Engineering Illusions: Religious Thought and Technology

An Insider’s Take on Technical Fanaticism

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The modern scientific and technical enterprise is celebrated for its rational thought and sound technology programs that serve humankind. Religion has little place in the technologist’s mind, modern opinion goes. Through the application of sober science and earnest engineering, the enterprise walks a path of reason, seemingly overcoming religious motivations of the past. It is but an exercise of casual analysis and brief work in Silicon Valley, today’s vaunted exemplar of technical progress, to understand this falsehood. Religious doctrine is alive and well, and it fuels technology development in two ways: explicit evocation of religion, particularly Christianity, that bestows upon technologies a mystical purpose of ascent and divinity; and more commonly, a divorce from explicit religiosity, that nevertheless retains the promise of transcendence through technical means. Evidently, such a divorce does not erode any zealous fervor.

Technical Godheads and Gospels

Despite his seventeenth century utopian visions of technical divine ascension and mankind’s emancipation in New Atlantis, Francis Bacon too had diligently served to fortify the royal court. As historian Margaret Jacob observed, Bacon “always located control of leadership in the millennial paradise firmly in elite hands.” While New Atlantis theorized about human elevation, Bacon’s life’s work primarily sought to ensure the dominance of the existing hegemonic power of the day. With persistent social unrest and dissatisfaction under such rule, science “[became] another means, along with work, discipline and the reformation of manners, by which European elites, having distanced themselves from the people, [sought] to control and subject them to authority,” observed James Jacob. “The natural philosopher [joined] the priest, minister and magistrate in the business of curbing potentially unruly popular passions.”¹

  1. By an Orphean Charm, James Jacob in Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe, edited by Phyllis Mack and Margaret Jacob
  2. Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe, edited by Phyllis Mack and Margaret Jacob
  3. Living the Enlightenment, Margaret Jacob

An Elite Affair: Technology For a Few, Out with the New, In with the New

With all its pretensions of logic and reason, the technical enterprise is incapable of evaluating itself. Why thoughtfully employ present technical capabilities to address social needs when the technology of tomorrow will address it? The religion undermines rational and humanistic application of our knowledge and technical capacities in fruitful directions. Institutionally, established power suppresses our deepest creative spirits and innate desire to socially cooperate and grapple with the needs and problems of our communities. Developing lasting solutions for universal problems, and not disposable ones for fashionable investments punctures the preponderance of capital interests. Developing systems for the world, and not simply for entrenched national power challenges the dominion of the state. The religious project of seeking salvation by human dominion over nature is in fact rooted in human dominion over human. C.S Lewis put it simply in 1943, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”⁴

The Greatest Time to Be Alive

In late 2016, outgoing president Barack Obama wrote a piece for WIRED magazine to celebrate the galactic wonders of technology. Titled Now Is the Greatest Time to Be Alive, the piece began with an enraptured president stating that “given the chance to immerse myself in the possibility of interplanetary travel or join a deep dive conversation on artificial intelligence, I’m going to say yes. I love this stuff. Always have. It’s why my favorite movie last year was The Martian.” He continued, “what really grabbed me about the film is that it shows how humans — through our ingenuity, our commitment to fact and reason, and ultimately our faith in each other — can science the heck out of just about any problem.”

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Writing about politics, philosophy, technology and current affairs. Questioning ideologies of power and discussing alternatives. Twitter: @ap_prose

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Tech Insider

Writing about politics, philosophy, technology and current affairs. Questioning ideologies of power and discussing alternatives. Twitter: @ap_prose