effects they produce. Grand technological projects such as space flight, the harnessing of atomic energy, and the pursuit of artificial intelligence are massive undertakings requiring stupendous investments of time, labor, and resources. What kind of motives are sufficient to generate those sorts of expenditures? You’ll need something more than whim, to put it mildly. You may need something akin to religious devotion. Would we have attempted to put a man on the moon apart from the ideological frame provided Cold War, which cast space exploration as a field of civilizational battle for survival? Consider, as a more recent example, what drives Elon Musk’s pursuit of interplanetary space travel.

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Without diminishing the criticisms offered by either Bogost or Lanier, Noble’s historical investigation into the roots of divinized or theologized technology reminds us that the roots of the disorder run much deeper than we might initially imagine. Noble’s own genealogy traces the origin of the religion of technology to the turn of the first millennium. It emerges out of a volatile mix of millenarian dreams, apocalyptic fervor, mechanical innovation, and monastic piety. It’s evolution proceeds apace through the Renaissance, finding one of its most ardent prophets in the Elizabethan statesman, Francis Bacon. Even through the Enlightenment, the religion of technology flourished. In fact, the Enlightenment may have been a decisive moment in the history of the religion of technology.

In the essay with which we began, Ian Bogost framed the emergence of techno-religious thinking as a departure from the ideals of reason and science associated with the Enlightenment. This is not altogether incidental to Bogost’s argument. When he talks about the “theological” thinking that plagues our understanding of algorithms, Bogost is not working with a neutral, value-free, all-purpose definition of what constitutes the religious or the theological; there’s almost certainly no such definition available. It wouldn’t be too far from the mark, I think, to say that Bogost is working with what we might classify as an Enlightenment understanding of Religion, one that characterizes it as Reason’s Other, i.e. as a-rational if not altogether irrational, superstitious, authoritarian, and pernicious. For his part, Lanier appears to be working with similar assumptions.

Noble’s work complicates this picture, to say the least. The Enlightenment did not, as it turns out, vanquish Religion, driving it far from the pure realms of Science and Technology. In fact, to the degree that the radical Enlightenment’s assault on religious faith was successful, it empowered the religion of technology. To put this another way, the Enlightenment–and, yes, we are painting with broad strokes here–did not do away with the notions of Providence, Heaven, and Grace. Rather, the Enlightenment re-named these Progress, Utopia, and Technology respectively. To borrow a phrase, the Enlightenment immanentized the eschaton. If heaven had been understood as a transcendent goal achieved with the aid of divine grace within the context of the providentially ordered unfolding of human history, it became a Utopian vision, a heaven on earth, achieved by the ministrations Science and Technology within the context of Progress, an inexorable force driving history toward its Utopian consummation.

As historian Leo Marx has put it, the West’s “dominant belief system turned on the idea of technical innovation as a primary agent of progress.” Indeed, the further Western culture proceeded down the path of secularization as it is traditionally understood, the greater the emphasis on technology as the principle agent of change. Marx observed that by the late nineteenth century, “the simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of — as all but constituting — the progress of society.”

When the prophets of the Singularity preach the gospel of transhumanism, they are not abandoning the Enlightenment heritage; they are simply embracing it’s fullest expression. As Bruno Latour has argued, modernity has never perfectly sustained the purity of the distinctions that were the self-declared hallmarks of its own superiority. Modernity characterized itself as a movement of secularization and differentiation, what Latour, with not a little irony, labels processes of purification. Science, politics, law, religion, ethics–these are all sharply distinguished and segregated from one another in the modern world, distinguishing it from the primitive pre-modern world. But it turns out that these spheres of human experience stubbornly resist the neat distinctions modernity sought to impose. Hybridization unfolds alongside purification, and Noble’s work has demonstrated how the lines between technology, sometimes reckoned the most coldly rational of human projects, is deeply contaminated by religion, often regarded by the same people as the most irrational of human projects.

But not just any religion. Earlier I suggested that when Bogost characterizes our thinking about algorithms as “theological,” he is almost certainly assuming a particular kind of theology. This is why it is important to classify the religion of technology more precisely as a Christian heresy. It is in Western Christianity that Noble found the roots of the religion of technology, and it is in the context of post-Christian world that it has presently flourished.

It is Christian insofar as its aspirations that are like those nurtured by the Christian faith, such as the conscious persistence of a soul after the death of the body. Noble cites Daniel Crevier, who referencing the “Judeo-Christian tradition” suggested that “religious beliefs, and particularly the belief in survival after death, are not incompatible with the idea that the mind emerges from physical phenomena.” This is noted on the way to explaining that a machine-based material support could be found for the mind, which leads Noble to quip. “Christ was resurrected in a new body; why not a machine?” Reporting on his study of the famed Santa Fe Institute in Los Alamos, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich observed, “Judeo-Christian stories of the creation and maintenance of the world haunted my informants’ discussions of why computers might be ‘worlds’ or ‘universes,’ …. a tradition that includes stories from the Old and New Testaments (stories of creation and salvation).”

It is a heresy insofar as it departs from traditional Christian teaching regarding the givenness of human nature, the moral dimensions of humanity’s brokenness, the gracious agency of God in the salvation of humanity, and the resurrection of the body, to name a few. Having said as much, it would seem that one could perhaps conceive of the religion of technology as an imaginative account of how God might fulfill purposes that were initially revealed in incidental, pre-scientific garb. In other words, we might frame the religion of technology not so much as a Christian heresy, but rather as (post-)Christian fan-fiction, an elaborate imagining of how the hopes articulated by the Christian faith will materialize as a consequence of human ingenuity in the absence of divine action.

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Near the end of The Religion of Technology, David Noble forcefully articulated the dangers posed by a blind faith in technology. “Lost in their essentially religious reveries,” Noble warned, “the technologists themselves have been blind to, or at least have displayed blithe disregard for, the harmful ends toward which their work has been directed.” Citing another historian of technology, Noble added, “The religion of technology, in the end, ‘rests on extravagant hopes which are only meaningful in the context of transcendent belief in a religious God, hopes for a total salvation which technology cannot fulfill …. By striving for the impossible, [we] run the risk of destroying the good life that is possible.’ Put simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.” I suspect that neither Bogost nor Lanier would disagree with Noble on this score.

There is another significant point at which the religion of technology departs from its antecedent: “The millenarian promise of restoring mankind to its original Godlike perfection–the underlying premise of the religion of technology–was never meant to be universal.” Instead, the salvation it promises is limited finally to the very few will be able to afford it; it is for neither the poor nor the weak. Nor, would it seem, is it for those who have found a measure of joy or peace or beauty within the bounds of the human condition as we now experience it, frail as it may be.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the religion of technology appears to have no doctrine of final judgment. This is not altogether surprising given that, as Bogost warned, the divinizing of technology carries the curious effect of absolving us of responsibility for the tools that we fashion and the uses to which they are put.

I have no neat series of solutions to tie all of this up; rather I will give the last word to Wendell Berry:

“To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover ‘the secret of the universe.’ We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given.”

8 thoughts on “Algorithms Who Art in Apps, Hallowed Be Thy Code

  1. ” (post-)Christian fan-fiction” – very droll, very apt.

    WB’s quote is a fine end to your essay – but of course much hangs on “naturalness”. The unnaturalness of naturalness is natural to the human.

    Michael, really enjoyed this one!

  2. Hi Michael –
    So great to read your ideas on these religions above, so deeply “value-aligned” to my sense of what is most dangerous in the hidden worship of technology as our “savior”. Mostly, as you so clearly explain above, how this “religion” of technology conveniently obscures all the deeper issues of social constructs and inequalities that actually do some of the deepest damage in this techno-religious obfuscation of what is really going on in humanity, and with our entire planet.

    Loved this especially from Ian Bogost, himself indeed such a thoughtful computer scientist at Georgia Tech:

    ““We don’t want an algorithmic culture,” he concludes, “especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate theocracy.” The analogy to religious belief is a compelling rhetorical move. It vividly illuminates Bogost’s key claim: the idea of an “algorithm” now functions as a metaphor that conceals more than it reveals.”

    But what amazes again and always, is how few women apparently seem to think about these issues of spirituality, technophilia and its social effects, and the values it ennobles and reinforces and the values it subsequently degrades? Otherwise, why would this so thorough social and philosophical analysis above, as so many of these analyses do, make reference to a total of 20 male thinkers on these subjects and only 1 female, Pamela McCorduck? Perhaps that’s because the one even deeper value system shared by both Enlightenment/Science and all major modern dominant religious/spiritual premises defining ultimate all that’s superiorly “good and valued” , is patriarchy and its assumptions of who should dare to even intelligently speak of these “higher realms” of enlightenment, technological and/or spiritual or philosophical? (I could start to list all the many, many, many women — especially more recently in technology — who apparently didn’t get this message, but that list including Sheryl Turkle, Mary Daly, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is truly endless…)

    It just seems Michael, that even if unconscious (as this assumption just so dangerously naturally is in both of these religions and all of society), that it is only fair then to amend your final point thus:

    “The millenarian promise of restoring mankind to its original Godlike perfection–the underlying premise of the religion of technology–was never meant to be universal.” Instead, the salvation it promises is limited finally to the very few will be able to afford it; it is for neither the poor nor the weak.” Nor essentially for women, even to be heard on in the deepest debate of our time, apparently.

    And thus why, despite the excellence of the discussion, above — it doesn’t seem to me that either religion will find its way out of its own unconscious but deep limitations in excavating its actual acted-upon values and motivations that so narrow its path ahead in seeing or including, the rest of the world.

    It just seems like too big a “miss” to form any complete picture of either.

      1. Thanks, Michael.

        Now I’ll be doubly sure to read his book and see how he addresses this, so critical, underlying social/emotional reality, key to any real “vision” of healing this and all the other glaring “divisions”, inequities and contradictions of human-spiritual values on our shared planet.

  3. Hi Michael.

    I have been an avid reader of your blog these last few months. But I felt obliged to step away from my lurking habits to compliment you on the following quote:

    “To put this another way, the Enlightenment–and, yes, we are painting with broad strokes here–did not do away with the notions of Providence, Heaven, and Grace. Rather, the Enlightenment re-named these Progress, Utopia, and Technology respectively.”

    That is painfully accurate. As an add on: What do you think Science would be? I think I might opt for Scripture just out of sheer spite :).

    1. If I may, I would be rather hesitant to make Science the placeholder of Scripture, depending naturally on what you mean by Science. Scripture taking the role of allowing People to understand God and his nature, and how to apply him to everything a Person does. Obviously Scripture is more complex than that. In a sense, it is more like the Scientific Laws become the placeholder of scripture, which allows us to understand the algorithms, and how to apply them to our lives. Science would be more likely, I believe, to be the placeholder of the application of the Scriptures. Like the Great Commission, Christ sends his people on to follow God’s providence, Science is the application of the Scientific Laws that pushes Progress forward.

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