Ego and Influence

March 7, 2014

Late in 2013, Beyoncé released her fifth album on the Internet with zero pre-release publicity and no advance warning. The album, not-so-subtly titled BEYONCÉ, was touted as the first “visual album,” a collection of 14 songs and 17 music videos, each starring—who else—Beyoncé. The press went wild for this unexpected treasure trove from the iconic singer. Fans did too. The album sold more than 1.5 million copies in its first month.

I like Beyoncé. And from what I’ve heard of the new album, I think it’s her most inventive and interesting music yet. But something about the whole Beyoncé enterprise feels oppressive and off-putting to me. Maybe it’s the fact that the music itself is the least important part of it all. Maybe it’s that 17 music videos starring Beyoncé, on the heels of last year’s Beyoncé documentary, which followed last year’s Super Bowl halftime Beyoncé show, coupled with Beyoncé H&M ads, smothers the consumer so much with Beyoncé the brand that there is no room left to consider the art she created.

But such is the way of our world. Beyoncé is certainly not the only artist whose image/brand overshadows their creative output. The Mileys, Gagas, Kanyes, Britneys and Biebers of the world are constantly the topic of discussion, around the web and the watercooler, but the discussion is almost never about their music.

For artists who really care about art, it’s all a bit depressing. Why is it that Justin Bieber’s Instagram photo of his latest tattoo reaches approximately 15 million more people than saw the exquisite indie film Short Term 12? Why do Kanye West’s incoherent Twitter RANTS receive an infinitely larger readership than that of Marilynne Robinson’s latest collection of essays? Of course those comparisons are ridiculous, but they hint at a troubling question: Is celebrity the necessary evil of cultural impact? Must one embrace self-aggrandizement and platform-building narcissism for the sake of cutting through the clutter and finding an audience for one’s work?

The Atlantic published an insightful essay by James Bowen in November 2013 on this very topic. Bowen discusses the recent Warhol-esque mergers between pop stardom and fine art: Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Jeff Koons and Jay-Z getting jiggy with performance artist Marina Abramović. Rightly observing that both Gaga and Jay-Z “seem more interested in aligning themselves with art for its cultural cachet, rather than out of much appreciation for the work itself,” Bowen goes on to say that what’s even more significant “is the way that musicians such as Gaga and Jay-Z, artists like Abramović, and aspiring creative polymaths such as James Franco have put the projection of their own image and experience to the fore of their endeavors: They’re known more for being who they are than for what they create.”

Indeed, in our age of selfie-obsessed Insta-fame and TMZ celebreality, where “Kardashian” is code for the fame-for-its-own-sake celebrity industrial complex, it seems true that being famous is now infinitely more desirable than being excellent at something.

“If a tree falls in a forest…” applies here: If an actor delivers a dynamic performance in an art film that is ignored by critics, audiences and awards shows, is there any value to it? If a singer-songwriter records a masterpiece album and plays transcendently beautiful shows in small clubs, but never makes it to the Saturday Night Live stage or crosses over into the worlds of film and fragrances, are they to feel like a failure in the vein of, say, the title character from Inside Llewyn Davis?

In bygone eras celebrity was mostly an occasional byproduct of success; today it’s the standard by which success is measured. How many Twitter followers do you have? YouTube channel subscribers? What is the traffic on your blog? These questions are now more pressing to cultural creators than the process of cultural creation itself. But does it have to be this way? Must one secure their firstandlastname.com domain and obsess about their “brand” and “platform” in order to have a fighting chance at cultural relevance? Must we all be egocentrics in order to make a difference?

The short answer is, thankfully, no.

Bowen highlights street artist Banksy as a counterexample to the “I am a walking lifestyle/media/celebrity empire” Gagas and Jay-Zs of the world. While Banksy has produced a huge amount of work and amassed a significant global following, he’s done so while painstakingly hiding in the shadows and letting the work itself take center stage.

“Contrary to the mantra of Gaga and her ilk,” writes Bowen, “Banksy remains the consummate artist of his times by swimming against the tide of self-aggrandizement and constant image management.”

Banksy is part of a larger tradition of artists shunning the limelight, of course. Bowen cites Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger, but there are many others who actively avoided fame and its trappings.

I think of poets like Emily Dickinson, who wrote some of the nineteenth century’s most significant poetry on envelopes and pieces of scrap paper, or as personal gifts to confidants, but not with the expectation that they would be widely read or bring her fame. She was a recluse who rarely left home and found more than enough drama and mystery therein; her solitude was arguably a key to her poetic brilliance.

I also think of filmmaker Terrence Malick, who has made some of the most studied and revered cinematic masterpieces in history (e.g. 1978’s Days of Heaven or 2011’s The Tree of Life) and yet is rarely seen in public and never does interviews. Like Dickinson, Malick seems to care only for the art itself, for pure expression and the giving-of-form to the transcendent. Media hype, press junkets, awards shows, paparazzi and the like are simply distractions for Malick. He wants the work to stand on its own as a thing of beauty. He even goes out of his way to make sure big name stars in his films don’t end up stealing the show.

Are artists like Malick and Dickinson entirely free of hubris and ego? No. But they undeniably value the act of creation more than they do the act of promotion; they elevate the beauty around them, and sometimes the beauty they’ve created, far above their own glory.

By contrast, today it seems that many (most?) artists care chiefly about their own glory. The latest film is merely a ticket to an awards show stage; the latest album a means to merchandise empires and A-list parties at fashion week. The number of people who see their work is important mostly insofar as it leads to more eyes seeing them.

This is true beyond the arts. It’s true of bloggers, commentators, journalists. It’s no longer about the story; it’s not even about the conversation. It’s not about what’s discussed as much as who’s discussing it, and where you can find them on @Twitter and/or where you can buy their book. (Have you noticed recently how every ESPN analyst, cable news talking head and local weatherman has their Twitter handle featured on screen as they talk?) Everyone cares primarily about building their own following so they can feel known, appreciated and praised by at least some audience. “I live for the applause,” sings Lady Gaga. “Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me.”

Christians are as bad as anyone—maybe worse. We obsess about our blog analytics and social followers. We tweet about our speaking schedules and post selfies in the airport before taking redeyes to D.C. for some important meeting. We star in our own reality TV shows. We write books to build our platforms and vice versa. But do we write books because we truly care about the ideas? And if caring about ideas really is our motivation, is a book really the most fruitful way to hash it out?

We must not put the platform cart before the content horse. That is, we ought not focus on achieving a big audience by any means necessary, or simply because we want one. An audience should follow the good work we do. A wide reach shouldn’t be pursued as such, though it can be a nice byproduct of excellence. Jesus didn’t self-consciously build an audience for the sake of having an audience. No, he drew massive crowds because what he was doing and saying was remarkable and compelling.

Excellence should be our focus. Communicate compellingly. Make beautiful things. Be like Banksy or Dickinson or Malick and let your work be the star, rather than you.

Christians sometimes use missional language to justify their desire to build their platform or strengthen their personal “brand.” A bigger reach is good for the gospel, no? This logic makes sense, if we were perfect people. In reality bigger platform/influence almost always leads to bigger ego, where the glory isn’t on God so much as it’s on the pride-prone person in the spotlight. This is not to say a Christian can never effectively use a massive platform while staying humble and self-effacing. Look at someone like Billy Graham. It’s possible. But humility rather than narcissism shouldn’t be the exception for Christians; it should be the norm. We of all people have reason to deflect attention away from ourselves. We serve a God who deserves the glory infinitely more than we do.

Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken is a senior editor and director of communications for The Gospel Coalition. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24