The Stories We Tell About Technology

Michael Solana wants to put an end to dystopian science-fiction. Enough already. No more bleak, post-apocalyptic stories; certainly no more of these stories in which technology is somehow to blame for the disaster. Why? Because, as the title of his Wired opinion piece puts it, “It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.”

This is as good a time as any to drop the word flabbergasted–I’m genuinely flabbergasted. Granted, there’s a good chance Solana didn’t pick his title, but, in this case, it pretty much sums up the substance of his view. Solana really seems to believe that our cultural imagination is driven by Luddite fears. He really seems to believe that stories which present technology as a positive force in human affairs can be … ready for this … “subversive” and “daring.”

Like Alan Jacobs, I find myself wondering what world Solana inhabits:

“I have to say, it’s pretty cool to get a report from such a peculiar land. Where you and I live, of course, technology companies are among the largest and most powerful in the world, our media are utterly saturated with the prophetic utterances of their high priests, and people continually seek high-tech solutions to every imaginable problem, from obesity to road rage to poor reading scores in our schools. So, you know, comparative anthropology FTW.”

Indeed.

Interestingly, I found myself wondering much the same thing when I read Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s post, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral” (more thoughts on which are eventually forthcoming). Gobry and Thiel, in the talk that inspired Gobry’s post, both lament what they seem to regard as an oppressive pessimism regarding technology and innovation that supposedly dominates our cultural imagination. To listen to Thiel, you would think that Silicon Valley was an island of hope and pragmatism in an ocean of fear and doubt. Gobry is particularly concerned with the prevalent pessimism about technology that he observes among Christians. Maybe French Catholics have a proclivity toward Luddism, I don’t know; but on this side of the Atlantic I see no great difference between Christians and non-Christians with regards to their attitudes toward technology. On the whole, they are generally enthusiastically positive.

In fact, I think media scholar Henry Jenkins is much closer to the mark, regarding communication technology at least, when he writes,

“Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

I don’t want to be to snarky about this, but, honestly, I’m not entirely sure where you have to stand to get this kind of perspective on society. True, there have always been skeptics–Thoreaus, Postmans, Elluls, Toflers–but, historically, they have been the counterpoint, not the main theme. They have always been marginal figures, and they have never managed to stem the dominant tide of techno-enthusiasm. (Granted, the case may be different in Europe, where, for example, nuclear energy has been in retreat since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.) Perhaps we simply prefer to see ourselves, regardless of the actual state of affairs, as an embattled minority. And perhaps, I’m guilty of this, too.

In any case, the only evidence that Solana submits in defense of his claim that “people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been” is a decidedly non-scientific survey of attitudes toward artificial intelligence. You can follow the link to read the details, but basically the survey offered three choices:

1. Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening
2. No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening
3. I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology

Here are the results:

1. 16.7%
2. 27.1%
3. 56.3%

Set aside any methodological issues; the results as reported simply don’t support Solana’s assertion that “the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence.” Given the phrasing of the third choice, selecting it hardly suggests irrational fear. In fact, it may just reflect a modicum of common sense. By contrast, consider this recent Pew Research survey which found that “When asked for their general views on technology’s long-term impact on life in the future, technological optimists outnumber pessimists by two-to-one.”

Now, all of this said, Solana’s underlying assumption is worth considering. Human-beings are the sorts of creatures that do make sense of their world by telling stories about it. Stories have the power to shape how we imagine the place of technology in society. Our attitudes toward technology often flow from a larger story we buy into about technology and society.

It’s worth asking ourselves what story frames our thinking about technology. Broadly speaking, there are utopian stories and dystopian stories about technology. Utopian stories tell of a future that gets better and better as a result of techno-scientific progress. Dystopian stories present technology as a source of disaster or societal disintegration. I’d suggest that there are also tragic stories, and that these are not the same as utopian tales. The paradigmatic techno-tragedy is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is a classically tragic tale that recognizes the allure and power of the techno-scientific project, while also grappling with its inherent dangers, dangers which are ultimately a function of the human condition.

Of course, these stories need not be fictional. They might also be stories we tell about our national history or about individuals, such as inventors or entrepreneurs. Moreover, what we want to ultimately consider is not any one story, or even a set of stories, it’s the net effect or the cumulative “story” that becomes part of our tacit understanding of the world.

While it is easy to think of popular stories that frame technology as a source of trouble, it seems to me that the still-dominant narrative frames technology as a source of hope. When Solana writes, in the pages of Wired mind you, that “Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it,” it seems to me that he is preaching to one massive choir.

With more time, I’d argue that our story about technology is not just a story. “Technology” is another name for the dominant myth of our time. This myth gives shape to our imagination. It sets the boundaries of the possible. It conditions our moral judgment. It is the arbiter of truth and the source of our hope. Is there a little anxiety wrapped up in all of this, even among the true believers? Sure. But as scholars of religion have long observed, what we hold sacred tends to invoke both and wonder and fear.

So, what’s the view from where you stand? What do you perceive as the dominant cultural attitude toward technology? Have the Luddites really won the day, have I somehow missed this startling development?

Unplugged

I’m back. In fact, I’ve been back for more than a week now. I’ve been back from several days spent in western North Carolina. It’s beautiful country out there, and, where I was staying, it was beautiful country without cell phone signal or Internet connection. It was a week-long digital sabbath, or, if you prefer, a week-long digital detox. It was a good week. I didn’t find myself. I didn’t discover the meaning of life. I had no epiphanies, and I didn’t necessarily feel more connected to nature. But it was a good week.

I know that reflection pieces on technology sabbaths, digital detoxes, unplugging, and disconnecting are a dime a dozen. Slightly less common are pieces critical of the disconnectionists, as Nathan Jurgenson has called them, but these aren’t hard to come by either. Others, like Evgeny Morozov, have contributed more nuanced evaluations. Not only has the topic been widely covered, if you’re reading this blog I’d guess that you’re likely to be more or less sympathetic to these practices, even if you harbor some reservations about how they are sometimes presented and implemented. All of that to say, I’ve hesitated to add yet another piece on the experience of disconnection, especially since I’d be (mostly) preaching to the choir. But … I’m going to try your patience and offer just a few thoughts for your consideration.

First, I think the week worked well because its purpose wasn’t to disconnect from the Internet or digital devices; being disconnected was simply a consequence of where I happened to be. I suspect that when one explicitly sets out to disconnect, the psychology of the experience works against you. You’re disconnecting in order to be disconnected because you assume or hope it will yield some beneficial consequences. The potential problem with this scenario is that “being connected” is still framing, and to some degree defining, your experience. When you’re disconnected, you’re likely to be thinking about your experience in terms of not being connected. Call it the disconnection paradox.

This might mean, for example, that you’re overly aware of what you’re missing out on, thus distracted from what you hoped to achieve by disconnecting. It might also lead to framing your experience negatively in terms of what you didn’t do–which isn’t ultimately very helpful–rather than positively in terms of what you accomplished. In the worst cases, it might also lead to little more than self-congratulatory or self-loathing status updates.

In my recent case, I didn’t set out to be disconnected. In fact, I was rather disappointed that I’d be unable to continue writing about some of the themes I’d been recently addressing. So while I was carrying on with my disconnected week, I didn’t think at all about being connected or disconnected; it was simply a matter of fact. And, upon reflection, I think this worked in my favor.

This observation does raise a practical problem, however. How can one disconnect, if so desired, while avoiding the disconnection paradox? Two things come to mind. As Morozov pointed out in his piece on the practice of disconnection, there’s little point in disconnecting if it amounts to coming up for breath before plunging back into the digital flood. Ultimately, then, the idea is to so order our digital practices that enforced periods of disconnection are unnecessary.

But what if, for whatever reason, this is not a realistic goal? At this point we run up against the limits of individual actions and need to think about how to effect structural and institutional changes. Alongside those longterm projects, I’d suggest that making the practice of disconnection regular and habitual will eventually overcome the disconnection paradox.

Second consideration, obvious though it may be: it matters what you do with the time that you gain. For my part, I was more physically active than I would be during the course of an ordinary week, much more so. I walked, often; I swam; and I did a good bit of paddling too. Not all of this activity was pleasurable as it transpired. Some of it was exhausting. I was often tired and sore. But I welcomed all of it because it relieved the accumulated stress and tension that I tend to carry around on my back, shoulders, neck, and jaw, much of it a product of sitting in front of a computer or with a book for extended periods of time. It was a good week because at the end of it, my body felt as good as it had in a long time, even if it was a bit battered and ragged.

The feeling reminded me of what the Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about his stay in a monastery early in the late 1950s, a kind of modernity detox. Initially, he was agitated, then he was overwhelmed for a few days by the desire to sleep. Finally, he emerged “full of energy and limpid freshness.” Here is how he described the experience in A Time to Keep Silence:

“The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

“[T]he tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries”–indeed, and to that we might add the tremendous accumulation of stress and anxiety. The Internet, always-on connectivity, and digital devices have not of themselves caused the tiredness, stress, and anxiety, but they haven’t helped either. In certain cases they’ve aggravated the problem. And, I’d suggest, they have done so regardless of what, specifically, we have been doing. Rather the aggravation is in part a function of how our bodies engage with these tools. Whether we spend a day in front of a computer perusing cat videos, playing Minecraft, writing a research paper, or preparing financial reports makes little difference to our bodies. It is in each case a sedentary day, and these are, as we all know, less than ideal for our bodies. And, because so much of our well-being depends on our bodies, the consequences extend to the whole of our being.

I know countless critics since the dawn of industrial society have lamented the loss of regular physical activity, particularly activity that unfolded in “nature.” Long before the Internet, such complaints were raised about the factory and the cubicle. It is also true that many of these calls for robust physical activity have been laden with misguided assumptions about the nature of masculinity and worse. But none of this changes the stubborn, intractable fact that we are embodied creatures and the concrete physicality of our nature is subject to certain limits and thrives under certain conditions and not others.

One further point about my experience: some of it was moderately risky. Not extreme sports-risky or risky bordering on foolish, you understand. More like “watch where you step there might be a rattle snake” risky (I avoided one by two feet or so) or “take care not to slip off the narrow trail, that’s a 300 foot drop” risky (I took no such falls, happily). I’m not sure what I can claim for all of this, but I would be tempted to make a Merleau-Ponty-esque argument about the sort of engagement with our surroundings that navigating risk requires of us. I’d modestly suggest, on a strictly anecdotal basis, that there is something mentally and physically salubrious about safely navigating the experience of risk. While we’re at, it plug-in the “troubles” (read, sometimes risky, often demanding activities) that philosopher Albert Borgmann encourages us to accept in principle.

Of course, it must immediately be added that this is a first-world-problem par excellence. Around the globe there are people who have no choice but to constantly navigate all sorts of risks to their well-being, and not of the moderate variety either. It must then seem perverse to suggest that some of us might need to occasionally elect to encounter risk, but only carefully so. Indeed, but such might nonetheless be the case. Certainly, it is also true that all of us are at risk everyday when walking a city street, or driving a car, or flying in a plane, and so on. My only rejoinder is again to lean on my experience and suggest that the sort of physical activity I engaged in had the unexpected effect of calling on and honing aspects of my body and mind that are not ordinarily called into service by my typical day-to-day experience, and this was a good thing. The accustomed risks we thoughtlessly take, crossing a street say, precisely because they are a routinized part of our experience do not call forth the same mental and bodily resources.

A final thought. Advocating disconnection sometimes raises the charges of elitism–Sherry Turkle strolling down Cape Cod beaches and what not. I more or less get where this is coming from, I think. Disconnection is often construed as a luxury experience. Who gets to placidly stroll the beaches of Cape Cod anyway? And, indeed, it is an unfortunate feature of modernity’s unfolding that what we eliminate from our lives, often to make room for one technology or another, we then end up compensating for with another technology because we suddenly realized that what we eliminated might have been useful and health-giving.

It was Neil Postman, I believe, who observed that having eliminated walking by the adoption of the automobile and the design of our public spaces, we then invented a machine on which we could simulate walking in order to maintain a minimal level of fitness. Postman’s chief focus, if I remember the passage correctly, was to point out the prima facie absurdity of the case, but I would add an economic consideration: in this pattern of technological displacement and replacement, the replacement is always a commodity. No one previously paid to walk, but the treadmill and the gym membership are bought and sold. So it is now with disconnection, it is often packaged as a commodified experience that must be bought, and the costs of disconnection (monetary and otherwise) are for some too hight to bear. This is unfortunate if not simply tragic.

But it seems to me that the answer is not to dismiss the practice of disconnecting as such or efforts to engage more robustly with the wider world. If these practices are, even in small measure, steps toward human flourishing, then our task is to figure out how we can make them as widely available as possible.

If You’re Keeping Score at Home …

… then you know that I have three series of posts in progress right now. Two relate to the “Internet of Things,” automation, and technological enchantment; the third deals with the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation. As it happens, though, each of these will be on hold for the next week or so during which I’ll be away and without Internet connection–on a digital sabbath of sorts, although more by circumstance than by design. In any case, the blog will be silent for the next several days.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part Two)

What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?

More than you might think, but that question, of course, is a riff on Tertullian’s famous query, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was a rhetorical question. By it, Tertullian implied that Christian theology, represented by Jerusalem, should steer clear of Greek philosophy, represented by Athens. I offer my question, in which Silicon Valley represents technological “innovation,” more straightforwardly and as a way of introducing this second post in conversation with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s essay, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.”

In the first post, I raised some questions about terminology and the force of Gobry’s analogy: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day.” I was glad to get some feedback from Gobry, and you can read it here; you can also read my response below Gobry’s comment. Of course, Internet reading being what it is, it’s probably better if I just give you the gist of it. Gobry thought I made a bit too much of the definitional nuances while also making clear that he was well aware of the distinctions between a twenty-first century start up and a thirteenth century monastery.

For the record, I never doubted Gobry’s awareness of the fine points at issue. But when the fine points are relevant to the conversation, I think it best to bring them to the surface. It matters, though, what point is being made, and this may be where my response to Gobry’s essay missed the mark, or where Gobry and I might be in danger of talking past one another. The essay reads a bit like a manifesto, it is a call to action. Indeed, it explicitly ends as such. Given that rhetorical context, my approach may not have been entirely fair. In fact, it may be better to frame most of what I plan to write as being “inspired” by Gobry’s post, rather than as a response to it.

It would depend, I think, on the function of the historical analogies, and I’ll let Gobry clarify that for me. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, it matters what function the historical analogies–e.g., monasteries as start-ups–are intended to play. Are they merely inspirational illustrations, or are they intended as morally compelling arguments. My initial response assumed the latter, thus my concern to clarify terminology and surface the nuance before moving on to a more formal evaluation of the claim.

The closing paragraphs of Gobry’s response to my post, however, suggested to me that I’d misread the import of the analogies. Twice Gobry clarified his interest in the comparisons:

“What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal,”

and

“What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends.”

That sounds a bit more like an inspirational historical illustration than it does an argument by analogy based on the assumed moral force of historical precedent. Of course, that’s not a criticism. (Although, I’m not sure it’s such a great illustration for the same reasons I didn’t think it made a convincing argument.) It just means that I needed to recalibrate my own approach and that it might be best to untether these considerations a bit from Gobry’s post. Before doing so, I would just add this. If the crux of the analogy is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a goal and a sense of mission executed by a devoted community, then the monastic tradition is just one of many possible religious and non-religious illustrations.

Fundamentally, though, even while Gobry and I approach it from different angles, I still do think we are both interested in the same issue: the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation.

In Gobry’s view, we need to recover the innovative spirit illustrated within the monastic tradition and also by the building of the great medieval cathedrals. In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that a closer look at both helps us to see how the relationship between technology and culture has evolved in such a way that the strength of cultural institutions that ought to drive “innovation” has been sapped. In this light, Gobry’s plea for the church to take the up the mantle of innovation might be understood as a symptom of what has gone wrong with respect to technology’s relationship to religion, and culture more broadly. In short, the problem is that technological innovation is no longer a means directed by the church or some other cultural institution to some noble end, it is too frequently pursued as an end in itself. For the record, I don’t think this is what Gobry himself is advocating.

Gobry is right to raise questions about the relationship between technological innovation and, to borrow Lynne White’s phrasing, cultural climates. White himself argued that there was something about the cultural climate of medieval Europe that proved hospitable to technological innovation. But looking over the evolution of technology and culture over the subsequent centuries, it becomes apparent that the relationship between technology and culture has become disordered. In the next post, I’ll start with the medieval cathedrals to fill out that claim.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

Last week I read a spirited essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry titled “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.” Gobry’s post was itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

So, needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. In fact, I’ve been thinking of Gobry’s post for several days. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. Of course, these issues can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I thought about Gobry’s post and read related materials, relevant considerations cascaded. Nothing short of a book-length treatment could do this subject justice. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that I think are worth further discussion.

In this post, I’ll start with a quick sketch of Gobry’s argument, and I’ll follow that with some questions about the key terms at play in this discussion. My goal is to read Gobry charitably and critically precisely because I share his sense that these are consequential matters, and not only for Christians.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim it’s role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

With that sketch in place, and I trust it is a fair summary, let’s move on to some of the particulars, and we’ll need to start by clarifying terminology.

Church, Technology, Innovation—we could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these key terms. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arises from the equivocal nature of these terms and how Gobry deploys them to analogize from the present to the past. I would assume that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily has the Roman Church in view when he talks about “the Church” or even Christianity. On one level this is fine, it’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that is not all. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which would function as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern, is that speaking about the Church, technology, and innovation involves us in highly problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, I understand this, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. I’m not pedantically opposed to generalizations in principle. However, every generalization, every concept, obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense is that in Gobry’s post, we are very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermine the thrust of the argument. This is especially important because the historical analogies in this case are meant to carry a normative, or at least persuasive force.

Because the generalizations are problematic, the analogies are too. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence is absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, are, in my view, misleading. The first clause is misleading because it suggests, as I read it, that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. As Gobry knows, “monastic life” is already a generalization that obscures great variety on the question at issue, especially when eastern forms of monastic life are taken into consideration. But even if we concentrate on the more relevant strand of western and Benedictine monasticism, we run into trouble.

As George Ovitt found in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. This is evident in the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—is misleading because it imports the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seems unhelpful, if not irresponsible to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.

I hope these considerations do not come across as merely “academic” quibbles. I’ve no interest in being pedantic. In writing about technology and Christianity, Gobry has addressed a set of issues that I too consider important and consequential. Getting the relevant history right will help us better understand our present moment. In follow-up posts, I’ll take up some of the more substantive issues raised by Gobry’s essay, and I’ll follow his lead by using the construction of the cathedral’s as a useful case study.

tres_riches_heures_march1410