For as study after study has revealed, the algorithms of social media are, in myriad ways and in a manner largely unbeknownst to us, manipulating us, getting us to think and desire in such a way as to foster the economic and political interests of others.
"Mrs. Davis," currently streaming on the Peacock network, is my favorite show. It is quirky as all get out, featuring a quest for the Holy Grail, an imprisoned pope, a journey inside the intestines of a whale, an exploding head (don't ask), and a roller coaster of death. The lead character is a committed religious sister who regularly communes with Jesus and who manages, more or less, to save the world. Now if you're looking to "Mrs. Davis" for theological precision, you will be severely disappointed (and please don't write me letters reminding me of how weird its theology is; I know), but there is indeed a spiritual motif of supreme importance that stands at the very heart of the show, and it is well worth plowing through all of the intense oddness to grasp it. It has to do with idolatry and, more precisely, with our tendency to create idols.
The heroine of the story is Sister Simone, a member of a community of nuns who have purposely endeavored to live off the grid, very much in the manner of anchorites and monks from the ancient Church who fled the corrupt civil society of their time. The grid in question is Mrs. Davis, who is not a person but rather a massively powerful internet algorithm, an artificial intelligence that basically knows all that can be known and that can order and manipulate human beings at will. So pervasive is Mrs. Davis and so typically helpful that practically the entire human race has succumbed to her influence, gratefully doing her bidding and, with childlike affection, referring to her, depending on the country, as mother, mum, Madonna, and Mama. She has most of the qualities that one classically associates with God -- virtual omnipotence, omnicompetence, and omniscience, even the capacity for providential guidance -- and hence it is no surprise that nearly everyone reveres her.
But Simone has intuited that Mrs. Davis, in point of fact, robs people of their independence, saps them of their energy and creativity, controls them ruthlessly, and finally dispenses with them when they no longer suit her purpose. She has come to see, to state it bluntly and simply, that the algorithm is an idol, a pathetic simulacrum of the true God, something that we have made that has come, like Frankenstein's monster, to terrorize us. And so she lives happily with her rural community, venturing out into the world only to save hapless victims of Mrs. Davis' machinations. When colleagues express their dismay that the nun would stand athwart "her," the benevolent mother, Sister Simone grimly replies, "Not she, it."
At the core of the drama is Sister Simone's quest to destroy Mrs. Davis, to turn it off, and to set people free. This is where the Holy Grail, the incarcerated pope, and the whale come in, but I'll let you watch the program to understand just how. One of my favorite moments in the adventure was when Sister Simone tracks down the woman who invented Mrs. Davis. It turns out that she was a computer programmer who was pitching a new advertising system to Buffalo Wild Wings, convinced that her algorithm would not only increase their sales but revolutionize the world. It was precisely this sort of hubris, Sister Simone discovers, that made Mrs. Davis' eventual tyranny possible. Once again, the idols that we construct inevitably turn on us.
Now you might be thinking: Well, isn't this all a bit exaggerated? After all, every technological advancement -- electricity, movies, telephones, televisions, computers -- had some people speculating that civilization was being threatened. Aren't the internet and AI substantially the same -- just tools that will help us live more comfortably and accomplish our ends more efficiently? Maybe. But I believe that "Mrs. Davis" is a prophetic warning that something qualitatively different is in play when we're talking about artificial intelligence and the pervasiveness of the internet. For as study after study has revealed, the algorithms of social media are, in myriad ways and in a manner largely unbeknownst to us, manipulating us, getting us to think and desire in such a way as to foster the economic and political interests of others. In a word, we're not using them; they're using us. And their scope is so widespread that, before we know it, we might well find ourselves completely under their thrall. At least this seems to be what "Mrs. Davis" is warning us about.
When the monks and hermits of late antiquity took to the hills, escaping from the dying civilization of Rome, respectable people thought they had lost their minds. Most of the denizens of the "Mrs. Davis" universe feel the same way about Sister Simone and her community: Why would anyone want to operate outside the ambit of a force so benevolent? Could I make a suggestion? Take a look at your phone and find out how much screen time you put in last week, and then ask yourself honestly how much of your thinking and behavior was determined by that little machine. Next, compare how much time you spent supplicating the internet with how much time you spent praying to God. If the answers are disturbing -- as I would guess they are for most of us -- ask yourself whether it might be time to think seriously about getting off the grid.
- Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester.