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The Dehumanizing Irony of the Digital Age

Planned Parenthood, technology, and the longing for community

Jason Thacker

In January 2019, Planned Parenthood announced the launch of a sexual health chatbot named Roo, which is designed to help answer some of the most awkward or intimate questions that teenagers may have about their body, sex, relationships, and a host of other related issues. The chatbot is built on artificial intelligence (AI) and is available 24/7. It functions like text messaging a trusted friend, but with supposed expert advice coming from a host of medical professionals and adults. The bot’s sleek design and social media-like interface learns as it goes, providing more personalized answers, and does all of this in a private, isolated environment. 

It should come as no surprise that Planned Parenthood is pioneering this type of technology as part of its arsenal of cutting edge products, all designed to provide medical care and abortions nationwide. The goal is to make this kind of information easy and accessible for teenagers in a convenient and efficient packet. While the system will normally answer whatever questions one might ask, it regularly counsels users to connect with Planned Parenthood staff or medical teams, especially when it comes to issues of abortion or pregnancy care.

Planned Parenthood bills this technology as a way to reach people where they are and explains, “Young people can ask Roo their burning questions about their health, their body, relationships, getting care at Planned Parenthood, or choose from a list of questions, to get the answers they need within seconds, day or night. The chatbot is designed for 13 to 17 year-olds, but can be used by anyone who has questions about sexual and reproductive health.”1https://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/planned-parenthood-launches-new-sexual-health-chatbot-to-meet-the-needs-of-young-people-24-7 

Questions range from how to navigate relationships to the acceptability of watching pornography for both boys and girls. Other questions concern how to know if you might be attracted to the opposite sex, what it means to be transgender, what to do if you think you may be pregnant, how to get over a crush, and even what happens during puberty. While many of the questions are understandable and common for young people, the entire system is disheartening, not just because of who is behind the technology but also because of the lack of actual community with parents, guardians, or other trusted relationships.

How technology can dehumanize us

To many, this online app may seem innocuous, but this is because technology has become part of everything we do. Our lives have been shaped by the ubiquity of technology, including how we work, learn, play, and even build relationships with those around us. Jacques Ellul, one of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century due to the rise of modern technology, opened his influential work, The Technological Society, by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood.”2Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 3. These words, penned in the 1950s by the late French sociologist and theologian, speak directly to the modern debates over technology and its proper role in our lives. They also speak to the complexity of these systems and how they are radically shaping our society. Today, technology is often assumed and assimilated instead of being examined or questioned regarding its nature and proper role.

One of the most profound shifts in how technology is forming us is seen in the example of Planned Parenthood’s Roo chatbot. It demonstrates that in the pursuit of the most efficient and effective means, we often think technology can solve the problems that accompany its adoption. As Candian philosopher George Grant once said, “more technology is needed to meet the emergencies which technology has produced.”3Grant, George. Technology & Justice. Toronto: Anansi, 1991, 16. One of the main problems that has arisen with technologies like social media and other forms of media entertainment is that they have impeded our ability to connect with others at deep and intimate levels.

For all of their good, these technologies tend to isolate us and are designed to constantly entertain us. They achieve this by keeping us distracted and unengaged with the things we see with each scroll. The Roo app is just one way society has tried to develop newer technology to counter problems like these. But, as a result of the technology’s function, we become unable to build deep and meaningful relationships with others. And in the case of teenagers, they may now resort to a sexual health chatbot, instead of parents or other reliable adults, in order to ask the things about which they are naturally curious.

Planned Parenthood’s goal is to help digital-age teens answer questions that may feel silly, awkward, or weird asking adults in the context of community, but it does so with a very clear agenda. While I am obviously alarmed that this is coming from the nation’s largest abortion provider, I am also concerned that this illustrates we have given over the difficult aspects of raising teenagers to technology and neglected to develop the relationships necessary to let the awkward feel normal.

God created man and woman as unique individuals who are made in his image and are meant for community with himself and one another (Gen. 1:26-28). These relationships are key aspects of what it means to be authentically human. We must wake up to how technology is subtly shaping us to think of humans as machines and isolated information-processors, rather than image-bearers of the most high God who are designed for deep, trusting, and honest community with one another. The truth about who he has made us to be doesn’t change in a digital age.

The danger of humanizing technology 

In an ironic twist, given how technology is influencing us in dehumanizing ways, we often seek to humanize our technologies, as seen with Planned Parenthood’s Roo. 

And, tragically, in a time when the baby in the womb is called a fetus or simply a clump of tissue, we name our machines and give them personalities. For example, Roo not only has a cute name but also an icon that winks at users and engages unsuspecting teenagers as if there is someone trustworthy on the other side of the chat bubble. Given the brokenness all around us today—in our families, communities, churches, and more—it is understandable and lamentable that technology is seen as a substitute for authentic community.

The leaders of Planned Parenthood grasp the times in which they live and know Roo is an effective way to reach young people. As a result, they are able to persuasively spread their message of abortion as healthcare to those most at risk for unplanned pregnacies or health-related issues. While Roo might come across as a fun and modern chatbot that feels cutting edge and relational, it essentially aids in isolating a teenager during a difficult season and purposefully feeds them information about choosing to end an unborn child’s life. 

The church’s response 

As our society continues to wade through the unintended consequences of our technological innovations, many in the church wonder if and how we should adopt technologies similar to Roo in order to counter the world’s influence. One of the ways that our churches can serve our communities better is by building relationships with those around us and seeking to develop trust that will last beyond the perceived usefulness of these types of technologies.

The church must prioritize the embodied souls that God has placed in our path over forms of technological advance, all the while advocating for God-honoring uses of technology. This does not mean that we seek to abandon all forms of technology in our communities and life, as if that would even be feasible or possible. It simply means being aware of how these technologies can dehumanize and separate us and our neighbors

God calls his church to wisdom as we engage the shifting technological culture around us. Technology is deeply embedded into every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not, and has great potential to affirm the humanity of our neighbors—even the smallest among us. We can harness the power of technology to reveal the life of a baby in the womb and stay connected with real relationships while also rejecting the constant push to humanize our technologies. 

As Christians, God calls us to love those around us as he loves us, choosing to personally step into difficult and sometimes awkward situations in order to proclaim a better way—a way that trades asking a sleek chatbot personal and intimate questions for the connectedness of trusted flesh-and-blood relationships with fellow image-bearers.

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is a graduate of The University of Tennessee and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He is married to Dorie and they have two sons.