No one really talks about sin these days. My guess is that many of us grew up with such myopic versions of “sin” that we abandoned the category all together. Mix that with a side of “do what feels good, as long as no one gets hurt,” and you have a recipe for confusion and babel.
I want to speak with some precision about the definition of sin and then explore the implications of connected technologies in relationship to that understanding.
Since sin can be a slippery term, it is better understood in its trailing indicators – namely, the affects or “wages” of sin, to use the New Testament’s language. What does sin do to each of us specifically and to creation more generally? Sin is separation, fragmenting creation along at least four primary relationships. As relational creatures, we can gauge health or disease based on the stability of these primal relationships. We are created for connection in these areas:
You | God
You | Others
You | Creation
You | Yourself
If we read the first chapters of the Hebrew scriptures closely, we see the fracturing of each of these connections after the proto-humans violate the sacred boundaries by eating the forbidden fruit. Immediately you can see the cracks emerge. The humans hide from God, no longer trusting their connection to the Divine (You/God).
“The goal is to keep you scared, anxious, disconnected and always hungry for more.”
They then turn on each other in a blame game. The consequences of this sin are a further drifting apart as hierarchy and power become the means of human relationally. Someone will always oppress someone else (You/Others).
As the consequences compound, God tells the humans that the ground will revolt and rebel against their efforts. Creation will produce weeds and thorns where once there were peaches and mangos (You/Creation).
Finally comes the deepest and most hidden cut as the humans discover the pain of shame. They see inside themselves and are disgusted. They haphazardly cover themselves up, unable to bring their fullest selves into the world (You/Yourself).
Sin works toward our isolation and loneliness. This isolation breeds hostility and violence. It creates anxiety as we scramble for a solid place to stand. The first bad thing mentioned in the Bible is the existence of loneliness. God brings forth a world balanced in connection and secure in belonging. This is very good. But, as the story falls apart, we see the strands of our connections begin to fray.
This is an ancient story, yet still very much where we live and move and have our being. This isolation and loneliness is the root of much of our current dysfunction. We do not belong to one another, even as we litter the digital world with images to the contrary.
None of this is new, which is why the stories in the Bible still vibrate with meaning today. What is new is the speed and precision with which technology is making this anxious loneliness spread and amplify. Mix technology with terrible theology and you get some gnarly outcomes.
Now let’s overlap this definition of sin onto our Digital Age. I have become convinced that the way we have built our digital world has encoded this fracturing principle (sin) within the emerging technological system itself. Our connected technologies (social media, online commerce, smart phones, cryptocurrency, transhumanism, etc.) threaten our primal, sacred bonds. We are hyper-connected and still so lonely. Our humanity is under siege by anti-human forces at work in our technologies.
“Christians must examine their digital habits and addictions, confess where necessary, and build up practices of resistance to the fracturing of creation.”
There is a logic built deep within our connected technologies. It is the only thing the digital world considers too sensitive to share. This secret language at the heart of technology is known as The Algorithm. This is the code that drives content, manipulates user behavior and reinforces dangerous narratives. These algorithms are not morally neutral. We built them with our fractured impulses and disordered desires. They have an internal drive and desire. (For more on algorithmic bias, see articles in the Guardian and New Scientist.)
Algorithms seek efficiency and profit. Human unpredictability, specifically human freedom, is the ultimate problem technology must solve in order to continue its growth. Humanity is seduced and finally enslaved inside the logic and determinations of this digital system. Sin, therefore, becomes an internal reality, a sort of demon possession.
Every simple conversation on Facebook becomes a screaming match. Twitter constantly bums us out. Amazon is getting too good at reading our minds with its perfect suggestions for our endless consumption.
None of this is accidental. You are being manipulated by forces deeply embedded in our connected technologies. The goal is to keep you scared, anxious, disconnected and always hungry for more. That way we keep buying stuff we don’t need trying to solve a crisis deeper than we want to admit. It turns out being lonely is painful, and all the iPhones in the world cannot solve that crisis. But, just to be safe, we better all buy the latest one. Maybe that artificial intelligence assistant is just the ticket to fix our chronic loneliness: “Siri, what does a hug feel like?”
Our continual fall into chronic isolation and loneliness leads to death in all its myriad forms. Our connected technologies are accelerating the process, compounding the wages of sin, and increasingly doing all of this without our consent or acknowledgment. Once artificial intelligence advances beyond our noticing, this fracturing will be even harder to mitigate or resist.
People of faith must build up embodied responses to this trend, rediscovering the inefficiencies of crucifixion and resurrection. Christians must examine their digital habits and addictions, confess where necessary, and build up practices of resistance to the fracturing of creation.
In the words of Athanasius, “You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.”
Author’s note: This brief essay compresses many intersecting ideas. In future commentaries, I will continue down these paths of inquiry, seeking constructive theology and practical actions.