Technology and the Return of the Old Gods

At the close of the Millennium, David Noble published a book with Penguin titled, The Religion of Technology, in which he explored the spiritual underpinnings behind the modern technological vision. In the book’s introduction, Noble commented on the strange fusion of rationalism and spirituality that now animates the technological impulse:

“Although today’s technologists, in their sober pursuit of utility, power, and profit, seem to set society’s standard for rationality, they are driven also by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption. However dazzling and daunting their display of worldly wisdom, their true inspiration lies elsewhere, in an enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.”

Noble, himself an historian, showed that when technological innovation first began to emerge in the Middle Ages, it had been directly tied to a vision of spiritual progress, and even implicated in the Christian idea of redemption. Yet despite centuries’ long fusion of spirituality and technology, at the dawn of the 21st century, most people still thought of technology/science and spirituality/transcendence as contrary historical forces:

“With the approach of the new millennium, we are witness to two seemingly incompatible enthusiasms, on the one hand a widespread infatuation with technological advance and a confidence in the ultimate triumph of reason, on the other a resurgence of fundamental faith akin to a religious revival. The coincidence of these two developments appears strange, however, merely because we mistakenly suppose them to be opposite and opposing historical tendencies….

“For modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essential religious endeavor.

21 years later, David Noble’s point is easier to accept. The gurus of Silicon Valley no longer disguise the spiritual cast to their endeavors as they pursue their techno-utopian social vision with religious zeal and fanaticism. The intersection of religion and technology has seen the rise in a new mysticism, with what Wildman and Stockly refer to as “the brave new world of consciousness hacking and enlightenment engineering.” It has seen the rise in a new eschatology, known as the doctrine of the Singularity. It has seen the emergence of a new corpus of prophetic literature, such as Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near. The spiritualized technocracy even offers its own vision of transcendence, with the pseudo-mystical cluster of ideas that now surround theories of augmented reality and the “metaverse.”

And now, to top it all, Mark Zuckerberg has held out technology as the answer to our spiritual longings through a series of bizarre innovations ranging from apps that enable us to pray through machines, to conversations with church leaders about how Facebook can enhance our worship experiences, to attempts to colonize religious experience. “Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life,” commented Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times.

As the spiritual becomes technological and the technological becomes spiritual, we are witnessing a return of primal fears long suppressed, including types of religious superstition associated with past ages of human history. Consider: pre-modern men and women were obsessed by how their lives were controlled by non-human agents, and we too seem haunted by the primal angst of invisible phenomena exerting causal power over human affairs. It is not angels and demons with which we must contend, but proprietary algorithms, data in “the cloud,” and invisible bots that mysteriously organize our lives and whose caprices must be pacified through an ever-expanding network of rituals, code-words, and esoteric knowledge. As more aspects of our lives—including our employability, our ability to borrow money, our social capital, and even our ability to share our opinions —become contingent on how we stand in relation to the ecosystem of data in the cloud, we begin looking at the bots that control this ecosystem much like our ancestors looked at angels and demons.

But even as we seek to pacify these opaque actors, we simultaneously look to them as our saviors, as if they alone are capable of protecting us from corrupting “forces” like memes, fake news, and other types of infectious content. Earlier this year Adam Elkus observed that these types of infectious forces are seen to function much like heresy did in earlier times, “like magic, with powers to cause real-world effects, akin to the premodern spiritual objects.” Through their power, infectious forces (i.e., memes, fakery, “hate speech,” etc.) threaten the stability of the community, thus requiring non-human agents—what L. M. Sacasas called “bots and opaque algorithmic processes, which alternately and capriciously curse or bless us”—to be invoked.

As we invoke the power of the machine to restrain the darker impulses of the human, we find ourselves contending with a new fear: possession. In a piece for the Summer 2021 New Atlantis, Kent Anhari chronicled widespread anxiety that we are being controlled by bots. The fear of machines becoming human that found expression in films like The Matrix, has been sidelined by a new angst that humans are becoming like, and being controlled by, machines. As humans become more machine-like—for example, unable to think independently, communicating with predictable talking points and partisan automata, mimicking the behavior of bots—media scholars have begun reaching into the quasi-spiritual language of demonology to describe the phenomena.

The new technological order not only has its own version of demonic possession, but a new priest caste through which the rule of our robot overlords is continually mediated. These are the few who truly understand the inner workings of the digital ecosystem in which all of us now live and have our being. These are the technological oligarchs whose godlike control derives from their access to the esoteric knowledge, and who communicate that knowledge to us in vagaries that approach, but never quite achieve, full coherence. What is the true meaning of “violating community standards”? Only the technological priests know for sure. Why criteria is used to determine what counts as “misinformation?” Why are videos with the word “vaccination” tagged for removal but not content using the word “inoculation”? The answers to these questions remain shrouded in mystery, as we try to decode the ever-changing updates and policy statements of our technological priests who stand between us and our algorithmic overlords.

But even as we rage against our technological priests, we remain beholden to the benefits they offer, and we do obeisance to our priests whenever we look to them to bless us and offer absolution. These priests dictate the liturgies of our lives by controlling our technological habits, our commerce, and ultimately determining how the world appears to us.

Meanwhile, as more aspects of reality come to be mediated through our machines, the distinction between actuality and simulation, real life and AI, reality and fakeness, become not only blurred, but trivial and irrelevant for many. The next holy grail of the tech industry is actually to erase the distinction between real life and simulation. Like a primitive savage whose world is haunted by demons and shadowy forces, we may soon live in a shadowy netherworld where the phantasmic is mistaken for the real.

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This is the dark turn implicated by the fusion of the spiritual and the technological, a fusion that presents the ultimate paradox. The spiritualized technocracy of Silicon Valley promised to be Apollonian but ended up Dionysian. As the ultimate flowering of the hyper-rational scientism that began with the industrial revolution, the technological society offered the promise of fulfilling the dream of the 19th century “scientific management” movement of organizing mankind into purely rational processes. This is the Apollonian promise of a well-organized society based on purely rational processes, whereby human experience is reduced to what can be computationally managed and controlled. Yet our technology society has funneled a new fixation with the irrational, as it offers tools to release the animalistic side of man, to give expression to the primitive fixation with tribalism, hedonism, escapism, and nudity. This is the Dionysian turn of the technological spirituality.

In his 1999 book Technology as Magic: the Triumph of the Irrational,  Richard Stivers identified this strange juxtaposition of the rational and the irrational, pointing out that our technological society offers extensive rational control juxtaposed with “the need to escape into fantasy, dreams, and ecstasy.” The fixation with escaping from reality – now encapsulated in technologies like augmented reality and the emerging metaverse – seeks to eliminate the very distinction between the real and the fake, the free and the enslaved, the rational and the irrational. Ultimately, these new innovations offer the promise of fulfilling the demonic vision of Lewis’s Screwtape, who wished for a world where a materialistic magician is no longer an anachronism.

The French sociologist Jacques Ellul saw this coming and warned in his 1973 book The New Demons that “the desacralization of nature, of the cosmos, and of the traditional objects of religion is accompanied by a sacralization of society as a result of technology.” As the world becomes emptied of mystery, transcendence, and wonder, the sacralization of technology promises to fill the vacuum. From Ellul’s The New Demons:

“In the world in which we live technique has become the essential mystery, and that in diverse forms according to milieu and race. There is an admiration mingled with terror for the machine among those who have retrained notions of magic.”

Ellul was right, for the old gods have returned, and with them the terror of the savage, and the primitive angst implicated by life in a world controlled by forces that remain concealed in the shadows, and whose power over us is mediated by processes that blur the distinction between the rational and the arbitrary. This is the situation akin to what Hermann Broch described in his 1932 novel, The Sleepwalkers, where humans live suspended in a netherworld between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, caught in the horror of a process they can never comprehend. I will leave you with the following passage from Broch’s novel, which described the state of affairs that has now become our reality:

“Man, exposed to the horror of unrestrained reason, bidden to serve it without comprehending it, caught in the toils of a process that develops far over his head, caught in the toils of his own irrationality, man is like the savage who is bewitched by black magic and cannot see the connection between means and effect.”

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