16 May 2024

Growing in Empire

Introduction

It is time to take this blog in a new direction! Specifically towards Jesus, his teachings, and how they relate to technology. (Whaaat? Yes, that’s right!).

I’ve started reading (but have not finished) Every Life is on Fire. Amazing book so far. The premise of drawing inspiration from the Bible to explain scientific observations is another motivator for this post. But specifically on the topic of Effective Accelerationism.

Effective Accelerationism and “the Way” do not seem to mix. Nor should we expect that they must. But I feel compelled to wrestle with and reason through these competing philosophies. A big part of me is naturally attracted to the current techno-capitalist accelerationist zeitgeist. I want to build! Dissipative adaption of technology! Let’s go!

And yet there is a sense of freedom I get daily in having my own eyes centered on Jesus as a teacher.

How can one live trying to usher in a new area of AGI while also earnestly seeking to follow Jesus? Is it even possible?

I have no idea! But I want to walk through my journey in the open. Hence the blog.

Premise

I am a part of Empire. I work for Empire. I benefit from Empire. When I say “Empire” I mean the the ancient Jeudeo-Christian interpretation of an oppressive ruling class/government/society. Empire is: Egypt, Babylon, Rome, etc. Each have become archetypes in their own way. Today, I see a lot of similarities with American Techno-Capitalism and these ideas of “Empire.”

And looking at the facts around me — how can I not be considered part of Empire? I’ve worked in “Big Tech” for the last 7 years. I’ve worked on what some call “surveillance capitalism” (Alexa and Google Ads to be precise). Before that, I spent 6 years building video games. Before that I spent 10+ years build web apps for marketing, internal business operations, and financial trading algorithms. To many – especially the oppressed or marginalized around the world – I am part of the problem. I am what is wrong with technology these days. I benefit from the distractions of others and the ad machine that fuels the economy. I am part of Empire.

However, day-to-day I have not felt that my contributions are “evil” or that I am actively creating societal problems. I feel like I am contributing to the greater good. To the accelerating techno-capitalism machine that actually improves lives. I do not wake up thinking about exploiting others. I do not see the negative effects of advertising. But I also do not deny there are harmful effects of ads, video games, and in-home devices trying to snatch your attention!

I cannot in my day-to-day life see the starkness or extreme “exploitation” that others describe. (Maybe that is part of the problem).

I subscribe to the Steven Pinker camp Better Angels of our Nature that things are… getting better! More than that, I also see clearly the good and human flourishing that my work produces. I’ve experienced first-hand delivering Alexa devices to disabled friends who needed freedom. Enabled them in a time of desparation to have power. To communicate when their hands would not work. I’ve experienced small businesses grow because of their engagement with Google.

I digress. This is not meant to be an apology or a defense of the current Empire. Let’s just leave the matter as what we hear in the Bible: Empire will — eventually — fall into judgement and I am in Empire.

So the question I want to wrestle with is: what does it look like to grow as an apprentice of Jesus while in Empire? Should I “quit Big Tech”? Take up farming? Give all my money away? What does resistance to Empire (while serving it – if that is possible) look like?

Let’s anchor on some scripture. Specifically one story and one book in the New Testament.

Part 1 - The Centurion

Two gospels tell of this story – albeit inconsistently regarding the details. Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 both tell the story of a Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant. A few interesting points come from this:

  1. Appeal to Authority. The story illustrates deference of power by the centurion towards Jesus. The centurion was keenly aware of power dynamics within Empire. Luke’s account does not say the centurion himself went to Jesus but rather sent others to him (out of reverence). In both accounts, we are expected to see that the centurion had a deep respect for authority. But more importantly and regardless of what actually happened, the centurion saw Jesus as the final escalation point. He appealed to Jesus as the top of the corporate ladder.

  2. Recognition of Faith. Jesus praises the centurion’s faith claiming it is greater than that of Israel’s. What faith? The sheer act and demonstration of Jesus as the top of the ladder. That’s it. The faith is “I know you are in charge and have power.” In Matthew, Jesus also took that moment to talk about the exclusion of the “heirs of the kingdom” (which I think mean the Jewish people of the time) from the kingdom of heaven. Jesus often shattered expectations by talking about outsiders being inside (the kingdom) and those who thought they were inside (Israel or the church) being out. The difference between them always started with their hearts. How interesting! Even in this example Jesus is saying “the centurion is in because of his faith (e.g. reverance to the fact I – Jesus – am in charge).”
  3. Caring for Others. The centurion’s request was for the healing of another – his servant. While we can reasonably speculate that this was an act of desperation (who or what else in Empire could heal as Jesus was known to?) — it still illustrates that the centurion’s request was not directly for himself but for another. This too tells us something about the centurion’s heart.

As individuals in Empire, what can we learn from this? If we are modern day centurions, what lessons can we be reminded of? Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Jesus is Lord. Appeal to Jesus’s authority – not mine, not any other human, not any other institution. Jesus is my manager, skip-level, Director, VP, CEO, Chairman of the Board, and majority shareholder. Trust in his leadership and persevere even when I don’t get the direction I need from the company or the world.
  2. You Are In. Jesus welcomed all to the kingdom. Centurions, Pharisees, Tax Collectors, Thieves, the Rich, the Poor, etc. so presumably that includes: Big Tech workers, Billionaires, Landlords, Capitalists, Lower/Under Represented Minorities, the Poor, the Heart-broken, everyone. Your worldly status has no bearing (positive or negative) with your kingdom status. Jesus is working on a whole other level.
  3. Examine My Own Heart. Am I truly prioritizing others above myself? Not just my direct reports, my org, my peers, my manager, my team, but everyone. Do I put my manager above myself? Do I recognize those who work ecurity, in facilities, literally every human I encounter? All are image bearers deserve my respect. I am blessed for me to serve them! Even if that is appealing to Jesus’s authority.

Part 2 - Revelation

The second bit of scripture is John’s message to the Roman churches in Asia – a.k.a. Revelation. I subscribe to the view that the book was written to the seven churches specifically about Rome and living under Empire. Yes it tells us of the far future, but it’s not an encoded end times text as much as it is a counter-cultural image of our current times. It is an apocalypse, but one that is a call to faithfulness – and hope! – during a time of temptation towards Empire.

Side note: it is debatable if Christians were really persecuted quite as much as we are made to think from other historical records. Let us not debate that, but instead take the text as it is. Which includes an admonishment of Empire and a call for the churches to not be tempted by Empire – not just resist persecution, but do not fall under the ways of your persecutors! That point (rather than “bear with persecution”) is almost more important for us now. Here are some of the key takeaways I have from the book:

  1. Resist Idolatry: Revelation repeatedly warns against worshiping anything other than God. This includes the idols of wealth, power, and technology that are prevalent in contemporary society. The call is to remain faithful to God’s commandments and to reject the allure of material success as the ultimate goal. Do not build a career for money. Not for personal gain. Resist the appeal of force and coercion.

  2. Victory is Assured: Despite the apparent dominance of oppressive systems (Empires), Revelation assures believers that God’s victory is certain. This assurance provides hope and encouragement to persevere in faith, knowing that ultimate justice and restoration are in God’s hands.

  3. New Creation Starts Now: Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, symbolizing the renewal of all things. This new creation is not just a future promise but begins now through the lives of believers who embody God’s kingdom values of justice, peace, and love in their daily actions.

Once again, here is what I want to remind myself with the above observations:

  1. Ruthless Elimination of Idols: Ok, slight plagarism of John Mark Comer, but he’s amazing. For me, to keep my heart in check, I want to examine the areas where I make the things of Empire an idol. Some personal examples: (1) I stopped playing video games completely (not that they are inherently bad), (2) my phone is in greyscale (well, 90% grey), (3) I do not watch horror movies at all anymore (and I loooved horror movies), and (4) I am trying (or perhaps struggling) to not buy gadgets I do not need (Oura Ring, Rabbit R1, anything from Teenage Engineering). Cut things out. Remove the idols. Repent from distractions. Create space for Jesus to fill.

  2. Live an ‘Eternal’ Life: If we accept that: (1) God’s victory over Empire is already won, (2) the Kingdom of Heaven is both “now and not yet”, and (3) we are in the Kingdom; then the natural conclusion is to live eternally. We have forever afterall! Jesus used the word “αἰώνιος” (aiónios) to describe the life he promised John 3:16. The meaning of this word is not just “for a long temporarl amount of time” but it is also an adjective describing a “quality of life.” When we live in Empire, we are not meant to hoard. We are not meant to seek material possessions, or make Mamon our master. We are meant to live as if we have all the time and resources in all eternity, ready to give blessings to anyone in our vacinity. To operate in a world that we view as abundant and filled with blessings. Because, well…. it is!

  3. Go the Extra Mile: This is from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:41), but I think Revelation emphasizes the “serve as if the end is near” concept that Jesus spoke of. This conclusion seems to be a natural consequence of the above eternal living. If the Kingdom is here now and guaranteed to come – why not live with blessing to others? While growing in Empire, we are to embody the principle of: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” This means joyfully working – as a servant, not for selfish ambition – as someone who “goes the extra mile.” Whether it’s taking on additional responsibilities, supporting a coworker in need, or delivering exceptional service, Jesus frees us to go above and beyond. Because he is our energy, because His Kingdom is here and we are in it! This attitude demonstrates humility, dedication, and a servant’s heart, setting a powerful example in a corporate environment. For me – it means seeking out the “lowly service” that others may scorn. Tech migrations, working with difficult partners, and keeping the lights on.

Part 3 - Not Of Empire

If we allow God’s grace to remind us of the above, and we freely act as if we are of another Kingdom, freely live abundantly as if we have all the time in the world, freely act with patience and servitude – then we proclaim the victory of Jesus while smack dab in the middle of Empire. We really will fulfill what Jesus said in John 17:14-16 to be “not of this world.”

If we are not of Empire, but still in Empire – Peter reminds us how to act. In I Peter 2:12-19, we are to submit to rulers and authorities. I read this as an all inclusive list – concerning managers, directors, VPs, local government, national governments, etc.

My final thought – to end this ridiculously long post! – is that growing in Empire as a follower of The Way, looks exactly the same as in any other circumstance for an apprentice of Jesus. We think, act, and believe the same. That Jesus is Lord, victory is assured, and our life’s focus becomes eternal living with abundance in the footsteps of Jesus.

I will write more about e/acc related topics and get into more ML concepts.