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How Catholicism — and Jurassic Park — Can Inform Our Discussions on Future Tech

Published:
December 14, 2023
October 23, 2023
Learn how the message of Jurassic Park connects to the Catholic view on the church and technology. One man of faith shares his perspective.|Learn how the message of Jurassic Park connects to the Catholic view on the church and technology. One man of faith shares his perspective.

When I think about how our Catholic faith intersects with discussions about technology and the future, the first thing that comes to mind is a quote from the movie Jurassic Park. 

Before the jeep tour of the park begins – before anyone has been eaten by a lab-made dinosaur – the off-center mathematician/chaos theoretician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) tells Jurassic Park’s founder that the place shouldn’t exist at all. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could,” Malcolm says, in reference to bringing dinosaurs back from extinction, “they didn't stop to think if they should.” The quote is the moral of the story; it turns out this all-time great action movie is actually a fable about the dangers of combining unlimited money with unprincipled science.

As an iconic line from an iconic movie spoken by the movie’s most iconic character, it’s no surprise the quote is also memed on social media frequently. Malcolm's quote is paired with photos of insane consumer goods like cappuccino-flavored potato chips. “Frito-Lay’s flavor scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could…” It’s almost always funny.

Beyond the jokes, however, this quote succinctly captures one important perspective that Catholic teaching brings to the table when we’re talking about technology. For over 130 years, popes have been watching economic, social, and technological “progress” and writing long papal documents in response to that progress – often criticizing the human cost of unbridled technological development. 

The first pope to do this, Leo XIII, defended factory laborers against the dehumanizing working conditions brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. His 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum argues for a living wage for all workers and for their right to unionize, for instance. The powerful elite who were reaping the benefits of this new technological society did not care what happened to working people. Pope Leo XIII felt he had to step in.

The pontiffs since Leo XIII have seen and responded to other socio-technological developments – nuclear weapons, abortion and euthanasia, global trade, the growing gap between rich and poor, human-caused climate change, and much more. And a common theme through the thousands of pages these popes have written is that technology and all forms of social “progress” must be evaluated by how they affect human persons and communities, especially those who are most vulnerable. Catholic teaching puts the dignity of the human person at the center.

When technology helps advance human flourishing – vaccines, medicine, water filtration, solar panels – it can be great. But when it causes suffering and death – nuclear war, climate change – technological progress must be slowed, restrained, or stopped altogether. Too often, the popes argue, we charge ahead in technological progress without thinking about possible implications or how that technology needs to come with essential regulations.

Of course, most technological advances aren’t as black and white as vaccines or atom bombs. How good or bad are iPhones? Social media? Automobiles, buses, airplanes? Polyester? My iPhone is good because it helps me stay in touch with far-away friends and family in ways previous generations would’ve found unimaginable. It’s bad when its addictive qualities keep me glued to the screen when I should be enjoying the undistracted company of my spouse or children. 

There is plenty of room for this gray area in Catholic tradition, which asserts that the world, as God’s beloved creation, is fundamentally good. Catholics aren’t puritanical; we don’t reject out of hand things like caffeine or dancing. (In the words of 20th century writer Hilaire Belloc, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.”) It’s the abuse of God-given gifts where the trouble lies, or when the production and selling of goods widens the gulf between rich and poor and harms the planet. We have to discern how and when to develop and use technology. The challenge is that the idea that we might slow down or not do something we’re technically able to do is an utterly foreign thought to the engineers and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. 

Pope Francis writes about the dangers of rapid technology advances forcefully in a brand new document (an “apostolic exhortation”) on the environmental crisis titled Laudate Deum, or “Praise God.” He criticizes what he calls a “technocratic paradigm,” which is rooted in the belief that “reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” We charge ahead creating and creating, using up the world’s resources without thinking, almost always leaving the poor and vulnerable behind.

“Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience,” the Pope writes. “We stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it.” I can’t help but picture the lawyer in Jurassic Park looking up at the T-rex about to eat the guy as a snack. I picture Ian Malcolm reading this and nodding along.

Today, the form of runaway technology getting the most media attention isn’t reborn dinosaurs, but artificial intelligence – including large language models like ChatGPT. What might the Catholic commitment to human flourishing and the common good have to say about ChatGPT? On one hand, a physician friend of mine described the immense potential of large language models, especially when teasing out tricky diagnoses or coming up with a treatment plan. A version of ChatGPT designed for medical professionals could dramatically improve health outcomes.

But couldn’t that same technology be used to develop, say, the most deadly weapon ever conceived? It’s not hard to imagine the power of large language models used for immoral or corrupt purposes. This is where, in Catholic teaching, the roles of the state and multinational organizations come in. We need to apply human-centric values in building safeguards around the technologies we make before they destroy us. In the case of social media and artificial intelligence, to name two huge examples, the development of regulations has fallen so far behind the technology it’ll be a miracle if we can catch up. We get so carried away with the “we could” that by the time we get to the “should we?”, it’s often too late.

But I live in hope. I think more and more people are realizing the “unabated technological progress will save the world” perspective we have been spoon-fed for decades isn’t working out all that well. Social media is full of misinformation, self-driving cars are crashing, self checkout lines aren’t saving companies money as they cost people jobs. As people of faith, we should bring our commitment to God-given human dignity to corporate boardrooms, halls of government, and our own decisions about technology use. We still might get swallowed up by the T-rex that is our “technocratic paradigm,” but we can put our faith into action in defiant resistance. 

Creators:
Mike Jordan Laskey
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 23, 2023
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