Magazine article The Spectator

The Thing in All Its Horrifying Power Makes Us Think of God

Magazine article The Spectator

The Thing in All Its Horrifying Power Makes Us Think of God

Article excerpt

Our capacity for storing information is so enormous that all kinds of material are now kept for purposes yet to be determined, as a matter of routine. In the USA, for instance, all telephone calls, even from mobiles, are automatically recorded. I don't know whether the same is happening here, but I expect so. The old fuss over the tapping of phones, which goes back to before the first world war - the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, complained bitterly about the way 'they' listened to his calls - is now hopelessly out of date. Everything goes into minute storage chips, so that in 1,000 years' time those with access to search systems - virtually everyone by then, I suspect - will be able to find out what anyone was saying to anyone else, all over the world, at any second in 2001. In America already, and soon everywhere, from childhood to senility, a complete record of the phone life of every individual will be available. Personally, I am not afraid of this prospect. I regard privacy as a lost cause. It is better to assume continuous surveillance than to be caught out by selective eavesdropping. I used to be an outspoken person, giving my thoughts freely. Now I guard them, except among the closest friends. I have long assumed that the telephone is a treacherous instrument, never to be trusted. So the new development does not worry me. Indeed, as a historian, I welcome it, just as I am glad that William the Conqueror compiled the Domesday Book, regarded as an outrage at the time.

Moreover, as a Christian, I see it as a text on which to preach a new sermon about the omniscience of God. Of all the images theologians have used to bring the reality of God's power home to us, the computer is far the best. I reason thus. Leaving aside its prehistory (Pascal made a calculating machine in the 17th century), the first `differential engine' was conceived by Charles Babbage, not long before Victoria came to the throne. You can see the beautiful but incomplete results in the Science Museum in Kensington. Then expense caused the project to go quiet, just as the principle of the fax machine, latent in the work done by Faraday in the 1840s, was not followed up. The first big mainframe computers, here and in the USA, date from the early 1940s. So the working computer is only half a century old, and the rate of acceleration, particularly in the last decade, has been almost beyond comprehension. The capacity not merely to calculate at the speed of light, but also to retain and classify information, so that it can be produced in seconds, is awesome, and this newest business of storing all telephone calls all over the world, for ever, is quite simple compared with some of the miracles now possible.

So what will the Thing be able to do in ten years' time? Its advance is so rapid that no one can confidently predict so far ahead. It will not simply do more and more, faster and faster, of what it does already, but will create new tasks for itself, of which even the experts can have no conception. That old curmudgeon Professor Haldane used to say, surveying the universe, `Nature is stranger not only than we think but than we can possibly imagine.' In its self-generating progress, the Thing has almost become part of nature, though it is well to remember that, while using nature's laws, it roams beyond them as a man-made, if truculent, artefact. If we don't know what it will be capable of in ten years' time, how can we possibly predict its powers in 50, or 100 or 200 years? But these are merely minute movements of the second-hand in the ceaseless ticking of history's clock. …

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