A Sociologist, AI, & our Identity

by Alex Fry, Postdoc Research Associate, ECLAS Project, St John' College, Durham


AI offers us both fantastic opportunities and worrying challenges.


For instance, it can help save lives by detecting cancers sooner and with greater accuracy than humans. And that’s just one promising example. At the same time, this technology raises questions that strike at the core of our identity– of what it means to be human. Stephen Hawking once said that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."* This is most likely an exaggeration. However, the threat to our identity is true even when AI has benefits. It raises ‘existential’ questions because it can challenge our identity and lead us to question our value and place within the world.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

This has been noticed by social researchers and activists.

The sobering Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma sheds light on this threat. We learn from it that 64% of people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because algorithms led them there. We also learn that social media has persuasive design techniques like push buttons. These create feedback loops that show people more of the content that appeals to them, leading to a social media addiction.

three pictures of Ivana Bartoletti from her website

Ivana Bartoletti is a leading figure in this area. She has written the accessible and well-informed book An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI. In it she explains that AI undermines our free will. It exploits our desires by accurately predicting things about ourselves before we are aware of them– even our sexuality. It does this by monitoring our online activity and using this to influence our behaviour as consumers, often without us realising. It manipulates us for someone else’s gain, usually for profit and power.


So, why is this a threat to our human identity? Bartoletti writes, “It is about dignity. The persuasion […] that underpins the world of social media [–for example–] is a breach of our essential rights as human beings, our integrity, our true selves” (p. 66).

“It is about dignity. The persuasion […] that underpins the world of social media [–for example–] is a breach of our essential rights as human beings, our integrity, our true selves”

Bartoletti recognises that this is an issue of human identity.


However, she does not get to the crux of the matter. She orbits around the central issue at stake– the nature of what it is to be human, but never unpacks what is meant by human integrity, what it means to be our true selves, or why this matters. To be fair, she does give concrete examples of AI’s negative impact. However, showing that it has problematic consequences is not the same as explaining why these consequences matter to us as human beings.


Finding the right language to unpack the challenge that AI poses to human identity has been difficult. But AI is now a part of everyday life. Many of us have an Amazon Echo, use Facebook or apply for jobs at companies that use algorithms to shortlist candidates. Technology confronts us with questions about what it means to be human as never before.


In her highly influential book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Future at The New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff explains that we interpret new things in light of what we have already experienced. She also warns us that this makes it impossible to fully recognise what new technologies bring about. However, if we don’t recognise this challenge to our human identity, we won’t get a handle on it. Instead, we’ll fall prey to all its negative consequences. But to fully recognise this threat, we need to be able to describe it. We need the right language. This language must go beyond describing the impact of AI and get to the heart of the problem– it must tell us why it matters. Doing otherwise is like identifying symptoms instead of the disease.


My name is Alex Fry and I’m a sociologist. I’m passionate about understanding why society is the way it is. My subject has many needed uses. After all, it’s the social study of technology that alerts us to the dark side of AI. However, like all subjects, sociology has its limits. It cannot fully explain the things that have existential meaning to us. It breaks our social contexts down into smaller pieces so that we can examine them, to understand them better. In other words, it’s reductive. However, human identity is not an exclusively social matter– the questions that it raises concern more than our social contexts. Our instinct and experience as humans tell us that we are more than the sum of our parts. Language that is rooted in a reductive approach to understanding our humanity simply won’t do here. This leaves the question of which subject can help us unpack the identity challenge brought about by AI.


Christian theology offers a way through this problem by providing a language that is widely accessible to those living in countries that have historically been Christian. Perhaps to the surprise of many, this is true even if most of the population no longer identify as Christian.


As a case in point, the language of human dignity has an extensive history in Christian thought. That is not to say that the Church has always acted consistently on this belief. However, much time has been spent explaining and applying this conviction. The Bishop of London’s support for the Domestic Abuse Bill offers a recent example. In response to the increase in domestic violence during the Coronavirus lockdown, Sarah Mullally stated, “[The] Church has always been a voice for the voiceless and a sanctuary for those in need. Domestic abuse in all its forms is contrary to the will of God and an affront to human dignity.”**


Here we see the conviction that our dignity is rooted in something beyond our immediate environment– it is rooted in God. The eminent sociologist Max Weber explained that people in historically Christian societies often believe in values that have meaning beyond the person holding them. He also explained that this is found beyond the Church as well as within it. Crucially, one does not have to be a Christian to appreciate the universal truth of human dignity.


One approach to medical ethics offers a useful way of connecting our society with this theological language. In At The End of The Day: Church of England Perspectives on End of Life Issues, Brendan McCarthy draws on the theology of Nigel Biggar. McCarthy explains that Christian theology needs to be authentically Christian rather than distinctively Christian. That does not stop distinctives flowing from authentic Christian theology, but it provides space for members of a diverse society to reach agreement on important issues. This can be true even when they do so with (sometimes very) different assumptions.


This approach offers a framework to unpack AI’s challenge to human identity and explain why it matters. It provides a language that still has currency in societies that were once predominantly Christian. It can equip those within and beyond the Church to partner in addressing AI’s challenge to our identity by finding overlaps between the Church’s and society’s beliefs about our humanity. This will need detailed thought and will undoubtedly involve much listening across a diverse society. However, it is both possible and needed.


Despite its many opportunities, AI challenges our understanding of what it means to be human. We must find a way of expressing why this matters to address the threat to our human identity alongside enjoying AI’s benefits. Christian theology offers us a language to meet this need in diverse societies with a Christian heritage.


Alex Fry, St John's College, Durham


To explore this subject area further, join our webinar on Wednesday 26th January at 3pm with Dr Joshua K Smith, Anna Puzo, Paul Johnston and Nicole Kunkel.


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* Rory Cellan-Jones. (02nd December, 2014). ‘Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind.’ BBC News. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30290540.


** Hattie Williams. (07th May, 2019). ‘Bishop of London raises alarm on domestic abuse during lockdown’. The Church Times. Available at: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/8-may/news/uk/bishop-of-london-raises-alarm-on-domestic-abuse-during-lockdown