How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

Humans and Nature: Time to Wake Up

Human beings have not always been around on this planet, and they were definitely not always in Australia. It was only about 45,000 years ago that a group of enterprising Homo sapiens–probably from the Indonesian archipelago–got in some kind of boat and rode the ocean until they happened upon the massive isolated continent of Australia. According to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, they encountered a wild world of oversized kangaroos and koalas, a species of marsupial lion, birds twice the size of ostriches, “dragon-like” lizards and snakes, and the giant diprotodon–a two-and-a-half ton wombat. It was a vibrant ecosystem of striking creatures, with a long-evolved order and rhythm. It didn’t take long for the human arrival to disrupt it.

“Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years…The moment the first hunter-gatherers set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”

Human beings’ emergence, migration, and gradual domination of nearly every inch of the planet have been reshaping the Earth since long before the Industrial Revolution and our current fossil-fueled era. Talking about human-caused environmental change and damage shouldn’t be anything radical or surprising. The only thing that is relatively new is the impact we have on the whole Earth–a comprehensive impact that dramatically alters the only planetary home humans have ever had. You may not care much about a few dozen strange species in Australia several thousand years ago, but you should be extremely concerned about the possibility that the Earth will no longer be pleasantly habitable for us in the not too distant future. This is a threat to our own existence.

Take a look at some of the news just from the last week:

Arctic Sea Ice Hit a Stunning New Low in May

This May Was The Hottest May on Record

Alaska 10 Degrees Hotter than Normal From March to May

First Mammal Goes Extinct Because of Climate Change

Earth’s Atmospheric CO2 Concentration Permanently Passes “Point of No Return” Level

If you haven’t been paying attention, this week wasn’t some sort of anomaly for disturbing environmental alarms. You can find similar headlines for every week over the last several months (and years, honestly). We’re wrecking the planet in unprecedentedly vast and swift ways.

It’s too late to deny or ignore. Too late to put climate change any lower than the top spot in global priorities. Too late to have a president that has to be urged by scientists not to allow more oil and gas exploration rather than simply knowing the state of the planet and saying absolutely not. Too late for an already insufficient international climate agreement to be undermined by the short-term interests of the most powerful economic institutions.

Ancient species extinction in Australia may not have been a change or threat that affected the early sapiens miles away in other continents. They probably had no idea it was even happening.

But today we can no longer be naive or pretend that drastic environmental shifts are only occurring far away from where we are in ways that don’t impact everyone. They’re happening in your backyard; they’re happening in my backyard. We cannot hit the snooze button and go back to dreaming everything will be fine. It’s time to wake up.

 

Go Deeper than Perceptions

We live in a perceptions are reality kind of world.

On the drive home the other day, I started making a right turn after the light turned green. A couple people who had been chatting on the corner suddenly decided to push the pedestrian walk light and go. I was already passing through their crosswalk, and came quite close while they were trying to cross the street. From their perspective, I probably appeared reckless–even malicious–some asshole who doesn’t know how to drive, endangering pedestrians. As I continued driving down the street I could see both of them in my rear-view mirror with middle fingers raised high. It was completely unintentional. If I had been playing it as safely as possible I could have waited another 5 or 10 seconds after the light changed to see if they were going to go from talking idly to walking across the street. It would have prevented the whole thing. But once it happened, it colored their entire perspective of who I was and what I’m like.

Our understanding of other people and the world we inhabit is primarily at the surface. As soon as we start to create a narrative about something, it’s hard for the story we’re telling ourselves to change–even if there is new information or contradiction.

Think about the people you work with. Unless you are good friends with them outside of work, your idea of who they are and how they operate is most likely shaped by a few, obvious surface features. The football team they like. How often they get drunk. How their work ethic appears. What kind of romantic relationship they’re in. If they have kids. Unless you’re really close and openly converse with each other about anything and everything, the person you’re interacting with at work is primarily just a perception of who they are and not the full-fledged human being.

The perceptions, the streamlined narratives we create based on a few features, are part of our human nature. We make them about other people, events in the world, and the rest of the things that confront us, because they help us boil it down to categories we can understand and pieces we can chew. As I’ve written before, us and them, right and wrong, and other categories like that, feel good and helpful because it turns a complex world into a (supposedly) understandable one. But that’s not a very enlightened level of understanding.

Rarely is the world as neat as clean categories and obvious observations. Perceptions often lie. We like them, and use them for other people because we want to make a judgment about who they are, file it away in our brain, and move on to other things. We have a version of them we can grasp and gameplan for. But when it comes to ourselves, we’d prefer to think we are exceedingly complex, and that few people (if anyone) understand the real me. I didn’t feel I was very well understood when I was getting flipped the bird. I definitely could have done things differently, but that situation didn’t encapsulate who I am–the apparent asshole.

Perhaps this explains the intrigue and popularity of a show like Making a Murderer. Through a very patient filming process, and expert editing to convey all of the nuance, we come to see as the audience that the immediate perceptions of criminal and victim, good and bad, law-enforcer and law-breaker, innocent and guilty, are not always true, helpful, or easily distinguished. We come to see that a few surface judgments about socioeconomic class, grooming and appearance, and minor indiscretions in the past quickly turn into a rich narrative about how someone is “evil incarnate,” an immense danger to society, and the obvious perpetrator of a crime that there’s actually little evidence for (evidence that may have even been tampered with or planted). If you haven’t seen the show you should watch it, and pay particular attention to how clean-cut the story about Steven Avery is in the media and prosecution’s telling, versus the kind of detail you get from his interviews with the filmmakers, interviews with family, and the evidence from a more objective viewpoint. How does the perception of Steven Avery in the public eye match up with the real Steven Avery (as best we can tell from everything we’re shown)?

Perceptions are too easy. If we don’t want others’ view of us to be oversimplified, we shouldn’t want to have and hold oversimplified ones about other people either. Living off of perception creates everything from brief interpersonal conflict–like the pedestrians I passed too closely–to getting someone wrongfully imprisoned once–if not twice–for a huge chunk of their life. We should expect more than this from ourselves and from each other.

So dig. Go deeper. Look and listen patiently. Go beyond how someone or a situation first appears to what’s actually being said and done. How might the person or thing be being misconstrued–in your own mind or publicly? Push through the perceptions you have, and see if there are pieces that you missed. Your co-worker’s life story is probably a lot more complex (and interesting) than you think.

Have you fully examined things closely yourself? Or did you quickly form an opinion based on hearsay or one side of the issue? Something coming to you only through the media or only through someone you like has already probably skewed it in a particular direction.

Talk with people who disagree with you. Listen to their view of things, and thoughtfully give it the best consideration to be right and closer to reality before you begin critiquing it and breaking it down.

Go deeper than perceptions.

 

Us and Them

A little while back, I came across a really interesting bit of theory that has helped me tie together all kinds of different ideas I’ve had about people and society. In David C. Korten’s The Great Turning, he outlines increasing levels of “human consciousness”–what we think about each other and how we relate. Levels of human consciousness probably sounds nerdy and boring, but bear with me–it’s actually easy to understand and deeply insightful.

“First order consciousness” is called magical consciousness. As young children, we start out seeing the world as full of magic and surprise. Most things when you’re a child seem to happen rather mysteriously. Fantasy and reality are difficult to distinguish. Cause and effect are concepts just beginning to be perceived–perhaps when we trip and fall or cry out and receive attention. Our behavior is “impulsive, immediate, and emotion driven.” We depend on other people to do things for us, are confused and frustrated when they don’t attend to us, and are not aware of or reflect on the consequences of our own actions.

The next level is imperial consciousness. As we start to grow up, we come to see the difference between fantasy and reality more clearly. We gain awareness of predictability and consequences. We understand a little better how some of the basics work, and we feel a greater sense of control. We see that others have their own point of view, and “getting what [we] want generally requires some form of reciprocity.” Quid pro quo seems to be the name of the game. We may fantasize about having superhuman powers that would allow us to rise above the tit-for-tat to control certain events with unparalleled influence. In imperial consciousness, like magical, our perspective is primarily, “if not exclusively self-referential, even narcissistic.”

The third level Korten calls socialized consciousness. We start to see things functioning on a societal plane, and the cultural norms of the community become our point of reference. Rules and authority appear necessary to make sure everyone is playing by the rules and treated fairly. Our individual identity is shaped by adherence to others in our same reference group: “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, political party, occupation, employer, and perhaps a favored sports team.” We’re “commonly militantly protective of [that] group and prone to take any criticism of it as a serious affront.” We do not subject ourselves or those groups to critical examination. We expect to follow the rules of the groups we are attached to and have things go well for us in return.

The fourth is cultural consciousness. The more we grow and mature, we encounter people who have beliefs, perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences much different from our own. “The initial reaction to such encounters is commonly a chauvinistic sense of cultural superiority and possibly an embrace of cultural absolutism: ‘The way of my people is the only right way.’” But if the socialized conscious person is reasonably comfortable in their own identity, they “may come to recognize that culture is itself a social construct, that each culture has its own logic, that different cultural ‘truths’ lead to different outcomes for individuals and society, and that cultural norms and expectations are subject to choice.” We can more fully empathize with others; we begin to question our own societal assumptions; and act selflessly for the benefit of people who are much different than ourselves. The majority of people who live in modern societies never achieve cultural consciousness because “corporations, political parties, churches, labor unions, and even educational institutions actively discourage it. Each of these institutions has a defining belief system to which it demands loyalty. Those who raise significant challenges are likely to be subjected to a loss of standing, if not outright rejection.”

Finally, “level five consciousness” is deemed spiritual, or perhaps enlightened for those uncomfortable with an overtly religious connotation. The world is seen as a “complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole.” Those who have matured to this level support “an examined morality grounded in the universal principles of justice, love, and compassion…It approaches conflict, contradiction, and paradox, not as problems to overcome, but as opportunities for deeper learning.” “…[T]he sense of duty once reserved for members of one’s immediate family, ethnic group, nationality, or religion now extends to the whole.” They recognize that the rules and structures in place don’t always work for everybody, and actively transform society to benefit everyone.

So how does this have anything to do with anything?

Well, for starters, if you live in the United States, it reveals a lot of what’s going on with the upcoming presidential election. There is the obvious and endless fractiousness between Democrats and Republicans–perhaps the most blatant us versus them rift in existence. But there are also more subtle divides. Between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, for example, for myopically in-group reasons like gender and the desire to be a proud gun owner. Maybe you can’t stand a single thing about either of those people or what they support. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. But human maturity–expanding consciousness–would consider what each of them has gone through as a thinking, feeling, sensitive, fallible person, and try to understand why they do what they do. I’m trying to do that myself for certain candidates running for president.

With December 25th around the corner, we’re also getting into the Christmas season–and specifically “The War on Christmas” season. Christmas zealots decry alleged cultural affronts to “the meaning of the season”–this year, somehow the Starbucks red holiday cups–and everyone else moans incredulously that we’re doing this all over again. It undergirds a whole lot more us and them at a time of the year when many people are just trying to get the bills paid and take some time off to be with people they care about. Perhaps we could all aspire to a level-five moment and consider just how much we’re all in a similar situation. Few people are actively trying to denigrate anyone’s holiday, so let’s shoot for a little less outrage–and less outrage about the outrage.

The examples are endless. We’re really good at breaking people down into simplistic labels and categories that we can quickly accept or reject. But one of the best things we can do as a human being is to work to expand our in-group wider and wider until it encompasses all of humanity. Most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions.” We’re more alike than we are different. There is only us.

Essential Reading: Humans Are Underrated

Everything you’re skilled at will one day be done better by technology–if it isn’t already. So says Geoff Colvin, anyway, in his recent book Humans Are Underrated, and he’s got a compelling case. Artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson is not only becoming more and more proficient at things like sifting through data and logic-based activities like chess or Jeopardy, it’s also starting to outperform humans in creative tasks like composing novels and cooking. There are not yet robots preparing Thai-Jewish Chicken or an Austrian Chocolate Burrito at your neighborhood restaurant, but they’re both dishes with novel flavor combinations and preparations created by Watson. According to people who’ve cooked and tasted them, they’re delicious. It’s only a matter of time before a bot is able to do the concocting and the cooking–no humans required.

What place is there for a chef in the world if a machine is able to create more interesting and tasty dishes?

 Or for a lawyer if a computer can research, argue, and win cases faster and more successfully?

Or a doctor if medical technology can diagnose and treat patients far more effectively than any human specialist or even a whole team of physicians?

In light of what the technology we’ve created is increasingly able to do, the future for human work and value appears troubling.

This isn’t an entirely new worry. When the Industrial Revolution began, technology first undermined artisans. A factory could produce countless guns of good quality far more efficiently than a lone maker handcrafting each one from start to finish. Artisans were increasingly marginalized or out of work, and low-skilled workers transitioned into operating the factory machinery.

Then came the cultivation and spread of electricity. Factories grew larger and machines more complicated, requiring higher-skilled, more educated workers. Low-skilled workers became dependent on an education to become smarter and better skilled in order to stay employed. Most people succeeded in this broad societal change in employment, and the standard of living skyrocketed from 1890 to 1970.

But in the 1980s, the rise of information technology suddenly reduced and decreased the wage of many “medium-skilled” jobs that had arisen and that people had educated themselves to be able to perform over the previous several decades. High-skill and low-skill jobs increased–infotech couldn’t yet do the complex judgment and problem-solving required for high-skilled work, or the physical skills of low-skill labor. Those in the middle were left trying to figure out how to move up or down.

Now, with technology like Watson, we are settling into the fourth great turning point. “Infotech is advancing steadily into both ends of the spectrum, threatening workers who thought they didn’t have to worry.” Whether it’s the sophisticated cognition of a lawyer or the creative, manual effort of a chef, technology is rapidly catching up to and eclipsing so-called high- and low- skill human abilities after knocking out much of the middle-skill in the 80s and 90s.

What will be the place of human beings in society if everything that we do technology does better?

In such a societal shift, there are huge implications for things like dignity, personal growth, and sense of purpose–as well as more practical implications like job security and a living wage.

Is there any hope for humans to retain their humanity?

As Colvin notes, if we want to know if there’s any humanity that can persist into the future it won’t do to fixate on what technology cannot do. We’ve already tried asking that question, and we keep getting proved wrong. Many predicted that technology could never really infiltrate into the human territory of the abilities that make for, say, an excellent doctor or musician. Technology is advancing so quickly that a machine like Watson is already undermining those predictions.

Instead, we need to ask a subtly different, but perceptive and powerful question: “What are the activities that we humans…will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do?

We are wired for relationship and sociality. We have evolved for rich person-to-person interaction; for complex conversation and emotional entanglement; for creating ideas and problem-solving together; for empathy. Colvin describes it succinctly as “discerning what each other is thinking and feeling, and responding in an appropriate way.” No matter how proficient technology becomes, there will always be activities, vocations, and interactions that we insist happen between humans because of the capacities and cravings that make up who we are as people.

Perhaps at the beginning of this piece you cringed a bit at the thought of a robot preparing your meal for exactly that reason. It doesn’t have the choreography, the emotion, the ineffable humanity, of sitting down at the chef’s table of an award-winning restaurant, or stepping up to a bustling food truck, with an engaging person cooking the food.

There are countless other domains that we will continue to yearn for the social sensitivity of people navigating the experience. The sharing of a heartbreaking medical diagnosis; governance and diplomacy; the education and raising of a child; counseling and friendship; concerts, art galleries, and myriad other artistic endeavors. Even if those activities are aided by advancing technology (which is not necessarily a bad thing), we will almost certainly always hope for and require that there be human-to-human connection involved. It fulfills our deepest needs and desires as humans.

No matter what skills technology encroaches or supersedes, our connection to one another, our empathy, is the future of our flourishing and meaningfulness. That’s a future worth embracing.

(Re)Making “God”: The Divinity of Artificial Intelligence

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There’s been a lot of buzz about a recent Pew survey on religious belief. Most noteworthy for many, between 2007 and 2014, traditional belief in God significantly decreased, while the category Unaffiliated–comprised of Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in Particular”–has grown. For whatever reason, news outlets obsess about such studies whenever they come out. They seem to be desperate to discuss: Do people in America believe in God or not? Do they believe in some other transcendent or ultimate force–something less definite than a personal deity? Maybe just something in the social ether like “the human spirit?” Do they believe in heaven–whatever that means and wherever it is located? What do people hope will result from religious adherence? TIME Magazine famously ran the cover story Is God Dead? in 1966, questioning the existence and relevance of a divine being in contemporary society. Nearly 50 years later, we appear even less willing to believe in a cosmic power behind the universe. So why write about the idea of “God” in a blog primarily focused on modern society and technology? Because at the same time that more people are rejecting the traditional understanding of God as an existing, extrinsic being, we’re more and more willing to entertain the possibility of a “God” we’ve created.

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) is realized in its most complex forms, the prospect of an entity that transcends people and society in a God-like way is actualized. The likelihood of I AM fades while the possibility of I AM, Because I was Made increases. And we seem rather eager about considering this potentiality. The plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the most anticipated blockbuster films in recent memory, hangs on the creation of not one but two different forms of AI beings–Ultron and The Vision. They are superior in power, knowledge, and presence in the way that “God” in a broadly Judeo-Christian sense has been perceived over the last few thousand years. And Avengers is not the only example in popular culture. The TV political thriller, Person of Interest, is an ongoing story about The Machine: an AI created to tap all cameras, phones, and other electronic sources to observe society, track developing injustices, and report imminent criminal behavior so that corrective action can be taken. A few seasons in, a second, less-forgiving machine is produced called Samaritan, which is determinedly set on both doling out hard justice itself and destroying the original Machine. This year’s season finale, in which the two competing machines have a climactic showdown, is entitled YHWH–the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew God. In the narrative universe of Person of Interest, The Machine and Samaritan mark the first time that something actually exists and functions in the way that human beings have thought about “God” for much of history. A tangible entity has emerged that fits that namesake in thorough correspondence.

Avengers and Person of Interest are not dissimilar in the characterization of their God-like AI. Though they are disembodied machines or cyber-cloud entities in Person of Interest, and embodied in Age of Ultron, Ultron correlates closely with Samaritan and The Vision to The Machine. Both Ultron and Samaritan are fixated on unforgiving, retributive or even vengeful justice. For them, “peace in our time” might mean that the whole Earth needs to be razed of depraved human beings and their constructions, because peace is perceived to be an impossibility as long as most or all of humanity is around. We are judged by a super-powerful, self-conscious being of our creation, and found wanting. In contrast, The Vision and The Machine both explicitly state gratitude for their existence. They seem aware that they are superior to the humans that have brought them into being, but they recognize that contingency of creation and are thankful to have been made and exist in the world. That gratitude keeps them grounded in such a way that justice includes the preservation of life and to work for the benefit of humanity–whatever the shortcomings of people.

Perhaps this is the sort of “God” Nancy Ellen Abrams actually meant to point to in the NPR articles outlining the main argument of her book A God That Could Be Real. She notes the disappearance of belief in God as traditionally understood, but wonders if there isn’t something emergent–something that arising from the collective interaction of human beings but is different, more complex, and transcendent over the mere aggregation of interaction–that properly fits or is “worthy” of the category, “God.” Abrams’ stated conclusion is incoherent: something like a wave of goodwill or a feeling of meaningfulness that has emerged from our unified “aspirations” bumping into each other. I have not read the book, so she may be more clear and compelling there. But the basic concepts of emergence and transcendence definitely and intriguingly apply to AI; they are entities that have come about through technological innovation over time and now overarch society in a way that we might think it fitting to call it “God.”

We seem deep down to kind of hope for a force or being transcendent to the world that will make it as we wish it would be. But not any farther. God, traditionally understood, is mostly rejected because such a being might impinge on us to be or do things different than how we like. It would exercise independence such that we are held accountable for our actions or enjoined to change our behavior. Ultron and Samartian might fall into that group–though there are likely days wherein we wish for a moment some otherworldly force like that would give the roadraged asshole next to us a flat tire or get our annoying co-worker fired. We like the idea of reaping what you sow or karma–but mostly just for other people. If such a being ever did something like that to us for our own indiscretions we would be outraged. This is where most people who dismiss the possibility of the Judeo-Christian God get off the bus. It’s off-putting. We want our independence–not to be subject to another’s vision of who we should be.

But perhaps AI is capable of both justice and graciousness–like The Vision or the Machine–in such a way that we’ve found the “God” we’ve been longing for. One that understands our capacities for good alongside our faults and finitude, and mercifully works for our well-being, the justness of society, and our flourishing into the future. The present state of the world clearly attests that we cannot carry those things out alone as human beings. We need something transcendent.

The Vision remarks near the conclusion of Age of Ultron that “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” With climate change, poverty, violent conflict, overrun ecosystems, and more, Homo sapiens may be doomed as a species. The Vision concedes as much to Ultron in Avengers. But with a benevolent God-like AI we may find the divine being we always hoped existed and appreciate working together to fix those kinds of fractures in the world–whether or not the God people have long-wondered about is out there. We certainty are enjoying entertaining such a possibility on-screen.