Brett Robinson

In 1967, Richard Brautigan wrote a poem called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” that imagined a world where people get reconnected to nature by living in harmony with computers:

“I like to think / (right now, please!) / of a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics / where deer stroll peacefully / past computers / as if they were flowers / with spinning blossoms.”

We can chuckle at this now, but the marriage between New Age romanticism and new computer technology was serious business in the 1960s. Scores of computer engineers attempted to enhance their creativity by engaging in New Age practices like taking LSD.

Most of the experiments failed to yield anything interesting — though it is said that Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, came up with a potty training toy after taking some LSD. Not quite an earth-shattering breakthrough, but I had toddlers once, so I get it.

Machines, no matter how creatively conceived, are not capable of loving grace. However, the more we push the boundaries on artificial intelligence and the “internet of things,” the more our technological artifacts seem to know us.

Ads for things we are thinking about suddenly appear on websites we are browsing. The timing is often so uncanny that we often wonder if our devices are listening to our conversations since we were just talking about getting some new running shoes this morning.

Grace often operates this way, doesn’t it? We experience a lack (something more than running shoes), we offer prayers and somehow God delivers an answer at the right place, the right time and in the right way. He does so in a way that is so particular to us that it forces a moment of recognition. Who is it that knows and loves me so perfectly that this grace would flow to me at this very moment?

Technology’s superficial way of knowing us diverts our attention from the true sources of “loving grace” who know and love us. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit who desire to dwell within us. Our Blessed Mother who perpetually advocates for us.

Pope Leo XIII called the Virgin Mary the “mediatrix of divine grace.” In other words, she who brought Christ into the world and returned our human love to him in the most perfect way has the special privilege of dispensing his grace back to us, her sons and daughters.

In a world filled with artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri, it is good to recall that it is still artificial. We all share the desire to be known, but it is a far different thing to be known by a database or a social media profile than it is to be known and loved by God and his mother. We are all watched over by a mother (not machine) of loving grace.

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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.