The Cross of Code
The danger of A.I. is not that it becomes like us, but that we become like it.
You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of code. I borrow from William Jennings Bryan and his free silver because his “cross of gold” remains memorable, and we must remember to count the costs of our technologies. For a century now, great thinkers have given us—the West, the inventors, the heirs of modernity—the same warning: that a spirit of technicity threatens our humanity, that all our progress is only so many more steps to turning human beings into more material standing at hand for manipulation.
Take your pick of writers: C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, George Grant, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, Romano Guardini, many more; the caution is there. The digital revolution may mark the full birth of yet unnamed post-modernity, but it has only accelerated a trajectory that was obvious to those who had eyes to see. We have not had ears to hear.
Our representatives do, sometimes, pretend to listen, when it is convenient. The effort to ban TikTok has become bipartisan—remarkably so, with hearty slaps on the back all around on Capitol Hill. The causes for this burst of fellow feeling are many. Fundamentally, the app is an odious time suck, designed to hijack one of a human person’s most precious gifts, his attention; it harnesses the power of mimesis, mankind’s drive to imitation, to desiring what others desire as a self experienced in reference to other selves. It tortures the individual with an artificial hive to wring from him valuable personal information.
But this is true of all social media. TikTok gets its moment under the lights because it is tied to the Chinese communists spying on Americans, is the business rival of Facebook parent company Meta, and is a font of misinformation, disinformation, and destructive social trends, whatever side of the aisle someone sits on.
Banning it is a no-brainer. Which is why, of course, the righteous enthusiasm is dangerous: It is thoughtless. There are multiple approaches to dealing with TikTok being considered by our legislators, but Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald are right that responses like the one proposed by Sens. John Thune of North Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia, a Republican and Democrat, threaten to replace one dangerous piece of technology with another, demanding the expansion of a digital security state far beyond simply removing a temptation few teenage limbic systems have the will to resist. Kill TikTok, yes, but count the costs.
On the other hand, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is right that the Federal Reserve and U.S. executive branch should not have an easier time counting our credits or debits. Lee has reintroduced legislation forbidding the Fed from developing a central bank digital currency (CBDC), a digital asset it would mint and issue that would further centralize our financial system and give the federal government knowledge of and control over purchases that use a CBDC. Here, too, there is a China connection.
Lee has said of his bill, “The United States doesn't need to create a Central Bank Digital Currency to know it is a bad idea. We’ve seen this play out in China with the digital yuan. In early trials, China canceled its citizens’ money after a set period, forcing Chinese citizens to spend their savings at the compulsion of the government.”
To continue my constructive misquotations, we might say that those who give up liberty to purchase a little temporary convenience deserve neither liberty nor convenience. Convenience—here largely that of the Federal Reserve, but also in theory the consumer wishing to make already swift transactions instantaneous—continues to be our chief excuse for accepting the disruptions and damages of new technologies.
Moving back up the scale of technicity, from an app on our phones to central banking systems to the meaning of thought itself, will we let convenience usher in the age of large language models unconsidered? OpenAI’s GPT-4 and its competitors do not present in themselves the threat of invasion by an alien mind—for metaphysical and theological reasons, I do not believe an artificial general intelligence is possible, but there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy—but they do represent a ne plus ultra for humanity’s self-abnegation.
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The simulacra of thought can replace real thinking just as surely as writing replaced ancient feats of memory: not because mankind ceased to be able to remember, but because we chose not to. When chatbots make all the annoying digital interfaces we have already replaced ourselves with much more lifelike, who will be left to object? When steam engines and factories remade our world, we remade ourselves in their likeness; man conditioned man to tolerate the drudgery of his new existence. We become like the machine so that the machine might become more useful to us. The danger of A.I. is not that it becomes like us, knowing good and evil, but that we become like it, programs pretending to self-awareness.
All this points to a crisis of authority. Who is it that has the power and responsibility to weigh what can be gained with each technological innovation against what it does to our humanity? This is not a question of Luddism or of bombs made in the woods, of total non-adoption, but rather one of mastery. What can be mastered, used by humans for human ends, and what will master us, used by some men to bend mankind? How can that be prevented?
I write this on a laptop and you read this on a screen; we are too inside a digital world to speak of this clearly, but someone must. The futurists concern themselves with A.I. alignment, but they can only recommend, not command, action. Bad tech legislation and good tech legislation alike are attempts to return to human control what—though made by human beings—seems to obey a logic all its own. The need of the moment, then, is statesmen who understand the stakes and can say, in words clear to the common man, what must be done. Till then, remember, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of code.