Dr. Read Schuchardt, professor of communications at Wheaton College (IL), identifies five primary ways digital technology can erode our lives and relationships, or produce what he calls “vices of the virtual life”:
- Instant gratification
Speaking of disembodiment, which he regards as perhaps the primary negative effect of virtual life, Schuchardt writes,
On the phone, on the web, on the TV, you are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. This creates a mind-body separation that both mimics death and parodies angels, eliminates the possibility of natural law, and allows you to become pure ‘information,’ simply wearing the corporate body as your own.-Read Schuchardt, Media, Journalism, and Communication, p. 56.
I’ve found this to be true in my own experience; time online produces an inner restlessness of soul, to the point where it feels necessary to go outside and touch grass and feel the sun and wind. Anything to reconnect with something real and “embodied.” I’ve had friends tell me they used to scroll TikTok until four in the morning, finally snapping back into reality and realizing they had class in six hours.
Offloading Our Intelligence to the Machine
Schuchardt also talks about the phenomenon of having “multiple selves” online. Creating digital avatars can obscure the user’s real self and tempt us to hide our vulnerabilities behind a manicured front. Additionally, note that “ignorance” made the list. At a moment in history when information technology is exploding, Schuchardt argues that we’re paradoxically less informed and less wise than ever, writing,
Almost all measures of intelligence, from fluid to crystallized intelligence, long- and short-term memory, reading and writing skills, etc., are all dependent on the functioning of mind, memory, and language. When the contents of mind, memory, and language can be externalized in a medium like ‘the cloud,’ and portable media devices give us the illusion of portable omniscience, we are really shifting the contents of our brains from an internal to an external hard drive, and our brains are getting softer in the process. This also helps explain why students nationwide resent assessments that test their hard command of facts and, more than ever, don’t understand why plagiarism is an issue (p. 61).
Schuchardt thinks we’ve become a culture of “idiots” in the original sense of the word: having a private set of knowledge that can’t be shared with anyone beyond the self. It’s an idiocy born of the exaltation of the individual over the group.
I couldn’t help but wonder how AI will play into the problem of disembodiment and ignorance. Shuchardt’s thoughts on “externalization” apply seamlessly to Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, which make plagiarism remarkably easier for students, and encourage the general public to offload their duties, questions, and qualms to the algorithm.
Writing for The American Mind, Jake Denton and Brenda M. Hafera map out the “tech trajectory,” and the ways Big Tech corporations have made virtual life an alluring substitute for the real one. They write,
In the final stage of the tech trajectory, some adults, entirely defected and defeated, lose themselves in a world of virtual pornography. Others, more hopeful, turn to online dating apps and websites. Gen Zers and Millennials get on a dating app (or several) to look for a relationship.”-Jake Denton & Brenda M. Hafera, “The Tech Trajectory,” The American Mind.
I don’t know how many AI girlfriend ads I’ve seen in the last two months, but it’s enough to cause some alarm. In addition, it’s plausible and very likely that more people will start going to AI for counseling, advice, and perhaps even spiritual guidance. Snapchat grafted its own AI into its app, for whatever reason, and the results are concerning. An article in Christianity Today calls attention to “BibleGPT,” an AI that offers to answer all your questions pertaining to the biblical canon. This is the end of disembodiment: a world where humans can interact with pure information, and where the false, digital self is the only one that matters.
I don’t know where we’re heading with all this; AI, as we’ve repeatedly declared, is not a person, can’t talk to you, and can never be truly creative. But we’re engaging with its newest iterations as if it was a person, can talk to us, and can independently generate novel insights about the world. As someone who believes life is about relationships first and foremost, there are limits to how far a chatbot can take you. The limitation, of course, is that it’s a computer, programmed with certain functions. It doesn’t care about you because it can’t possibly know you. Have we come to a place where knowledge is purely informational and quantitative but never personal or relational?
Ryan Kemp, a philosophy professor and a colleague of Schuchardt’s at Wheaton, recommends opting out of the matrix. Although his criticisms in this particular essay are leveled at the Internet more generally, they apply to AI as well. He writes,
One clear difference between, say, alcoholism and the kind of Internet addiction Smith describes is that only the former will literally kill you. Though in some obvious ways this makes alcoholism much more terrifying, there is at least one obstacle the Internet addict confronts that the alcoholic is spared: the absence of a clear physical line that constitutes an undeniable rock bottom. While physical addictions soon enough play a person out, addictions of the soul—those that addle our ability to appreciate beauty and share love—tend toward what Thoreau calls “quiet desperation.” This despair is all the more terrifying because it is subtle; it feeds slowly, and on the insides. It kills without killing, leaving its host—zombielike—living yet dead. Blank eyes, slack jaw, there but not there.-Ryan Kemp, The Dream of Electric Sheep | The Use and Abuse of History | Issues | The Hedgehog Review
Kemp’s vivid picture of Internet addiction is sadly accurate for many modern folks, especially those enmeshed in the superficial, image-driven economy of social media. It’s the addiction plaguing millions, but which hides behind social acceptability. Its impact, though, has spiritual magnitude, and AI worship might just be another aspect of the disease.
The antidote, according to the authors referenced above, is to prioritize embodied, concrete life. We must reject the fake in favor of the real, shared experience over solipsism, and personal skill over technological externalization. At the end of the day, personal presence is better than impersonal data and is what I think we’re all longing for at heart.