Technological Messiah? Revisiting the Promised Revolution

D. Brent Laytham

There’s an eschatology of sorts in the hubbub — indeed, in the hubris — that attends so-called technological revolutions. Apocalyptic always makes epochs determined by “before” and “after,” whether it’s the apocalyptic imagination undergirding the New Testament (e.g., “but in these last days…”; Heb 1:2, NRSV) or the one animating digital utopians like Edward Castronova (Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality [Palgrave, 2007]). The core question is whether that which dramatically changes everything is a “what” or a “who.” For Christians, even those entranced by the bewitchments of technological change, the answer must finally be who — for we know that grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ (John 1:17), not the latest technological revolution, no matter how remarkable.

This theological claim comports well with some of the best analysis of the rhetoric of epochal change surrounding the parousia of digital technology. In his scathing rebuttal of “technological solutionism,” Evgeny Morozov asserts, “Technological amnesia and complete indifference to history (especially the history of technological amnesia) remain the defining features of contemporary Internet debate” (To Save Everything Click Here [Perseus, 2013], 35). So perhaps a bit of historical perspective can chasten our predilection toward overrating technological solutions at the expense of core gospel gifts.

For example, what hopes did technology engender 50 years ago? Two examples will suffice. Beginning in 1964, Joseph Weizenbaum developed a computer program that used grammatical logic to write out responses to typed input. Whatever the human user typed to the computer program, it would identify salient terms and reply with a question. The result was something along the lines of Rogerian therapy. The human user types, “I am very unhappy,” and the computer responds, “How long have you been unhappy?” Weizenbaum called the system ELIZA (after the character in Shaw’s Pygmalion), and the personal name had a profound fittingness, inasmuch as people responded to the program in highly personal, relational ways. (This is not unlike the way iPhone users develop a quasi-personal relation with Siri.) Carl Sagan predicted “a network of computer therapeutic terminals” that would allow us to have inexpensive conversations “with an attentive, tested, and largely non-directive psychotherapist” (see the summary in Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains [Norton, 2010], 201-8.) The telling point in this historical anecdote is our propensity to imagine a world that is “bettered” by machine substitutions for human relationships. As Wendell Berry has poignantly and powerfully argued in Life Is a Miracle (Counterpoint, 2000), “machine” is an impoverishing, disastrous metaphor for human being. Yet each new technological “revolution” tempts us to think and act as if machines are suitable analogs to, and thus appropriate substitutes for, human persons.

The second example comes from Isaac Asimov’s predictions based on the New York World’s Fair of 1964. That apotheosis of progress, promising “Peace through Understanding,” led Asimov to predict “that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better,” giving up windows and even the earth’s surface (“Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014,” New York Times [16 August 1964]). Like Sagan, Asimov appears to celebrate the technological turn away from given relations — in this case, our relation with creation itself — toward the synthetic. Although that hasn’t fully come to be, consider this: most advertisements for smart phones and tablets these days position the devices in the contexts of vibrant embodied relationships (e.g., groups of friends laughing together) or stunning natural vistas (scenes of exotic beauty outside the range of a typical human life). This form of associative advertising connects our positive feelings about healthy relationships and beautiful creation with devices that — in typical patterns of usage — increasingly rob us of both. The simulacra of good relation to neighbor and creation doesn’t just stand in for a preferred reality. It becomes our preference. That’s a change, to be sure, but for the worse rather than better, and hardly the epochal turning of the ages that many trumpet.

What both 1964 imaginings of technological revolution masked is the truth that we humans are clearly built for relationship with God, one another, and God’s very good creation, and that we have a powerful propensity to forfeit that blessing for the pottage of parasocial relations and the gleam of instrumentalized “nature.”

To come at the matter from the other side, one of the key bewitchments that technology reproduces, indeed mass produces, is the notion that limits and given interrelations are an impediment to our full and human flourishing. Of course technology doesn’t produce this fantasy, already propagating itself in Gen 3-4. But technology does (as with all of its uses) extend it dramatically, making it more universally and abundantly available. In other words, if technology regularly works to give us more of what we want, then it shouldn’t be surprising that our cryptic desire to transcend the very limits of our humanity will become part of the logic — the social imaginary — of technological culture. And because embodied relations to others and to creation are intrinsically limited by bodiliness itself, it should come as no surprise that a good deal of our rhetoric about epochal or generational change bespeaks hopes we must finally refuse, precisely because they desire a postbodily, and thus a posthuman, future. Even if Siri could give you directions to that future, why would you want to go?

Posted May 19, 2014

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