By George Sumner
We all know of sins of commission and omission, doing what we ought not to do and not doing what we ought to do. But let us think about a third kind, with something of both in it, which we will call “hiding.” The human being creates something outside himself or herself upon which can be placed responsibility. We outsource our guilt. The verse I have in mind is Adam’s hiding from the Lord God in Genesis 3, in response to which the Lord says “where are you?” We create an objectified entity that we invest with responsibility. Compare this to the child, caught with the forbidden cookie in his grip, who says “my hand took it.”
The sin of hiding enlightens the political landscape. The libertarian has hidden from solidarity as part of our nature, while Marxism hides from individual responsibility — humans have become units, or a mass, of economic activity.
The paradigmatic example is technology. The machine, creature of our hands, comes to have a kind of quasi-life. With the contemporary debate about AI, this has come to prominence. Three generations ago, Jacques Ellul was a rare prophetic voice of technology as a “power and principality.” In The Technological Society, he emphasized that it was all means and no ends. His concept of “le technique” included both machines and systems of thought that objectified the human. Together they made up a matrix with its own inexorable drive toward integration. Like Frankenstein’s monster, technology has its own kind of agency, by which we hide from ourselves our responsibility.
But as Mary Shelley’s prescient book illustrates, hiding as a strategy turns on the hidden. The monster has its own ideas. The powers and principalities too may have begun as a spiritual tool, only to have their own ideas. This of course brings us to the impasse we now find ourselves in. Many with a disquietingly high level of knowledge warn us that in the time of AI, the machines may make their own advances, of which they tell us nothing. No less an authority than Geoffrey Hinton, late of the University of Toronto and Google, thinks so, without any axe of his own to grind. We meant to hide from God, and now it seems our creation is doing some hiding of its own.