Keep the Faith
Why it’s better for humans to believe in something

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 25 February 2022

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I’m not a man of faith as it’s commonly understood, but I am starting to wonder if we’re getting to a moment where we human beings need to assert just a bit of sacred mystery to the goings on in this dimensional neighborhood we call reality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology, automation, robots, and artificial intelligence, and whether some of the transhumanists are correct in their hope that machines can carry on the human project — whatever that may be — after we succumb to climate change or some other disaster of our own making or even just random calamity. Atheist though they may be, the techno-futurists do hope to upload something about themselves or human beings to cloud before going extinct. It’s just that the things they want to infuse into our robot successors are necessarily limited to the aspects of ourselves that can be digitized.

Problem is, at least as I see it, the digitizing may leave a bunch of stuff out. We can encode an awful lot about human beings onto hard drives — Finnegan’s Wake, architectural plans for the pyramids, the Kama Sutra — and those files can be used to reconstitute certain human experiences. But for whom? Will the robots “get” what Kendrick Lamar really means by “I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the king of New York/King of the Coast, one hand, I juggle them both/The juggernaut’s all in your jugular, you take me for jokes.” Do we even know what he means in an exact way? Or do his words flow as more of a sensibility that washes over us–something that comes through when we soften our mental focus and let the words move through our bodies? And is that letting go, itself, an act of faith? A surrender to the possibility of “something more” about human expression and experience than can be defined and quantized?

Face it, technologies can or will do pretty much everything better than we can — other than maybe comforting and loving other living things. (And there’s some evidence they’re getting better at that, too.) Even their ability to take a systems approach to civilization’s many challenges far exceeds anything we can muster. And if we believe that statistics and probabilities are the best tools for making difficult ethical choices about existential risks for the few versus the many, we may as well do what the machines tell us.

Even James Lovelock, the environmental thinker behind the Gaia Hypothesis, believes we must accept the robots’ eventual success as the primary stewards of this planet’s future. Optimistically, though, Lovelock believes the robots will do their best to keep us around for as long as possible. Like biological life, computers need the planet to stay cool in order to function efficiently — and that cooling is best accomplished by keeping life and humans here, metabolizing the sun’s heat.

But there may be another reason to keep us around, and that’s simply our faith that there may be something more going on here than our technologies can experience, comprehend, or — dare I say it — believe. The stuff that gets too easily auto-tuned away, the “junk” DNA, and the unknowables from love and awe to purpose and meaning. How do we hang on to those things instead of pathologizing these belief systems as obsessive compulsive disorder, magical thinking, or superstition? Maybe machines will consider the possibility that we know something they don’t, and keep us around if only on the off-chance we do.

I’ve been a proponent of truth and clarity, and spent a majority of my career in a rather iconoclastic mission to deconstruct falsehoods and propaganda. But I don’t mean to destroy our ability to maintain faith. I simply want us to recognize that our myths — as valuable as they may be to our social and spiritual wellbeing — are human creations. They are provisional — more like scientific models than certainty.

But what I am growing more certain of us that this mythical component of the human experience is essential…and real. It’s going to be more important to the robots than our ability to help keep the planet cool. Our ability to defend our faith — not faith in anything particular, but the ability to maintain faith itself, that something more is going on here — may just end up being our best argument for sustaining the human project.