Engineering Illusions: Religious Thought and Technology
Exclusive Access to Salvation
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.
However, such belief only provides extraterrestrial ideological scaffolding. It must be then deployed by very terrestrial institutions of power. Today, that is the technetronic state and private power, which includes corporations and financial interests. The doctrines of technical transcendence and scientific salvation service very worldly institutions seeking to control and direct our collective technical work. Understanding Silicon Valley is to understand the religion of technology, and how these institutions wield it as an axiom for their ends. Under modern secular pretensions, this becomes even more crucial, since secularity carries with it the aura of free thought, rationality and thoughtful reflection.
In his investigations of primordial religious thought, historian and anarchist Rudolf Rocker wrote in Nationalism and Culture, “The whole mode of life of nomadic primitive man, his relative ignorance, the mental influence of his dream pictures, his lack of understanding when confronted with death, the compulsory fasts he often had to endure — all this made him a natural born clairvoyant […] What he felt when confronted with the ghosts…was primarily fear. This fear troubled him all the more as he was here confronted, not with an ordinary enemy, but with unseen forces which could not be met by simple means. From this arose quite spontaneously the desire to secure the good will of those powers, to escape their wiles and earn their favor by whatever means.”
With such dependence on a higher power, this nucleus of belief sprang forth two instincts: “To seek ways and means to make these powers favorably inclined toward him and to protect himself from their harmful influences.” From these formative steps, religious belief systems developed into monumental enterprises of thought, evolving their guiding instincts beyond simple self-preservation to, indeed, self-ascension, in the case of Christianity. Shedding its original message of mutual aid and liberation in its first three centuries, Christianity was co-opted under the shield of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine. The original nucleus of fear and dependency only expanded under state power, as the religion of the persecuted turned into the religion of the persecutors. It is this nucleus that lends potency to the promise of salvation and grand visions of divinity. And it is precisely these promises that enabled the formation of the religion of technology, for technology appeared as that holy savior that would fulfill every desire and assuage every last fear.
Despite glorious declarations of human elevation to divine status, the work of attaining other-worldly status with worldly, technical means was hardly ever meant to be universal. Rather, it was always a specially selected elite, the “happy few” as biophysicist Robert Sinsheimer put it, who were destined to uncover the secrets of the divine and take their place by God. The majority of the population, including women and common men, may be enablers but weren’t destined for such eminence. As historian David Noble observed of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, “Stirred by the apocalyptic visions of just such an elite brotherhood of pious wise men, the scientific virtuosi […] imagined themselves the blessed new saviors of mankind, best prepared by their studies and knowledge to meet again in the glorious kingdom to come.”
Furthermore, despite lofty imaginations of exalted escape, the elite always sought to build, and in turn submitted to, very earthy means of subordination and dependence. Erigena developed his philosophy of the innate nature of the technical arts in the ninth century as the court philosopher for the Carolingian king Charles the Bald. Erigena’s work proceeded as the king strove to save a collapsing empire, one built by his grandfather Charlemagne. The Benedictine mandates and holy orders attained “true terrestrial might and spiritual authority” only under the blessings of Carolingian dynastic power. Only after such submission to the emperor were their religious privileges upheld.
Such deference to power was not just required from the intellectual elite, who gladly supplied it. Indeed, it was demanded from all, not only to elevate the king to divinity, but also so those pursuing the useful arts, like Erigena, could gain the material and technical means to secure their place by God. This promise of transcendence gave the elite a potent organizer, as the “Benedictines soon relegated the real work of their prosperous abbeys to their lay brothers, servant sisters, and peasant wage workers, while they devoted themselves exclusively to the liturgy, the scriptorium, and the garden.” For the tenth century Benedictine monks of Cluny, “labor was exalted mainly in order to increase the productivity and docility of the laborers,” historian Jacques Goff observed. Ora et labora — pray and work — was the subordinating order of the day.
For Rocker, such subservience to doctrine follows from the fact that in “every religious system which made its appearance in the course of millennia there was mirrored the dependency of man upon a higher power which his own imagination had called into being and whose slave he had become.” The religion of technology confers upon the elites of the technical enterprise “higher powers” that can emancipate and uplift humanity from its fallen state. “Always it is the illusion to which the real essence of man is offered as a sacrifice; the creator becomes the slave of his own creature without ever becoming conscious of the tragedy of this.” It is due to this property of religion that power over the faithful is exercised, and faith in the powerful is sustained. Since the elites busy themselves attending to the needs of the established institutions of power, or become one with the dominant powers of the day, it is but a one-sided romance on the part of those who wait to be saved by the “aristocracy of the scientific intelligence.”
The dedicated service offered by those of the technical arts was well illustrated by the various inheritors of monasticism and the mendicant friars who drew legitimacy and prestige from the state. They served those in power “in pious attendance to repression and conquest, with unprecedented diligence and dedication,” noted Noble. As scholars, they helped build the intellectual and moral scaffolding on which papal power as well as the religion of technology was built. Useful for sustaining hegemony, their work was deployed in opposition to a wide range of dissidents and adversaries. As an early proponent of the technical arts, thirteenth century Franciscan Roger Bacon exhorted the Church to “consider the employment of these inventions against unbelievers and rebels, in order that it may spare Christian blood, and especially should it do so because of future perils in the times of Antichrist, which with the grace of God it would be easy to meet, if prelates and princes promoted study and investigated the secrets of nature and of art.”
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
The desire for the “reformation of manners” was evident in Bacon’s attitude toward what he called “the innate depravity and malignant disposition of the common people.” Galileo expressed congruent contempt for “women and ordinary folk,”² and he urged the Church to conceal scientific truths from the masses. “It is sufficiently obvious that to attribute motion to the Sun and rest to the Earth was therefore necessary lest the shallow minds of the common people should become confused, obstinate, and contumacious in yielding assent to the principal articles that are absolutely matters of faith,” declared Galileo. Bacon, for his part, instead advocated for the release of scientific knowledge amongst the masses, as it would train “the peoples to assemble and unite and take upon them the yoke of laws and submit to authority, and forget their ungoverned appetites, in listening and conforming to precepts and discipline.”
Such contempt should not be dismissed as petty and ignorant bias. The learned men of the age, seeking to elevate their arts under the aegis of the powerful to attain divinity, adopted the very terrestrial passions and sentiments of their rulers. Ascension to divinity, and domination over the “shallow minds of the common people” are isotopes of the same wish that have carved the scientific and technical enterprise for centuries. Today, the secular religion of technology propounds the infallibility and redemptive power of technology, a useful construct for its purveyors. This is hardly a novel observation. As Rocker summarized of advanced religion, “Even if we are not compelled to trace every religious concept to some exercise of earthly power, it is a fact that in later epochs of human evolution the outer forms of religion were frequently determined by the power needs of individuals or small minorities in society.”
For the followers of Bacon, the blessings of the state and its auspices were existential. They adhered to a strictly hierarchical view of society. To reform education, they segregated schools into the common and the elite, “the first to educate the masses in practical matters, the latter to educate the elite in theory and advanced science,” observed Noble. Bolstered by aristocratic sponsorship, the Royal Society later mirrored this model. It directed its “talents and interests in order to benefit the elite and not the people, in order indeed to contain and exploit the people by drawing upon their knowledge and skills, while at the same time deflecting them from political and religious courses that threatened constituted authority,” as James Jacob observed. In the eighteenth century, Newtonian Freemasons, aristocrats who strongly supported the technical arts, directed their efforts with a “dedication to order, hierarchy and perfectibility.”³
These traditions are hardly matters of the distant past. As Noble noted, “In their elite obeisance and service to established power, the twentieth-century proponents of the religion of technology have outdone their predecessors.” We may add that the Obeisance Olympics continue in the twenty-first century. As we will explore in Engineering Illusions, empowering the state with destructive weaponry and omnipresent mass surveillance, accelerating ecological destruction by relentless raw material extraction and carbon emissions, and abusing otherwise very promising technologies are but some of the consequences of diligent service to power and profit by those who wield the technical arts, and operate under its religion. Grandiose, other-worldly dreams have resulted in very worldly consequences.
It may seem difficult to reconcile the awesome technical and scientific advancements of the twenty-first century on one hand, and breathtaking global malaise on the other. Thiel argued that this is due to an insufficiency of faith. I argue its too much blind faith. Billions in destitution and hunger, an ecology in decline, water shortages, energy insecurity and famines do not harmonize with the reality of our exceptionally advanced technical capabilities. The answer is trivial: these need not be reconciled because fundamentally, the development of technologies hasn’t really been about meeting human needs in the first place. It is the religion that has perpetuated the promise, while empowering state and private power to achieve their ends with reckless abandon.
Today, the primary end for private capital under global capitalism is profit. Investors, corporations and other financial interests incessantly seek to expand their markets to sell more products and services to a larger section of the global population. No part of the globe is spared from the glorious light of technical divinity. As Evgeny Morozov put it in a 2012 critique of TED Talks’ “technological solutionism,” a key tenet of the religion of technology, “It is in the developing world where the limitations of TED’s techno-humanitarian mentality are most pronounced. In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets. Hence the latest urge to bombard Africa with tablets and Kindles — even when an average African kid would find it impossible to repair a damaged Kindle. And the gadgets do drop from the sky — Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say no to MIT’s (and TED’s) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.”
A serendipitous outcome of such distribution of technologies is the continuous expansion of the religion itself. Expansion of markets invariably ensures that the effects of technology continue to affect more lives, further validating the apparently self-guiding, emancipatory entity that is technology. The gospel can proceed unmitigated. As Rocker put it, “This is the reason why victors frequently imposed their gods upon the vanquished, for they recognized very clearly that a unification of religious rites would further their own power.”
Against ubiquitous evidence of Silicon Valley’s failures to construct its imagined universal utopia, and of its successes in instead constructing an elite Elysium, the religion of technology only continues to expands with resolute certainty. The piety of the owners, investors, entrepreneurs, political actors, state directors, manufacturers and specialists is conferred onto the participants of the technologies — the general public: consumers, users and the fortunate witnesses. Such is the obdurate belief in technical betterment, and in its progenitors, who appear as benevolent givers. Rocker observed of the strength of this iron grip, “Not without reason do all advocates of the principle of authority trace its origin back to God. For does not the Godhead appear to them the epitome of all power and strength?”
In our modern political economy, the “Godhead” is replaced by tech billionaires, CEOs and famous investors who shower upon humanity the fruits of their brilliance, the instruments of our emancipation, to that glorious end of human divinity. “In the very earliest myths the heroes, conquerors, lawgivers, tribal ancestors appear as gods or demi-gods; for their greatness and superiority could only have divine origin.” “Thus, we arrive at the foundation of every system of rulership and recognize that all politics is in the last instance religion, and as such tries to hold the spirit of man in the chains of dependence.” The politics of technology are driven by the religion of technology. Uncritical worship of the Godheads and extravagant promises for the future have resulted in very narrow technical possibilities at best, and abject technical waste at worst. Defending poor financial performance of his SoftBank venture capital fund while tackling “the biggest challenges and risks facing humanity today,” founder Masayoshi Son vented that Jesus Christ was also misunderstood and criticized. Yes, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd brings us gifts like WeWork and Wirecard.
An internet predicted to emancipate society suffocates under laws that violate the principles of net neutrality for ISP profiteering, in addition to being reduced to a surveillance operation and data aggregator for state and private interests; industry continues to churn out automobiles without regard for intelligent urban planning and ecological constraints, blocking efforts for advanced mass transportation projects; planned obsolescence of cell phones for greater profits results in prodigious waste of raw materials and mountains of e-waste; advanced machine learning techniques are deployed only to make these inefficiencies more efficient, detracting from very accessible benefits of these techniques. But of course, the scripture reminds us that these imperfections shall too be eradicated by the technical arts, continuing the march to our timelessly approaching divinity. Such evidence of technical waste and vandalism is cast aside as minor inconvenience on our journey to reclaim our lost perfection.
- By an Orphean Charm, James Jacob in Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe, edited by Phyllis Mack and Margaret Jacob
- Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe, edited by Phyllis Mack and Margaret Jacob
- 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
Cultural critic Neil Postman described a technopoly as “a culture that seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.” Under such conditions, technology is regarded as that omniscient, autonomous entity paving our roads and assembling our rockets to divinity. In truth, technology is hardly self-guiding, and any belief promoting this view simply reveals the nihilistic power of the unthinking and calcified institutional forces that guide technology, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, it would seem that all of God’s brilliant children deciphering nature’s secrets cannot ascertain that the technical enterprise is not some natural phenomenon. That it is twisted by particular interests is too obscure a thought, evidently. From the perspective of those who seek to wrangle the technical enterprise to their own ends, it is a useful device to grant technology its own prophesying mind. Profiteering then is simply an act of following the prophet. Reckless foreign policy predicated on terminally destructive technologies is only heeding the oracle. Referencing “something inherent in the technology,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen called it a “technological imperative,” noting that “it’s as if the technology wants it to happen.” Our hands are tied.
Technology is advancing, we must keep up! This lends itself well to evangelizing the general public to the goals of these interests. As a report by the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution asked, “Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), block-chain, drones and precision medicine are swiftly changing lives and transforming businesses and societies, inevitably posing new risks and raising ethical concerns. How can society ensure that its policies, norms and standards are able to keep up with these rapidly evolving technologies?”
A wide range of other social institutions cooperate to uphold the religion of technology. This includes education, scholarship, and media, among others. Upheld as august institutions facilitating the formation of a robust culture, their ostensibly prudent, rational and responsible daily operations further the very imprudent, irrational and irresponsible ideology of technology. Beginning from the religious assumptions, they perform admirably their role of specializing the managers and CEOs of tomorrow in universities, publishing policy reports in think tanks to influence legislation, and reciting faithful pieties from the lips of the hottest tech companies on Bloomberg Technology and CNBC without much critical thought. In July 2020, Elon Musk reiterated his warning about the “exponential” improvement in A.I, declaring to the New York Times, “we’re headed toward a situation where A.I. is vastly smarter than humans and I think that time frame is less than five years from now.” No justification or evidence was provided, nor was it required.
The zeal and reverence shown at the altar of technology may seem to, at the very least, hasten technical development, and hence, yield more useful applications. Again, this impression is simply the work of the religion of technology. Because the primary aim is not to improve the human condition, but serve more important matters of profit and power, technologies are routinely deployed in ill-conceived directions. Furthermore, to justify tremendous deficiencies in matters of public health, education, nutrition, wealth distribution, ecology and social relations despite staggering technological capabilities and output, the religion is again deployed to parade out various marvels of technical work as evidence of the legitimacy of temporal power institutions. How can things be so bad if there is such a thing like the iPhone? What a glorious blessing. Indeed, it is not so bad inside the Elysium. Right outside it, the bones of the feast continue to pile up in the form of spiking homelessness, camper homes, breathtaking inequality in wealth, opportunity and working conditions, just outside the technical oasis of Silicon Valley.
In his youth, Napoleon I characterized religion as a “cesspool of every superstition and confusion.” As an artillery officer, he contended that “the people should be given a handbook of geometry instead of a catechism.” However, once he claimed power and became Emperor of the French, his views reversed. He confessed that he dreamt of world rule with the cooperation of the papacy. Indeed, he even questioned whether the power of the state could survive without religion, and he answered his own question: “Society cannot exist without inequality of property and the inequality not without religion. A man who is dying of hunger, next to one who has too much, could not possibly reconcile himself to it if it were not for a power which says to him, ‘It is the will of God that here on Earth there must be rich and poor, but yonder, in eternity, it will be different.’”
Not to get too gratuitous with the Napoleonic comparison, but we may imagine a candid billionaire tech CEO making a similar case on a podcast, asserting the need for the religion of technology: “Society cannot exist without inequality of property, and the inequality not without religion of technology. A man who is dying of hunger, next to one who has too much, could not possibly reconcile himself to it if it were not for a power which says to him, ‘It is the will of Technology that here on Earth there must be rich and poor, but yonder, Netflix is only a few dollars a month.’”
The technical enterprise, posturing as an endeavor to enrich and magnify life and its gifts, routinely reveals its abject neglect and impatience with life itself. In the service of established power, technologies are bent to bend labor and the broader populace, in the process violating every creative capacity and every libertarian instinct innate to the human spirit. Time and space are bent with ever greater force of technique to maximize profit and control. “Everything which exists at present — not only external nature — is deemed disposable, is considered an instrument towards the excessive goal of a perfect satisfaction of man’s needs, a secularized Kingdom of God on Earth,”⁵ technology philosopher Reinhart Maurer observed. A perpetual, mad dash for novelty is paraded as the thoughtful, tactical construction of a better world. Various authorities on the future; namely, the technical specialists, managers, manufacturers and investors, awash in the religion, propagate the promise of perpetual progress on TED talks and startup seminars. Discarded are the requirements, desires and well being of those that are ostensibly being saved. Even those who directly construct these works must submit to the doctrines of the religion. Questioning its infallibility is dismissed as irreverent and uncivilized, a salient feature of any thought regime.
A mere decade after Edward Bellamy published his utopian Looking Backward, he questioned the logic of technological salvation in his 1897 sequel Equality. Bellamy observed that the grandiloquent proclamations of the past did not materialize even with spectacular advances in technology; indeed, even resulting in deteriorating social conditions. He marveled at the unbridled enthusiasm of the technical enterprise despite evidence to the contrary. “The strangest thing about it all is that their failure to derive any benefit worth speaking of from the progress of invention in no way seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of our ancestors about the inventions. They seemed fairly intoxicated with the pride of their achievements, barren of benefit as they had been, and their daydreams were of further discoveries that to a yet more amazing degree should put the forces of the universe at their disposal.”
Bellamy questioned the powerful for whom the technical enterprise turned its gears, observing “None of them apparently paused to reflect that though God might empty his treasure house for their benefit of its every secret of use and of power, the race would not be a whit the better off for it unless they devised some economic machinery by which these discoveries might be made to serve the general welfare more effectually than they had done before. They do not seem to have realized that so long as poverty remained, every new invention which multiplied the power of wealth production was but one more charge in the indictment against their economic system as guilty of an imbecility as great as its iniquity.”
Defying the conventional doctrines of technical salvation that he had once promoted, Bellamy demanded, “Of what use indeed was it that coal had been discovered, when there were still as many fireless homes as ever? Of what use was the machinery by which one man could weave as much cloth as a thousand a century before when there were as many ragged, shivering human beings as ever? Of what use was the machinery by which the American farmer could produce a dozen times as much food as his grandfather when there were more cases of starvation and a larger proportion of half-fed and badly fed people in the country than ever before, and hordes of homeless, desperate vagabonds traversed the land, begging for bread at every door? They had invented steamships, these ancestors of ours, that were miracles, but their main business was transporting paupers from lands where they had been beggared in spite of labor-saving machinery to newer lands where, after a short space, they would inevitably be beggared again.” Bellamy rebuked the waste wrought by a thoughtless endeavor that seemed intent on squandering its potential, observing, “They appear to have wholly overlooked the fact that until their mighty engines should be devoted to increasing human welfare they were and would continue [to be] mere curious scientific toys of no more real worth or utility to the race than so many particularly ingenious jumping-jacks.”
Summarizing the entrenched irrationality of the religion of technology that sparks effusive worship, Bellamy presciently observed, “This craze for more and more and ever greater and wider inventions for economic purposes, coupled with apparent complete indifference as to whether mankind derived any ultimate benefit from them or not, can only be understood by regarding it as one of those strange epidemics of insane excitement which have been known to affect whole populations at certain periods, especially of the middle ages. Rational explanation it has none.”
4. The Catholic Church and Technological Progress: Past, Present, and Future, Brian Patrick Green, 2017
5. Reinhart Maurer, The Origins of Modern Technology in Millenarianism, in Philosophy and Technology by Paul Durbin and Freidrich Rapp
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.”
The very history and religion of technology, and the institutional goals of capital and the nation state, betray such a conception of a rational and inclusive technical enterprise. While “faith in each other” is celebrated, it is the blind faith in technology, that dazzling life-giving star, that is cloyingly cherished. Echoing similar sentiments for Star Trek, Obama continued, “What I loved about it was its optimism, the fundamental belief at its core that all the people on this planet, for all our varied backgrounds and outward differences, could come together to build a better tomorrow.” Certainly a heartening, even encouraging outlook. However, undermining a deeper examination of what factors prevent us from doing so, he declared, “I believe we can work together to do big things that raise the fortunes of people here at home and all over the world. And even if we’ve got some work left to do on faster-than-light travel, I still believe science and technology is the warp drive that accelerates that kind of change for everybody.”
A few years after the “greatest time to be alive,” all the world’s 2153 billionaires owned more wealth than 4.6 billion people who make up 60% of the planet’s population, a 2019 Oxfam report revealed. The number of billionaires doubled from a decade ago, which has accelerated the concentration of wealth. Despite a slight COVID-19 pandemic-related reduction in global economic activity, global carbon emissions hit an all-time high of 417 ppm in May 2020, up from 414.7 ppm in May 2019, setting another record above 420 ppm in April 2021. Citing as one factor the continuously rising greenhouse gas emissions and systemic ecological effects of climate change, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the famed Doomsday Clock, a measure of existential risk, to a hundred seconds to midnight, the closest since its establishment in 1947. Another major factor in the move up from two minutes to midnight in 2019 was the rising threat of nuclear conflict around the world. Once again, it is to be noted that these long, deteriorating trends inversely coincide with even longer trends of advancing technologies. Indeed, technology is the “warp drive that accelerates […] change for everybody.” Only the nature and direction of these changes need be clarified.
Offering an example of such change, Obama shared, “Think about the changes we’ve seen just during my presidency. When I came into office, I broke new ground by pecking away at a BlackBerry. Today I read my briefings on an iPad and explore national parks through a virtual-reality headset.” Salvation.
Advocating for an entire people working towards technological nirvana, Obama declared that “We need not only the folks at MIT or Stanford or the NIH but also the mom in West Virginia tinkering with a 3D printer, the girl on the South Side of Chicago learning to code, the dreamer in San Antonio seeking investors for his new app, the dad in North Dakota learning new skills so he can help lead the green revolution,” lest people remember that many of our existing technologies can already address many social needs if deployed thoughtfully and tactically, that many new utilitarian research and development programs are starved to favor other, more frivolous, profitable outcomes, and that industry requires this organizing principle of incessant technical accretion to further its own economic impulses.
Depicting the wonders that may materialize if his prescriptions were followed, Obama insisted that we direct our energies to “creating not just a quicker way to deliver takeout downtown but also a system that distributes excess produce to communities where too many kids go to bed hungry. Not just inventing a service that fills your car with gas but also creating cars that don’t need fossil fuels at all. Not just making our social networks more fun for sharing memes but also harnessing their power to counter terrorist ideologies and online hate speech.” In other words, not just develop fleeting applications of technology that externalize all costs to society to satisfy the needs of flawed institutions, but also technologies that attempt to grapple with the externalized costs of other technologies, as deployed capriciously by monopolistic private entities, under the benefaction of the state.
Obama concluded with an appeal, stating “We must continue to nurture our children’s curiosity. We must keep funding scientific, technological and medical research. And above all, we must embrace that quintessentially American compulsion to race for new frontiers and push the boundaries of what is possible.” As we shall see, the tragedy of this is that very same compulsion, driven by the religion of technology, prevents us from establishing a nurturing, rational and thoughtful culture for “our children’s curiosity,” and often undermines the goal of “funding scientific, technological and medical research” in favor of wasteful and misguided ambitions of temporal power.
It isn’t that even learned and accomplished presidents are not spared from the religion of technology, but that especially learned and accomplished presidents are not spared from the religion of technology.
Those of the industry, or the “aristocracy of the scientific intelligence,” as Bernal put it, often misconstrue these arguments as promoting primitivism. Bernal cautioned, “reactionaries at all periods [would warn] us to remain in the natural and primitive state of humanity.” Nevertheless, he declared hopefully that “even if a wave to primitive obscurantism then swept the world clear of the heresy of science, science would already be on its way to the stars…The scientists would emerge as a new species and leave humanity behind.”⁶ Rest assured, what is attempted here is not a primitivist argument against the scientific and technical enterprise, and there is no need to defiantly mutate into a new species and valiantly disappear on a rocket-ship. Understanding nature and developing technical capabilities to address various human needs is a valuable and indeed, an indispensable activity. The underlying exercise of scientific discovery, revising theories based on new observations and implementing useful technologies that attend to the needs of people is a worthy pursuit. It is precisely because of this worth that the religion of technology, as also wielded by the temporal powers of state and private interests, must be challenged; and preferably, vanquished.
Furthermore, an argument against the monopoly power of capital and state, and their institutional mangling of technology, is not an argument against the very concept of institutions and organization. Dismantling these established forces is the first step to establishing sound institutions and practices for scientific discoveries and maximizing the utility of technical innovations. As Chomsky observed in On Anarchism, “At every stage in history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit.”
6. J.D Bernal, The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul
Dominant for more than a thousand years, the religion of technology has led our technical enterprise in unfounded directions under wild ambitions. Detached from its own proclaimed intentions of universally bettering the human condition, the religion assures us that only technology’s unrestrained perpetuation shall bring to humankind the fulfillment, enjoyment and indeed, the perfection it desires. Preached and in turn observed by temporal power, the religion casts any gross failures in its manifestations as necessary and minor slips during the ongoing construction of the final Providence. Against all reason, technological advancement for its own sake, alongside looming existential threats and deteriorating social, political and economic conditions must be cheered by humankind. Posturing as the steward of scientific thought, the enterprise indulges in the most unscientific of impulses: that man is separate from the natural world, and technology will establish his final dominion over nature. That such nihilism often neglects and indeed abuses the very life it pretends to serve so diligently here on Earth is hardly a concern. As Saint Augustine, prime theologian of the Christian belief, wrote in City of God, “All earthly things are transitory,” and “true peace has its abode only in heaven.”
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