Trust in Technology

Trust in Technology August 15, 2019

At my institution we’re organizing a faculty research group to explore the impact of artificial intelligence from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—Business, Computer Science, Education, Library and Information Science, Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. I and others will write more about that in future posts.

One of the first things we did was watch and discuss the documentary Do You Trust This Computer?, which is largely an inventory of fears related to AI. By the end of the film, it’s pretty clear—especially after hearing so much from the creator of Westworld—that the expected answer is “No!” From the opening invocation of Frankenstein’s monster (“You are my creator, but I am your master”) to Elon Musk summoning the image of an immortal dictator at the end, the viewer is left mistrusting our artifacts, the corporations that profit from them, the governments that should be regulating them, and even oneself. There are, it seems, no trustworthy agents.

Which isn’t terribly helpful, for it leaves us paralyzed by fear in an ethical and narrative vacuum. In a world being transformed radically by digital and networked technologies, which are reconfiguring our lives and relationships rapidly, in whom and what do we trust?

According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in technology companies is declining:

Four years ago, technology companies were widely seen as having a positive impact on the United States. But the share of Americans who hold this view has tumbled 21 percentage points since then, from 71% to 50%.

Negative views of technology companies’ impact on the country have nearly doubled during this period, from 17% to 33%.

Trust in most institutions is declining (with libraries being an interesting exception), but the loss of trust in technology companies outpaces them all.

A case study of violating trust is covered in The Great Hack, a documentary about how Cambridge Analytica used data acquired from Facebook in an attempt to influence voters through psychological manipulation. If you don’t trust this documentary, and are inclined to dismiss it as psychological manipulation through mis- or dis-information, the concerns it raises about data rights should not be ignored. Cambridge Analytica as a corporate entity ended, but Facebook is still with us and the apologies from social media companies continue to come.

Data is the foundation of our society’s future. All the exponential technologies such as AI that are shaping our individual and collective lives depend on data, and much more social, legal, philosophical, and theological attention should be given to the collection, analysis, and use of data. But that’s another topic I’ll return to in future posts.

Google’s Chief Decision Scientist Cassie Kozyrkov recently reminded us that “no technology is free of its creators … all technology is an echo of the wishes of whoever built it.” And, as my colleague Bruce Baker has been articulating in his series on sin, we have good reasons not to trust our wishes entirely. It follows that we shouldn’t fully trust our creations, which inherit our flaws. It may have taken the events of 2016 to reveal to some the nature of our flawed and fragmented world—which technology can exacerbate—but those attentive to history or rooted in moral and faith traditions should be less surprised.

“The Red-Hot Boat Has Turned to Everlasting Ice” (Hotel Murano, Tacoma, Wash., 2019)
“The Red-Hot Boat Has Turned to Everlasting Ice” (Hotel Murano, Tacoma, Wash., 2019)

So far, throughout the history of our species, trust has been an adaptive advantage and we’ve managed to scale it—in our abilities to survive, in dependence on families and groups, and in social and cultural constructions. In the forms of cities and civilizations, we have trusted distributed multi-agent systems for millennia. Trust has always been fallible and provisional, and continuously renegotiated and refined. A hopeful trajectory would expect this evolution of trust to be extended globally, and some religions such as Christianity include this in their eschatologies. This provides some of us with a foundation for faith and hope in the future—including our technological future.

In the present, pragmatically, (re)establishing trust isn’t impossible. “A classic way of gaining trust,” says Luciano Floridi, “can be summarized in three words: transparency, accountability, and empowerment”:

That means transparency so that people can see what you are doing; accountability because you take responsibility for what you are doing; and empowerment because you put people in charge to tell you if something you did was not right or not good.

Information—true information, not misinformation or disinformation—reduces the need for trust. But the transfer of information is a process that requires trust, and our evolutionary history has depended on it. According to Mark Johnson, the moral imagination begins with biological needs related to survival, expands to include social and cultural needs such as care and trust, and then takes on the search for meaning and fulfillment.

For Johnson, religion is unnecessary. Moral development is our evolutionary inheritance and mandate. For people of faith, there is a greater creative mandate. Our creation narratives introduce frameworks of care in which we learn how and whom to trust. The ends of our narratives—especially those informed and transformed by an apocalyptic imagination—further help us cultivate trust for the future in the present.

"Well, I would (as usual) suggest that your syllogistic argument for declining discipline is overly ..."

Trust in Technology
"I think I will have to read The Meaning of the City to fully respond. ..."

Trust in Technology
"Do we actually know that the discipline of the average citizen is declining or that ..."

Trust in Technology
"You're asking great questions! I do think Ellul's views about technology are most clearly explained ..."

Trust in Technology

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  • I think a missing element in this is that humans prefer safety, security, and predictability to the kind of freedom called for in Genesis 1:28. So instead of only focusing on the neat things technology will do for us, I think we need to take into account our desires to be taken care of, to have our needs met so we don’t have to lift a finger. Jacques Ellul nailed it:

        Adam was bold enough to act as a free man before God, disobeying him and transgressing. In so doing he inaugurated human history, which is in truth, the history of freedom. How beautiful all this is! But this fervor, passion, desire, and teaching are all false. It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom.[5] Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it. But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. It brings breaks and conflicts. It yields to no constraint and exercises no constraint. For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor. (The Subversion of Christianity, 166–67)

    An older version of this shows up as a foil to the “Law of Kings” in Deut 17:14–20: “You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.” Why would the Israelites be tempted to set a foreigner over themselves? Well, if they have lost the will and ability to properly rule themselves. Something like this showed up with Jephthah, who was banished from Israel because he was illegitimate, only to be called back to defend Israel because they had nobody internal who could do it.

    The Book of Revelation has 7+1 instances of “one who conquers”; it is difficult to see how a nation of conquerors could be appreciably influenced by Cambridge Analytica’s abilities. But did we object when the 2008 Obama campaign won two top prizes at Cannes Lion ad awards? Not with any appreciable magnitude. We should be most worried about tyranny when we are least able to resist it. And yet it’s the weak who demand tyrants, to overthrow the oppressing wealthy.

    One way to understand all this is that God is constantly pouring into us exactly what we need to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Let’s say that he’s giving us a kind of spiritual energy. Well, what happens if we don’t use that energy for its purpose? Could it build up in toxic ways? One option is Michel Henry’s “… barbarism is an unemployed energy.” (Barbarism, 101) Another is that evil agents (human or otherwise) might be able to take that energy from us—perhaps we evil willingly give it—and use it for nefarious purposes. If this is the case, then pure stability—like every family getting a white picket fence—would be impossible. There’s a lot of money to be made and power to be obtained from people trying to realize impossible states of affairs.

  • Michael Paulus

    I think Ellul misreads motivations in Genesis due his deep distrust of human nature (you can read my critique of Ellul’s reading of Genesis here: Given his historical context, one is not unsympathetic. But I read Genesis in light of Revelation, which uncovers both the depth of corruption and the greater power of transformation. Ellul seems only half-Reformed: total depravity without irresistible grace.

  • I have heard that The Meaning of the City is one of Ellul’s weakest works; I would not judge everything he has said based on it. But you’re right that Ellul does not see grace as ‘irresistible’, at least outside of salvation itself (I don’t know what he thinks, there):

        Thirdly, we must not bring back authoritarianism by ascribing to the victory of Jesus Christ the value of an opus operatum. An ontological restoration of the world is not brought about by the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ and the redemption thereby effected. A rebellious world does not become objectively obedient in this way. The beauty of a shattered world is not objectively restored. An evil world does not become objectively good. An enslaved world does not become free. There is no objective restitution in the sense that everything that man now does is acceptable to God. The demons and sin are not objectively eliminated.
        Such a theology of glory would be a negation of freedom. What would be the point of doing our own work if everything were already done? The Jews are right: If this is what is expected of the Messiah, then Jesus was not the Messiah. We are not dealing, however, with an opus operatum because, in saving men, Jesus sought to introduce them to the kingdom of freedom, i.e., to enable them to participate authentically in the will of his father, to set them in a situation in which they could exercise true freedom, which presupposes that his work is not yet over. All that he has done is adequate and complete. Everything is finished. Yet the work is not over. A perfect building has not been erected whose doors are closed. The kingdom of heaven is now committed to our freedom. From now on it is this freedom that comes into play. The miracle is not that of control from above. It is the miracle which is mediated by our free hands. We have to remember that if our freedom ceases to operate, if we stop acting and living (we Christians and only Christians) as free men, then necessity and fate will take over again, the world will again become the place of revolt and evil and sin, and there will be nothing else. The power will come back into play. The victory of Jesus Christ is not just a past achievement. It is a victory for our freedom. Hence my lack of freedom renders this victory inoperative today (although it does not negate it). The action of Christ takes effect in daily life through the mediation of our freedom. (The Ethics of Freedom, 15)

    It seems to me that Christians in the West have largely stopped acting and living as free men and women, that they have let ‘necessity’ and ‘fate’ reassert themselves. In such a world, technology will not bring any enhancement to wisdom. It will instead allow us to do more of what we are already doing.

  • Michael Paulus

    Actually, that quote seems to point to the irresistible freedom that comes from God and not from human agency. Where I disagree with Ellul–beyond the Meaning of the City–is the belief that God not only redeems but transforms our technological nature.

  • I’d be happy saying that God launched us into orbit and we are no longer stuck in the gravity well of Earth, but I don’t think that God forces us to actually go anywhere or do anything with the resultant freedom. We can in fact abdicate our responsibility to do Genesis 1:28, just like A&E. I suspect Ellul would be quite happy with that way of putting things. Perhaps the reason that he’s so down on the city is that this abdication seemed almost complete in his time?

    Anyhow, Ellul doesn’t see technique as evil or unredeemable in the works I’ve read. Instead, he sees us as having abdicated responsibility to stay in control of technique; as a result, technique has gotten control of us and submitted us to bondage. The path back is not an easy one and we probably have very little idea of how to do it. (Fortunately, there is James 1:5–8 and the like.) I will have to lodge a disagreement, here:

    For Hugh, technology has a central role in reforming our relationship with God and nature. Technology is part of the human quest for wisdom; it extends our abilities and wisdom; and, when used wisely, it can restore what has been corrupted. Further, since wisdom is ultimately grounded in Christ—God’s book of new creation—technology may be understood as part of the transformation of creation that will reconcile divine, natural, and human creativity. (Forms of Creation)

    To me, this is too much of a positive spin on technology—perhaps understandable for twelfth-century Hugh of St. Victor. I see exceedingly little technology today as “part of the human quest for wisdom”; instead, I see it as largely “part of the human quest for control”. Plenty of writers have spoken of how the quest for control ends up controlling us; I like Romano Guardini’s “While gaining infinite scope for movement man lost his own position in the realm of being.” (The End of the Modern World, 33) Hopefully this blog and the work you’re doing will be part of redeeming technique. Ellul would say this must be done via ‘nonpower’, which I might interpret as giving others power with technology and bureaucracy, rather than centralizing it as those two so often do.

  • Michael Paulus

    But thanks to our technological innovations, the world is a much better place than it was 1,000 years ago or even 100 years ago! Ellul’s critique is helpful in drawing our attention to how technology can constrain us, but we also need discern how technology can participate in new creation.

  • It seems that you were very profoundly impacted by The Meaning of the City; it sounds like I should read it. Do you think it is impossible that we could be on a trajectory like Icarus, flying too close to the sun with wings held together by wax? Suppose a rather bad scenario, where at least a billion humans die from catastrophic global climate change. Would you then be so hopeful about technology sans some major changes in humanity? Or suppose that the discipline of your average citizen in the West continues to decline, such that the government needs to impose more and more discipline from without. Could technology aid that and end up empowering the “soft despotism” about which de Tocqueville warned?

    The question, it seems to me, is how urgently we need non-technological growth in order to wield technology (and bureaucracy) well. There is also the question of religious belief in the most technologically advanced part of the world. What should we think about the drop in belief?

  • Chris Morris

    Do we actually know that the discipline of the average citizen is declining or that religious belief is actually lessening?
    It seems to me that we should be wary of either extreme between ‘Pinkerish’ Enlightenment optimism and the ‘World is going to hell in a handcart’ pessimism.

  • Michael Paulus

    You’re asking great questions! I do think Ellul’s views about technology are most clearly explained in the Meaning of the City. If he amends or changes these elsewhere, I’d love to know.

    There are of course many things wrong with the world, and more bad things are ahead, but I do have hope for the future rooted in the doctrine of new creation.

    Globally, faith isn’t in decline ( and there are many people of faith working in tech (see, e.g., this group of which I’m a founding member:

  • I think I will have to read The Meaning of the City to fully respond. Ellul wrote it in 1951, three years before his magnum opus on technique, The Technological Society. What I can say is that Ellul thinks technique is very powerful; we can’t just push back a bit against it. He might even say it is the West’s new god. Here’s what he writes in 1974:

    … technology is not a collection of technical goods which may be freely used, but a total ideological and pragmatic system which imposes structures, institutions, and modes of behavior on all members of society. Hence the universal problem of technology cannot be solved merely by some people adopting a different attitude. A second reason is that the question, as I have often shown, is not just one of using a neutral object either well or badly.[11] Technology is not a neutral object or set of objects. It has its own orientation and we are not free to use it for good or evil according to our own choice. (The Ethics of Freedom, 310)

    This sounds like it might be a bit closer to your impression. One way I might think through this is via looking at how much scientific and technological growth is spurred by war. Those who refuse to engage in war may be left behind. Perhaps technology can be thought of similarly: the drive to make things more efficient is a powerful one, and you can even engage in a kind of war. Are there other ways to get a similarly powerful drive toward excellence, but without the negatives that a drive toward efficiency brings?

    P.S. I’m glad you are working on faith & tech and that you’re writing this blog! As to the decline in faith I mentioned, it is declining in the West. Given that the West is where technology is most well-developed, and the extent it has been turned toward consumerist ends, I bet there is causation and not just correlation.

  • Chris Morris

    Well, I would (as usual) suggest that your syllogistic argument for declining discipline is overly simplified. Statements such as “the quality of the media has decreased” and defining ‘political participation’ are very debatable to say the least.
    As for ‘declining religious belief’, I’ve seen quite a few articles disputing the Pew analysis – religious belief may be changing rather than decreasing.
    I’m happy that there are some people such as your sociology mentor who are still interested in ‘community empowerment’ as we used to call it when I worked for Strathclyde Regional Council back in the 1990s. I suspect the political reinvigoration of the ‘left-behinds’ and its manipulation by populist politicians has frightened many of those earlier proponents. That’s why I don’t like to see the nuances of human reality being bleached out with over-simplifications.