Two ways to make changes in our digital lives

March 2, 2016

To the casual beachgoer, the best surfers make their highly technical sport look easy. After spotting just the right wave, these champions of the surf mount their boards and slice across the rolling sea with ease and precision, riding the wave with speed and full control until its breaking end. One key observation that is perhaps beneficial to landlubbers, as well: the expert boarder knows when to ride and when to rest, when to catch the “big one” and when to let the little swells pass by. He or she knows, too, where to find the superior waters.

Surfers of a different sort

With the rising tide of technology pounding our shores, the digital device has made us all surfers—except that our wave happens to be an electromagnetic one, beamed off towers, our board a hand-held screen, only inches wide, built for surfing an ocean’s worth of information (short-and long-board versions available). We’re the always-on, continuously-connected, screen-scrolling smartphone user. And many of us—myself included—find ourselves web-surfing among the best of them.

The digital device has ushered in a massive sea change in our ability to connect with the world around us. Text and tweet, pin and post, like and “LOL”—the world of communication, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and instant message, is only a thumb-swipe away. Never have we been so connected to so much and to so many, instantaneously, all across the world.

That is the blessing of this technological surge. But therein lies its curse. And if we're not careful, the digital wave could strike us with tsunami-like force and leave us lifeless on her shores. Those of us, like me, treading the fast-flowing Washington world of policy are as susceptible as any to its dangerous riptide.

Attempting to disconnect

This is where the National Day of Unplugging comes in. On March 4-5, from sundown to sundown, people across the country will disconnect from their devices and reconnect with the world around them. Now in its seventh year, the annual holiday is the brainchild of the Jewish organization Reboot, which encourages people to take a pledge “to unplug for as long as I can, even if it is not the full day.”

While most smartphone users will not commit to powering down for a day (full disclosure: don’t count me among the digital fasters), the practice of unplugging from time to time is a good—and needed—one. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of smartphone owners feel that their phone represents a “leash,” rather than “freedom,” according to a Pew Research Center survey released in 2015.

Yet, disconnecting, as I see it, is not easy for at least three reasons.

Why we don’t put down our phones

1. The work factor. Work responsibilities often require a person to be tethered to a phone, checking and responding to emails and texts at night and during weekends. That’s often unavoidable. And we ought to render to our employer what is our employer’s. The need to stay connected particularly plagues, among others, those laboring in the nation’s capital, which includes the ERLC staff, seeking to engage the culture with the “salt” and “light” of the gospel (Matt. 5:13-16) and to speak to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing. Legislation drops early. Tragedies strike late. Powering down even as news knows no sleep can be a struggle.

2. The fear-of-missing-out factor. Call it FOMO. Fears of all sorts flash across the mind: What if I miss breaking news in presidential politics or professional athletics? Or what if I am a late-comer on Instagram? Will I be the last one to know on Facebook? Fear of missing the online party is, for some, a prescription for panic.

3. The entertainment factor. How often do we turn to our smartphones simply to pass the time? The lure is mighty. The digital world, after all, offers an immediate escape from the first signs of boredom—and introspection. No more muted moments.

But have unhealthy preoccupations with our smartphones actually dumbed us down and numbed us to the tangible, experiential world around us? Are we, as the late Neil Postman argued three decades ago, amusing ourselves to death? I fear I’m guilty.

Many of us thirst for a drink, yet slurp waters that can’t satisfy. We draw from this ocean, all day long, only to place our head on the pillow at night parched and thirsting for more.

An ever-present danger is to scroll and to swipe with Ironman-like endurance, chasing both useful news and useless nonsense in all corners of the world, only to later realize the world before us has passed us by. Perhaps our biggest regrets one day won’t entail real-time virtual simulation—the blogs we’d failed to reread, the catchy quotes we’d forgotten to retweet—but instead real-place interaction—the flesh-and-blood opportunities we were remiss to redeem.

Improving our digital lives

So where do we begin when it comes to making changes to our digital lives?

1. Look up—reconnect with the God above us. Digital waters, I can attest, are prone to cause short-circuit here. Why not put down the glossy screen and gaze into a glowing sun or starry sky? Rejoice in the heavens’ Creator. Rediscover his goodness and glory, his greatness and grace. Reflect and repent. Recount all those blessings. Respond with thanksgiving. Find rest and renewal in the presence of the Savior who rescues and redeems (Matt. 11:28-30). Drink deeply and freely from the only water that truly refreshes and restores (Is. 55:1; John 4:13-14).

2. Look out—reconnect with mankind (physically) around us. Rebuild that marriage. Read a book to that child. Find a soul to refresh and a friend to reclaim, a neighbor to regard and a widow to receive. Opportunities abound. Would that we could resist the impulse to be physically present yet mentally adrift, carried by a hand-held device into a digital world an ocean wide.

To be sure, technology itself is not a vice to avoid, but a tool to embrace. The smartphone, for one, can serve as a tremendous force for good and for God. But sometimes even the best gifts in life get the best us. Sometimes they become weights that slow us down—yes, even drag us under (Heb. 12:1-2).

No doubt a digital Sabbath will be unreasonable for most of us, but a little breather might not hurt. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. I’m very much the novice in these waters, a student as much as anyone.

Spotting and catching the superior digital waves, while allowing the little swells to pass us by, are great challenges indeed. That might mean paddling against the cultural tide, especially in a place like Washington. Yet navigating these waters wisely can mean the difference between experiencing rich, kingdom-impacting living and turning up lifeless on the shore.

So, yes, a little break might do us—and others—some good. Besides, there are better waters available for us to enjoy anyway. Of course, all the best surfers already know this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check my phone.

Doug Carlson

Doug Carlson came to the ERLC in 2004 and serves as the Leland House’s Office Manager, overseeing the administrative and organizational needs of the Washington office. A Fort Wayne, Ind., native, Doug attended Word of Life Bible Institute and received his B.S. from Liberty University and his Master of Public … 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