As soon as we heard about the coronavirus, it was hard, despite all the predictions, to imagine just how long the pandemic (which has spread all over the globe) would drag on. Likewise, it was hard to understand the meaning of the words that were repeated at that time over and over again: “The world will never be the same again.”
And now, after several months of a new life in lockdown, we can say for certain that the world has indeed changed in many ways. And of course it is not just a matter of us learning to wash our hands thoroughly many times a day, using sanitizers, always wearing masks outside, and observing social distancing. The pandemic has also served to accelerate the processes that earlier filled serious observers (not only alarmists and supporters of conspiracy theories but all who try to analyze the changes in the world around us and in themselves carefully) with apprehension.
I mean school and university students learning online, millions of office workers working online, and churches live-streaming services. In effect, it is the reorganization of the whole service sector; the progress of digital control systems; the growth of some financial empires and the destruction of others; and, most importantly, the rush to make all of humanity totally controllable—both physically and mentally. This is indeed quite real in a new global system, where everything will be subordinated to the work of algorithms, where human intellect will completely surrender and give its place in the sun and its rights to neuronets.
Before our very eyes what we once read about in science fiction and anti-utopia novels and watched on TV without comparing this with our own lives is gradually becoming our everyday reality. Ever more often we deal with apps instead of human beings, calling and replying to calls from banks by pronouncing code phrases (like, “Okay Google”), talking to Siri and Alice chatbots. The economists Carl Benedict Frey and Michael Osborne have estimated that by 2033, as a result of robots and apps displacing human specialists, up to forty-seven percent of the jobs that existed in 2018 will have disappeared—a large number of professions will have died out. And these are not the boldest forecasts.
In some sense, we are powerless in the face of these changes. No matter what we may think of them or how we may assess them in terms of the threat to our freedom, we obviously can’t halt this process. It is even unlikely that we will be able to slow it down—money, not ideas, has ruled the world for a long time; so from a commercial perspective robots and neuronets are far more profitable than taxi drivers and analysts, farmers and managers, policemen and doctors.
Some are trying to ignore what is going on; many don’t really notice this because they are too busy earning their daily bread; others look at the future with terror and can hardly imagine their place in it. Including us the faithful—both those who are used to seeing the end of the world in any crisis and those who are far from this way of thinking but understand the spirit of the time and analyze current events.
However, it seems to me that this difficult period should be that of reappraising and reconsidering our lives and thinking more about what really matters and what is really precious in life. We must do it because it is vital!
Why have we been put off balance? What alarms us in these predictions and their fulfilment?
Instability. Everything we are used to is being destroyed—some things are being transformed and others are disappearing. If it were a mere response to the crisis, it wouldn’t be threatening; it is far more terrible if it is part of some plan. How vulnerable ordinary people feel in this situation, realizing that all they were striving and aspiring for can be taken away from them for good—not by robbers, nor by the State—but by “a process occurring objectively.” It is like the elements, with which there is no arguing, no making them change their minds, no softening them up.
Besides, we feel this global shift, which is like the global warming we constantly hear about and can’t completely believe that it exists and that its consequences are serious. It is like finding yourself on an ice floe which has broken off from the glacier and is floating somewhere, driven by the current, and you don’t understand where you’re moving and can do nothing with this.
Control. You see that soon every step, every decision and every intention of yours will become known. And your freedom, the possibility to do what you want will be challenged. More than that, you’ll become so “transparent” to outside observation that it will be extremely easy, predicting your reactions, knowing your likes and dislikes, fears and hopes, desires and disappointments perfectly, to impose on you things that you will sincerely regard as yours without realizing that you are totally controlled.
What can we oppose it with? What can we do in order not to lose freedom and, most importantly, to remain ourselves despite the depressive grip we are in? Is it actually possible?
It’s possible. Otherwise there would be no purpose in our lives and the future history of mankind.
Man was not only made by God but also for God; it is in communion with and in the life in God that he finds his true mission, the fullness of being, something we call happiness—something we all strive for and can’t achieve in any other way. It is the relationship with our Creator, Who loves us more than anybody else, Who is so close to us and from Whom we are often tragically so far, Who is the only treasure that nobody and nothing can take away from us—neither external changes, nor algorithms and robots, nor the antichrist and his servants, nor death itself. Only we can deprive ourselves of it by our vain and dissipated lives, filled with material concerns, subjected to passions and, therefore, sinful.
“The soul that is oppressed by sorrows runs to God just as water, the movement of which is hindered from all sides, runs upwards,” St. John Climacus said. And for us it becomes the only way out—staying focused on Him. But we often prefer something else, like the strange people from the Savior’s parable, who after being invited to the wedding feast disregarded it and went their way—this one to his field, that one to his trade, and so on (cf. Mt. 22:1-5). We are no different from them, except perhaps for one thing: Soon we will have no more fields or trade.
There is a book entitled, Twenty-one Lessons for the Twenty-first Century, by the critically acclaimed author Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote a number of sensational bestsellers. It was published in 2018—almost two years before the outbreak of COVID-19. In it the professor of the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzes (in detail and in many aspects) what will change the world in the near future, and estimates the real danger of the developing system. A system in which everybody will have to decide on whose life his car driven on automatic pilot will sacrifice in case of emergency situation—either his own life or the life of an unexpected pedestrian. Or it will be determined by the factory set-up or algorithms and not human beings.
Although Harari doesn’t recognize the existence of God, he admits that there is something that makes us human beings very different from machines and will help us remain ourselves in “a brave new world.” It is consciousness. He writes very convincingly that it would be vital, when investing a dollar and a minute in the progress of information and biotechnologies, to invest another dollar and another minute in the development of human consciousness to prevent the inevitable changes from destroying humanity.
I can’t completely agree with him. The evolution of consciousness wouldn’t make us more moral, warmer, or more humane; it wouldn’t increase our ability to love and sacrifice ourselves, and wouldn’t convince us to live for others and not our dear selves (the feature that, according to the great Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl, makes the human race fundamentally different from all other living creatures). And, of course, it won’t bring man closer to the Source of every living thing—to God.
But his train of thought is right: We should invest our energy, money and time in what we view as the key value so as not to lose everything. Harari is a “prophet” of modern times with the Biblical name Noah that speaks for itself, yet his view of the history of mankind is notoriously anti-Biblical. He is a typical “child of this world,” and, as we remember, they often are in their generation wiser than the children of light (Lk. 16:8). Will we have to be found less wise and less far-sighted again?
Truly now the revision of our lives is necessary as never before, and the most important things should come to the foreground or maybe become the only thing that matters most. Noah built the Ark at the command of God and his family was saved from the Flood in it. Now we need to concern ourselves with building our souls’ “house of virtues,” as the wise Abba Dorotheos once wrote. Because the rest will obviously not stand the test of this age of changes and collapse. But this “house” will withstand all the trials.