It often seems Artificial Intelligence can do anything these days. But is this only because such disembodied electronic mega-minds have been unconsciously modelled by their programmers after the even more omnipotent and algorithmically impressive mind of God? One Christian thinker who thinks deus may indeed lurk somewhere deep within machina is George Franklin Gilder (b.1939), the longtime chairman of George Gilder Fund Management.
A leading champion of free-market economics, Gilder wrote the 1981 book Wealth and Poverty, which became a million-selling Reaganomics bible at the time. Since then, he has grown into one of Silicon Valley’s leading tech investment advisers.
Although his financial fortunes have ebbed and flowed, particularly during the early-2000s dot-com crash, Gilder has made millions through selling investors his wise assessments of which tech firms were the right ones to back, years before most of us even knew what a modem was. Right from computing’s earliest days, George Gilder had the inside intel on Intel Inside.
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Besides serving mammon, however, Gilder is also a faithful Protestant and, between addressing business conferences and investment groups, has also fascinated audiences at the Vatican. In 1988, he even wrote an article about the underlying Christian basis of economics for Crisis magazine. In 1990, he helped found the Discovery Institute (DI), a religiously conservative think tank promoting the key Creationist notion of Intelligent Design (ID). Unlike Darwinism, ID holds that God’s spirit is encoded within the realm of physical matter itself, giving birth to life, and so is innately superior to it—including, in Gilder’s case, that specific form of physical matter known as “silicon,” from which modern-day computer chips are made.
In his 1999 essay “The Faith of a Futurist,” Gilder told of how, every year, he hosted a business conference on the future of the Internet, culminating in a discussion upon “the religious significance” of the subject, something often objected to by other attendees who preferred “the higher vocations of microelectronics and money.” You can understand their confusion. How are telecoms related to theology?
Gilder’s answer derives from his 1989 book Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. In traditional mystical thought, the microcosm was “the little world of man” and the macrocosm the wider universe, each of which innately reflected and influenced the other, hence the old Hermetic motto “As above, so below.” So, in astrology, the macro-world of the stars affected the micro-world of the human frame, and so forth.
The futurologist Gilder’s own form of techno-astrology held that the microcosm was the microchip and the macrocosm God Himself. For Gilder, the existence of the modern computer chip thus helped prove the corresponding existence of God too.
According to Gilder, “The central event of the twentieth century is the overthrow of matter,” with computers increasingly “dematerializing” the world: think how Wikipedia floats disembodied in the digital void, whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica rests heavily upon a dozen dusty bookshelves. Therefore, “The powers of mind are [now] everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things,” with physical-resource-poor nations like Japan increasingly dominating the global economy due to their microchip-mastering mega-firms like Sony and Nintendo.
According to Gilder, this microchip-enabled “overthrow of matter will stultify all materialist philosophy” like Darwinism and Marxism, enabling a global Christian revival. The contemporary microchip is made of three elements, “silicon, aluminum and oxygen—the three most common substances in the Earth’s crust,” therefore transmuting “the visible domain of matter” into “the invisible domain” of the online world, he said—a form of technological alchemy.
“I loved the idea that the computer was a world in a grain of sand,” he told Wired magazine in 2002, quoting the mystical poet William Blake. As tinier and tinier computer chips began to be inserted ever more into the very physical infrastructure at work around us, making everything from our fridges to our cars in some sense “sentient,” it was as if the microchip-like mind of God Himself was being inserted into the previously inert matter of His own Creation.
Gilder’s specific ideal was to see more and more transistors packed onto individual microchips, each working independently of one another and thus freed from the control of the dead hand of one centralized governing CPU (Central Processing Unit), something known as “parallel processing.” This was the core aim of Gilder’s 1980s-style Reaganite free-market economics, too: thousands of independent firms doing business independently, free of centralized government control, in direct contrast to the godless Soviet Union, with its inefficient Gosplan economic central-planning unit.
According to Gilder, “The [optimum] organization of enterprise follows the [optimum] organization of the chip”—and of the universe and of God, too, meaning the web-enabled post-1980s hyper-Reaganite free market was actually inherently Christian in its structure.
No fan of the welfare state, Gilder had long preached that state subsidization of the unemployed actually just rendered them unemployable, with things like government benefits for single mothers providing a perverse incentive for mass family breakdown.
By making entire swaths of the population dependent on the centralized Federal government, the pre-Reagan, CPU-like Washington was therefore blasphemously contradicting the innate decentralizing principle of macrocosm and microcosm alike, as embodied in microchips, God, the free-market economy, and the universe. In contrast, individual families, operating independently of the welfarist Leviathan just like parallel processors liberated from the inefficient, primitive CPUs of old, were the ultimate guarantors of both continued social order and economic well-being, he said.
In 1999, Gilder wrote of “the powers and principalities” of old-fashioned physical industry, as if they were demons; he preferred “invoking” the angelic Powers of Light via the electromagnetic spectrum of fiber-optic web cables. Thanks to microchips, Western society was literally becoming massless, he said, akin to the immortal soul sloughing off the self-enchaining weight of its fleshly body in Gnosticism. Thanks to microchips, Western society is literally becoming massless, akin to the immortal soul sloughing off the self-enchaining weight of its fleshly body in Gnosticism.Tweet This
Since the 1980s and ’90s home-computing revolution he himself had helped usher in, said Gilder: “We have soared higher and, literally, become lighter. The weight in tons of US Gross Domestic Product has dropped 25% in the past two decades, while its [financial] value has more than doubled.”
This new, weightless economy would be “powered by faith,” promised Gilder. It would become an “economy of ideas,” of creative notions, and “the act of creation is a religious act,” as demonstrated by God creating the Heavens and the Earth in the Book of Genesis, the original Etsy.com. As ideas increasingly become “the prime objects of economic output and consumption” in an ever-more online world, not outmoded old physical industrial products as in the past, the microcosmic-macrocosmic parallel between the minds of God and of man would grow ever clearer.
Henceforth, Gilder concluded, the central guarantor of economic success would be any given nation’s levels of internal religious faith. As “An economy of ideas and innovations ultimately means an economy ruled by spirit and faith,” Gilder assumed the atheistic, centralized, comparatively heavy industry-centric regimes of atheistic lands like Communist China would wither and collapse, economically speaking.
And yet, in the years since Gilder wrote these words in 1999, the precise opposite has in fact happened, with China now being the world’s second largest economy, microchip-loving Japan having endured two solid decades of economic stagnation, and the economies of the United States and Europe seemingly entering long-term decline. What went wrong?
The most obvious answer would be to accuse Gilder of hubris, a quality suggested by the following purple passage from his 1989 Microcosm book:
Overthrowing the superstitions of materialism…modern man is injecting the universe with the germ of his intelligence, the spoor of his mind.… Thus the triumph of the computer does not dehumanize the world [as many critics allege]; it makes our environment more subject to human will…[Through computing, mankind] is gaining at last his promised dominion over the world and its creatures.
That sounds perilously close to praising man for trying to transform himself into God via technological means. But, if every man does become his own little self-governing deity in this way, then how can civilization possibly continue to hold itself together? A more damning critique of Gilder’s thought, then, would be to say that perhaps society actually needs a coherent Central Processing Unit in order to function properly—not necessarily in terms of a repressive, earthly, Soviet-style Gosplan or Chinese Communist politburo, but in terms of God, the ultimate high-powered CPU.
One of the most prominent censures of contemporary Western social structures today is that proposed by conservative thinkers like Patrick J. Deneen, who say excessive trends of economic and social liberalism have led not to increased godliness, as Gilder optimistically foresaw, but a new kind of hyper-atomization, in which there are few or no shared values left remaining between different elements of the same formerly cohesive national populace.
A hyper-free-market, hyper-liberal, Internet-fueled society modeled on parallel processing, in which there are two mutually incompatible sides to every issue of contemporary dispute, even down to formerly wholly non-controversial topics like what a woman actually is, seems designed to collapse into increasing mutual strife and anarchy. Perhaps parallel processors, just like parallel lines, can never truly intersect.
This, it appears, is what really happens when you begin to model men and God alike after microchips: society itself begins to crash completely. Could it now be time for a total reboot?
[Photo: George Franklin Gilder]