Address at the EKD reception for St. John’s Day on 27 June 2018 in Berlin

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany

"…a little lower than God." Images of humankind in a digital age


1. Introduction: Who knows me best?

Who knows me best? That is an important question. If this person is well-meaning it is wonderful that they know me because they understand and can support me. If they have other intentions, they may exploit my weaknesses and vulnerable points.

Who knows me best? I don’t know how you would answer this question. I do not need to hesitate long with my reply: my wife knows me best. After over thirty years we have gone through life together. She perceives how I am feeling sometimes before I know myself.

A study recently conducted by Facebook seems to give material for lessening my certainty in this regard somewhat. This study showed that Facebook’s algorithm, i.e. the mechanically programmed data evaluation, already knows people’s personalities better than their friends, parents and partners. 86,220 volunteers took part in the study and filled out a detailed questionnaire on their personality. Their colleagues at work, their friends, family and partners were also surveyed. The amazing thing was that the algorithm only needed ten Facebook likes in order to exceed the predictions of the colleagues at work. It needed 70 likes to top the assessments of the friends. It needed 150 in order to be better than the family members. And 300 likes to top the predictions of the spouses.

There are good reasons to be horrified at the insight and also the power of those who have access to the data of billions of people. And this horror only relates to the data flows that we users are able to know. Behind our backs, unasked and invisible, we are analysed and categorized and then exposed to specific advertising or target political agitation, without suspecting it.

Controlling these forces, limiting their power, regaining more sovereignty over our own data – this will be a key political task for the future. This and other tasks that will decide the future of our country and our lives, presupposes practicable policy and, in particular, parties capable of taking action. The latter is something that we may have started to seriously doubt, in the last few days. I appeal to all who have any influence in the matter to return to an objective discussion of the urgent problems of the moment!

2. Between promises of salvation and doom scenarios

In history there have always been both: progressive optimists that welcome all things new, and sometimes promise a golden age, the liberation of humankind and the end of all worries and care. And the prophets of doom, of the kind who e.g. when the railway was introduced warned that the speed of 25 km/h would destroy the human soul.

Some see the end of our familiar world of work coming and are concerned that a "useless class" (Harari) will emerge; others see the liberation of humanity from all work based on patterns and set procedures, because these may sooner or later be taken over by machines.

Some rejoice at the medical potential that promises individuals treatment and healing according to their specific DNA; others see a second-class medical system coming that will only allow a few rich people to enjoy and also afford top medical treatment.

Some happily expect a development of artificial intelligence (AI) that does not just cover self-learning systems, but sooner or later the switch to an awareness that will sooner or later be superior to human beings. Others ask the concerned question about where AI development is actually leading and whether we are moving towards a new dataism religion with extended awareness (Harari) and our classical picture of humankind is doomed.

It then does us good to listen to the voices of those who remind us of the categorial differences between humans and machines, which despite all the rapid developments of AI will never be overcome because humans are humans, "because they err and because they struggle, because they hope and love, sympathise and forgive, and because they laugh and live", to quote Herbert Grönemeyer’s hymn to human beings. So far there have been no indications that machine learning can ever gain an understanding of its object and of its own beginning and end.

And we in our church are also in the middle of these discussions about what may come: some see digitisation as the fulfilment of a biblical vision. You can certainly sense a little of the Pentecostal spirit blowing in the new possibilities of the digital world and its non-hierarchical communication of all with all. But for equally good reasons we are also pointed to the dark side of ourselves. The algorithms reinforce our own opinions and preferences. When you "google" you think you are looking out into the wide wide world. In reality you are looking into your own mirror – although indeed an extensive one. The great providers of products weave themselves around us with recommendations as in Babylonian captivity: "Customers who read this or that book or hear this or that music also read and hear …" The algorithm rises up to become the interpreter of my thoughts and feelings, to know what is going on inside me, and exposes my heart to a digital range of offerings that is becoming ever fuller. And actually standardises me – without my actually noticing perhaps – because it can always only evoke typical offerings.

Hardly any of these remarks will be new or unique to you. However, if I step back and try to understand the present in the tension between prophesying salvation and doom, three points occur to me: I have the impression that we are all associate the catchword "digitisation" with a fundamental change, sometimes slightly sinister, but when we ask again we sense in almost every area: really no one knows what is to come. So the estimates about digitisation may reflect more the concerns or hopes of the beholder than the objective situation.

It is astonishing for me to see how digitization goes hand in hand with a revival of the progress paradigm. Silicon Valley has created promises that are so fascinating that we can hardly resist them: health for all, long, allegedly eternal life, communication with everyone, net-based freedom movements – there is something like a rebirth of the promise narrative of the modern age. Although we all know that progress euphoria generally does not name the price that others have to pay, nor does it speak of how small the number of those benefiting from it often is. And: what comes does not come like fate, from nowhere - it is guided and controlled. Those responsible probably have a phone number and an email account too.

Sometimes the key word "digitisation" is linked to almost religious expectations; the new heaven and the new earth of the Bible pale in comparison. But when Yuval Noah Harari in his bestseller "Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow" sees the world in the 21st century as concentrating on three topics – happiness, immortality and god-likeness – we do not need to be a theology professor to recognized that this was already the promise of the serpent at the Fall: You will be like God (Gen 3). How we want to live in future is something we decide, although lately we have been seeing how fragile this "we" is. In addition we need the forces of civil society and politics. As a church we must raise the topic what the biblical testimonies say about human beings.

3. Insights of Christian anthropology

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. These verses are from Psalm 8, a prayer in the Psalter of the Old Testament, which in its own way replies to this eternal question: What are human beings?

Naturally there are many different ways of answering this question and howl libraries that try to do so: a human being is a "zoon logikon" or "rational animal" as Aristotle said, to stress the difference compared to animals. Today some understand humankind more ‘biologistically’ as very close to animals, so to speak as a somewhat complicated chemical algorithm machine, as a plaything of complicated biochemical accidents whose freedom is only deceptive.

Yet biblical tradition did not define humankind from itself but always and first of all as belonging to, and being different from, God.

The answer of the psalmist sets human beings in their unique role within creation: first they are amazed at God’s work, full of wonder at all that has always been there, independently of themselves. Creation opens human eyes and they first perceive that God is facing them. Life is neither to be taken for granted nor seen as their own achievement or merit, because everything was already there when I entered this life. Biblical anthropology starts by praising God.

Humans are "a little lower than God", but still lower. That reflects, first, their amazement that God has given them "dominion over the works of God’s hands", of creation, including all the sheep and cattle, wild animals and birds and fish. On the other hand, the psalmist is immediately reminded – despite this dominion over the created world – that he is lower than God, and is not homo deus, but homo sapiens. If humans are really homo sapiens then it is shown in their ability to distinguish their relation to God, even though they have been given so much power and dominion in God’s creation.

So something special comes into view: Psalm 8 is a psalm that stresses both God’s greatness and human importance at the same time. It can recall the wonder at God’s glory without reducing or down-grading humankind or making humans seem unimportant. It is often said of Christianity that it cuts enlightened, free human beings down to size and deprives them of maturity. But the praise of God in Psalm 8 does not reduce the size of humankind, it underlines its power, its importance and – inextricably connected – its responsibility. A little lower than God, crowned with glory and honour, that also means: humans cannot talk their way out of it, they have to take responsibility for the world, for the birds of the air and the and the fish of the sea, that God has created and entrusted to their care, and likewise for the algorithms of the present that humans have thought out for themselves.

Perhaps Johann Sebastian Bach set the most appropriate trace theologically. He made the lead verse of Psalm 8, recited at the beginning and the end of the psalm, the introductory chorale of St John’s Passion: "Herr, unser Herrscher, wie herrlich ist dein Name." What a brilliant idea: the story of the suffering, dying and rising Christ as a reply to the question: What are human beings? After all, with the story of the true human and true God, the greatness and limits, courage and humility, ground and threat of humans is told once and for all: ecce homo! This is the basis of a Christian anthropology that estimates humans realistically.

4. Prospects of a human-friendly dealing with digitisation

Realism and moderation, ladies and gentlemen, seem urgently called for in view of the digitization discourse at present. The more talk there is about digitisation in superlatives of exaggerated euphoria or anxieties, the more pronounced the stress to innovate in our societies.

And in 2018 these are unfortunately many countries in the world with societies that have changed their cultural face in a most worrying way. Decades of stable societal consensus have lost their power. Nationalism, racism and exclusion of groups of people suddenly appear to be legitimate instruments in the political contest – even in the centre of the so-called free world.

And that is happening in a phase of global innovations in which it is more urgent than ever to engage international cooperation to respond to the world-embracing phenomenon of digital transformation.

We will not be able to shape technological progress in the 21st century with the mentality of the 19th century.

That is why Europe, and the closely related idea of a community united in diversity, is so important. Our full support goes to all the political leaders who – over the years – have energetically strengthened the European level and its human rights foundation. Only on the basis of this European level will it be possible for the great areas of policy-making – such as digital transformation – to be successfully carried through.

With their brilliant ideas and skilled entrepreneurial use of these ideas, a handful of people have revolutionised our world of communication and media. Within a very short time these business people have acquired extreme wealth, but above all extreme power. For good reason we in Germany, as in other European countries, established a system of public broadcasting that  can fulfil its task - linked to the values of the constitution - particularly well by not being dependent on advertising income with the related tough market criteria in selection of content. But this privilege is also an obligation to really fulfil the related mandate of public education. And it is good that we have established clear and transparent rules for the private media in Germany too.

It is different in the worlds of digital communication: the communication of billions of people is controlled by a handful of powerful companies. Every change in the Facebook algorithm has an impact on the communication behaviour of billions of people worldwide. At present there are still no effective internationally coordinated rules for transparency and regulation in order to limit this powerful global market power. That has to change. The proposals for action range from dismembering big network corporations and impose new responsibilities on corporations for online content to implementing non-advertising payable models within established platforms (Jaron Lanier). All options should be pursued intensively and perseveringly.

What is at stake is no less than regaining a social space in which human beings spend a lot of time every day, under conditions of massive non-transparency and on the basis of rules not subject to democratic control. Why are roads and rails, for good reason, services of general public interest, but the digital infrastructure of the internet, on which people spend more time everyday than in cars and trains, is not?

Suggestions like the plan put forward recently by ARD general director Ulrich Wilhelm to build a common platform of broadcasters and publishers at the European level are worth thinking about. Germany and France should be pioneers when it comes to finding a European answer to the dominance of so few providers on the net.

In the broad field of digitisation we should not renounce the birthright of an enlightened, human-friendly and self-critical development for a dish of lentils - chasing to catch up with China or the United States in terms of quantities of data and speed of algorithms. Not only the concern for the internet as a service of general interest but also the self-critical, enlightened examination of the next steps should be regarded as a future market advantage, whose value is perhaps not the same commercially but certainly in terms of social acceptance and political freedom.

Let me add another point: since we as churches are part of a worldwide civil society, we always keep in view the consequences of our actions in other parts of the world and recall the global dimension of European action. Under what conditions – such questions must be asked – are the raw materials of our mobile phones and laptops actually extracted? And where do the rich countries export the huge quantities of electronic waste?

Despite all the risks and challenges, it remains true: digital transformation still involves enormous opportunities. Participating in communication is now possible thanks to the new digital technology where it was not in the past. Physical restrictions are lessened or abolished by digital aids. Medical progress has been considerable in our time through converging scientific disciplines and the huge rise in computer capacities. New methods of diagnosis and treatment are developing for diseases that were long thought unconquerable. Intelligent assistance systems make it safer to drive our cars. All this benefits people.  In a sober reflection on the utility dimension, that is also aware of the dangers and risks, lies the key to a human-friendly shaping of digital change.

5. Conclusion

It is time to wrap up. I call to all Californian visionaries of immortality: first, let us make the world a better place – together. On the basis of clear democratically agreed rules. Second, digitisation will certainly not open the gate to paradise. "What are human beings that you are mindful of them?" This age-old question from the Psalmist can help us together to wisely weigh up salvation and doom, opportunities and risks of digital change, because it shows us the greatness and the limits of human beings.

It preserves us from seduction by false internet gods. It is not Google but God to whom we can say with the words of Psalm 139: "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and are acquainted with all my ways." (Psalm 139, 2f.). Despite all digitisation, despite all algorithms and artificial intelligence – God knows me better than I know myself. Ultimately that does not depend on a quantity of data that someone can produce about me but on the depth of the relationship that grows through love and leaves me my mystery, my specialness, my uniqueness. The Lord – be – praised! God remains the first counterpart but among all humans it is my wife who knows me best - and that is how it should stay.


Thank you for your attention!