Dignity in a Digital World

By Colin MacLeod

I love digital technology! I love being able to read e-mails from a smart-watch, connected to my phone via bluetooth while watching a movie because the same phone is pushing video and sound from the internet to my TV through a dongle in its USB port. As a teacher I love the accessibility of information, the ability to collaborate and create, and the simple, practical ease of retrieving files and storing work electronically. What’s not to love about technology? 

But it’s not really about the technology. The best and worst of human behaviour is played out in the electronic realm. People can be friended or un-friended with a click of an icon on a screen. We can post words of comfort and support or vitriolic rhetoric to persons whose faces we will never see. We can donate money immediately to those in need on the other side of the world and not know our neighbours’ names. We can share photos which celebrate humanity with millions and find images no family would ever want in their albums. We can maintain relationships with ease across the whole world, and be utterly alone while doing so. And all the while a new ‘normal’ and relentless ‘change’ unfold to tell us who we are and who we are not, impacting on human dignity in positive and negative ways. 

There is a dignity in parenting that seems lost at the sight of a parent pushing a pram with a child inside chattering and pointing, while continuously gazing at a phone. There is dignity in the profound beauty of the human form, and the desire within us to connect with one another, that is utterly broken by addiction to pornography and associated fear of real human contact. Dignity is found in defining our identity, as we grow up through challenges, failures and successes, but it can easily be actively crushed by children who bully someone into becoming suicidal through social media. The dignity of family itself is undermined when a home no longer has a family table because all meals are eaten by individuals in their own spaces with their heads in their own devices. And, at a global level, even the dignity of our planet is at risk through the mountains of scrap dumped by yesterday’s devices and tomorrow’s BYOD. 

I read an article some 30 years ago which reflected on the possibility of machines becoming sentient. While I’ve forgotten most of the content, one idea from the reading has always remained and challenged me. “What happens when a machine can choose its favourite colour? Not because of programming, but because of personal choice. Will it then have a soul?” 

It challenges me because, in the 80s, the question felt more of a mental exercise in theology, or science fiction, than an actual possibility but, as the years have progressed, the concept looms likely. From Apple to Zuckerberg we are surrounded (and perhaps swamped) by machines and electronic information. Always more, better, smarter. Literally exponential growth as reflected in Moore’s Law. 

So far, none of this technology comes close to sentience, despite predictions. Technology does not care about us. It does not reflect on its purpose. It does not love us back and it neither respects nor understands human dignity. Technology cannot choose to serve humanity - it is created by human beings and marketed in ways and forms designed to impact on our lives and generate profits. Unfortunately, it seems that the latter is the driving force of the digital age, and economic forces rarely place human dignity ahead of profit – the rise in job-loss through technology replacing people is an obvious example of this. 

Rather, we are the ones made in the image of God. It is our decisions that are changing the world, not technology. We create, choose and use intentionally. My mother-in-law was incensed to get a letter from an aid agency saying they’d prefer her to set up an automatic payment for her $12 per year donation because it would save money on postage and processing. Reasonable enough, I thought. “Do they mean to say that even our giving now has to be thoughtless!” was her reply, in a long, hand-written letter to the organisation. (The extra $2 was always intended to pay for the processing of her $10 donation.) Making thoughtful choices goes to the core of what it means to be human. 

A student once asked me what Jesus would do with technology. Would he have time to blog or catch up with Facebook friends? Would he be instagramming? Maybe, but I doubt it would be an obsession for him - he’d still be busy reaching out to real hands, eating physical food, speaking actual words.

You see, we don’t actually live in a digital world, it doesn’t exist. We live in this world, making choices within a myriad of blessings, distractions and challenges. We have dignity because we are made in the image of God, called into relationship with God and each other. And technology is just one of those blessings, distractions and challenges. It’s up to us. 

At least until the first machine chooses its favourite colour.

Colin MacLeod is a husband, father and member of Mercy Parish, Dunedin. He recently took on the role of Director of the National Centre for Religious Studies after two decades as DRS at Kavanagh College.