You woke up, opened your eyes, and reached for … your phone? “To sing the song of glory to… the Internet.” The morning prayer rule will wait, for we can make time for it—later, as it can surely be read one way or another during our morning commute.” Will our soul ever remain uninvolved in what is the one thing needful?
In the days of my youth, a row of digits would only march along the surface of a school board or hopped around the square-ruled pages of our workbooks. In today’s world, anywhere you look, people are faceless but the blue screens are instead reflected in the pupils of their eyes. A “digit” of today reminds of the bygone era: the Pythagoras times are back again.1
What’s wrong then?
There is nothing new about this problem, and it is quite banal. At the beginning of the new millennia, the Orthodox faithful in Russia awaited the end times as the Individual Taxpayer Number (or “INN” in Russian) was being introduced. Numbers again! They feared that the people of God would be stamped with a unique number like cattle and it would deprive them of salvation. The years went by… fortunately, we can still roam free and enjoy our personal freedoms, “looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the ages to come.” Yet, the reality of life did change—man had changed it, It has become so bleak and boring, so unadaptable to the ever-expanding avalanche of our daily needs. To deal with it, the reality was enhanced with some add-on features. The notorious “digit” came to help, and the modern telecom technologies are at the bottom of it. Lo and behold, virtual reality was born, the area where we exist today, with varying degrees of our involvement.
Off to our new life and new problems! We are equipped with an armload of modern tools and we consider it blessing to use them. However, mankind is really good at distorting every useful thing while using it. So it has happened with the internet-based technology—the average users have become unconsciously addicted to their devices and are fully dependent on the enactors of the new civilization. Well, but these fine folk have their own ideas about what to do with mankind, and their plans are beyond us, the ordinary netizens. For a few years now, various web resources have published articles about the existence of an all-out digital control of mankind. In particular, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia2 has voiced his opinion about this issue indicating that the Church is examining the problem on the highest level. Conferences are being held on the problem of digitalization;3 activists organize campaigns for online privacy and the regulation of the distribution of personal data,4 which users of personal mobile technologies voluntarily transfer to web aggregators, which in turn share them with the state authorities. Not only people’s private life, but their religious, cultural, familial, political, and social values are going under surveillance. The new world needs unification—when individual values, ideas, and convictions are made more uniform and less meaningful. Society doesn’t need an original thinker capable of expressing his opinion—what for? Let’s better dwell in an illusion of personal exceptionalism that can be easily adjusted, when necessary, by way of covert information manipulation using electronic devices as sticks sans carrots.
Digitalization and the people
As C. S. Lewis said, man is abolished.5 It can be understood as global depersonalization and objectification. Men’s values are viewed merely from the perspective of financial gain and labor output. We actively pursue these changes, voluntarily consenting to the “terms of service” agreements and accepting the conditions that we have no time to examine in great detail. What does it mean? It implies that we accept a certain package of services and features not even needed in the majority of cases, but we pay for them either with personal data or money. Now, our movements get tracked by satellites from space, or via the geolocation systems that learn about the stores we last visited and purchases we made using our bank cards. The trajectory of movements can be easily reconstructed even without a smartphone in your pocket: the cameras in the big cities instantly recognize your face while you are walking along the street, use public transportation, or ride the underground.
Another example. You visited a news portal, checked for some interesting news and skipped others, then browsed online for a couple of things, but your device has already transferred the browsing history to the corresponding companies and it became a part of big data.6 At this point, a marketing company will use targeted advertising trying to oversell in its block of ads those products we were interested in before, whereas a major retailer we frequent to make purchases will receive the data about our shopping preferences.
One more example. We are going on a long-distance trip by train. We need to send the passport scans to our friend who is taking care of our tickets. We forward the photos by one of the messenger apps and, from now on, your information is cataloged in the database of the company that owns the app.
Going forward, each and every person is going to be valued only as a useful source of statistical data
Going forward, each and every person is going to be valued only as a useful source of statistical data. What is that information for? As a starting point, it is necessary to stimulate the cash flow of the globalization giants. Going one-step up, it is needed for the general data accumulation at the ever-expanding worldwide database about every one of us. This data, at a certain moment in the world’s history, will likely allow the manipulation of society and its separate units.
In 2020, we witnessed how governments around the globe were actively stockpiling information by introducing pass admittance regimes in major cities, developing new norms of social interplay. Let’s take, for example, the infamous mask and glove regimen. It has become a new reality of today’s life—we live with it and identify the passersby by the presence or absence of these required attributes in all spheres of social interaction. They have become the new identity markers of the twenty-first century. It has become so much easier to distinguish a “proper” citizen from a strange one simply by their appearance. This kind of identification sets up a scene for precedents, including acts of cruelty, aggression, disengagement, and all sorts of phobias.
In connection with the pandemics, we have a truly questionable experience of remote functioning within various segments of society—major areas of human activities were moved online: remote work, online education, online church services, online fitness, and online theatres… The list goes on and on. On the one hand, without digitalization, the functioning of key areas of vital human activities would have been impossible. On the other hand, the evaluation of qualitative changes of our relationships shifting online over the last ten months has brought to light significant setbacks in the areas of education and people’s work efficiency. Without getting into a deep argument about these aspects of life, let’s recall the words of Aristotle, who said that man is a social animal, and it is impossible for him to develop as a healthy individual outside social medium.
Meanwhile, the Moscow Region is about to issue QR- code permits to its vaccinated residents.7 The rumors are that the owners of those certificates will be able to move freely around the country and abroad: “You have your QR-code—modern, civilized, easy, and it’s with you everywhere.” Here is your freedom and your comfort. You need neither gloves nor masks; you can just go on with your life flashing the code around. It is yet another marker, rhetorically expanding our options but practically limiting them even further. It is going to be difficult to move around the country without them, or especially abroad. At the same time, Moscow’s metro has a plan to introduce a face recognition fare payment system.8 It will allow us to be in step with times, they say! Allow the big city to get to know you, face to face…
Now let’s look at the details. It is so convenient to handle things requiring your identity verification consent by simply using the eye’s retina or a fingerprint, since no password or additional security identification is needed. Nothing other than close contact. Advanced technology for identity verification has become another routine task in our lives, and we don’t give much thought to how a mere ten years ago these shrewd tricks could only be found in movies… By all means, we are walking the plank of a technological advancement process. Walking where? Straight into the abyss. But even so, we’ve sweetened our doomed march by keeping things we hold dear. There is nothing sweeter for a man than the comforts and petty conveniences of everyday life. Our resolve to set up a fight for “fools’ gold” is truly astounding. It is so easy to limit your horizon to the size of a 6” screen or keep the bundle of your life’s knowledge safe in the cloud drive. It is equally sweet and easy to deny history the right to teach us a lesson or two. As one wise rabbi once said, “The nations of the earth have a short memory.” Or, how we forgot about any understanding of freedom and spiritual life in today’s world, feeling free in a cyberspace yet unregulated. Isn’t it better to let the questionable “mentors” of a new era teach our kids and us how to be aligned with the new moral standards, where acid hair color, primitive, animal-like behavior, deliberate lifestyle minimalism annoyingly persistent among the big city youth, casual relations and promiscuity, or gender equality are just a walk in the park compared to the ideas of digital immortality and digital Armageddon. Behind all of this, can anyone ever gain sight of a man in all his pristine sincerity and beauty? The Lord will have an answer on that special Day.
What happens next?
The further, the deeper. The promises of digital space development mean a whirlwind of rebuilding social relations in the area of economics, law, and politics. For instance, the leading Russian analysts, looking into the nearest future, pointed out the following predictions: An increase in the potential of AI will likely lead to rising unemployment, cyber warfare, and totalitarian rule of cyber superpowers. There is absolutely no need for the “rise of the machines”. People alone will commit the most horrendous atrocities on Earth.
Igor Ashmanov, the leading AI specialist in Russia, has spoken concisely about the impossibility of an emergence of AI-powered machines on the global stage:
“Looking from a metaphysical point of view, the occurrence of consciousness cannot be an accident or automatic process … once someone creates a machine well-suited to reasoning, perfectly resembling a human mind and designed to be manipulated, demons will immediately settle there, as this is exactly what they want. Why would God all of a sudden think it His job to light the “spark of the image of God” in this machine, inhabit its mind with reasoning and will, or, to put simply, breathe a soul into it? Have the atheists, the AI developers, reached an agreement with Him? I don’t think so.9
What is to be done?
It is best to seek answers on hot issues by the measure of timeless truths. Man is known for the ability to think and act if guided by the feeling of freedom. Christians, in particular, possess true freedom; it permeates the New Testament. Therefore, when we place emphasis on microchipping, electronic concentration camps, or totalitarian control systems, we are most likely held away from some truly substantive issues of our spiritual lives. Any interference into the space of our private lives against our wishes will favor our salvation at the Last Judgment. What’s most important is that we must strive to protect our purity of heart and clarity of mind so that we could always be held responsible for our words and actions. We should also learn loyalty while struggling through the thorns and thistles of everyday routine, so that at the end of our lives we would have enough boldness left to remain faithful to God.
Speaking of digital space, it seems appropriate to cite St. Paul: All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any (1 Corinthians 6:12). An extensive assortment of technical devices at our disposal presents an endless potential that could be used in spiritual life. We have an opportunity to join our fellow believers in prayer from anywhere in the world, without personal interaction. We can tap into the Church Tradition and study it in depth, exploring rare examples of church literature and hymnography, or uncover the vast reserves of Christian and world culture that elevate the soul of a man, allowing him to mature as an individual. It gives us the chance to interact with church historians and discover the unknown in our Orthodox faith, its historical events and influential figures. With the new technology, Christianity gains new opportunities. The only question to answer is how we are going to use them.
Virtual reality has become a part of our life, but it shouldn’t force personal prayer experience out of it
Virtual reality has become a part of our life, but it shouldn’t force personal prayer experience out of it. Naturally, we’ve heard so much about it… Yet, we dedicate only a fraction of our time, inner strength, or desire, to prayer. Meanwhile, those who have ever, even indirectly, experienced the “breath of the Holy Spirit,” akin to the publican who was aware of his unworthiness and didn’t dare to step any further inside the temple (see: Luke 18:13), most probably know that, without our direct appeal to Heaven or a great effort in an attempt to rise above ourselves, we end up living in the dark pit of despair without any exit in sight, no matter how much time and money we spend on visits to psychotherapists or clinical psychiatrists. Prayer is so much more encompassing and deep than the life of man, for it allows him to connect with the Giver of life. What do we need from the Internet? A stable connection. A stable connection with God is so much more important. It is good if we can pray in a quiet place. By all means, a mental silent prayer, or “Hesychasm”, is the lot of the saints. In our case, we can begin with something simple as this: silence—the exercise that makes it possible to “know yourself.”
Oddly enough, digital space is where one can find silence. “Where are you, Adam?” is a documentary film describing the life of the monastics at the Athonite Dochariou monastery, but there’s more to it. In a special way, it offers us the chance to be immersed in the life of the monastics. As viewers of this film, we are able to intercept silence within us. This film-contemplation, the example of sincere and simple art made using modern movie-making technology, reveals how Christians are capable of enriching the digital space allotment fallen to them. Let’s hope our effort pays off, and we will provide the solution for people to remain human in a technology-flattened world. To a certain extent, the digital future and identity of a Christian depend on our effort and decisiveness.