What happens to our humanity when technology reduces us to algorithms?
Has the gift of broadened technology begun to narrow us?
It sounds almost apocalyptic, but as I read an article in The Atlantic titled “What Tinder and Halo Have in Common,” I began reflecting on the dark sides of the modern convenience of being spoon-fed our shopping, news and entertainment choices.
The article explores the surprising similarities between the complex algorithms used by Halo to match a video game player with an online opponent and those used by Tinder to pair a person with a potential date.
The author of the article, Michelle Ehrhardt, voices a distinct wariness to a mechanism used to match individuals based on culled data. But while she questions the overall effectiveness of such a process, the article is suggestive of a potentially larger issue.
St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, vehemently asserts the “value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class.” We could add physical appearance, salary and intelligence. Yet by using technology to limit individuals we are exposed to through the ranking of superficial qualities, we can start to undermine the inestimable value and dignity of every single human being. It can impress upon our culture the view that some individuals are simply “worth” more than others.
It becomes a subtle way of reducing complex human beings — complete with gifts, dreams, abilities, histories, flaws and a unique vocation of love — into a composite of favorable (or not-so-favorable) characteristics. With such a mind-set, whether it’s in dating, forming friendships or interacting in our communities, we begin to see individuals as little more than elaborate products — an amalgam of positive or negative traits — as opposed to seeing them as whole persons created in God’s image.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with dating sites. They are technological gifts that can allow someone to meet another person who shares similar interests, values and desires whom they wouldn’t have met otherwise. There is also nothing necessarily wrong with praising and seeking certain good qualities in others, especially in the case of finding someone to marry.
However, if taken to the extreme, by “ranking” or “valuing” individuals through comparison and limiting the possibility of genuine interaction and appreciation through preemptive measuring, we risk losing sense of who our neighbor is — and, consequently, who we are.
Still, the use of algorithms such as these for the sake of convenience implies another potential danger: technology’s denuding us of our agency in making choices. We don’t only see complex algorithms at play when selecting our potential dating partners or gaming foes, we also see it with shopping, news and entertainment. We are often spoon-fed content (social media), products (Amazon) and entertainment (Netflix) based on our past behavior and perceived tendencies.
Welcome to the ever-narrowing echo chamber.
I can appreciate the value of being shown products I’m likely interested in purchasing, but if I’m bombarded with suggestions based on past behavior or ranked qualities, how can I stumble upon diverse ideas, information or people that have the potential to shape and transform my outlook, character and understanding? Or just surprise me?
Algorithms designed to limit our choices can dissolve our ability experience new and unexpected things and therefore grow as well-formed citizens and Christians.
What if I’m never exposed to a potential “mate” because some algorithm determines I’m in a lower or higher category? What happens when my original interests or behaviors aren’t edifying (or are downright destructive), and I must wade through a tide of tailored content and entertainment in order to broaden my interest and stumble upon something that can inspire or shape me positively, especially if what I consume is often contrary to the truth of Christianity?
Of course, a world like this doesn’t quite exist, but we must ensure that technology doesn’t shift from offering clockwork convenience to clouding the value of each individual and shaping our decisions. To quote St. John Paul II again, new technologies are gifts, which “God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use, and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal kingdom.”
May we strive for technology that reveals, as opposed to conceals, our human dignity and worth as his beloved sons and daughters.
Chris Hazellis the founder of The Call Collective, a blog exploring the intersection between faith, culture and creativity. He also writes regularly for Word on Fire.