iCathedral: Technology as Theology

Back in the early nineteenth century Hegel said that reading the morning papers was the modern equivalent of praying. Times have changed. Now it is turning before breakfast (the prayers that most matter are always those said on an empty stomach) to tap a slim-line, touch-screen, high-tech equivalent of the Buddhist prayer wheel.

As we argued in an earlier post (Technology is Not Tools) the phenomenon of technology is misunderstood if it is imagined to be a matter of the consumer coming across a few tools and deciding how best to use them. The tools belong to a much larger complex that has a dynamic of its own. That complex is something we live in, and so it is constitutive of us. It is impossible to grow up in the cathedral of technology and not be profoundly affected by it.

Technology as religion

The defenders of the status quo (the enemy, as we neo-Luddites see them) would like to think of themselves as sober pragmatists who know fine well that all the old talk of God rested on an epistemological delusion. They gaze up at the starry “heavens” and feel wonder, and confess that the feeling has a slight tinge of the religious, but they insist that this has absolutely nothing to do with a belief in the old transcendent God.

They are right about the old God. They have killed Him. What they fail to mention, though, is the new One.

There is a new delusion: the delusion that our age, with its pragmatism and its science, has cut all ties to religion. The age leaves space for religion – you are free to kneel before the idol of your choosing – but the age itself is beyond religion, or so it would like to think. But this is a lie. We live in a new theocracy.

In the Dark Ages people looked for salvation in some other life. In our age, where all darkness is banished at the flick of a switch, the hope is that salvation will come through progress, where “progress” is seen not in the eradication of sin, but in the development of more sophisticated technology. We will know that the future has arrived, not when the wolf and the lamb feed together, and the lion eats straw like the bullock, but when cars can fly.

In the Dark Ages the Divine was thought of as something that must exist beyond this earthly world of limitation. The Divine had to be unsullied by all that was limited. Hence, the radical split between this finite world and the realm of the infinite, which must be somewhere else.

The great achievement of modern theology was to reject this rather thoughtless separation. It was a long time coming, but it was a very welcome development when humanity finally realised that if infinity means anything it cannot be something outside the finite. The Divine, henceforth, must be understood as immanent, not transcendent.

Just as there is no one way of conceiving of a transcendent, monotheistic divinity, there is no one way of conceiving of an immanent one.

The Christian conception of a transcendent deity was inspired by a story of personal sacrifice – the power of the soul to rise above all its earthly passions. The modern conception of an immanent deity is inspired by science – the power of intellectual ingenuity to overcome the limitations of our earthly existence. The infinite is no longer understood as a tranquil elsewhere, but is grasped as the overcoming of the limitations that once seemed to be fateful aspects of our finitude. Although the new religion is inspired by science, the revelation – the proof and the Second Coming – is seen in technology. We were fated, it once seemed, to weave our cloth in the sweat of our brow. But with the invention of machinery such as the Spinning Jenny the hope emerged that the spell of fate would soon be broken.

Industrial education

The theology that dare not speak its name is seen in the injunction to defy our limitations through technological innovation. It would be nice to think that the whole business had nothing to do with theology at all, and that it sprang instead from humble concerns about the quality of life, with people tinkering away and inventing things to help us all live contented and fulfilling lives. But in the invention of the Satanic factory system, for instance, where was the concern for the quality of life of those working in it, those packed into towns whose sole purpose was to serve the factory, and those whose livelihoods were destroyed by it? No, the modern world is not the world of a calm pragmatism or a humble concern for the brotherhood of man. Something inhuman is at work, and now built into the terrible inertia of a global psycho-social-institutional matrix: an injunction to progress – to defy limitations – at all costs. On the altar of Progress society will sacrifice its own son. The modern “man” likes to think of himself as an individual, but progress of this sort has rendered individuality little more than a bad joke (as we argued in our post about technology and the fate of the individual). How else are we to understand the impetus behind this except as a new Divine injunction belonging to a new theology?

The old religion set itself against the idea that this earthly life, with the satisfactions it affords, was enough. The new religion does something similar, but instead of setting this world against a parallel world, it sets a limited present against the idea of an unlimited future. It sets itself against the idea that we might be happy with our current set of limitations, e.g. with having to rely on a good local library, a couple of local bookshops and the bookshelves of friends and relatives as our main sources of reading material. Whether or not people are actually happy or unhappy with those limitations is utterly irrelevant. There was no scientific study (was there?) of the levels of unhappiness and frustration in the Guttenberg world before construction work on its digital replacement began. Progress has to happen. “Thou shalt progress,” is a commandment, not a question.

Of course there are limitations that needed to be overcome, and of course anaesthetics were a great step forward, but the new theology goes way beyond a concern to overcome some particular set of limitations causing real misery in the here and now. The world in which we live is one which has set itself against limitation as such. What we see is a new notion of the Infinite that is condemned to prove itself again and again in its defiance of the limits of the finite. This is not a new pragmatic humanism. It is a new theism.

Reconciliation with a limited way of doing things is the new heresy. Anyone foolish enough to declare publicly that they were quite happy with paper books is immediately labelled a technophobe – a medicalised replacement for the word “heretic”. The one great sin according to the new religion is to be content with this limited life.

And you think you are happy now tapping tweets with your Neanderthal fingers, but, be warned, that happiness too will soon become sinful. You will seem as foisty as the decrepit book-lover. “He still tweets,” the young ones will say, with their acidic snigger.

As Walter Benjamin suggested in his thesis on the angel of history, in a world of perpetual revolution where nothing is allowed to stand for long, the real revolt will be an event bringing the runaway train of progress to a halt. This is the hope, we maintain, of the neo-Luddites, among whom we number ourselves.

Ziteitai Elpis, Samaraki

When we have expressed our skepticism in online discussions with edtech enthusiasts the response has occasionally been quite hostile. The reason can’t just be that people are so convinced of the advantages of some particular iThing or app or whatever. It seems to us that the conversation is driven by something more than a pragmatic evaluation of the pros and cons of particular tools: an affiliation to the new Catholic Church of Progress. What provokes the hostile ostracism of the skeptic is his heretical implication that the now ageing God of Progress is a false idol.

Marx argued that the economy was the determinant in the last instance. What this forgets (and here the Luddites disown one of their children) is that the central dynamic of the economy – an economy in which the forces of production must rise each and every year ad infinitum – has absolutely nothing to do with the interests of the butchers described by Adam Smith. The commitment to infinite growth regardless of what the butchers, the bakers and the candlestick makers might actually want can only be understood as the inscription of a new divine injunction.

The age is not what it thinks it is. It calls itself materialist, but there has never been an age that trashed material things so abundantly and so quickly as this. It is the idealism of a deity that presides over the landfills and the oil slicks and the smog and all the toxic waste being strewn across the planet.

And it likes to think of itself as liberal, but there never was a society that left people less alone than ours. Being always connected means being always available to be prodded and prompted and never left with the disconnected distance in which something less preformed might be experienced. The divine project of overcoming limitations requires the ever greater incorporation of what used to be the individual into the social project. From way before birth he must be measured to assess how well he will adjust and make the grade. There is nothing liberal about the new theocracy.

This is a very questionable theology. The idea of infinite growth in a finite system will prove difficult to maintain, and things like climate change and resource depletion and pollution are beginning to make that evident. Utterly untheological considerations of preserving an environment fit to live in may be enough to unsettle the new priestly order.

And on a personal level the new theology is spiritually dead. No one actually lives for progress, at least not now. In the beginning it was sustained by visions of a New Jerusalem to be built on the ruins of the Satanic mills. No such vision remains, and so the motivation has been lost. The mortgage continues to be paid in the cold sweat of our anxiety, and we find meaning – or try to find it – in forms of escape, which have now been organised in abundance so that there is never an empty second in which the meaninglessness of it all might register.

There is an ephemeral fetishism for ephemeral products of progress, but the deeper idea that they represent and that legitimates their being binned so quickly is more or less meaningless and has to remain in the background. On a personal level, what keeps the whole theological show on the road is a lingering and unholy sense of dissatisfaction – a sense that some trace of meaning might be just around the corner, although when we get there, it vanishes.

The paradox of the new theology is that no one really believes in it and yet it reigns with an institutionalised supremacy that rivals that of any of the old popes.


written by Torn Halves on March 30, 2015 in digital revolution and technology with no comments