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Stuff that matters

May 25th, 2018 by Stephen Bauman

Yesterday I stumbled into a surprising article in the June issue of Atlantic Magazine that was doubly intriguing given the match-up between author and content. At the age of 95 Henry Kissinger—erstwhile Secretary of State during the tainted Nixon administration and subsequent political raconteur—immersed himself in learning about artificial intelligence (AI). Given its title, How the Enlightenment Ends: Philosophically, intellectually—in every way—human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence, you can tell right off that what he’s learned thus far scares him.

He was especially keen to consider the effect emergent technology will have on how humans create meaning and values. He writes: “Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

“Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.”

That last bit resonates with what I encounter in my work today. But whether or not one agrees with Kissinger’s conclusions, I was struck by two things. While a fierce critic of his machinations with Nixon, I’m now impressed that at 95 he is still vitally engaged in learning things that are relevant and important, and that he is still willing to interrogate his own accumulated knowledge/point-of-view. There’s a lesson in this.

Second, he’s addressing something that really needs to gain traction in our culture broadly speaking, and within educational environments specifically— made all the more difficult precisely because “users are diverted from introspection…avoid[ing] the solitude they dread.”

There are explicit connections here with the current state of deeply felt and engaged spiritual practice, but lest this piece become overlong, I prefer to let you cogitate about that from your own experience. As for me, my work has never seemed more usefully relevant while simultaneously never more challenging.

Here’s an idea: Take a break this weekend. Leave your techno-gadgets alone for an hour or two or three. Take a long walk; think deep thoughts; speak with a child; sit quietly by yourself; consider the sacrifices others have made so that you can live and love and thrive. In other words, do stuff that actually matters…

Stephen Bauman

Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Bauman is the Senior Minister at Christ Church.