November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 15, 2015
The history of humanity is one of boundary, which we wish to conquer, and technology, that by which we conquer. We see this in all forms of technology, from the earliest stone axe to the latest iPhone iteration. In the West, secular and religious cultures still adore technological advance, and while modern technological advance has afforded us many incredible gains in power and efficiency—especially in medicine, communication, and transportation—Christian thought has not yet cataloged or considered the personal side effects of this latest stage of technological advance.
Technology has been woven together with trauma from the beginning of human history. The first hunter-gatherers fought hunger and cold by making weapons for hunting and fire for warmth. And yet every time a technological advance conquered a boundary, every time humans developed a new tool to keep trauma at bay, a previously unnoticed boundary showed itself and a new form of trauma emerged.
While remaining essentially unchanged in character, the rate of technological advance in the modern age reached a fever pitch. At first these kinds of advances received far more press about their benefits than their dangers. Users of new technology only saw old forms of trauma undergoing celebrated elimination, and culture failed to recognize that each technological advance brought new risks for each problem it solved.
But in the last fifteen years, since the beginning of what I refer to as the hypermodern age, the development and function of technology has taken on a new tenor. Modern and premodern forms of technology were bounded and specialized; that is, each modern technological device had a singular function. The wired telephone made phone calls, nothing more. It was invented to cross only one boundary, the boundary of vocal communication over long distances. In contrast, hypermodern communication media have become increasingly amorphous, plastic, and multifunctional. The smartphone makes phone calls, generates maps, provides an interface for users to play games, and displays porn. The technological device itself is less bounded, less specialized, and more generalized. This constitutes a radical change in the tone of technological development and, accordingly, a radical change in the individual and social tone of our relationship with technology and with each other.
When technology first crossed these boundaries of communication and transportation, it silently built into these developments new boundaries between individuals. People could talk on the phone, but miles of space and walls separated them. People could cruise down the highway, but walls of metal and glass separated them from other cruisers, enabling such depersonalizing phenomena as road rage. Seeming advances in communication and transportation encouraged the geographic breakup of original communities: the phone and the car whispered to users that they could stay connected even as career opportunities pulled them apart physically. The resultant sense of isolation, anxiety, and despair is well documented in the arts of the modern period—particularly in the work of Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Edvard Munch, to name a few. Indeed, it is our perspective from within this isolated mode of thought, which we partially maintain in the early stages of the hypermodern revolution, that renders ancient and tribal literatures hard to read and phenomena on social media hard to fathom from a bounded, strictly modern perspective.
In Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield describes how this evolution of consciousness created the modern mind, in contrast to what he calls the “primitive mind”—or what we might call the premodern mind. He devotes a chapter to the idea of participation, claiming that this is the primary difference between modern and premodern modes of thought. Where our empirical understanding of natural phenomena invokes a cognitive categorization and bounding of experience, the premodern mind believes that things participate in one another in ways that may defy empirical explanation. To illustrate this, Barfield riffs on a quotation from Emile Durkheim:
“Participation” begins by being an activity, and essentially a communal or social activity. It takes place in rites and initiation ceremonies resulting in “collective mental states of extreme emotional intensity, in which representation is as yet undifferentiated from the movements and actions which make the communion towards which it tends a reality to the group. Their participation in it is so effectively lived that it is not yet properly imagined.” This stage is not only pre-logical, it is pre-mythical.
We now see the efficacy of calling the other type of thought premodern rather than primitive—for it is precisely the mode of thought that the latest wave of technological advance reengenders in those of us who have made the transition to the hypermodern age. Whereas the advances of the modern age crossed boundaries of traumatic magnitude and gave us a relatively safe, organized society with people isolated from one another by their technological possessions, the advances of the hypermodern age have begun to eliminate the boundaries between people which the modern age established, returning us to a seemingly premodern, participatory structure in the process while still maintaining and augmenting the emphasis on personal technological possessions.
The best example of this emergent premodern structure with requisite personal technological possessions is the private social media account and the private device with which it is accessed. I must note, however, that this return to premodern structures is not circular; rather, the return is like a spiral, as participatory communication technologies augment, mediate, and insidiously control users’ returns to premodern structures of organization. The rules of this new kind of organization defy both premodern and modern explanation sets. One need look no further than ISIS execution videos or the Twitter pillory of Justine Sacco, who lost her job and her reputation because of a few tweets, to see the startling, decentered nature of this wave of technological communication advance and the accordingly decentered control that suddenly accrues to or abandons certain users.
Indeed, ISIS execution videos and the destruction of Sacco’s career serve as excellent examples of the new occasions for trauma that participatory technology can cause for its users. Having crossed communication boundaries that previously prevented average citizens from reaching large audiences, participatory technology allows terrorists to traumatize their victims and other users while making a point with viral impact. Virality even allows the digital tribe’s ritual sacrifice of one Twitter user to the gods of political correctness—a prime example of digitally mediated “collective states of extreme emotional intensity.” Perhaps primitive is the appropriate word after all. We can agree, with Durkheim, that the life lived on social media “is so effectively lived that it is not yet properly imagined.”
The practical application of all this to the Christian life takes some thought. A Luddite view that totally rejects all technological advance will not serve the Christian economically or socially, and the New Testament model of believers functioning within the society of their time reinforces the basic neutrality of any mode of living that does not inherently cross ethical boundaries. A Luddite view would cut the Christian off from the many good powers that technological advance affords, powers that can certainly be used faithfully.
In John 17:13–18, Jesus describes his disciples as being in the world but not of it. We should consider this passage and what it has to say about our relationship with technological advance. To be of the world would demand of us ideological harmony with the world. In a society rolling drunk in the high tide of technological advance, this newest (and as yet insidious) ideology is one we may call technologism. Whereas premodern belief systems aligned people to authority and whereas modern and postmodern ideologies aligned people with their own desires and against other ideologies portrayed as fundamentally other (though these ideologies were often fighting for the same thing through different language), technologism throws out language and social belief, communicating instead by direct demonstration of technological power. Rather than emphasizing the inappropriate behavior of others, technologism emphasizes the power of the individual’s relationship with the technological device. Technologism thus aligns individuals to their own devices and to the promise of ever-augmenting personal power—the promise even of elimination of trauma, if one reads the transhumanists. Here at the beginning stages of real advance, this promise of the elimination of trauma manifests in the seeming power and flexibility that personal hypermodern technology affords each individual user. The infinite customization, the redundant forms of mediation, the daily updates and improvements (nothing but further eliminations of boundary) all harmonize with this promise. The allure of technological advance tells the user that technological power is no longer in the hands of nation-states or media corporations; rather, it is in the hands of users themselves. Naturally, this is a lie, for the decentered and participatory communication technologies are highly monetized and propagated upon the people by massive corporations, but the sales pitch has converted many.
I will attempt a definition of this new ideology of technologism. All ideology seeks a system of tenets to explain the contradiction inherent in a finite perception of infinite reality. Other than the gospel of Jesus, no systematic understanding has yet succeeded in reconciling this opposition and producing a picture of reality free of ultimate contradiction. Every other ideology has answered only one side of the impossibility of existence. Socialism trusts humanity’s basic goodness; capitalism distrusts it. The gospel of Jesus harmonizes our desire to trust each other with the fact that we cannot be trusted. Among ideologies incapable of reconciling these dissonant strains, technologism is no different. It deals with the same old problems that humanity still has not conquered—the problems of security, of access to power, and of the final boundary, death—and it fails, in its promise of individual power and isolation, to reconcile them satisfactorily. Yet among ideologies, technologism deals uniquely with these problems: it promises the individual a personal crossing of boundary through the adoption of technological means. In this early stage of its development, technologism does not yet blatantly promise the transcendence of death but rather sells such innocuous advance as faster communication and greater personal marketing power. Yet as we shall see, some futurist thinkers believe that in the future our inventions may even conquer death.
If we harmonize with this ideology as Christians, we syncretize the gospel of Jesus with the technologism all around us. This newest syncretism is insidious and difficult to trace, for technologism flows quietly out of many decentered sources. Whereas modern Christianity wrestled with clearly defined, monolithic cults of ideology and whereas postmodern Christianity struggled to maintain claims toward meaning, hypermodern Christianity confronts an amorphous, plastic idolatry of personal power and augmentation. The idolatry of technologism has no particular source, only instantiations, for it lives in every human heart, enabled and augmented by ubiquitous personal devices of great power. Steve Jobs may have founded Apple, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin may have founded Google, but even the phenomena that these men instigated are only instantiations of the decentered evolution of participatory technology.
Rather than looking for particular phenomena to decry, an effort that will have no efficacy against this decentered, evolving idolatry, Christians must examine their underlying motivations in driving and making use of technological advance. Why must we develop and have the newest iPhone when the old one is not yet broken? What trauma are we afraid of? What will the newest, shiniest, most powerful piece of metal and silicon save us from?
C.S. Lewis confronted this question in his brooding, prescient novel That Hideous Strength. He opens the book with a quote from Sir David Lyndsay that describes the imagined six-mile shadow of the Tower of Babel. The rest of the novel details the rapid ascent and catastrophic collapse of a technologism that seeks human immortality through attempted technological transcendence of biology. It makes for great science fiction; the startling fact is that futurists such as Ray Kurzweil actually advocate and predict this kind of technological self-augmentation and transcendence of death by our species. This is the idolatry of Babel: a brash essay in crossing the ultimate boundary and becoming divine through technological means.
Doubtless, none of us intends solidarity with Kurzweil’s technologism when we buy the latest iPhone, yet I believe we must examine our relationship with the ideology that underlies personal technological advance. Although there is no inherent harm in adopting the newest and greatest, we must ask ourselves why that adoption appeals so deeply. We must ask ourselves whether we are truly calling God alongside us in each daily obstacle or whether we are instead calling on the decentered god of technologism. If we find that our desire for the newest and greatest is driven by fear—fear of obsolescence, of disconnection, of dismediation—we must question ourselves; for Romans 14:23 tells us that whatever is not from faith is sin, and we know that true relationship with God and our brothers and sisters does not require technological mediation.
If it is hard to let go of our devices, we must ask ourselves whether we are content without them. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:11–12 that he learned to be content in plenty and in poverty. Technologism encourages us to buy into an ever-augmenting desire for technological plenty. Christianity has a tricky relationship with asceticism—we slip too easily into a form of works righteousness—but a faithful surrender of the will, a Spirit-led cultivation of contentment, cannot go wrong, whatever its results look like in our individual lives. We must begin to practice this. If we cannot sit on the couch and think in silence, if we cannot take a walk in the woods with our phones left behind, we must question whether we are cultivating the spiritual peace that is most nourishing to our walk with God. Our personal answers to these questions may startle us, but they will show us exactly how much we are joining with the world in practicing the idolatry of Babel.
If this technologistic idolatry is so easily adopted, and if a Luddite view will hamstring Christians in their call to be in the world but not of it, what remains? Only taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). If Christ in us is the moment-by-moment death we die for our brothers and sisters, then our use of technology must conform to this missional life. This will manifest in different forms depending on our individual social context and our particular set of personal technological augmentations, yet with love as the goal, technological mediation will take its proper place in thought as a means and not an end.
I do not mean to tip this discussion into alarmism, and Christianity has often bought in to big cultural scares. Yet Scripture reassures us that the essential character of the world’s contradictions does not change, and we can reply to critics with this static view of humanity’s fallenness. Ecclesiastes, that most uncomfortable of books, balances the terror of a world that seems to tilt continually from one extreme to another:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there is a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us. (Eccl. 1:9–10 ESV)
This Scripture remind us that technologism’s apparent newness is only in its suggested means of conquering boundary. The actual boundaries it seeks to conquer have been with us throughout history, and as the advance of participatory technology uncovers new forms of trauma while abolishing old forms, we may agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes in his pronunciation that the sum of human achievement is still zero, that the world is still bent. We may claim that technological advance will go on, spiraling up and up, solving and inventing new problems while never addressing our ultimate condition, because our ultimate need is for the God who created us, not for the technologistic god that evolves around us today.
1. Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 32.
2. Jon Ronson, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” New York Times, February 12, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html.
3. See Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2005).
George T. Anderson
George T. Anderson has written on aesthetics, culture, and the digital self in the Curator and Bedlam Magazine. His transhumanist novel The Year of Perfect Sight launches September 2015. He blogs on issues of tech evolution and transhumanism at www.theyearofperfectsight.com. For his music and other writings, see http://george-anderson.net/.