Letter from Roger Tarbuck, April-May 2017

Sometimes I feel that I’m living in an alien world. I’m not referring to immigration but to the inexorable advance of artificial intelligence, which is taking over so much of our daily life. Young people have lived with computers all their lives, so they are bound to be less aware of what is happening. They have never known life without little things or big things that you hold in your hand or sit at in an attitude of expectancy for hour after hour, but for older people it isn’t so.

Life is changing so quickly now. Ordinary day-to-day things are changing: the way we are allowed to shop, for instance. More and more we have to buy online, because the other ways are rapidly shutting down. Money in your pocket is now old hat: first credit cards, then debit cards, then “chip and pin” cards, now contactless cards – all streamlined to save time and money; but mainly to do away with cash and people. Soon, everything will have to be done online or in an efficient, cashless, contactless and impersonal manner.

We are told how elderly people are respected, but the mainly vigorous and healthy people who decide how we live our lives (and die our deaths) ignore the fact that there are millions of elderly people who can’t even master the most basic art of computer use. Can’t our masters understand how hard it is to learn anything at a certain age? I know that some people are better at this than others, but many older people find it hard to learn anything, and even if they do manage to take on board something new, many may soon forget it.

Log on, we are airily told, visit something or other and download. This means nothing to millions of people, yet it represents the steady advance of something that started as our servant and plaything, while all the time spreading its tentacles even into the pockets of our children. If I had young children now I should be very worried at the thought that the little thing in their pockets was an open door to heaven knows what. I know that social media can be a wonderful thing, but who is in charge? Or what is in charge? We are advancing our technology at a frightening rate, but mentally and spiritually our development is far behind it all. And we’ve known this for ages.

Simplification comes at immense cost. They are taking away our police stations, our post offices, our banks, our high street shops, our village shops, our pubs, our libraries, our hospitals, our surgeries – all shoved into “convenient”, but more distant, centralised areas, or online, so that we may be offered a more “efficient and better service”, but which is really the obliteration of individuality, which is encoded and categorised with soulless efficiency.

Young people can cope – they have known nothing else – but a very large minority of the population just cannot cope with the tsunami of new technology that affects everyone. There are millions who are unable to keep up with it all, millions who miss a familiar face, the eye or hand contact, the facility of common speech in a life that is rapidly becoming dehumanised.

Technology does wonderful things and it’s here to stay. There’s much good in it, but there’s evil, too: terrorists who use the web, hackers, swindlers, fraudsters, and evil people full of hatred, trickery and abuse. We were recently told that over half of all crime now takes place online and it’s increasing all the time, just a click away from any of us.

This makes our churches more necessary than ever – open havens of truth and spirit, where we can re-humanise our common life. We need to fight for their survival just as we fight for our post offices, our banks, our libraries – and our public lavatories, for heaven’s sake! (I forgot those). A society that has no religious beliefs lacks spiritual guidance; it lacks personality, which points us to God and – yes, that word again – towards love. Our churches must prevail.

I once read an article that said that eventually the computers of the world would become connected and produce an immense computer of unimaginable, controlling power – far greater than the sum of its of parts. I read this long before the internet had become commonplace. It was written by a computer scientist, not a nerd or a geek, and he said that he would give it ten years to take hold. That was over twenty years ago. Of course we could pull the plug. But we don’t, do we? If that supercomputer had any brain at all, would it be so daft as to give the game away?

I’m not saying that I’m convinced by that story, but it makes you think, dunnit?