Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Something Unnatural is Afoot

There it was—the Radrover 6 Plus bike, in a loop with news about Fed policies, debt ceilings, and Biden’s refusal to cancel student loan debt. This was not some random ad directed towards the general populace. This was advertising technology specifically directed at me. I had been on a Rad site earlier. Obviously, endless digital surveillance is monitoring my—and your—every interest.

It’s no surprise. We can’t miss it. What is alarming is the depth and breadth. In a most unnerving article, “The Singularity is Here” (The Atlantic),  playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar begins with the words, “Something unnatural is afoot. Our affinities are increasingly no longer our own, but rather are selected for us for the purpose of automated economic gain.” Hmm!! Think about it.

Akhtar writes to warn, “Virtually everything we do, everything we are, is transmuted now into digital information.” He goes on, “Our movements in space, our breathing at night, our expenditures and viewing habits, our internet searches, our conversations in the kitchen and in the bedroom—all of it observed by no one in particular, all of it reduced to data parsed for the patterns that will predict our purchases.”  

Some of his language is dense and heady, but I find myself reading and re-reading. I have to get this right. All of us need to become more aware of our surroundings and shrewder in navigating through this digital world we find ourselves in. Akhtar is alerting us to “the deepening incursion of mercantile thinking into the groundwater of our philosophical ideas.” A great thought, though refreshing my understanding of “mercantile” on the Webster app, I encountered five more Rad bike options. Technology is flooding the zone and the waters never recede. Rad is clearly after me.

It is obvious these ads are determined to monetize my behavior, not to mention my neurochemistry. Technology is pressing us to demand things in the immediate. Amazon Prime feels more like a necessity than a luxury. This is why supply chain issues feel so burdensome at the moment. How dare they tell us we must wait. And to think I grew up in a day when items were put on lay-away, sometimes for up to a year. Now all I see on my street is the back and forth of Fed-Ex, Amazon, and UPS trucks, delivering packages under the gaze of consumers clicking away before “the regime of screens that now comprises much of the surface of our daily cognition.”

So far I am in control—sort of. I did get a good deal on a Rad bike.

I was sharing all of this with my son, who was watching an episode of NCIS, the one about an investor who was murdered, and her hologram eventually helped them find the killer. What? He told me that he was watching a documentary on the Spanish-American War recently, but he wasn’t the only one watching. Soon after it was over, a number of other Spanish American War documentaries on DVDs popped up for purchase. What is happening? All of this is aimed to draw us deeper in and keep us clicking. Is Alexa in on this as well? More than we might think.

The “singularity” Akhtar speaks to is the moment when AI (artificial intelligence) will finally eclipse human intelligence. Digital problem solving has already done this. How many NFL coaches will soon be calling plays based upon what the data from some computer upstairs is saying? At what point will coaches even be necessary? Offensive and defensive assistants may soon be a dying breed. We’ve done a good job programming information, but we seem to be naïve to a monster we can no longer control.

Imagine a day a pastor will base his next sermon series on the data collected regarding congregational preferences. Have we even paused to consider what virtual church is doing to the soul of community? As much as I appreciate recent technology, I fear it is only feeding into our present narcissism.

All of this is timely, especially in a season that more than any other is determined to define us by our consumption and not by our faith.

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