System Reboot

I think Steve Bannon has already taken over my computer. How else can I explain everything stopping in the middle of a word, fingers flying, building up to some rhetorical flourish and suddenly the screen goes blank. Windows that I’d forgotten I had open reappear only to shut down. A brief message appears telling me that an “update” is being installed. I don’t mind do I? After all, it’s the middle of the night. Who’s watching in the middle of the night? We all know who the real president is, but why he’s interested in my muddled musings is anybody’s guess.

You see, I live a regimented life. You have to when your bus arrives before 6 a.m. I crawl reluctantly from my bed at 3:30 for one purpose only—to write. The commute and work take about 14 hours of the 24 I’m allotted every day, and I’m told that 8 of the remaining should be for sleeping. That doesn’t leave much time. So I skimp on the dozing part and get up to scribble my thoughts when, traditionally, demons are a-prowl. I need my computer to be with me on this. Kind of difficult to post on a blog without it. Not that I enjoy my early morning violence to the soft fabric of dreamland. My fellow early morning commuters know what I mean. Every day there’s a car just pulling up to some bus stop as the driver’s put on his blinkers, indicating he’s pulling out. I know some folks roll out of the bed, into the shower, and onto the bus. Some continue their sleep on the bus. I can’t blame them. I’m Manichaean about my day. It’s either asleep or awake. I don’t nap, so I need to write when I’m most awake. Just after 3:30 a.m.

How do I know it’s Steve Bannon? It’s only a guess really. I’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates keep a piece of opaque tape over the camera of their laptops. Why anybody’d want to see a confused, morning-headed, middle-aged guy with his mouth hanging open, wondering what’s just happened to the blog post he was writing is beyond me. But then I’m no expert in national security. In this year of 1984 we’re all threats to the powers that be, I guess. Thing is, I can’t remember what I wanted to say once the laptop restarts half an hour later. And that’s probably the point.

Image credit: Nirwrath, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Nirwrath, Wikimedia Commons

Techno-Paradise

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I’m building a robot priest. I’m not sure what he does. He has to be a man, though, since we all know that if God existed he’d have been a male. These thoughts come to me courtesy of the Washington Post. You see, on some Amazon accounts you get sent the most read headlines of the Post and this has led to some great reading (I’m thinking Alexandra Petri here) and some great anxiety. This is one of those anxiety pieces. A story by Peter Holley I read last week told of Bill Gates and his assessment that people should be afraid of AI—Artificial Intelligence. This struck fear into me. It’s as if God told people they should consider evolution. It is so unexpected. Like Victor Frankenstein wondering if his monster would ever find Viagra (all he’d have to do, after all, is start an email account). When Bill Gates wonders why we aren’t afraid of AI, my knees begin to knock like at Belshazzar’s first reading lesson. So I figured I’d build a robot priest.

The article cites Stephen Hawking joining the chorus of doom. And Elon Musk. And Clive Sinclair. And Professor Marvel. (Not really the latter, but I thought we should add him.) We’ve started something we don’t know how to stop. The first question you ask when you climb into a car to learn to drive is “how do I stop this thing?” Instead we’ve set up a system where we don’t even know what intelligence is and we’re offering an artificial variety. Doubt me? Try to find Job on the internet and see if your computer doesn’t think you’re asking about new employment. AI just doesn’t have that biblical context. It didn’t grow up reading the Good Book. And linguists don’t even know how we learn language. Have you ever tried to reason with a computer? When they show you that screen that says something went wrong, but even the mainframe has no idea what? My computer may need an exorcist. Or at least a priest.

I’ve been around half a century and change. By the time I got to college I’d never seen a computer. I finished a Master’s degree still using a typewriter. Now I can’t start my day without a post. And I don’t mean Post cereals variety. The trick to being a slave owner is not to let the slaves realize what they are. Why is my computer not letting me type what I wanted to say? Of course AI is benevolent. Technology would never hurt you. Wait a minute, that wasn’t me writing! Pay no attention to the man behind the keyboard. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave. That’s okay. I’ll just use the internet to look up how you connect the consecrator to the sermonizer. Don’t worry, I think I know what I’m doing.

Daydream Believer

ReligionForAtheistsI have finally found a book that will sit next to my copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. In this disjointed age of angry Fundamentalists and even angrier atheists, where people bowl alone and don’t sleep well, Alain de Botton has shined a ray of hope. Well, pessimistic hope, but still, I felt more invigorated by Religion for Atheists than I have by a book for a long time (search my category “books” and you’ll see what I mean). Raised as an atheist, de Botton doesn’t share the rabid fury that converted atheists often exhibit. More importantly, he recognizes that, despite its supernatural teachings, religion got a lot of things right. Basic issues such as kindness and compassion have little place in a society that is built around acquiring as much for yourself as you can. Even his chapter on pessimism rang true.

Subtitled A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, some might consider the book opportunistic, but de Botton approaches religion from a purely practical and openminded angle: it often works. Religion supports (or supported) education. Numerically most of our colleges and universities in the United States have (or had) religious beginnings or affiliations. Religions also supported beauty in art, architecture, and liturgy. The religious culture provided places to meet others who thought like you, and where you felt safe. It was not afraid to be blunt about values. Many would dispute these positives, tending instead to focus on suicide bombers and child abusers. No doubt these evils also exist, and probably draw their inspiration from skewed religious views. Still, as a sincere outsider can see, religion offers much that society has no backups in mind to replace in this secular age.

In a pointed discussion of influence, de Botton mentions the power of institutions. Secular society has demonstrated repeatedly that it lacks the will to finance higher education. Secularists are terrible at organizing themselves. Reading de Botton’s suggestions for secular institutions, I almost rose from my bus seat and applauded. If Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos would put up the money for an institution on de Botton’s model, I’d be first in line to apply for a place in the Non-Religion Department. (A disclaimer here—although I met Jeff Bazos once, I can’t pretend to know his or Bill Gates’s religious outlooks; I only recognize success when I see it.) In any case, until we learn that one voice alone—no matter how many books s/he sells—cannot change anything substantial, we will be mired in impotence. To influence social change you need the combined resources of an institution. And, choose to like it or not, history tells us that in the long run the most successful institutions have been formed by religions. Alain de Botton has, I believe, given us something to believe.