God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.
Augustine of Hippo, City of God (c. 415 AD)
And by hands, of course, St. Augustine means our minds. Our minds are too full to receive the gifts we are given.
Like generative AI.
Augustine wrote City of God from his bishopric in North Africa after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD. It's a tougher read than his far more personal Confessions, but the basic idea is that there are two worlds that exist simultaneously here on Earth: there's the City of Man - the physical instantiation of society, typically corrupt, always decaying, ruled by utterly fallible men and the evil they do - and the City of God - a society that lives in our hearts, incorruptible and timeless, less ruled than inspired by the illumination of the Divine.
This joy in God is not like any pleasure found in physical or intellectual satisfaction. Nor is it such as a friend experiences in the presence of a friend. But, if we are to use any such analogy, it is more like the eye rejoicing in light.
The eye rejoicing in light. What a perfect phrase for the human mind's response to discovery and new knowledge!
Augustine's writings were some of the first in the Christian tradition to wrestle deeply with why an omnipotent God of good allows the persistence of evil and why really bad things happen to good people at scale. His answers - original sin, free will as God's vital gift, the abiding strength of epistemic communities of men and women of good will and faith - are foundational to the past 1,600 years of Western thought.
The City of Man is a community of implacable obligation that exists in the physical world wherever humans gather as a society. You are born into the City of Man, you will live out your life in the City of Man, you will enjoy what you can and you will suffer what you must in the City of Man, and you will die in the City of Man.
The City of Man IS. The City of Man is inexorable, literally "that which cannot be prayed away" in the original Latin.
The City of God, on the other hand, is prayed into being. The City of God is a community of choice that exists across time and space wherever humans of good will (Full Hearts) and a common endeavor of truth-seeking (Clear Eyes) come together in faith.
Must this faith be Augustine's faith in the God of Abraham and His Son? Nope. At least not as I mean the City of God, which admittedly is more as metaphor than I expect Augustine meant it! My goal isn't to trivialize Augustine's beautiful concept (on the contrary), but I believe that the City of God can be manifested in a high school football team a la Friday Night Lights just as powerfully as in a monastery of Benedictine monks. I believe that a Walt Whitman poem is as revealing of the transcendental divine as any passage in the Bible. I don't share Augustine's faith. We don't mean exactly the same thing when we write "the City of God". But in my heart of hearts I know that we share a similar eye rejoicing in the light.
I think that all humans with a transcendental faith - a belief in a literally (super)human power of good that exists above, below and beyond the world that we know but acts within the world we know through its inspiration of human hearts and minds trapped in the world that we know - can reside in the City of God, even if they don't mean the same thing when they write the word "God". Christianity is a transcendental faith, as is Islam and Buddhism and Judaism and most of the great religions of the world.
As is my faith in the Spirit of Man.
What do I mean by the Spirit of Man? Maybe the simplest way to describe my faith is that I believe there is an arc and arrow to human history, an arc and arrow that goes fitfully up and to the right, propelled by the core small-l liberal virtue of a timeless autonomy of the individual human mind and the core small-c conservative virtue of a social human connectedness anchored in time.
To be honest, most of the time I feel like such a sucker for believing in the Spirit of Man.
I feel like Winston in Orwell's 1984, persisting in a belief that the City of Man can't possibly be as evil and permanent as it seems, even as I am tortured into submission and forced to admit that there is zero evidence - zero! - of any substantive movement in my lifetime towards a more just and free society reflecting the ascendancy of the Spirit of Man.
O'Brian: We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party. The others are outside - irrelevant. Winston: I don't care. In the end they will beat you. Sooner or later they will see you for what you are, and then they will tear you to pieces. O'Brian: Do you see any evidence that this is happening? Or any reason why it should? Winston: No. I believe it. I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe - I don't know, some spirit, some principle - that you will never overcome. O'Brian: Do you believe in God, Winston? Winston: No. O'Brian: Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us? Winston: I don't know. The Spirit of Man.
At this point, O'Brian continues to torture Winston mercilessly until he rejects his faith in the Spirit of Man and embraces a faith in Big Brother. Wheeee!
I'm still hanging in there - barely! - in part because I haven't been directly tortured with a box of rats attached to my head like Winston (although my Twitter addiction has created something pretty close to a Room 101 for me), but also because I think Orwell, like the democratic socialist true-believer he was, got something fundamentally wrong about the Spirit of Man.
The Spirit of Man is not found in the proletariat.
I mean, it is, in the sense that the Spirit of Man is not not found in the proletariat. But the Spirit of Man is not a class thing! Or a race thing or an age thing or a nationality thing or a gender thing or any other limiting principle found in the material world-as-it-is. The Spirit of Man, like any transcendental, outside the world-as-it-is phenomenon, is limitless. It is reflected in ALL humans regardless of ANY material condition.
The Spirit of Man is your birthright as a human being. It is not ladled out to you from some central pot. It cannot be granted or taken away by the State or the Corporation. Certainly you can give away your birthright for a mess of pottage, and in my experience many people do just that. But many don't! Wherever they sit on the age spectrum, the class spectrum, the gender spectrum, the race spectrum ... many don't. And by claiming their birthright as a human being, by rejecting the Nudges that would place their mindfulness and community in the City of Man, by allowing their eyes to rejoice in the light of a transcendental faith, they enter the City of God.
The City of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Man, is where you express your autonomy of mind.
The City of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Man, is where you express your connectedness with other humans.
The City of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Man, is where you express your choice to Make, Protect and Teach, your choice to pursue a conscious life of meaning NOW, no matter what you've done in the past or your position, high or low, in the City of Man.
Because generative AI is not just a tool of search, but a tool of discovery.
Today we equate the idea of search with Google and the idea of discovery with Netflix Recommends or Amazon Suggested For You.
My friends, that is the saddest sentence I have ever written.
The great gift of generative AI like ChatGPT is that it takes the ideas of search and discovery away from the petty Tech Principalities and returns them into the individual hands of those with faith in the Spirit of Man.
And that's the most hopeful sentence I have ever written.
I was born in 1964, or as I sometimes like to call it, 34 BG. Back in the before-Google times, the idea of search was located in two places - the encyclopedia set that your parents displayed reverently in the living room, searchable and physically organized alphabetically by subject, and the card catalog files presented as an altar at your school or public library, searchable alphabetically by author, title or subject and physically organized by the Dewey Decimal classification. The meaning of search was looking up a topic by name in the encyclopedia or a book by author in the card catalog. And that was all fine and good. Eventually you'd generalize your topic enough to match the subject-level specificity available in your encyclopedia (World Book blah, Britannica yaaas) or eventually you'd find the Dewey Decimal code range you were looking for in the library stacks, and then you'd track the little white stickers on the book spines until you found the specific Dewey Decimal code you were looking for. Search complete.
But that's exactly when discovery would begin.
The most impactful learning experiences of my life have occurred when I went beyond what I had been instructed to find specifically … when I started reading the next entry in the encyclopedia, when I started flipping through the books to the right and the left of the book I was searching for in the library, when I started looking at the books on the shelf below and the shelf above … and I discovered something NEW.
The power of the physical library is its searchable collection of books. The superpower of the physical library is its service as a discovery tool, made possible by the Dewey Decimal virtual organization of the individual books by content similarity. The Dewey Decimal system creates a virtual network graph of the books in the library, and then that graph is instantiated in the physical placement of the books.
Yes, a physical library with accessible stacks is a form of generative AI!
Now imagine that all the books in the world are in that library. Or if not all of the books (yet), imagine a library thousands of times larger than any library you've ever seen. Imagine if the content similarity between books isn't instantiated in physical shelves that you can walk around, but is available to you for the asking in natural language of plain-spoken meaning and recall.
"Hey, I've been thinking a lot about subject XYZ, especially as it pertains to ABC and DEF. In fact here's the full text of the article that got me thinking about this. Here are the connections GHI I'm interested in exploring, but I'm also thinking that other people may have made connections I hadn't thought of yet. When I say other people, let's only consider published book authors and authors in the top 20 academic journals in field JKL, and please be as accurate a librarian as possible. Has anyone else written about this idea or connection that I'm thinking about? Am I understanding these concepts correctly? What are 10 other connections from that original article that I'm not thinking about? Let's goooooo."
Wash, rinse, repeat. Apply to any aspect of human knowledge. Substitute commercial for academic. Broaden or narrow the scope of the library stacks you want to wander around. Do whatever sparks your human creativity and inventiveness in whatever Make/Protect/Teach endeavor you've got.
Now imagine that this discovery-librarian is available to everyone and everywhere. I know we're not quite there yet - GPT-4 at $20/month through OpenAI is lightyears ahead of the free options available for GPT-3 and GPT-3.5 - but boy are we close. Now imagine that neither the content network graph nor its reporting is confounded or 'adjusted' by the librarian's business model, whether that's inserting an advertisement you must endure to get to your discovery or a promoted content elevation separate from your priorities.
THIS is generative AI in the City of God, a tool for not just search but discovery, a tool for shining the light of the Spirit of Man just as far as the rejoicing eye can see.
If, as Augustine said, our minds are not too full to accept it.