Algorithms and Anthropology

Part I: Freedom and Obedience in the Teachings of St. Sophrony

IN 2009, London’s Telegraph reported that the residents of a small parish in Buckinghamshire had blocked Google’s Street View vehicle from entering their village, citing privacy concerns. Google’s vice president for maps responded with incredulity, adding that Google’s mission was merely “about giving people powerful information so that they can make better choices.”1 Nonetheless, Google’s doing good took on a sinister hue when investigators later discovered that Street View cars were systematically and intentionally mapping, “names, telephone numbers, credit information, passwords . . . browsing behavior, [and] medical information.”2 The reason for Google’s interest in location-specific meta data might not seem immediately apparent. The simple answer is that human behavioral data equals power. Harvard professor, Shoshanna Zuboff, elaborates: “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data . . . [which is] fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.”3 The value of prediction reaches its full potential in the metamorphosis from prediction to determination. Zuboff observes that it is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. Surveillance capitalists are learning that they “can engineer the context around a particular behavior and force change that way. . . . We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.4

The headlong rush from the industrial age to the information age has left in its wake an impoverished understanding of the human person. Ivan Illich, writing in the early 1970s, notes with prescient clarity, “To the degree that [man] masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image.”5 The modern man has become so enamored with becoming the master of data that data now threatens to master him. This has led to an anthropological crisis: humans have begun to view their self-image in terms of complex computers, as psychological manipulatives to be understood and controlled by algorithms. The most forward-thinking envision a day when artificial intelligence surpasses the ability of its progenitor.

That day, on which algorithms have removed all incertitude, a man’s ambition will lie in convincing himself that “he is a man and not a piano-key;”6 or so writes Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground. Within this small work of 1864, Dostoevsky paints, with uncanny foresight, the landscape of a colorless utopia, a “Palace of Crystal,” where man’s actions are completely governed by the “laws of nature.”

All human action will then, of course be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms . . . in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world . . . new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish.7

Replace 19th-century logarithms with Google’s 21st-century algorithms and it is an accurate picture indeed. The age in which man is but a machine, an organ-stop, or a piano-key is dawning. While Google has been mapping our streets, the medical and psychological communities have been quietly mapping the human soul and body, transforming mysteries into patterns and metadata, which they subsequently sell to Big Tech. If Google is in the business of helping us “make better choices,” you may be sure that they will, under the guise of public welfare, eliminate all risks, all “unsafe” choices. The future will hitherto contain no accidents.

And yet, there are some that resist progress. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man asks, “what is a man without desires, without freewill and without choice, if not a stop in an organ?” Gary Morson notes in his recent article for The New Criterion that, for Dostoevsky, “freedom, responsibility, and the potential for surprise define the human essence.”8 For the guiding lights of our information age, freedom is synonymous with unpredictability and risk. Thus, it threatens the next stage of progress toward the humanoid utopia. But for Dostoevsky, freedom of choice is precisely what makes us human and not a piano-key. Remove freedom, and we become something less than a person. In the context of Christian anthropology, this should cause us to pause.

Saint Sophrony repeatedly adopts the language of freedom and risk when speaking of the human person. Christian anthropology categorically rejects any approach to God and the human person that would threaten their respective self-determination. In the next essay, we will examine the nature of man’s freedom and self-determination in the vision of Saint Sophrony. In the final essay, we will seek to find application for this vision in the context of confession, spiritual discipleship, and in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Endnotes:

1 Alistair Jamieson, “Google Will Carry On with Camera Cars Despite Privacy Complaints,” Telegraph, April 9, 2009. For a masterful survey on the question of surveillance and sovereignty, see Matthew Crawford, Why We Drive (New York: Harper Collins, 2020).

2 Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2018) 44.

3 Zuboff, 146.

4 Zuboff, 295.

5  Ivan Illich, Tools of Conviviality (London: Marion Boyers, 1973) 21.

6 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground. Trans. by Constance Garnett (New York: Dover, 1992) 21.

7 Ibid, 17.

8 Gary Saul Morson, “Fyodor Dostoevsky: philosopher of freedom,” The New Criterion, vol. 39, no. 5 (Jan. 2021) 9.

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