10 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 24

The Thing in all its horrifying power makes us think of God


0 ur capacity for storing information is so enormous that all kinds of material are now kept for purposes yet to be determined, as a matter of routine. In the USA, for instance, all telephone calls, even from mobiles, are automatically recorded. I don't know whether the same is happening here, but I expect so. The old fuss over the tapping of phones, which goes back to before the first world war — the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, complained bitterly about the way 'they' listened to his calls — is now hopelessly out of date. Everything goes into minute storage chips, so that in 1,000 years' time those with access to search systems — virtually everyone by then, I suspect — will be able to find out what anyone was saying to anyone else, all over the world, at any second in 2001. In America already, and soon everywhere, from childhood to senility, a complete record of the phone life of every individual will be available. Personally. I am not afraid of this prospect. I regard privacy as a lost cause. It is better to assume continuous surveillance than to be caught out by selective eavesdropping. I used to be an outspoken person, giving my thoughts freely. Now I guard them, except among the closest friends. I have long assumed that the telephone is a treacherous instrument, never to be trusted. So the new development does not worry me. Indeed, as a historian, I welcome it, just as I am glad that William the Conqueror compiled the Domesday Book, regarded as an outrage at the time.

Moreover, as a Christian, I see it as a text on which to preach a new sermon about the omniscience of God. Of all the images theologians have used to bring the reality of God's power home to us, the computer is far the best. I reason thus. Leaving aside its prehistory (Pascal made a calculating machine in the 17th century), the first 'differential engine' was conceived by Charles Babbage, not long before Victoria came to the throne. You can see the beautiful but incomplete results in the Science Museum in Kensington. Then expense caused the project to go quiet, just as the principle of the fax machine, latent in the work done by Faraday in the 1840s, was not followed up. The first big mainframe computers, here and in the USA, date from the early 1940s. So the working computer is only half a century old, and the rate of acceleration, particularly in the last decade, has been almost beyond comprehension. The capacity not merely to calculate at the speed of light, but also to retain and classify information, so that it can be produced in seconds, is awesome, and this newest business of storing all telephone calls all over the world, for ever, is quite simple compared with some of the miracles now possible.

So what will the Thing be able to do in ten years' time? Its advance is so rapid that no one can confidently predict so far ahead. It will not simply do more and more, faster and faster. of what it does already, but will create new tasks for itself, of which even the experts can have no conception. That old curmudgeon Professor Haldane used to say, surveying the universe, 'Nature is stranger not only than we think but than we can possibly imagine.' In its self-generating progress, the Thing has almost become part of nature, though it is well to remember that, while using nature's laws, it roams beyond them as a man-made, if truculent, artefact. If we don't know what it will be capable of in ten years' time, how can we possibly predict its powers in 50, or 100 or 200 years? But these are merely minute movements of the second-hand in the ceaseless ticking of history's clock. A millennium is nothing. Take one example. Two thirds of the entire history of human art is cave art: the vast majority of the art we value was produced only in the last 600 years. Humanity is only just starting on a long career, in art and in everything else. The computer is our first real machine. All the rest is Heath Robinson stuff. It is the first of many as yet unconceived machines, each of which will perform marvels, making computer work at its most advanced seem simple.

Now let us look at God. I am not concerned here to prove his existence, though it seems to me increasingly likely. We will soon know all about, and even see, the creation of the universe. All the evidence so far points to a unique singularity, and it is logical to suppose that a being outside matter planned and carried out that singular act, since no matter existed before it. But let us leave that aside, and simply assume the existence of an omnipotent being. What does such omnipo

tence mean? I saw a calculation the other day that the sun will last only another six billion years. That seems a long time to me. At the rate humanity is advancing, the powers that even our man-made machines will be able to exercise at the end of this time suggest that, by then, we shall be able to cope with such a calamity without much fuss. But the machines will still lack the self-consciousness and the creative imagination that are unique to organic beings such as ourselves, made 'in God's image'. And the power that we, controlling such machines, will then exercise will still be as nothing compared with the capacity of the being who started the process in the first place. When we say that the power of God is infinite, we mean precisely that. Whatever we may imagine that power to be, using the puny yardstick of our own achievements, present and to come, the reality is inconceivably greater.

Now this is a comforting thought to me. It is one thing for each of the six billion of us to have our telephone conversations recorded from nursery to death-bed. But God is privy to, and remembers and reflects on, not only all our words, whether spoken on the telephone or not, but also all our thoughts, however secret, or half-formulated or even unformulated. He knows each one of us intimately for all of our existence, far better than a parent or a spouse or a best friend could possibly do, because he has access to the inside of our personality, down to its deepest roots. Sometimes when I worry aloud about what God will think of something I have done or not done, my wife says, 'God has more important things to do than bother with such trivialities.' But God does not have to choose between one concern and another. He does all at once. And, to him, nothing is trivial. He has observed every second of the existence not only of all humans, from the earliest anthropoid, but also of every animal, every insect, each of which are differentiated beings to him, whatever their incalculable numbers. If there are other worlds, he observes them too, in comparable detail. So when we address him, he is already listening because he has heard everything else we have said or thought. I say this is comforting, because God knows it all and weighs it all, and thus in the end each of us will get justice, something we must never expect in this world. But it is a disturbing thought, too, for that justice will be exactly what we deserve.