When I was in high school and college, answering machines were the hot, new, wonderland technology, and people made an art form of answering machine messages. Hence the newlywed message, "Hello, and thank you for calling 555-1212. My wife and I cannot come to the phone right now, so please leave a brief message with your name, number, and the time and date of your call, and we'll get back to you as soon as we're finished." Primitive answering machines did not respond gracefully to people hanging up before leaving a message; it effectively recorded a long, annoying, and beep-filled message. So one answering machine message said, to the tune of "Flight of the Valkyries," "Leave a message! Leave a message! Leave a message!", and my younger brother mentioned that one friend had recorded a message of frantic violin music playing, along with a kitten unhappily mewing, and a voice saying, "Here we have a 50,000 volt electric power supply, and a kitten. If you hang up before leaving a message, you will close the circuit, electrocuting the kitten. Please leave a message." Someone called, hung up, called, hung up, called, hung up, called, hung up, called, and left a message saying, "You guys have one tough kitten!"
UseNet newsgroups were once Wonderland, too, and one post which was on netfunny.com and since appears to have been taken down, perhaps due to its offensive nature, said:
An explorer from Spain, in the jungles of South America, found a woman powerful in magic, and said, "I want to be ferocious. Make me a tiger." So she made him a tiger, but a fox tricked him. So he came back and said, "I want to be cunning. Make me a fox." So he became a fox, but a snake betrayed him. So he came back and said, "I want to be treacherous. Make me a snake." So she made him a snake, but a wasp stung him. So he came back and said, "I want to sting. Make me a wasp." So he became a wasp and stung, but was smashed in retaliation. As happens when you are killed in another form, you appear in ghostly form, so he came back as a ghost and told her, "I want you to turn me into something more ferocious than a tiger, more cunning than a fox, more treacherous than a snake, and more stinging than a wasp." So she turned him back into a Spaniard.
There was a moderator's note at the bottom, in brackets, saying that he didn't like the joke, but it was back from the days when posting to UseNet was the new technological wonderland. And I would comment that, besides the joke being politically incorrect, UseNet and mailing lists have become "Kids, go ask your parents," territory.
In 1993 AT&T ran commercials trying to create want for what then sounded like a futuristic wonderland:
But I would recall a point from Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy, er, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that technologies such as (in this case) automobiles were exciting to a few rural people who didn't need them, while they had become part of the "it all" in "trying to get away from it all." We can send something tantamount to a fax from a beach, but these things advertised in the video are in no way exotic to those of us to which these things have become everyday. The man paying an electronic toll may be shown as experiencing an almost sexual thrill, but in fact none of us find even more painless electronic toll collection to be exciting.
A change of policy without change in principle
A draft I was intending to post later reads,
One note on (non-)coverage of AI, or what may be an elephant in the room
People reading this text may note that I do not cover the obvious topic of optimal profoundly gifted use of AI. Let me explain about that.
I was involved in the web almost from the beginning, with a web presence and the first incarnation of my primary website which represents my life's work (
), before 1994.
With that, among other risks, came porn delivery for decades, something that only stopped after a father confessor told me that not only was porn "anonymous sex," but that "masturbation, the masturbatory act" was the ultimate exploitation of the model's performance. That helped me not want to bring pornography and masturbation to confession again. I regard that shackle as a significant amount of lost time, and a liability at least comparable to the benefit of making a website and a whole lot of being in the right place at the right time that I cannot take credit for.
I also became involved on social media, found one group that by its title sounded like a place of kindred spirits… and was home to trolls who gave me the most toxic harassment of my entire life, to the point that suicide was a live question.
I now coexist both with Internet and with social media (I stopped posting links on Twitter after I was told it would cost me $86 to get verified; I'm still active on Facebook), and am getting some traffic, I believe, from daily Facebook posts with part of a work and a link to that work. However, I regard whatever benefit I have gained from really anti-social media to be trivial compared to the risk represented by Facebook trolling alone.
My signature contribution to the conversation relates to how I have learned to coexist with technologies, including mobile Internet; you can read it in the seven volume Hidden Price Tags: An Eastern Orthodox Look at the Dark Side of Technology and Its Best Use series, redirected to Amazon from https://cjshayward.com/hpt (please note that a search for "hidden price tags" or the like will get oodles of paid ads for various kinds of physical price tags before turning up my work, even if you add "cjs hayward" to the search). However, I believe that my learning to live with my iPhone has little to commend it above a non-smartphone handset from https://sunbeamwireless.com, or not owning anything like a smartphone at all. In Bridge to Teribinthia, it is Leslie's family not owning a TV that the author used to mark her as Privileged with a capital 'P' even more than her family being one where "money is not the issue." If the book were written today, Leslie might not own a cellphone, and might not have an account with ChatGPT.
I believe that Nicholas Carr was right in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us. Not in just individual assertions, but in the overall withering critique in continuity with past critiques of television, I believe the assessments are largely on-target. In the latter, the most withering direct critique is how automation is changing medicine, but the book also treats how ever more powerful Integrated Development Environments are castrating programmer competency. To quote I Deleted my ChatGPT App:
"The most devastating critique in the book is what Electronic Medical Records have done, and are doing, to the medical profession, and I will leave you to read The Glass Cage for that. However, a related find was what Integrated Development Environments do to people's programming skills. Before that, I had assumed that when programmers wrote, 'I'd crawl over a mile of Integrated this and Visual that to get to Emacs and a good copy of gcc,' which I had simply assumed was a chauvinism for known and familiar tools. Another person much more crassly and much more scathingly denounced IDE-induced skill atrophy by saying, 'Most programmers today couldn't find their d*cks if you took away their Visual M*st*rb*t**n Kit ++.' The older command line tools (I use vim instead of Emacs) required the programmer to know what he was programming and keep it in his head. Emacs is a complex and capable system, but in a way that encourages development of expert skills ('…and with 'evil' mode, the operating system includes an editor.'). A distinction has been made between 'novice-friendly' and 'expert-friendly' systems, and Unix and Linux are both expert-friendly systems. (In Linux Mint, a novice-friendly desktop metaphor is built on top of an expert-friendly chassis). It has been said, perhaps insultingly, 'Unix is a very friendly operating system; it's just very selective about who it is friendly with.' I do not ask you to like the last statement or for that matter any of these statements, but Unix is a classic example of an expert-friendly system that fosters the development and refinement of expert skill."
Do I think there can be a beneficial and non-obvious use of AI? I'd pretty much say "Yes and amen" there. However I think a fair assessment of liabilities is appropriate. When I first saw Golem AI advertised as being a great spark to creativity, I thought that it might offer that if used correctly, but the more obvious consequence would be that people use it to do their thinking for them. This was before I heard of YouTube videos, possibly published prior to my "prediction," about boyfriends copying and pasting between texting and ChatGPT because they did not know how to console their girlfriends. Other obvious consequences include a kind of "friendship porn" which destroys the ability to enjoy real friends (this is an un-highlighted aspect of what the Humane Tech "The AI Dilemma" videos on YouTube (first video, updated version, latest update), talk about in terms of intimacy being the real content of ChatGPT.
With social media, also known as "AI First Contact," the live danger to me included possible suicide. With Golem AI, also known as "AI Second Contact," the live danger is something done with the good intentions that pave the road to Hell causing harm far eclipsing my own interests. I believe there is most likely a legitimate use for Golem AI, but I do not consider it necessarily obvious, and I do not see why, as with cellphones, it might be the position of true privilege not to have one, and to have one's brain conditioned with the discipline of a profoundly gifted mind educated and self-tutored by classically profoundly gifted means.
There is a book I gave my father, a computer scientist, that I half-wish I had kept for myself. It was written in the 1980's and gave various contrived uses for computers as a solution in need of a problem. It is interesting, but they were incredibly peripheral ways of using computers compared to the niche they have carved out for themselves in the real world (and I do not recall mention of email, word processing, or spreadsheets among the proposed games). One of the proposed uses was as a board game, and I might comment that my own "computer as a board game or un-game" at https://jonathanhayward.com/furball.cgi never really caught on. The low-hanging fruit that Golem AI offers now has most likely little to do with the niche it is in the process of carving out for itself, and while it may recall an aunt's remark that Facebook seemed like "walking on water" when Facebook was hot and new, I do not think that Golem AI will seem to only offer plusses when it gets to work. That much is to be said even without considering the privacy implications.
So I will not be advising you on how to take advantage of AI to work better. It might offer a cognitive advantage to people with woke educations who have not been taught the three R's; profoundly gifted intelligence may function best when it is the master of its own competencies. At least The Glass Cage has chilling implications for outsourcing our intelligence to computers, and Golem AI offers the threats I have mentioned and probably other, less obvious dangers. An old joke runs, "What did the lumberjack kid say after using a chainsaw?"—"Look, Mom, no fingers!" In profound giftedness already in history, if there is an historical event with a body count that exceeds one million, a profoundly gifted person acting on the good intentions that pave the road to Hell probably played a crucial part. That propensity will likely only be magnified with Golem AI tools.
I may sometime take on the task of learning Golem AI and finding future volumes to my past volumes about non-obvious ways of using e.g. the smartphone without being given over to it. However, for now, the obvious position of privilege seems to be that of abstinence, and at least by historical analogy, watching TV for several hours a day is not an order of magnitude or two more productive than watching the Weather Channel for five minutes a day. I am intentionally not giving this collection an overhaul to give key insights to how to use Golem AI constructively. My use of the web for my life's work at
is in my opinion genuine added value; even if I use social media now I believe the risks outweigh the benefits, and I do not believe that Golem AI will in its overall use merit anything above the withering critiques outlined in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business and Technopology, Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Marie Winn's The Plug-in Drug, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us. The first are critiques of TV, a technology hailed as bearing great educational potential, but these critiques of technology age well and I believe Carr was right, ten years after The Shallows, to leave the main text unchanged and just give one chapter's worth of updates for something he did not originally treat: the mobile Internet that delivered anti-social media at much more convenience than was to be had glued to laptops and desktops as things were when he originally wrote his book; the same goes for Winn and her chapter about computers and Internet.
I remain convinced that my life would be simpler if I simply minimize my interaction with AI, which when I checked in with my abbot, he said he'd be interested in use of AI for Orthodox theology. And I rather suspect that I could cajole ChatGPT 3 or 4 into a decent homily in the style and voice of St. John Chrysostom on Internet porn. But my concern is more with risks, and I believe that the magic wonderland we are in now will not remain a magic wonderland anymore than the phones we are chained to.
However, for someone whose signature contribution to the conversation is what use of technology is and is not good for us as mankind, and as someone who wrote a master's thesis critiquing AI (that I have still received strong praise for recently), I do not believe I would be fully loving my neighbor to coast on what contact I have already had with technologies and not use AI the way some privileged people do not own a television (I don't) or don't own a smartphone (I have tamed and curtailed my smartphone use as I discuss in How Can I Take my Life Back from my Phone?). And that might be the easier and individually safest route for me personally, but now I feel morally compelled to seek expert understanding of AI.
So how am I going about it? I've reinstalled ChatGPT on my phone and am engaging the incredibly complex ecosystem of AI tools, but only using AI directly on weekend days. I feel compelled to get to know AI but want to reserve playing with it to leisure time. And I am taking time to read all sorts of AI articles on Arxiv.
I have a suspicion about what I'll find based on past experience with technology, and that suspicion is mostly quoted in the draft above. And I am being wary as I study and acquire knowledge. So far ChatGPT has seemed flat to me and its humanities content generation seems dumbed down; for instance, I asked for a short story on Reepicheep from The Chronicles of Narnia traveling to America and I received a one paragraph summary that did not contain a single detail or word of dialogue. My suspicion is that at least some of this is that I have not developed the skill of carefully crafting prompts; one brilliant friend I have made sophisticated requests concerning a chapter of his meta-autobiography, and got impressively sophisticated results. I asked for a new Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from an image generator, and got something vaguely Calvin and Hobbes-like in appearance with garbled fake characters in one paragraph of dialogue, and two half-tiger half-boy things traveling in a wagon. But ChatGPT 3 makes much more convincing Calvin and Hobbes dialogues. I have an eye sharply peeled for risks, but I don't know what a mature proficiency on my part would give beyond expecting that I can produce results that are more interesting to me if I can genuinely develop skill.
One risk I would particularly warn about is using the AI to do our thinking for us, and I'll mention one specific use that reflects what I would consider a wiser use of AI, even if my abbot said to just look up Greek word endings in a book. I thought of, as I study Greek, reading an intralinear text and when I see an unfamiliar word ending, ask ChatGPT to parse it, and "peg" it (with classical memory technique) so it sticks in my memory. That is a use of AI that builds my own proficiency and power.
In the context of relationships, one psychologist talked about how it is not desirable for people to split competencies for basic living skills; the recommended path is for the more proficient person to build proficiency in the less proficient person, so that if one of them dies or the relationship ends, you have not lost half your basic life skills. Even if one person does most of the work for one competency.
In C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, "A modern fairy-tale for grown-ups," a scientist who had murdered his wife was guillotined, had his head carefully preserved, and "Once they'd got it kept alive, the first thing that would occur to boys like them would be to increase its brain. They'd try all sorts of stimulants. And then, maybe, they'd ease open the skull-cal and just—well, just let it boil over, as you might say…. A cerebral hypertrophy artificially induced to support a superhuman power of ideation." Filostrato until almost the very end believed his science had powered the head's motion, but the head had become an orifice to commerce with demons.
I'm not sure it is popular for me to suggest that the demonic might have something to do with a force that is already known to acquire major additional abilities that the developers have no idea how it got there. However, this is not the first point in the story where Orthodox would raise the question of the demonic. The primary content of the Internet is porn, and really, from the perspective that reigns in Hell, the Internet is for porn. The Orthodox picture of the demonic is not something that enters the picture when something obviously supernatural appears, but that the demons are constantly trying to pour venom into our ears. When I went to a diocesan conference as a parish delegate, there was a section read which began by belabored acknowledgement and gratitude for the many good things brought by the Internet, but said without hesitation that most of the content on the net is demonic. Orthodox would see demonic fingerprints in the production, distribution, and consumption of porn, even though the processes on the material level are almost all the same as a materialist would see in them. The demonic is a layer over all kinds of aspects of life and not a foreign intrusion that can only work by violating the laws of nature. To the Orthodox, there are carefully hidden demonic fingerprints to be found all over Internet porn—and the fingerprints may be less hidden in currently unfolding developments in AI.
C.S. Lewis, besides calling That Hideous Strength "a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups," said that there were three times to read fairy tales: once as a child, once as a young man, and once at a mature age. In some senses the fairy tales are like what I was doing on exams in teaching programming. The exam is an artificial exercise that cannot be directly cut from the same cloth as the challenges at work (which are all open book), but it is better to bring together and assess core competencies in an artificial miniature context than not make the attempt at all. And C.S. Lewis who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia to be outgrown even as they are looked back on in reminiscence has written the best fairy tale I know for our setting.
The people at Humane Tech who delivered "The AI dilemma" (the links, again, are first video, updated version, and latest update) portray AI as a horrid and scary-looking alien, as nasty looking as any H.P. Lovecraft malevolent deity, only a monster which happens to be clumsily manipulating a human mask. Behind the picture are unseen and nasty consequences, and while I do not consider it intrinsically occult sin to engage with AI in an AIlice in Wonderland setting, the original Internet represents treacherous waters (when it was starting to become mainstream one fellow high school student openly said he had access to "terabytes of porn" in a day hard disks were measured in kilobytes or megabytes), anti-social media ("AI first contact") represent more treacherous waters, and current AI ("AI second contact") represents still more deeply treacherous waters, and this treacherous character is still known in advance. Before things had emerged nearly this far, there were still a lot of things known as covered in the videos. In that sense my engagement with AI is partly as someone who has been bitten by predecessors but does not think he can properly love his neighbor, having such a foundation as hinted at in his AI-critiquing master's thesis and his subsequent works, without trying to understand AI and offer such guidance as he tried to give to our phone-saturated technological world in works like the purposefully short collection A Pack of Cigarettes for the Mind and the Hidden Price Tags: An Eastern Orthodox Look at the Dark Side of Technology and Its Best Use series.
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Questions for discussion
Is AI not a first contact with Alice in Wonderland? Explain your answer.
Is AI offering a different and more accelerated AIlice in Wonderland?
What is new and different?
What is the best thing you think AI has put in our reach?
What do you think are the worst consequences AI has put in our reach?
What can you do to crawl over a mile of "Integrated this and Visual that" to guard and keep your human intelligence?
What human abilities do you want to retain if and when AI is confiscated from us the same way that Google made books available so we no longer needed books, and then confiscated our access to text of books on Google Books?
What can you do to steer an even course on the path of being human without being blown off-course by winds?
What relevance do you see in works like the Philokalia that are in another age about keeping an even course on the path of being human without being blown off-course by winds?
Br. C.J.S. Hayward