Eind augustus was Jack te gast bij De theologie-podcast van theologie.nl om te praten over de rol van AI in theologie. Het was een prettig gesprek welke hieronder is terug te luisteren.
It seems that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken the world by storm since the launch of ChatGPT early December 2022 and the authors of this volume, which was launched in June 2022, couldn’t have predicted the importance and relevancy of this topic in our society in 2023. The purpose of the book is that it will “facilitate further reflections and dialogue about AI to help us reimagine and pursue what is possible and necessary for a better world” by “engaging with resources from the Christian tradition to critique and participate constructively in the wise design, development, and use of AI” (12-13).
This volume consists of two parts: the first part Foundations contains four chapters that provides a robust primer for understanding and interpreting AI from a technological, philosophical, and theological perspective. The second part Explorations consists of five essays that each cover a specific, in-depth AI-related theme like e.g., the future of work and theological personhood. The authors’ distinctive interdisciplinary method distinguishes this book from most others on AI and theology. They offer a unique perspective by presenting AI as a phenomenon intertwined with theological and cultural aspects. This approach considers AI as a technology and social occurrence that increasingly influences and molds our society and explores its potential spiritual and religious ramifications. If you are new to the world of AI and theology, chapters 2 (An introduction to AI) and 4 (A theological framework for reflection on AI) are great resources to get familiar with these topics. Both chapters are well written, easy to read texts that will give you a framework for better understanding and assessing AI and its theological implications. In the current debate about AI a lot is being written about the expected impact AI will have on jobs and on education. Most publications are either utopian where AI will be able to change the world for better, or they are dystopic in which the focus is on the mass unemployment and havoc AI will create. Michael Paulus, the author of the 8th chapter on the impact of AI on work, provides a helpful third way to discuss the future of work by offering a pragmatic apocalyptic counternarrative. The function of apocalyptic literature, is “to present a narrative that opens up our imagination to a new view of the world” (183) and in the book of Revelation the key concept is about cities that have been transformed and amplified by God from an ambiguous human project to His dwelling place, where “complex human artifacts—including artificial autonomous agents—can be transformed into a constitutive part of God’s new creation” (184-185). In this apocalyptic view work is an ontological, meaningful part of the new creation and provides an interesting perspective on the telos of technology and work. The final chapter Sin and Grace Bruce Baker takes AI ethics into a broader discourse around the theological notion of sin. The ethical use of AI is a widely discussed topic and e.g., provides the foundation for the forthcoming EU AI Act. Baker rightly points out that these discussions easily end up in “a discussion of utilitarian value propositions and perhaps the need for transparency or privacy protections” (193), however, AI and AI ethics will not solve problems that are rooted in sin. The author focuses mainly on the consequences of unintentional and institutional sin and points out that developers and practitioners who work with AI have a special responsibility to pay attention for this. He ends this chapter by describing how AI can also act as a form of grace. In the epilogue of the book the reader can find a litany, which is a “thoughtfully organized prayer for use in public worship by the church, or as a personal devotional practice by individuals” (219), that will the reader reflect on AI, faith and what this means for the future.
I would highly recommend this volume to anyone who wants to learn more about AI and its societal and spiritual impact. It is very well written, very relevant and very helpful in understanding and interpreting the role AI plays in our culture and theology. I would encourage the editors to really consider publishing a second edition of the book in which they also add a chapter (or a few) on generative AI, which is about tools like ChatGTP, Google Bard and DALLE-2 that can create text, pictures, audio and video, and the impact this will have on faith and the future.
Michael J. Paulus Jr. & Michael D. Langford (eds.), AI, Faith, and the Future – An Interdisciplinary Approach, (Eugene OR, Pickwick Publications, 2022), 244 pp., USD 34.00, paperback (ISBN 978-1666703467).
What does it mean to follow Jesus in a digital age is a question many people ask themselves, but there are not many resources to date that help answer this question. Jason Thacker, who is the chair of Research in Technology at the ERLC Research Institute, has filled this void by writing this book. According to Thacker the main goal is “to [help] better understand that we are each being discipled every day by the technologies we use, whether we realize it or not” (3) and by making us think how we can navigate our digital society in a “moral, holistic, and deeply biblical way” (6). The book that comes in a handy takeaway size, contains four thematic chapters about wisdom, truth, responsibility, and identity and an appendix that contains a note to (church) leaders.
The first chapter explores the question what it means to follow Jesus wisely in a digital age. Wisdom starts with taking a step back to reflect on how technology is shaping us in our daily lives and Thacker draws on the work of the French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul to demonstrate how humans and technology have been in a complex relationship since the beginning of the world. The mindset in our 21st century society is that we should be able to solve every world problem with technology (‘there’s an app for that’) and technology has permeated almost every aspect of our daily lives. In a way our world, and henceforth our worldview, gets more and more mediated through technology. Ellul already wrote about this technological imperative in the pursuit of efficiency and progress in his book The Technological Society more than seventy years ago and his analysis still holds today. In the last part of this chapter Thacker describes what it means to be wise as it is described in the biblical Wisdom literature. Being wise is not to walk the path of technology towards more efficiency, but to reorient oneself to a full flourishing life as God intended it to be. Christians are all called to show wisdom in the digital public square. The second chapter is about pursuing truth. According to Thacker the root cause of the current post-truth era is not technology, but the scientific worldview that moved transcendency out of our society; we have moved from a God-centric world to a self-centred world where truth has been personalized and weaponized as propaganda. This has led to a world that gets inundated with dis- and misinformation which has been amplified and accelerated by technology. With the advent of new AI-powered technologies like deepfakes it is only expected to get worse as Thacker expects. He calls upon Christians to act wisely and pursue the Truth and be accountable for one’s own behaviour in dealing with mis- and disinformation. Being responsible in a curated age is the theme of the third chapter where the author advocates for being mindful of what content is being presented to you and why. In what I consider to be one of the best sections of the book, Thacker explains the rationale of content moderation by big tech companies and how they often fail to account for minority views which clearly can impact expressing Christian values that deviate from society’s values. In the last part of the book Thacker argues that Christians should take personal responsibility for their actions and not blaming technology or the other when things get polarized. One of the root causes for this polarization is the pursuit for building (online) identities by identifying us with (digital) communities that give a sense of belonging, purpose, and safety; Thacker challenges Christians to take the long Biblical view as they already have a place where they belong.
Reading this book may give the reader an uncanny, even dystopian view on the role technology is playing in our society, despite the author mentioning positive use cases of technology. Christians may also be thankful for the gift of technology in their lives, and I would have liked to have this point more emphasized in the book to develop a balanced and realistic point of view on technology. The best part of this book is the long biblical view the author takes on what it means to be a Christian in this digital world by drawing on biblical wisdom. This book will be helpful for any church leader, theologian and preacher who wants to develop a biblical perspective on our technological mediated age but I would recommend reading this book in parallel with a book that focuses more on how technology could be used for good so one can develop a realistic, well informed perspective on what it means ‘to be present in the modern, digital world’ to paraphrase Ellul.
Jason Thacker, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, (Nashville TN, B&H Publishing, 2022), 163 pp., USD 12.82, paperback (ISBN 978-1087754598).
Het themanummer over kunstmatige intelligentie, hierna verder afgekort tot AI, van het christelijk tijdschrift Radix bevat diverse artikelen over de rol die AI speelt in onze samenleving en in het bijzonder hoe dit gekoppeld is aan geloof en ethiek. Zoals ik vorige maand al op Twitter aankondigde, geef ik in dit artikel een reactie op het artikel van Jochemsen en Peters (2022) waarin zij betogen dat AI in zichzelf leidt tot een reductie van de werkelijkheid waarbij zij in hun betoog gebruik maken van de inzichten uit de Reformatorische wijsbegeerte van de Nederlandse filosoof Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). Ik ben zelf erg gecharmeerd van Dooyeweerds visie op de werkelijkheid en was ook blij verrast dat beide heren zijn gedachtengoed gebruiken om het verschijnsel van AI te analyseren.
Wat is AI?
Het lezenswaardige artikel begint met een uiteenzetting van voorbeelden waarin de goede en de donkere kanten van AI worden duidelijk gemaakt. Ondanks dat de lezer een indruk krijgt wat AI ongeveer is, ontbreekt het aan een goede definitie ervan. Ik vind dit persoonlijk een gemiste kans omdat het hierdoor niet altijd helder is wanneer de auteurs over AI spreken, of in het algemeen over technologie. Een goede definitie die ik zelf vaak gebruik in mijn dagelijkse werk als docent en spreker over AI staat in het recente WRR-rapport over AI (WRR 2021) waarin AI gedefinieerd wordt als “systemen die intelligent gedrag vertonen door hun omgeving te analyseren en – met enige graad van autonomie – actie te ondernemen om specifieke doelen te bereiken” (WRR 2021: 12). Een heldere definitie is het vertrekpunt om duidelijk te schetsen wat AI is en daarbij af te rekenen met een hardnekkige, maar verkeerde, beeldvorming die er is in onze maatschappij. Het is niet voor niets dat demystificatie van AI (WRR 2021: 139-144) als een van de vijf opgaven wordt genoemd waarin duidelijk moet worden gemaakt waar we het nu eigenlijk precies over hebben als we over AI spreken, met andere woorden, wat is AI wel en wat is het ook vooral niet.
De beide auteurs schrijven terecht dat big data een essentieel onderdeel van AI is, echter men verzuimt om ook hier een goede definitie te geven zodat het gevaar ontstaat dat mensen hun eigen verwachtingen gaan projecteren op wat big data is. Daarnaast zou je je kunnen afvragen of er ook zoiets is als small data en of dit geen invloed heeft op AI. Mijn insteek is dat alle data de belangrijkste grondstof zijn voor AI, of zoals ik elders geschreven heb, dat data wordt gezien als de nieuwe olie (Esselink 2022: 6). Data is de brandstof voor algoritmes die met behulp van statistische technieken, hetgeen we vandaag vaak machine learning noemen, voorspellingen kan genereren die de input vormen voor AI systemen. De informatie die door AI wordt gegenereerd, wordt vaak gezien als nieuwe kennis die moet leiden tot het nemen van betere beslissingen. Jochemsen en Peters (2022: 116) verwijzen hiervoor naar een bekend model uit de wereld van analyse: het DIKW-model en laten tegelijkertijd met behulp van Dooyeweerds filosofie dat kennis niet tot informatie te herleiden is.
Dooyeweerd en AI
Het interessante aan Dooyeweerds beschrijving van de werkelijkheid is dat dit, mijns inziens, een van de beste beschrijvingen/ modellen in de filosofie is die poogt om recht te doen aan de complexiteit, veelkleurigheid en ambiguïteit van de realiteit. Het resultaat is een model dat een goede basis vormt voor de antropologische vraag wie de mens is en hoe deze zich tot zijn/ haar technologische omgeving moet verhouden, met andere woorden, Dooyeweerds filosofie biedt een uitstekende basis voor techniekfilosofie zoals door anderen ook eerder is uitgewerkt (zie bijvoorbeeld Verkerk 2014, Verbeek 2008). De kracht van Dooyeweerd zit in de anti-reductionistische benadering van de werkelijkheid en het is ook terecht dat de auteurs wijzen dat een groot gevaar van AI is dat de werkelijkheid wordt gereduceerd tot de modaliteiten data en ruimte. Het is niet voor niets dat in een recent rapport van de Nationale Ombudsman terecht gewaarschuwd wordt dat een burger meer is dan een dataset (Ombudsman 2021). Onze hang naar technisisme (Jochemsen & Peters 2022: 112) zorgt ervoor dat we in deze tijden proberen met behulp van data en AI grip op de werkelijkheid te krijgen die leidt tot zekerheid, veiligheid en betekenis. Er wordt in het artikel overtuigend beargumenteerd dat technologie daardoor niet neutraal is en een veel grotere spirituele lading heeft dan menigeen zich beseft. Door het gebruik van Dooyeweerds modaliteiten ben je dus in staat om de rol van technologie goed te analyseren. Ik vind dat beide auteurs dit overtuigend hebben weergegeven in dit artikel. Waar het aan schort is dat het niet altijd duidelijk is of men het heeft over de rol van technologie in zijn algemeenheid of over AI. Ik had graag gezien dat beide heren in de toepassing van Dooyeweerds techniekfilosofie specifieker op het domein van AI waren ingegaan. Daarnaast spreken zij ook over het verschil tussen correlatie en causaliteit en lijkt het alsof door AI dit verschil niet meer bestaat en er daardoor verkeerde beslissingen worden genomen. Dit zal ook wel regelmatig gebeuren, maar ik vind dit veel te generaliserend, omdat ik weet dat vanuit de beroepspraktijk van data scientist en AI-ingenieurs hier heel veel aandacht aan wordt besteed om dit zoveel mogelijk te voorkomen (Sahoh et al. 2022). De werkelijkheid is dus veel genuanceerder dan hier wordt geschetst. Daarnaast is het jammer dat er in dit artikel geen aandacht is voor andere problemen die AI met zich meebrengt zoals impliciete vooroordelen, racisme, privacy en verantwoordelijkheid voor de uitkomsten van algoritmes om er maar een paar te noemen (zie bijvoorbeeld Muller (2020) voor een goede introductie). Als laatste vind ik dat de auteurs het begrip data te veel veralgemeniseren en het daardoor onterecht zien als één modaliteit waartoe de werkelijkheid gereduceerd kan worden. In de werkelijkheid speelt de dataficering een steeds belangrijkere rol op meerdere modaliteiten, oftewel, op verschillende niveaus neemt de rol van data toe. Een voorbeeld hiervan is de toename van de rol van data in de psychologie en biologie wat geleid heeft tot nieuwe specialismen die computational psychology of computational biology worden genoemd (Bartlett et al. 2022).
Ik vind dat de auteurs een goede bijdrage hebben geleverd in dit artikel door AI te analyseren met behulp van Dooyerweerds filosofie. Door het gebrek aan goede definities gaan ze soms te kort door te bocht en is het soms te generaliserend. Ik hoop dat deze reactie daarom een welkome aanvulling op dit artikel mag zijn.
Bartlett, L., Pirrone, A., Javed, N., & Gobet, F. (2022). “Computational scientific discovery in psychology.” Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Esselink, Jack. (2022). “Wat moet je als christen met kunstmatige intelligentie?” OnderWeg, jaargang 8 #5, 6-9. https://www.onderwegonline.nl/20561-wat-moet-je-als-christen-met-kunstmatige-intelligentie.
Jochemsen, Henk & Peters, Hugo. (2022). “Kunstmatige Intelligentie en het gevaar van reductionisme.” Radix 48 #2, 107-119.
Müller, Vincent. (2020). “Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/ethics-ai/.
Ombudsman, Nationale. (2021). Een burger is geen dataset – Ombudsvisie op behoorlijk gebruik van data en algoritmen door de overheid (Den Haag: Nationale Ombudsman) https://www.nationaleombudsman.nl/nieuws/onderzoeken/2021021-een-burger-is-geen-dataset.
Sahoh, B., Haruehansapong, K., & Kliangkhlao, M. (2022).” Causal Artificial Intelligence for High-Stakes Decisions: The Design and Development of a Causal Machine Learning Model.” IEEE Access, 10, 24327-24339.
Verbeek, P. P. (2008). “Disclosing visions of technology.” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 12(1), 85-89.
Verkerk, M. J. (2014). “A philosophy-based ’toolbox’ for designing technology: The conceptual power of Dooyeweerdian philosophy.” Koers: Bulletin for Christian Scholarship, 79(3), 1-7.
WRR. (2021). Opgave AI – De nieuwe systeemtechnologie. (Den Haag, Wetenschappelijke Raad voor Regeringsbeleid) https://www.wrr.nl/publicaties/rapporten/2021/11/11/opgave-ai-de-nieuwe-systeemtechnologie.
 AI is de gangbare afkorting voor kunstmatige intelligentie en is gebaseerd op het Engelse Artificial Intelligence.
For my master’s in theology I have written a master thesis titled Deepfakes and extreme beliefs : an ethical evaluation. The research underpinning this thesis is part of the interdisciplinary, multi-year Extreme Beliefs research programme that runs at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is chaired by dr. Rik Peels, who also supervised my master thesis. You can find the abstract, keywords and a link to a PDF of my thesis below
Deepfakes are a nascent technological phenomenon that is expected to have a profound impact on our society. In this thesis I will conduct an ethical assessment using the reflective equilibrium method for the use of deepfakes in the context of groups holding extreme beliefs. This research will not provide a normative ethical evaluation but will expose what moral principles are at stake. It is based on three case studies that are situated in Belgium and the Netherlands in the years 2020, 2021 and 2031. The selected case studies each represent an increasing distance towards reality which is modeled after the different stages in Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra-model (1994). The exposed moral principles will vary from pro tanto personal principles, like freedom of speech and informed consent, to pro tanto societal principles, like climate justice, transparency, epistemic authority, credulity, and the pro tanto obligation to do no harm. It is argued that for future case studies that involve an ethical assessment of deepfakes, these moral principles are useful to properly contextualize deepfakes as a social phenomenon. Deepfakes should not be considered as a new and isolated technical category, but as a technology wrapped in a broader, social context in our society that will amplify existing sociological trends like the diminished trust in epistemic authorities. Deepfakes can and will be weaponized by groups holding extreme beliefs and should be seen as the latest technology manifestation in the creation of disinformation and propaganda. In general mis- and disinformation will lead to an epistemic deterioration of our information environments (De Ridder 2021) and deepfakes will only accelerate and amplify this. The insights from this research will help both researchers in academia and the general public to take a broader, more nuanced, and contextualized view to assess the moral impact of deepfakes and it will help to inform the public debate around deepfakes and increase media literacy.
deepfakes, synthetic media, ethics, reflective equilibrium, extreme beliefs, conspiracy theories, artificial intelligence, case studies, Jean Baudrillard, simulacrum
PDF version of thesis
One of the reasons why I am pursuing my master’s in Theology is to connect theology and technology from an ethical perspective. This intersection is a new genre but more and more theologians are starting to write about this topic. The most recent book I read is the book Christian Ethics for a Digital Society by dr. Kate Ott.1 The review starts with setting the stage, in which I will describe the context of the book and the writer. In the subsequent section I will summarize the key points of the book, which will be followed by a review and suggestions for the reader.
Setting the stage
Technology is playing an ever more important role in our daily lives which cries out for a critical and ethical engagement. However, according to the author, dr. Kate Ott, the majority of people isn’t able to provide such a response and react either in “crippling fear” or in “worshipful awe.”2 In her book she tries to move beyond the ignorance of the many, and come up with a critical engagement towards digital technology based on a daily ethical practice. According to Ott, traditional ethics “grounded in absolutes or calculations” will not suffice but different ethical approaches are needed that “embrace growth, interdependence, and creativity.”3 In the book she advocates for Christians to develop a digital literacy, which does not only mean reflection about technology, but also applying this in such a way that this leads to a “more just and inclusive world.”4 The interesting thing about the book is that the author is not a technologist but has a background in feminist theories and sexual ethics.5 Ott, who currently teaches at Drew University in the United States, uses this background and methods to come up with a practical ethical framework based on “embodiment and interdependence with creation.”6 In a way she has documented her quest to a critical and ethical engagement with digital technology from an outsider’s perspective. I have been working in the world of (software) technology for last two decades and I have read her book from a technology insider’s perspective. I must admit that the author has done a great job in explaining what technology does and bringing this into conversation with theology and ethics. The result is a unique book that not only provides ‘food for thought’ but challenges the reader to look in the screen (not in the mirror) and make a change.
Key points of the book
The book is structured around four themes from the world of digital technology: algorithms, social interaction using digital technology, archiving and surveillance technology and the environmental impact digital technology has on our planet. Each chapter provides an introduction to the topic and a critical theological and ethical reflection, or as the reviewer Jen Jones puts it “Each chapter extends discernment of digital technology encompassing individual, relational, and societal considerations and implications.”7 In the concluding chapter Ethical Hacking and Hacking Ethics, Ott drives the key points of the previous chapters home in proposing to approach digital technology like an ethical hacker. Hacking normally has a negative connotation to it, but transforming the digital society requires the mindset of a hacker and entails “the ethical call to gain access to the ecosystem of digital technologies and define the vulnerabilities to be patched as the perpetuation of social inequalities and injustices.”8 I will briefly discuss the key points of each chapter (theme) below.
The first chapter about algorithms, called Programming for Difference, is a topic that is closely related to my professional life.9 Algorithms are one of the most important components of digital technology and they mediate how we interact with the world. Based on data, algorithms make predictions that e.g., inform our internet searches, movie recommendations and social media feeds. In a way, algorithms adapt towards our needs and they make our lives more individualized and seem to promote diversity.10 However, Ott is quite right when she exposes the algorithmic paradox of diversity, as algorithms reduce human beings to quantifiable units and impose an “imperial dominance of sameness.”11 People are much more homogeneous than they are willing to admit and algorithms reflect and amplify their cultural biases. Many people unconsciously accept what the algorithms feed them and in this way, they are unaware of how the values of these algorithms shape their lives.12 Ott uses the Tower of Babel narrative (Gen. 11:1-9) to analyze algorithms from a theological and ethical point of view. This story is one of the most frequently used stories in the Bible used by theologians and biblical scholars, when they want to put technology in a biblical context. The key message is that humans in our era use technology in order to become more like God themselves, and in this way they resemble the people who tried to build the tower of Babel. God punishes the people by bringing confusion among the people by letting them speak different languages. Ott has a different hermeneutical approach, which clearly reveals her roots in feminist theology, emphasizing that it was God’s intention to have multiple languages as this is a token of diversity which is “a defining feature of creation.”13 In her opinion it is not the building of the tower that God condemns, but it is the use of a single universal language that erases all differences.14 She quotes the American professor in journalism Jack Lule to underscore how digital services providers in our time can be compared to the Babel narrative:
Tech Giants on the other hand consider digital technology and electronic communication a way of regaining what was lost at Babel. They suggest both through translation and the ubiquity of common media that again one language is being created.15
The quote above is a good example of the algorithmic paradox Kate Ott brings forward in her book. Algorithms are the language of our time and shape our culture in such a way that many are unaware of. One of the best parts in the book that I wholeheartedly agree with, is that she calls for a digital literacy in order to respond to digital technology in an ethical manner or as she puts it: “everyday ethical living in a digital world requires curiosity and basic literacy with how digital technology functions.”16 An appropriate ethical response to algorithms starts with an awareness how they function and how they do not promote diversity by default. Ott’s call to action is to actively stand up and defy algorithmic bias as much as one proportionally can. Those with greater knowledge and influence on how algorithms function, think of programmers or data scientists, have a greater responsibility than those who are end users.17 By actively engaging and by deliberate interaction with algorithms we become more digitally fluent and are co-creators who are asked to actively promote diversity and prevent that we all speak the same language powered by algorithms.
Social interactions on digital platforms
In the second chapter, titled Networked Selves, Kate Ott zooms in on the role digital platforms play on relationships people have with themselves, others and God. A lot of interactions between humans has shifted from the physical world to the digital world and especially social networking platforms, often referred to as social media, play an important role in this. This networked understanding of the self is the key ingredient of this chapter and Ott focusses on the role data plays in forming our identity, Ott calls this the datafied self, and our relationships with the other and God.18 Just like in the previous chapter it starts with the awareness of the role digital platforms play in the formation of our own identity; digital technology is no longer something separate, but it is completely integrated in our “being in the world,” in other words, we are “datafied, embodied, and spiritual beings.”19 This construct poses all kinds of moral questions about who we are supposed to be in relationship to ourselves, the other and to God, and for this Ott introduces the theological notion of attunement to help us orient ourselves. Attunement based on a trinitarian understanding of God is a model for being an innovative Christian that supports a networked approach of relationships and promotes inclusivity.20 The ethical approach that follows from the notion of attunement latches on to the approach how to deal with algorithms, as it was set out in the previous chapter. It starts with the awareness of how digital technology is using data to instrumentalize our relationships, especially on social media platforms, and how the algorithms used are based on values of the digital world.21 The algorithms can make us feel very networked, you can e.g. 500+ friends on Facebook, but they do not promote deeper relationships. The core value of attunement is to understand how this works and what role this plays in our lives.22 The identity that the algorithms compose of us is based on the data they have collected and processed, and this influences who we meet and what we see.23 This can have moral implications which many are unaware of. Digital platforms, powered by their algorithms, can promote bias and make us blind for the otherness of the others. An appropriate theological and ethical response, based on the notion of trinitarian attunement, is that we “recognize, understand, and liberate ourselves and society from racism and other moral deformations of our digitally embodied spirits if we are to live into God’s example of difference in unity as the imago dei of a networked self.”24
Archiving and surveillance technology
The previous chapter focused mainly on the way digital technology shapes our personal lives and relationships. In the third chapter Moral functions beyond the Delete key the primary focus is on how the boundary between private and public information is being changed by digital technology which raises ethical questions about privacy and surveillance.25 Digital platforms are a huge archive of all the digital interactions we have done, so every search, click, like and swipe is being stored and being used by the algorithms of the digital platforms. It seems that these platforms remember everything and that we live in a world where “forgetting has become a luxury.”26 In this chapter Ott focuses on the concept of forgiveness in the context of digital platforms that never forget. She uses the theological notion of metanoia for this and this is described as “the process by which faith positively enables the human capacity to make change.”27 The culmination of the amount of data archived has social shaping consequences at two levels. On the one hand it influences individual people’s behavior which raises moral questions about privacy, and on the other hand, at a more aggregated level, it raises questions about social surveillance. Again, data and algorithms have more impact on shaping behavior than the majority of people is aware of. And especially because of the “indelible nature of digital data” this can have great consequences.28 As seen in the previous chapters, an ethical response to this starts with awareness and deliberate actions on both the personal and legislative level.29 Some scholars suggest that a good response would be to be able to delete the data, however Ott claims that she prefers accountability at personal and systemic level (metanoia) over erasure. This would lead to better and restored relationships with others and with God.30
The last theme Kate Ott covers in her book is about the environmental impact digital technology has. This chapter, dubbed Creation Connectivity, addresses a much-overlooked aspect of digital technology, which is the impact it has on the environment and the natural resources that are consumed. Since many people perceive digital technology as a potential solution to help fight environmental damage, they often don’t associate this with the environmental damage it inflicts.31 Ott argues for an “ecologically friendly digital technology” which is based on a theological model of interdependence with creation.32 This all starts, again, with raising awareness of the ecological footprint digital technology is making and for this Ott suggests the notion of mattering which is described by the sociologist Jennifer Gabrys as “it is a way to make an intangible both materially visible and have relevance or value.”33 By making the intangible visible, it should provoke people to think and ultimately would lead to an ethical response. Ott concludes the chapter that “awareness about the digital environmental impact is an important aspect of digital literacies” and this is an important ingredient for a Christian moral responsibility for a more just and diverse world.34
In the last chapter of the book, Ethical Hacking and Hacking Ethics, the author wraps her call to action up in the notion of ethical hacking. Hacking to her is an “ethical call to gain access to the ecosystem of digital technologies and define the vulnerabilities to be patched as the perpetuation of social inequalities and injustices.”35 The ethical responses she proposed in the previous chapters are about diversity, attunement metanoia and responsible co-creation.36 All can be summed up as increasing digital literacy in order to make a change. Ott argues that using a theological mindset can help us find a hermeneutical vocabulary that will help us interpret digital technology, and help us become a better datafied, spiritual and embodied being.37
Review and suggestions for the reader
Books about technology treated in the context of theology is an upcoming genre and I have read a couple of them. This book is clearly different, because of the author’s focus on social ethics and her outsider’s perspective. Ott does a great job in describing the current technological landscape and has clearly become proficient in what is happening in the world of digital technology. I must admit that, especially in the first chapter, she hits the nail on the head in discerning in how digital technology is influencing and shaping our lives. I also absolutely agree with her that we need to increase our digital literacy in order to start using digital technology in an ethical, responsible way. In the book theological and ethical concepts are innovatively intertwined and will leave the reader with lots of ‘food for thought’. The book is especially interesting for practitioners who want to learn more about how they should engage with digital technology in their Christian environment. This book will be helpful for e.g. ministers, theologians and philosophers. The book is less suited as a practical how-to guide in how to navigate as a Christian in the world of digital technology since it is more of an academic work. I found the chapter about the impact that digital technology has on our environment an eye-opener and I think lots of work has to be done in that space.
When you read the book, it becomes clear the author has a background in social and feminist/ womanist ethics. Her focus is predominantly on the power and biases digital technology embodies and how this can oppress and marginalize minorities and lead to less fair and unjust world. In my opinion she focuses too much on the oppressive and negative aspects that digital technology brings to bear and has left out counterexamples on how digital technology can help in creating a better world. The real world of digital technology, in my opinion, is more nuanced than the picture Ott paints. There are also many examples available on how e.g. algorithms and social media have increased the opportunities for refugees and helped physicians in third world countries to provide better care.38 My recommendation to other readers would be to complement reading this book with a book that focuses more on the positive outcomes digital technology offers. By contrasting and comparing both books one gets a more nuanced and better understanding on how digital technology works and what impact it has on our personal lives and society. Based on this, a robust ethical response can be grasped. In sum, I would definitely recommend reading this book for any Christian theologian or minister who is interested in the ethical consequences and workings of digital technology. Ott does an outstanding job in exposing the power digital technology has on our society and how this can lead to an unjust society. However due to the lack of focusing on the upside of digital technology I would recommend reading additional literature to inform one’s ethical response to digital technology.
Ficatier, Antonin. “Book Review: Kate Ott, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society.” Studies in Christian Ethics 33, no. 1 (2020): 130–133. https://doi.org/10.1177/0953946819883780d.
Jones, Jen. “Book Review: Kate M. Ott, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society.” Journal of Moral Theology 9, no.1 (2020): 249–250.
Ott, Kate M. Christian Ethics for a
Digital Society. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.