Suzanne van Geuns, PhD Candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion, researches the intersection of religion and digital communications technologies, with a focus on right-wing online subcultures. She has received one of the first Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society Graduate Fellowships. Her PhD supervisor is Pamela Klassen.
DSR: Congratulations on receiving this prestigious fellowship. Can you explain what it is?
SvG: The Schwartz Reisman Institute’s goal is to examine how we can use new technology, like artificial intelligence, to build a better world. Technologies often have effects that we may not want, like exacerbating inequities. The Schwartz-Reisman Institute wants to ask how can we use these emerging technologies for good.
This fellowship itself brings together an interdisciplinary group of researchers: grad students in contract law, philosophy, psychology, computer science, rational choice theory economy, anthropology and one student from the study of religion - that’s me! We will be organizing a workshop later this year, and hopefully form a community that thinks together about human values and new technologies.
DSR: As a student of the study of religion, what are you bringing to the table?
SvG: I was a bit surprised they decided to go for me, because my pitch was that this ambition to build a better world through technology is itself a religious narrative. I see the expectation that technologies will have these positive effects as an almost messianic arc. If we have the right technology then our flaws will be overcome, and we will be redeemed, that sort of thing.
I think the study of religion has the tools to unpack how technology comes to have this transformative power. For instance, my own research focuses on right-wing anti-feminism and online subcultures. I analyze ‘seduction forums’, where men share advice on how to seduce women. The thinking on these forums is that feminism has destroyed men’s instincts, and now they have to learn online how to properly be men. My dissertation traces how and where digital technology becomes an instrument for understanding a religious way to be a man or woman. How does the transformative power of technology become a resource in people’s imagination of how to be a better person?
At the Schwartz Reisman Institute, I will focus on people who want to live more algorithmically, and then use that to think more broadly about the historical and intellectual trajectories that make artificial intelligence such a force to be reckoned with.
DSR: Wait, live more algorithmically? Say more about that!
SvG: I’m looking at how computer science terms, like the algorithm, become part of a vocabulary for living better, more optimally. Algorithms are part of an intellectual framework in which problems can be solved through procedures and data. My case study of seduction forums shows how lay people increasingly use the language of a computer scientist as a kind of vocabulary for the desire to overcome limitations like male clumsiness or women’s hesitance. Execute this algorithm or run this script, and she will give you her phone number, that kind of thing. Algorithms are all over self-improvement advice on seduction forums.
Seduction forum users are not alone in this; Algorithms to Live By was a bestseller. The question for me is: how do ordinary people use technology to think about self-transformation? Part of what I hope to show is that this whole idea that a transformation will happen is itself a religious expectation, structured by religious desires to be a changed person and particular religious histories that make technologies transformative.
DSR: How did the crossover from technology to personal growth happen?
SvG: Self-improvement is part of the history of AI in striking ways. The prequel to contemporary AI is the study of systems, which came up in military research. In the 1960s, such cybernetic thinking ended up in the hands of counterculture youth, who made technological systems tools for meaningful interpersonal connection, with spiritual enlightenment as the goal. It was a transition from a military view of technology as an instrument for power to a kind of hippie, spiritual view of technology as a tool for self-development. It’s important to realize that many of these Californian hippies would have had parents who were Evangelicals, and that the deeply Christian expectation that all human flaws will be overcome in the future would not have been strange to them.
For seduction forums, that historical connection between AI research and spiritual self-improvement is especially direct. In 1970s California, systems theorist Gregory Bateson lived on same street as a man who later developed a self-help version of systems theory called neuro-linguistic programming. Computer scientists and self-improvement entrepreneurs would live in the same university towns, attend similar seminars at the Esalen Institute near San Francisco, and so on. In the 1980s, a Californian man named Ross Jeffries began to use neuro-linguistic programming in a bid to help men have sex with women. The idea was essentially to imagine women as systems that could be managed and controlled just as AI systems can. The first seduction forum, in the 1990s, was dedicated to his techniques. In this case, you can really clearly see the crossovers between computer science, popular psychology or self-help, and contemporary seduction forums.
DSR: How did you land on this as a research topic in the study of religion?
SvG: I started out by becoming obsessed with conservative Christian blogs written by women who rejected feminism and wanted to reclaim a ‘biblical’ womanhood. I came across other online platforms that sought to reverse feminism during my coursework in Toronto. While I did my BA and MA in literature, I felt much more free to think about this topic in the study of religion. There was more room there for describing interesting things without having to articulate how it is objectionable or factually wrong – which would be like shooting fish in a barrel for my research topic. Now my home is very much in the study of religion. Working in this field means approaching human hopes and dreams with a certain kind of humility and a sharp pen, and I’m convinced that this is incredibly important for the challenges we are facing currently, technologically and otherwise.