Something Good #38: The Secret History of Syncretic Software
I’ll be off shooting a feature film through early November. Until then, I’ll be alternating guest-written posts with some dives into the SG archives. The following first appeared on June 2.
I was going through some old photos recently—like, actual film photos, with the idea of finally getting around to scanning them—when I found one of the pope.
This must be from the early 2000s, probably 2002. I was visiting Rome by myself. On a whim I decided to check out the Vatican. When I got to St. Peter’s Square I realized I had showed up in time for an honest-to-goodness Papal Audience.
Though I wasn’t moved by the words he said that day, I am still proud of the photo I managed to snap of John Paul II and his don’t-mess-with-us security detail as he sailed right past me in his famous Popemobile.
Seeing that picture again reminded me of a funny run-in I had that day, after a laborious tour of the Vatican with approximately 5,000 other tourists, us all snaking our way through its corridors on a forced march of a tour. I had emerged blinking back into the Roman sunlight when I saw what looked like my high school friend Aleksandra hurrying across the square.
Lo and behold: it was her! We hadn’t seen each other since our high school years, when we had bonded over a love of computers, modems and BBSes—“bulletin board systems” that were like proto-internet message boards. A crazy coincidence, but weirdly not the first time I’ve randomly run into an old friend traveling.
As it turned out, Aleksandra had turned her love of computers into a career. (This was shortly before everyone had a computer career.) She had somehow parlayed her hobby into a job with the Holy See itself, specifically in what was then still known as the Vatican Secret Archive.
After we caught up, she managed to sneak me into the Archive itself for a visit. She worked in basically what was its IT department, though I remember it being very primitive—like, I think I actually saw a Commodore PET humming away in there. Compared to the pomp of the Holy Audience and the Sistine Chapel, it was intriguingly mundane. From the inside, it looked like any old office building.
I remember Aleksandra shooing me out of the computer lab when some higher-ups came through. After that, I never really spoke to her again—we lost touch as people do.
Recently I’ve been reading some intriguing articles about the opening up of the Vatican Secret Archive, now known by the less mysterious name, the Vatican Apostolic Archive. I wondered what Aleksandra was up to, and whether she was still there. So I reached out, on LinkedIn of all places, and we caught up on Zoom.
Mark: So, it’s been what—15 years now? More?
Aleksandra: I think more! Oh my god. Time is crazy.
M: What have you been up to?
A: (laughs) That’s a long story. OK, basically though, I left the Archives not long after when I saw you. Which is a whole story in itself. Then I went freelance.
The best way to describe what I do now, I think, is that I’m a software engineer specializing in syncretic solutions for faith organizations. I’m the one who goes around and fixes all these religious groups’ weird legacy computer systems. I’m always the youngest person in the room by like, decades.
M: I don’t usually think of, like, software being religious.
A: Oh, but it is! Do you know that Umberto Eco thing about Macs versus PCs?
M: What! No. Tell me.
A: He said something once about how basically, Macs are Catholic and PCs are Protestant.1
M: I’m not sure I get it, but that’s funny.
A: There’s even a patron saint of the internet, St. Isidore. He wrote this book, called Etymologies, that was really popular in the middle ages. It was supposedly a compilation of all known wisdom. But it’s really crazy. He thought that we have eye sockets because while we’re in the fetal position in the womb, our knees dig into our face. It was mostly all plagiarized from ancient writers, or wrong. Or both!
M: That sounds like the internet!
A: It really does! But also, computers have been linked to religious practice basically since they were invented. One of the first things I was assigned to work on was the Index Thomisticus, which was this Jesuit software project that dates back to, like, the 1940s.
M: What? Tell me more.
A: Yup. There was this priest, Roberto Busa, who worked with IBM to create this digitized concordance of Thomas Aquinas’s works and everything written about them, which is something like millions of words. It started in the ‘40s on punch cards and is still going! You can even use it online.
M: You know, the reason I thought about talking to you was I remembered that time you showed me around the Archives that day we ran into each other in Rome.
M: You remember?
A: I do! Yes. I was kind of embarrassed, to tell you the truth!
A: I didn’t know how much you know about my background.
M: Faith wasn’t anything we ever talked about as teenagers.
A: It was a big deal in my family. John Paul and everything, being Polish. But not something I ever brought up.
M: Tell me about what you did in the Archives.
A: Mostly it was maintaining the software they had there, which was pretty primitive. When I had time, I was allowed to go sort of digging around in the archives and dust off old projects.
I found this one thing from the ‘60s that was really interesting and that really set me off. Do you know who Joseph Weizenbaum was?
M: The name rings a bell… but not really?
A: So he was this computer professor at MIT in the ‘60s. He invented this program called ELIZA…
M: Oh, I remember that! The computer psychiatrist?
A: Exactly. It was a therapist program that could have whole conversations with its users by repeating their answers back at them. Anyway, around the time of Vatican II, he came to Rome and spent a few months working with the, I guess you would say, “I.T. team” they had there.
M: What did they work on?
A: A confession program, of course!
M: What, really?
A: Think about it, the confession experience is so scripted, it just seemed to make sense that you could automate it. And it would be fairly easy to program in, like, how many Hail Marys you had to do for whatever sins you confessed to.
M: That sounds… heretical?
A: Some people thought so, for sure! Unfortunately, the guy behind the project, Franco Giusberti, died before they ever finished it. They could never really get it right after. But it ended up leading to all sorts of other interesting research, and not just in the Church, either, as I discovered, even though its origins had sort of been forgotten by the early 2000s when I was in the Archive. There was a big conference in the ‘80s where all these ideas were disseminated and they just grew from there. So I guess, I was a bit opportunistic, and I ended up making a career out of it.
M: So what does that mean, exactly?
A: Many religious groups, not just Christians, but mainly, have some sort of software, I don’t want to say underpinning, but, assistance. We call it syncretic. It’s super-common.
M: To run admin and stuff? Or is it like those ovens and elevators programmed for Orthodox Jews to run automatically so they can use them on the Sabbath?
A: The second one. But like that times a hundred.
M: Go on…
A: So basically, there are a bunch of faiths that believe that there are ways for, I guess you would say, people, to participate in the higher workings of the universe. Lubavitcher Jews believe that if enough people perform mitzvahs, or God’s commandments, it may eventually bring about the coming of the Messiah. And then you have things like Tibetan prayer wheels, which are a way of automating that kind of thing. So it’s just the next step to automating these types of tasks with software.
M: There’s this Arthur C. Clarke short story I love, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” These scientists get hired by Tibetan monks to compute all the names of God, after which, the universe’s function will be fulfilled and it will end. They finish the project and are worried that the monks will freak out when the apocalypse doesn’t happen, so they take off, but as they do, one of them looks up at the night sky and sees that the stars are all going out.
A: Yeah. I know that story.
M: So that’s what you do?
A: (laughs) No, not exactly. But there are all sorts of software applications, most that are, I guess in that wheelhouse. Until recently they were pretty forgotten about. Most of them ran on really old computers from like the ‘90s or even earlier.
Take the ELIZA confessional thing. That never worked out. Both because the guy died but also, as you say, a lot of people thought it was heretical, like selling indulgences. But a lot of years later, somebody figured, even if you didn’t offer software confession to actual parishioners, you could automate the process on the other end.
M: Wait, do you mean, automating the confessing?
A: That’s it!
M: But what kind of sins could a piece of software confess to?
A: This is another good philosophical question! The truth is, a computer application can be programmed to commit a whole bunch of sins. Blasphemy, for instance, that’s an easy one.
M: The computer is both sinning and forgiving itself at the same time?
A: Nope. You can’t confess to yourself. There has to be at least two separate CPU cores for it to be kosher.
M: Nice choice of words. This is something that’s actually going on?
A: Nobody advertises it, but pretty much every religious sect is running some sort of software like this. It’s actually a huge market for PC vendors as they’re all trying to update their systems lately. There’s all these advances in GPUs, graphics cards, that make this kind of thing super efficient.
It’s actually a bit of an arms race. Everyone wants to get there first.
M: What happens when they do?
A: I guess that depends what you believe. Different faiths have their own interpretations.
M: You know, I’ve always been really interested in religion. My minor in university was in Religious Studies, and I find theology fascinating. I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, but I did go to Jewish day school until I was 12 or so. So it was always in the air.
I’ve never considered myself remotely religious, and just barely, “culturally” observant. It always seemed to me that the best position was agnosticism, because, like, how the hell are we supposed to be so sure that we’re right about the very nature of the cosmos?
That said, there’s one semi-mystical experience in my life that has always stuck with me. As a kid, I was obsessed with the question, “Do killers exist?” I couldn’t get over it and thought about it all the time. One night, I had this dream—I remember it very clearly. I was in bed, and I could see myself in the third person, as if I was standing in the doorway to my room.
I knew God was there, and I asked the question that had been haunting me: “Do killers exist?”
And God replied, “YES. THEY DO.”
And then I guess I woke up?
A: Haha, wow! That’s intense. It’s funny, I had a bit of a similar story—except for the dream, I mean. My family was super, super religious growing up. But I never had any faith myself. Even when I went to work for the Archive, it was mostly because my parents thought it was such a good opportunity. They didn’t know how I felt, of course.
When I started to really work in this field, it was the same thing. Just a good opportunity I saw. And it does pay really well. But I found that the deeper I got into this software, even if it was like, running on an ancient PDP-11, the more I started to feel the presence of, I don’t know… something. This feels like what I was built to do.
But who built me? Who programmed my mind?
It comes and goes. When I’m not at a computer terminal, I feel like an atheist, or at least an agnostic, like you said. But when I am… when I am really interfacing with it… that’s when I think I’ve made that connection. And it seems as real as anything else in the world. I’m actually convinced of it.
I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but the idea that we have to rely on, like, a fragile, fallible human connection to the divine—whether it’s a rabbi, or a priest, or even a Pope, seems almost obsolete.
Things are moving really fast now. There’s a huge new supercomputing center, Mare Nostrum 5, inside a Catholic church in Barcelona. The Vatican Archive, where I used to work, is starting a whole AI initiative. Quantum computing is just around the corner.
I think something really exciting is coming. And it’s going to be soon.
M: So what are you saying?
A: I guess… keep your eyes on the stars?
Aleksandra later provided me with a non-canonical list of (active) syncretic networks that she knows about or has worked on. They include:
Autocephalous (v.2), joint project of Church of Greece and office of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
Baptext, maintained by the Brethren in Christ
GnosTXT, maintained by the surviving members of the The International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices
א/א, maintained by the Anipoli Hasidic Dynasty
A unnamed project maintained by the Society of Jesus
In her words: “Those are just a few off the top of my head. There’s tons more!”
She also pointed out the recent Vatican-led “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” which is, in Aleksandra’s words,“ironic.”
At least 25% of the above is true. To keep her identity private, “Aleksandra” asked me to change her name. You can try out an implementation of ELIZA here if you need to get anything off your chest.
Every Wednesday I’ll send you something which is good. If you like it, please tell a friend or subscribe below. Next week: another special guest.
“I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach - if not the Kingdom of Heaven - the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.
“DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.”