Against the Machine
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN The idea is that will possibly be able to upload our minds to some sort of computational substrate so that our minds will be able to exist there after we die.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is the rising belief and salvation through technology, just old time religion in new bottles? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also headlines focus on the tug of war between progressives and two so-called moderates over landmark legislation, but the immensity of what's at stake is being overlooked.
ANDREW PROKOP There's been curiously little discussion about what this bill would actually do. It's estimated that it would lift 4.1 million children above the poverty line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, does Facebook really turn nice folks into trolls? The data say... nope.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN We did not find this huge group of people who report to be nice in face-to-face discussions, but hostile in online discussions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, President Biden told the country about his plan to tackle supply chain disruptions, causing shortages of food, medical supplies and even books.
PRESIDENT BIDEN The Port of Los Angeles announced today that it's going to begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tucked into his speech was a plea to support his bipartisan infrastructure bill, now pending before Congress.
PRESIDENT BIDEN We need to think big and bold. That's why I'm pushing for a once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure and our people, with my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better act [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The build back better act is part of Biden's broader Build Back Better agenda, also referred to as the reconciliation bill. Since the act is opposed by Republicans, Democrats are using the reconciliation process that requires full support from every Senate Democrat to get it through, but two of them, as you know, aren't playing ball.
NEWS REPORT West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has made it very clear to the White House and congressional leaders that he has concerns about Biden...
NEWS REPORT In Senator Kirsten Sinema's home state of Arizona, the state's Democratic Party is so fed up with her not being on board with the bill that they passed a resolution this weekend. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Before we knew it, a familiar narrative emerged around the mega bill...
NEWS REPORT Democrats in disarray, President Biden trying to unite his party, holding separate meetings at the White House with so-called moderate and progressive Democrats hoping to get the factions to come together to pass key parts of his agenda, which are now on the line. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The dissenting senators have been consistently characterized as moderate by CNN, NPR and other legacy outlets. The’ moderates versus progressives’ frame keeps us focused on political feuding and not what's actually in the bill. When a CBS reporter asked Nancy Pelosi if the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of communicating what's in the reconciliation bill, since so few Americans seem to grasp it, Pelosi had this to say to the press:.
NANCY PELOSI Well I think you all could do a better job of selling it to be very frank with you, but it is true it is hard to break through when you have such a comprehensive package. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's not the job of journalists to sell the bill, but why not explain it? When outlets do tear themselves away from the Democratic infighting, they often seem preoccupied with how one man will go down in history.
NEWS REPORT The President Joe Biden's legacy could be on the line here...
NEWS REPORT The Biden legacy may come down to what Congress decides this week...
NEWS REPORT ...As divisions in the Democratic Party leave his legacy in limbo. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Journalist Lyz Lenz put it this way: "it's often so clear that the people who treat politics like a game are insulated from the worst of its effects." Andrew Prokop wrote about the legislation buried in the political coverage for Vox in an article titled Biden's Reconciliation Bill would be a Big Bleeping Deal. I asked how the coverage of the Build Back Better Act compared to the coverage of Obamacare.
ANDREW PROKOP The biggest difference is that there's a lot less of it. Obamacare just dominated headlines. You still had the same intense focus on legislative gamesmanship, but I do recall there being a fair amount of coverage of policy as well. Obamacare did provoke this intense backlash on the right. And what's really interesting is that we are not really seeing that backlash.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're not even hearing socialism as much as we used to.
ANDREW PROKOP Yeah, I mean, Republican politicians are all going to vote against this thing. But the energy of the Republican base does not seem to be really devoted to this. They're getting activated by culture war issues, or vaccinations and mask mandates, and so on. There are several possible reasons for that. Biden might just be a less threatening figure to the Republican base than Obama, the first black president. Also, there's the fact that this bill does so many different things. There's no one thing that has commanded the headlines as much, and it's been deliberately crafted in such a way that it doesn't really take anything away from anyone, except the very rich or corporations who will see some higher taxes. Many of the groups that would get the increased spending are very politically sympathetic, even among the right. If you polled Republicans, people would say, yes, we should spend more money on new parents and seniors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about the expansion of the child tax credit that's in the bill. This is a policy that is so popular that when it was rolled out in July on a temporary basis due to the pandemic, it sparked a TikTok trend.
TIKTOK So I got my first child tax credit, today. Which means the government has officially paid me more child support than my baby daddy ever has [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Provisions in the tax code don't often go viral. So what do you think would happen if the child tax credit was expanded for the foreseeable future?
ANDREW PROKOP I want to emphasize that this policy is viewed by so many people in the think tank or expert community as a really tremendous deal for issues of child poverty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're saying it would be a big bleeping deal?
ANDREW PROKOP Exactly. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that it would lift 4.1 million children above the poverty line, cutting the number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent. The part that some experts are most excited about is that it was newly available to poor families, including those earning no taxable income at all. So the idea is to get money in the pockets of the poorest of the poor because they need the money the most, and non-workers have so often been left out of previous policies like this. There have been some implementation challenges, but they're trying to overcome those challenges. And if this policy is extended down the road, it would really be transformational
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just to give money to parents, something that our government has long been loath to do.
ANDREW PROKOP That was overcome because this was passed as a pandemic relief measure. That was the opportunity that these reformers saw to try this out and hope that there wouldn't be too much backlash and that they could keep it going.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The bill also sets aside money for new programs like paid leave for parents for subsidizing child care for universal pre-K.
ANDREW PROKOP You can think of it as going through the life cycle of the child. Start off with paid leave once the child is born. The federal government does not guarantee paid leave for working parents right now. Some states do require it, a lot of employers voluntarily offer it, especially white collar employers. But small businesses and employers with mostly low wage workers are less likely to do that. This bill would create a national program in which the government would pay part of a worker's salary for up to 12 weeks of leave for new parents. Then, as the child gets older, there would be child care subsidies. If you earn below a certain amount, the federal government would help foot the bill for your child care so that costs won't exceed a certain percentage of your income. Now, President Biden has said the child care we're talking about has to be high quality that will have to be assessed in some way. So this could be one of the trickiest parts to implement. Next would be when the child is three or four years old. Universal pre-K. So here the bill would allot hundreds of billions of dollars for preschool expansion. Again, creating these preschools would have to happen at the state and local level. If you add them all up cumulatively, that's a lot more help being delivered to parents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The reconciliation bill also has plans to patch up gaps in the U.S. healthcare system that Obamacare didn't quite cover.
ANDREW PROKOP The bill in its current form would expand Medicare to cover dental vision and hearing benefits for seniors. It would spend hundreds of billions of dollars on long term care for people who need daily assistance in the home. There's, by one estimate, more than 800,000 Americans on waiting lists for this type of care right now because of lack of funding. Then there are other gaps, such as there's still 12 states that have not implemented Obamacare expansion of Medicaid to more low income people, the red state governors and legislatures turning this expansion, which would have been quite generous down for ideological reasons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can we talk about climate change? The bill hopes to achieve a goal where 80 percent of the U.S. electricity is generated by clean sources by 2030.
ANDREW PROKOP Because of quirks in the Senate rules, they can't actually set a standard. What they can do is to just give money, basically sending payments to utilities that more heavily rely on clean energy for electricity generation while fining those that aren't making as much progress. So this would make clean energy even more cost effective and perhaps attractive to these utilities. It might sound a little wonky and arcane, but the climate policy wonks and experts that I talked to are tremendously excited about this. They think it would really be impactful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How impactful?
ANDREW PROKOP One analysis from the firm Rhodium Group, which tallied several of the policies in the reconciliation bill, suggested that it would mean one billion metric tons less carbon being emitted in the near future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't know what that means, but it sounds like a lot! [LAUGHS]
ANDREW PROKOP A billion is a pretty significant amount, especially if we're talking about just one bill producing that change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, a lot of attention has been paid to the aspirational three and a half trillion price tag on the bill. That's over 10 years, which I don't think is said enough. I mean, it's a big bill, but it really doesn't sound nearly as shocking when it's broken down over 10 years. I mean, the military is budgeted for twice as much in the same time, and Congress just threw an extra 20 billion to the military for no particular reason. It didn't ask for it.
ANDREW PROKOP Oh, if we're talking about comparing it to the military, of course, they're always going to win out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Manchin, meanwhile, has demanded that the build back better plan be slashed from three and a half trillion to one and a half trillion. What do you think is going to be the first on the chopping block?
ANDREW PROKOP So there are some issues that we didn't really talk about that are in the package right now, but are rumored to be in trouble. One is a housing plan, which is basically Democrats were planning to allot hundreds of billions of dollars more for affordable housing, rental assistance, homeownership initiatives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We desperately need that.
ANDREW PROKOP That is the tough position that Manchin and his colleague Kirsten Sinema have put Democrats in if they are insisting that the bill be cut in half or more. But there are several ways that are under discussion to kind of meet this goal of cutting the price tag, dropping certain things, perhaps starting them a little later. But then the problem there is that voters won't see the benefits of it until years in the future. So the flip side of that is doing some of these things, but setting them to expire in a few years. And this is viewed as risky, but it has a lot of supporters on the Hill. This approach, because some Democrats want to make a bet that when this passes, people are going to like it. And Republicans, even if they do regain control of Congress, they're not going to want to look like the bad guys for taking these benefits away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is a very old idea. I mean, FDR and LBJ and even Obama with Obamacare slipped some things in, not in their perfect form, just to get a foothold because once the public got used to it, they reckoned it would stay around and get improved.
ANDREW PROKOP There are different schools of thought on this, and it doesn't break down clearly along ideological lines. Some progressives are saying we should focus on doing a few things, but funding them really well and making it last long. But other progressives say, no, let's try to fund everything and roll the dice and hope that it survives going forward and you have moderates in both camps as well. But this is all responding to the constraint imposed by Manchin and Sinema of the overall price tag of having to come down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Andrew.
ANDREW PROKOP This has been really fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Andrew Prokop is senior politics correspondent at Vox. Coming up, does Facebook really turn nice people into trolls? This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This was a historic week for tech on Capitol Hill. Charged with ammunition from the Facebook whistleblower, lawmakers are making moves to regulate tech companies.
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL Big Tech now faces that Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE House Democrats unveiled a bill that would chip away at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that has shielded tech platforms from consequences for the content that flows across their domains. This bill came one week after the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, gave damning testimony in front of Congress about Facebook's culpability for today's hostile political environment.
FRANCES HAUGEN When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content, it erodes our civic trust. It erodes our faith in each other. It erodes our ability to want to care for each other. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The bill is called the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act, and really, the name says it. All the Facebook algorithms are mean, and they're making the people who use Facebook mean too.
FRANCES HAUGEN The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Part of why Francis Horgan's testimony had such an impact was because it confirmed what many people know or feel they know. Like the feeling that Facebook's algorithms tricked them into sharing disinformation.
FRANCES HAUGEN When people are exposed to ideas that are not true over and over again, it erodes their ability to to connect with the community at large because they no longer adhere to facts that are consensus reality. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But how well do we really understand the problem of misinformation? According to Michael Bang Petersen, a political science professor at Aarhus University, not very well. He directs the research on Online Political Hostility Project, which found that algorithms aren't making people meaner online, they were already mean when they logged on.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN I think that many of us have the intuition that social media platforms create psychological changes. And that idea is something that's also represented in the Facebook files, but the research that we have been doing suggests that that might actually not be the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We do know that these algorithms leverage neurotransmitters like dopamine to get people to engage. It seems to work, and people feel it. So you aren't arguing that your data suggest that it doesn't have an emotional impact?
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN No, that is not what I'm saying, but I think it's very, very important to understand what exactly social media are doing. Social media potentially can impact us turning nice people into trolls. But we and our research finds that is not really the way that social media works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, I've always said what social media makes you is more of what you are going to be anyway. I think we're in fundamental agreement about that. I guess it's a question of degree. If you have permission or you find permission online for views that even you suspect are unacceptable or reprehensible, you will be encouraged to act on them or express them.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN I think that's absolutely true. One way to think about social media in this particular regard is to turn some of the ordinary notions that we have about social media upside down. And here I'm thinking about the notion of echo chambers. So we've been talking a lot about echo chambers and how social media are creating echo chambers, but in reality, the biggest echo chamber that we all live in is the one we live in in our everyday lives. I'm a university professor, I'm not really exposed to any person who has a radically different worldview or radically different life from me in my everyday life. But when I'm online, I can see all sorts of opinions that I may disagree with, and that might trigger me if I'm a hostile person and encouraged me to reach out and tell these people that I think that they are wrong. But that's because social media essentially breaks down the echo chambers. I can see the views of other people, what they are saying behind my back. That's where a lot of the felt hostility of social media comes from. Not because they make us behave differently, but because they are exposing us to a lot of things that we are not exposed to, in our everyday lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow, you have really flipped that on its head. Because most people think that because we can tailor our news feeds and the people we speak to online much more than we can in real life, that living online isolates us more than even living in bubbled communities. But you're saying not so, and that will supercharge hostility.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN Exactly. So the research that we've been doing shows that the real difference between online and offline political discussions is that when it comes to online discussions there you are seeing a lot of strangers being attacked and being the target of hostility. But you don't see that offline. In our offline lives, there is a lot of hostility as well, but that happens behind closed doors in private. It happens in bars where we cannot hear what's going on, but we are exposed to all that when we enter the online realm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you started this research, you proceeded from the presumption that nice people become angry when they log on to social media because of this weird online environment.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN But when we began to actually do the research, we did not find this huge group of people who report to be nice in face-to-face discussions, but hostile in online discussions. Rather, we found the exact same thing as we found with political violence in general that it's particularly individuals who engage in it. And what really characterized them is a personality that is focused on acquiring as much status as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that you didn't notice people who were nice offline being jerks online, but there are plenty of anecdotal examples, I can give, of somebody who writes an unbelievably nasty letter. And if you respond politely, generally, they'll respond incredibly nicely after that and maybe even sometimes apologize because they're not used to thinking of other people online as people. You don't think that the internet enables or disinhibited people to the point where people who at least act nice in the real world act differently online.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN I think that the same kinds of processes that happens online also happens offline. You can easily find people who apologize for stuff they said in face-to-face discussions as well. I do think that there is one difference which is important sometimes when people are writing on Facebook or on Twitter, for that matter or other social media, they are acting as if they're sitting down at the bar with their friends when no one is listening. And the key difference is that that's not how social media works. On social media other people are listening, other people are seeing what you are writing and people will react to that. And when they do it, you sort of realize, 'Oh, I said something I shouldn't have.' But but it's not because people don't know what they are saying. They know exactly what they're writing and they know exactly that. This is something that hurts if other people read it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also discovered some common characteristics in people who share misinformation online. They know more about politics and are more digitally literate. They spread misinformation, you conclude, because they simply hate the other party more. How did you determine that?
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN We got consent to connect survey data with people's behavior on Twitter, and then we looked at the kinds of information that people shared on Twitter and what was predictive of that sharing behavior in terms of psychological profiles and political profiles. The people who are sharing misinformation are not ignorant. They are used to navigate social media and the internet. They know more about politics than the average person, but where they're really different from the average is they have much more negative feelings towards members of the other party. And that's really what it's predicting. Not only their sharing of fake news, but also the sharing of real news. They want to derogate people that they don't like, and they are sort of actively searching for information that they can use for that purpose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you're suggesting that sometimes they spread misinformation that they are fully aware is false, but it serves their goals?
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN It's not. That people look at information and then make a firm evaluation saying this is false. But I will share it anyway. It simply is not what is relevant to the decision. What they look at is this useful for the particular purpose?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you find any correlation between political parties and the tendency to share misinformation?
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN There is a much greater risk of sharing misinformation if you are Republican than if you are a Democrat, and that is something that we have been spending a lot of energy looking into trying to understand. Why is there this difference? Some past research, which has found the same, has been arguing that, well, we know that there is a relationship between education levels and party choice. So potentially this is because Republicans have slightly lower education and therefore are not knowledgeable about what is true and what is false. But that's actually not what we are finding. The key difference is that the kinds of news that are available for these political purposes of Democrats and Republicans are different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wait a minute. What you're saying is that if Republicans want to find stories that are more negative toward Democrats, they are likely to go to sites where that stuff abounds. And there's also more misinformation on those sites.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN Exactly. So we analyzed huge amounts of news from all over the spectrum, and we found that the only sources which are extremely critical of Democrats and positive towards Republicans are these fake news sites. A lot of mainstream news media, at least in this period that we've been analyzing, which was during the Trump presidency, are portraying Republicans in more negative ways than they're portraying Democrats. And that means that if you are a very committed Republican who are looking for this kind of ammunition, you have the motivation to move to fake news sites and find that ammunition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does that mean that mainstream news is biased against Republicans?
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN That is not something that we can conclude from this research. In general, it's extremely difficult to actually conclude that a media bias exists because what you could argue is that it's not a bias in the media, it's a bias in reality, so to speak. That during this particular period of American political history, there was a lot of negative things to report on the Republican Party exactly because of the behavior of Donald Trump, and that that was what drove the difference in reporting
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is the basic conclusion here that misinformation or disinformation isn't as big of a problem as we may think it is.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN Misinformation is not in itself a big problem, so that's the good news. But the bad news is that it's probably a symptom of a much worse problem. And here we again come back to the polarization in society because that is really what's driving the sharing of misinformation. I think we have been focusing a lot on the symptoms. Fox News, Trump, Facebook, but I think that there's some evidence that suggests that rising inequality over the last decades have been a fundamental driver of political instability in the U.S. and beyond. It's a problem in many Western democracies. That is at least where I would start to sort of look for solutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6? Misinformation may not be the most important thing in the big picture, but it was misinformation about the election being stolen, mostly online, where people were organized that got them to the Capitol.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN I would say differently. I would say that we had individuals who were predisposed for violence due to frustrations that have originated elsewhere, and these people were essentially looking for a signal of when to engage in that violence. And the sharing of misinformation about the election was essentially the signal that they were looking for. So the misinformation about the election served a coordination purpose, but it wasn't such that people were manipulated into doing something that they wouldn't have liked to do otherwise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And social media made that possible.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN Again, what social media does is that it connects people, back in the days you could have frustrated, violence-prone individuals in each town, but nothing really came of it because they couldn't be connected, but now they can connect very, very easily. And that means that they can all sit there and wait for the signal of when is the time to act, and social media helps that coordination happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which brings us back to the centrality of something like Facebook.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN For sure. And my point is certainly not that social media is not playing a role, but I think it's extremely important that we are specific and precise about the exact role that they are playing. Social media is used as a tool for violence prone individuals to accomplish the particular goals that they have, but it's not that social media as such, is responsible for those feelings of frustration and that violence proneness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So then do you think Congress has a role in disrupting the kind of connectivity that helps amplify voices of division and hate?
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN That is a very, very important discussion. It's also a very, very tough discussion because the discussion about content moderation naturally also invites discussions about freedom of speech and how difficult it is to figure out what is true and what is false, because these things change. For example, the so-called lab leak conspiracy theory with regards to the coronavirus may not be such a conspiracy theory, after all. So the discussion about content moderation is very, very difficult. But I think we need to figure out how we can disrupt this kind of activity for individuals that seek to use it for purposes that are destructive. The connectivity of social media is a tool that can be used for good or for bad. And we need to figure out how we can make sure that it's mainly used for good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Michael Bang Petersen is a professor of political science at Aarhus University in Denmark.
Coming up, belief in salvation was once the province of religion. But computer science has transferred faith to the God in the machine. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Human aspirations for technology are vast. One day, maybe our tech will cure cancer, rid us of viruses, fix that pesky climate change. Even deliver us from death. Elon Musk.
ELON MUSK Everything that's encoded in memory you can upload. And ultimately you could potentially download them into-- in your body or into a robot body. The future is going to be weird. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Writer Meghan O'Gieblyn put her faith in technology after leaving the fundamentalist evangelical church that nurtured her. Her teachers at Bible College, who embraced a resurgent Calvinist theology believed in a God O'Gieblyn couldn't accept.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Calvinism in the form that I was taught was very much focused on predestination. You know, we don't have a choice in our own salvation. It's decided for us before we're ever born. We don't really have free will, and it also brought up a lot of problems for me, just about the nature of God. This idea that people were going to suffer for eternity in hell when they didn't even have a choice in accepting or rejecting the gospel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE O'Gieblyn is the author of the book God, Human, Animal, Machine, Technology Metaphor and the Search for Meaning. When she became an atheist, she said the world was suddenly, quote, disenchanted. She ascribed that term to Max Weber, the late 19th and early 20th century sociologist.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Before the modern era, the world was what he called a great enchanted garden. It was a place of wonder and mystery. There was a sense that the world was full of spirits and ghosts and other forms of life. And then, with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, there was this new idea that nature was the system that we could figure out something that we could control. The way that Weber described it: it was a loss for a human's right. It was traumatic because the scientific worldview for all its accuracy was not able to provide a source of meaning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quoted Sartre. He said life has no meaning a priori. It's up to you to give it meaning, but you wrote that I didn't want to give life some private meaning. I wanted meaning to exist in the world.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yeah, yeah, it was, really. It was a difficult process for me, and I was lost for a long time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you started searching for meaning outside of religion, you found that all the eternal questions had become engineering problems
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN During that time when I had left Bible school. I started reading a lot about technology and one movement that I would say I developed an obsession with was transhumanism. Which is very utopian that grew out of Silicon Valley in the 80s and 90s, very much interested in how we could use technology to perfect ourselves as humans and to help us evolve into another species called post humans. There is a lot of excitement at the time about nanotechnology, about the possibility that we could upload our minds to a computer and possibly live forever, maybe even that we could digitally resurrect the dead. I was introduced to this through Ray Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines: The Landmark Transhumanist Text.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He believed he could resurrect his father by collecting all the data that he could about him, and then developing a machine that could whip it into consciousness. That of his dad.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN I think he has like a storage unit in Massachusetts full of his father's memorabilia that he's going to use to create this A.I. version of him. Years later, sort of thinking back about this narrative about the future, I realized it was very close to what I believed when I was a Christian. That, you know, the human form was going to be glorified and perfected. At the end of time. The dead were going to be raised, we were going to become immortal. And I think part of the reason why it took me so long to realize those similarities is because most trans humanists identify as atheist. They're actually very eager to point out that their worldview is based in materialism. The technologies they're writing about, some of them are hypothetical, but they're all theoretically plausible. So it was offering basically everything that a religious worldview had once offered me, but it was doing so through science and technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2012, Kurzweil became director of engineering at Google. You've got the Singularity University, the World Trans Humanist Association, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, bunch of venture capitalists. All identify as transhumanists and the technologies dreamed up by the pioneers of the movement you said are being developed at Google and Apple and Space X.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Elon Musk's Neuralink is one example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's the brain implant that connects you directly to the internet.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yeah, and it's very much a technology that grew out of transhumanist ideas. That we'll be able to upload endless knowledge to our minds instantaneously, and also, that we will possibly be able to upload our minds to some sort of computational substrate so that our minds will be able to exist there after we die.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All of this is possible if you believe that the mind is a kind of meat computer, and that is the prevailing metaphor for how the mind works.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Anytime we're talking about something that's happening in our mental life, we defer to metaphorical language. We need metaphors, not merely linguistic tools; they structure how we think about the world. Going back to the 18th century mind myths, they’ve compared the mind to a mill. Descartes proposed that the mind was hydraulic. In the early 20th century, the brain was compared to a telephone exchange. So the idea that the brain is a computer is part of this very long lineage of metaphors that we now can see as limited or imperfect in some way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You noted that one of the big problems with the metaphor is that in order for it to work, you have to ignore things that the rest of the body experiences through your senses. For instance, emotions that the mind has to deal with.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN It also becomes really difficult when we're using that metaphor to talk about things like agency or free will, because we don't see A.I. systems as having free will, right. They're programs. They don't have desires or motivations that are leading to them. And so when we see our brain through that lens, we start thinking about ourselves as this deterministic machines that can only do what evolution programmed us to do. The other thing is that when we're talking about an AI system as a form of intelligence that can learn or understand. The assumption is that they're doing the same thing internally that our minds are doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what's missing from that metaphor?
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Consciousness to speak broadly? This is the great mystery still in science. David Chalmers in the nineties called it the hard problem of consciousness. We can describe a lot of the systems in the brain. We can talk about how vision works or how memory works, but this idea that we have subjective experience that we have an interior life is very difficult to describe. You can't observe consciousness in a lab, you can't weigh it or measure it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so what do scientists do with it?
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Well, one theory is that consciousness doesn't exist, that it's just an illusion. That idea has been popular for the last several decades. It doesn't make any sense, from our subjective point of view. Everybody is convinced that they're conscious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Had this argument over whether what we experience with our minds is real as opposed to the physical world outside. Where does reality fit into that?
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Well, that's the tricky question, because we filter reality through our minds. One hypothesis that I talk about in the book is the simulation theory, which is an idea that Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, came up with about 20 years ago. And his theory was that what we know as the world is actually an enormous computer simulation. We basically are like Sims, living in a software program that was created by some higher species or in some versions of the hypothesis by our own descendants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elon Musk said the odds that we aren't living in a computer simulation is one in billions.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yeah. Neil deGrasse Tyson has also written and spoken about it, so there's a lot of high profile and very smart people who are proponents of the theory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't buy the simulation hypothesis, right?
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN I don't buy it. I did at one point when I was very into transhumanism. It's essentially, it's a form of creationism. It's an argument from design. The equivalent of God would be the programmers, I guess, and it satisfies a lot of the same longings as arguments from design. You know, it implies that we're here for a purpose that there might even be an afterlife, maybe will be taken out of the simulation at some point. There's no way to prove that it's not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it true that there are a couple of billionaires? I don't know their names who are currently funding scientists to figure out how to break us out of the simulation.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN There's a popular rumor. Made it into The New Yorker, which is a notoriously rigorous fact checking process, so I assume that there's some truth to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Isn't this the plot of The Matrix?
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yeah.
NEO Right now we're inside a computer program.
MORPHEUS Is it really so hard to believe.
NEO This isn't real?
MORPHEUS What is real? How do you define real? [END CLIP]
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Part of the reason I think, especially for people of my generation, it's so convincing, is because we do have these narratives about, Yeah, what if you wake up and realize that everything that you've experienced is actually just a simulated reality? This really goes back to again these questions that are really at the foundations of disenchantment. You know, Descartes' whole philosophical crisis began with this problem of how can I prove that I'm not dreaming, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher who asked, How do I know if I exist? And answered Cogito Ergo Sum? I think therefore I am.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And after that, it became an argument between those who say, we can only believe what goes on in our heads because we can't prove matter exists. And those who say that what goes on in our heads is just the crunching of the gears and matter is the only thing we can count on for reality.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN And that's something that got baked into the legacy of modern science. And there still is today this tension between those two perspectives. It comes up in quantum physics with things like the measurement problem, where it appears as though the physical world changes when it's observed. It comes up in the problem of consciousness. We are convinced that we have subjective experience, but there appears to be no way to prove that objectively, this irresolvable tension keeps coming up in different forms
BROOKE GLADSTONE In much the same terms, new technology never seems to be able to settle the matter. For those who want to see the world reincarnated with life, soul, the spirit of divine fire, or would prefer to shear our world of enchantment altogether.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN When people talk about the impulse toward Re-enchantment, they're often talking about a reaction against science and technology. But what I'm interested in exploring is the fact that science and technology often get enlisted into that impulse toward re-enchantment. On one hand, through these ideas like transhumanism that are recapitulating old spiritual narratives and then also just through the fact that as A.I. becomes more ubiquitous, it's almost like we're making the physical material world conscious, again. Much like this old animist cosmology where we believe that spirits lived in rocks and trees and that the world was alive, that we could have social relationships with physical objects.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've observed that people are exhausted with disenchantment.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN With these technologies, we're kind of always moving in and out of disenchantment and enchantment. So it's sort of a strange time in the evolution of intelligent machines, where there's moments where they are very convincing and where we even experience wonder. I think everybody's experienced this one. Alexa or Siri says something really intuitive or tells a joke. It feels like you're talking to a real person, and then, you know, the next minute they aren't able to understand what you mean or take your command too literally. So, yeah, this desire for every enchantment it's being played upon as we interact with machines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your book, you talk about the current belief that if consciousness does emerge in the technological world we've made, it won't happen in individual computers, but in the internet as a whole.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yeah, this is one of the really wild theories that’s out there right now. One of the leading cognitive neuroscientists, Christof Koch, has argued that it's possible that the internet is conscious now or that it might be in the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meaning...self-aware.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Yeah, that it might have some sort of subjective experience. His theory of consciousness is based on the amount of connections in the brain and the way in which information is integrated within a system. Even the most advanced modern computers don't have enough of that integrated information in order to be conscious, but he makes the case that the internet does. And at a certain point, if it becomes more complex than our consciousness might actually become subsumed, become this conglomerate consciousness that is a collective mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are scientists, some of whom with big prizes, who fear this tremendously. There are others that you cite that say, you know, if they're smarter than us, you don't have to ask the ‘why’ anymore. If the computers of the world find something in data that is true, do you have to interrogate any further than that? It seemed to you that this harkened back to ‘don't question God,’ under Calvinism.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Exactly. And that was the most frustrating thing to me when I was in Bible school-- was this idea that maybe this theology doesn't make sense to you. This is something I was often told by professors. Maybe it seems unethical to you, but God's ways are higher than ours. One of the books I really struggled with was the Book of Job. Job undergoes this horrible suffering and asks, Why? Why is this happening to me? And, and the answer that he gets from the Divine Whirlwind is basically your human mind is too small. I can see the world at a scale that is impossible for you to glimpse. What was interesting to me is that when a lot of these really sophisticated algorithms, which are often called deep learning algorithms, emerged just within the last five years, several critics had referred to the Book of Job because they are black box technologies. What that means is that the algorithms, they're very, very good at predicting, but they're actually so complex that even the people who designed them are not able to explain how they reach their conclusions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhmm.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Thankfully, there's been a larger debate about these technologies in the past several years, which are now being used in the criminal justice system, in medicine and finance. And a lot of people have expressed anxiety about the fact that we're using these very mysterious machines to guide our decision making processes. A common defense was, well, they're much more intelligent than us, they have so much more data they can understand the world in a way that we can't. And it really echoed back to these answers I was given in theology courses. I think it's interesting, you know, we for centuries hypothesized this form of higher intelligence that we call God. And, you know, now we're building a form of intelligence that it's possible that will surpass us at some point in the near future. There's a reason why these theological metaphors are emerging at the moment that they are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's been a real pleasure talking to you Meghan.
MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of God, Human, Animal, Machine, Technology Metaphor and The Search for Meaning.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show is edited by Katya and me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.