A Technological History of Modernity

I’m writing chiefly to commend to you what Alan Jacobs has recently called his “big fat intellectual project.”

The topic that has driven his work over the last few years Jacobs describes as follows: “The ways that technocratic modernity has changed the possibilities for religious belief, and the understanding of those changes that we get from studying the literature that has been attentive to them.” He adds,

“But literature has not been merely an observer of these vast seismic tremors; it has been a participant, insofar as literature has been, for many, the chief means by which a disenchanted world can be re-enchanted — but not fully — and by which buffered selves can become porous again — but not wholly. There are powerful literary responses to technocratic modernity that serve simultaneously as case studies (what it’s like to be modern) and diagnostic (what’s to be done about being modern).”

To my mind, such a project enjoys a distinguished pedigree, at least in some important aspects. I think, for example, of Leo Marx’s classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, or the manner in which Katherine Hayles weaves close readings of contemporary fiction into her explorations of digital technology. Not that he needs me to say this, but I’m certain Jacobs’ work along these lines, particularly with its emphasis on religious belief, will be valuable and timely. You should click through to find links to a handful of essays Jacobs has already written in this vein.

On his blog, Text Patterns, Jacobs has, over the last few weeks, been describing one important thread of this wider project, a technological history of modernity, which, naturally, I find especially intriguing and necessary.

The first post in which Jacobs articulates the need for a technological history of modernity began as a comment on Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. In it, Jacobs repeats his critique of the “ideas have consequences” model of history, one in which the ideas of philosophers drive cultural change.

Jacobs took issue with the “ideas have consequences” model of cultural change in his critique of Neo-Thomist accounts of modernity, i.e., those that pin modernity’s ills on the nominalist challenge to the so-called medieval/Thomist synthesis of faith and reason. He finds that Crawford commits a similar error in attributing the present attention economy, in large measure, to conclusions about the will and the individual arrived at by Enlightenment thinkers.

Beyond the criticisms specific to the debate about the historical consequences of nominalism and the origins of our attention economy, Jacobs articulated concerns that apply more broadly to any account of cultural change that relies too heavily on the work of philosophers and theologians while paying too little attention to the significance of the material conditions of lived experience.

Moving toward the need for a technological history of modernity, Jacobs writes, “What I call the Oppenheimer Principle — ‘When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success’ — has worked far more powerfully to shape our world than any of our master thinkers. Indeed, those thinkers are, in ways we scarcely understand, themselves the product of the Oppenheimer Principle.”

Or, as Ken Myers, a cultural critic that Jacobs and I both hold in high esteem, often puts it: ideas may have consequences, but ideas also have antecedents. These antecedents may be described as unarticulated assumptions derived from the bodily, emotional, and, yes, cognitive consequences of society’s political, economic, and technological infrastructure. I’m not sure if Jacobs would endorse this move, but I find it helpful to talk about these assumptions by borrowing the concept of “plausibility structures” first articulated by the sociologist Peter Berger.

For Berger, plausibility structures are those chiefly social realities that render certain ideas plausible, compelling, or meaningful apart from whatever truth value they might be independently or objectively assigned. Or, as Berger has frequently quipped, the factors that make it easier to be a Baptist in Texas than it would be in India.

Again, Berger has in mind interpersonal relationships and institutional practices, but I think we may usefully frame our technological milieu similarly. In other words, to say that our technological milieu, our material culture constitutes a set of plausibility structures is to say that we derive tacit assumptions about what is possible, what is good, what is valuable from merely carrying on about our daily business with and through our tools. These implicit valuations and horizons of the possible are the unspoken context within which we judge and evaluate explicit ideas and propositions.

Consequently, Jacobs is quite right to insist that we understand the emergence of modernity as more than the triumph of a set of ideas about individuals, democracy, reason, progress, etc. And, as he puts it,

“Those of us who — out of theological conviction or out of some other conviction — have some serious doubts about the turn that modernity has taken have been far too neglectful of this material, economic, and technological history. We need to remedy that deficiency. And someone needs to write a really comprehensive and ambitious technological history of modernity. I don’t think I’m up to that challenge, but if no one steps up to the plate….”

All of this to say that I’m enthusiastic about the project Jacobs has presented and eager to see how it unfolds. I have a few more thoughts about it that I hope to post in the coming days–why, for example, Jacobs project is more appealing than Evgeny Morozov’s vision for tech criticism–but that may or may not materialize. Whatever the case, I think you’ll do well to tune in to Jacobs’ work on this as it progresses.

Google Photos and the Ideal of Passive Pervasive Documentation

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the past and how we remember it. That this year marks the 20th anniversary of my high school graduation accounts for some of my reflective reminiscing. Flipping through my senior yearbook, I was surprised by what I didn’t remember. Seemingly memorable events alluded to by friends in their notes and more than one of the items I myself listed as “Best Memories” have altogether faded into oblivion. “I will never forget when …” is an apparently rash vow to make.

But my mind has not been entirely washed by Lethe’s waters. Memories, assorted and varied, do persist. Many of these are sustained and summoned by stuff, much of it useless, that I’ve saved for what we derisively call sentimental reasons. My wife and I are now in the business of unsentimentally trashing as much of this stuff as possible to make room for our first child. But it can be hard parting with the detritus of our lives because it is often the only tenuous link joining who we were to who we now are. It feels as if you risk losing a part of yourself forever if you were to throw away that last delicate link.

“Life without memory,” Luis Bunuel tells us, “is no life at all.” “Our memory,” he adds, “is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” Perhaps this accounts for why tech criticism was born in a debate about memory. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates tells a cautionary tale about the invention of writing in which writing is framed as a technology that undermines the mind’s power to remember. What we can write down, we will no longer know for ourselves–or so Socrates worried. He was, of course, right. But, as we all know, this was an incomplete assessment of writing. Writing did weaken memory in the way Plato feared, but it did much else besides. It would not be the last time critics contemplated the effects of a new technology on memory.

I’ve not written nearly as much about memory as I once did, but it continues to be an area of deep interest. That interest was recently renewed not only by personal circumstances but also by the rollout of Google Photos, a new photo storage app with cutting edge sorting and searching capabilities. According to Steven Levy, Google hopes that it will be received as a “visual equivalent to Gmail.” On the surface, this is just another digital tool designed to store and manipulate data. But the data in question is, in this case, intimately tied up with our experience and how we remember it. It is yet another tool designed to store and manipulate memory.

When Levy asked Bradley Horowitz, the Google executive in charge of Photos, what problem does Google Photos solve? Horowitz replied,

“We have a proliferation of devices and storage and bandwidth, to the point where every single moment of our life can be saved and recorded. But you don’t get a second life with which to curate, review, and appreciate the first life. You almost need a second vacation to go through the pictures of the safari on your first vacation. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix — to automate the process so that users can be in the moment. We also want to bring all of the power of computer vision and machine learning to improve those photos, create derivative works, to make suggestions…to really be your assistant.”

It shouldn’t be too surprising that the solution to the problem of pervasive documentation enabled by technology is a new technology that allows you to continue documenting with even greater abandon. Like so many technological fixes to technological problems, it’s just a way of doubling down on the problem. Nor is it surprising that he also suggested this would help users “be in the moment” without of a hint of irony.

But here is the most important part of the whole interview, emphasis mine:

“[…] so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.”

Replace saving with remembering and the potential significance of a tool like Google Photos becomes easier to apprehend. Horowitz is here confirming that users will need to upload their photos to Google’s Cloud if they want to take advantage of Google Photos’ most impressive features. He anticipates that there will be questions about privacy and security, hence the mention of safety. But the really important issue here is this business about saving everything.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the stigma Horowitz is talking about, but the cognitive burden of “saving everything” is presumably the burden of sorting and searching. How do you find the one picture you’re looking for when you’ve saved thousands of pictures across a variety of platforms and drives? How do you begin to organize all of these pictures in any kind of meaningful way? Enter Google Photos and its uncanny ability to identify faces and group pictures into three basic categories–People, Places, and Things–as well as a variety of sub-categories such as “food,” “beach,” or “cars.” Now you don’t need that second life to curate your photos. Google does it for you. Now we may document our lives to our heart’s content without a second thought about whether or not we’ll ever go back to curate our unwieldy hoard of images.

I’ve argued elsewhere that we’ve entered an age of memory abundance, and the abundance of memories makes us indifferent to them. When memory is scarce, we treasure it and care deeply about preserving it. When we generate a surfeit of memory, our ability to care about it diminishes proportionately. We can no longer relate to how Roland Barthes treasured his mother’s photograph; we are more like Andy Warhol, obsessively recording all of his interactions and never once listening to the recordings. Plato was, after all, even closer to the mark than we realized. New technologies of memory reconfigure the affections as well as the intellect. But is it possible that Google Photos will prove this judgement premature? Has Google figured out how we may have our memory cake and eat it too?

I think not, and there’s a historical precedent that will explain why.

Ivan Illich, in his brilliant study of medieval reading and the evolution of the book, In the Vineyard of the Text, noted how emerging textual technologies reconfigured how readers related to what they read. It is a complex, multifaceted argument and I won’t do justice to it here, but the heart of it is summed up in the title of Illich’s closing chapter, “From Book to Text.” After explaining what Illich meant by the that formulation, I’m going to suggest that we consider an analogous development: from photograph to image.

Like the photography, writing is, as Plato understood, a mnemonic technology. The book or codex is only one form the technology has taken, but it is arguably the most important form owing to its storage capacity and portability. Contrast the book to, for instance, a carved stone tablet or a scroll and you’ll immediately recognize the brilliance of the design. But the matter of sorting and searching remained a significant problem until the twelfth century. It is then that new features appeared to improve the book’s accessibility and user-friendliness, among them chapter titles, pagination, and the alphabetized index. Now one cloud access particular passages without having to either read the whole work or, more to the point, either memorize the passages or their location in the book (illuminated manuscripts were designed to aide with the latter).

My word choice in describing the evolution of the book above was, of course, calculated to make us see the book as a technology and also to make certain parallels to the case of digital photography more obvious. But what was the end result of all of this innovation? What did Illich mean by saying that the book became a text?

Borrowing a phrase Katherine Hayles deployed to describe a much later development, I’d say that Illich is getting at one example of how information lost its body. In other words, prior to these developments it was harder to imagine the text of a book as a free-floating reality that could be easily lifted and presented in a different format. The ideas, if you will, and the material that conveyed them–the message and medium–were intimately bound together; one could hardly imagine the two existing independently. This had everything to do with the embodied dimensions of the reading experience and the scarcity of books. Because there was no easy way to dip in and out of a book to look for a particular fragment and because one would likely encounter but one copy of a particular work, the work was experienced as a whole that lived within the particular pages of the book one held in hand.

The book had then been read reverentially as a window on the world; it yielded what Illich termed monastic reading. The text was later, after the technical innovations of the twelfth century, read as a window on the mind of the author; it yielded scholastic reading. We might also characterize these as devotional reading and academic reading, respectively. Illich summed it up this way:

“The text could now be seen as something distinct from the book. It was an object that could be visualized even with closed eyes [….] The page lost the quality of soil in which words are rooted. The new text was a figment on the face of the book that lifted off into autonomous existence [….] Only its shadow appeared on the page of this or that concrete book. As a result, the book was no longer the window onto nature or god; it was no longer the transparent optical device through which a reader gains access to creatures or the transcendent.”

Illich had, a few pages earlier, put the matter more evocatively: “Modern reading, especially of the academic and professional type, is an activity performed by commuters or tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.”

I recount Illich’s argument because it illuminates the changes we are witnessing with regards to photography. Illich demonstrated two relevant principles. First, that small technical developments can have significant and lasting consequences for the experience and meaning of media. The move from analog to digital photography should naturally be granted priority of place, but subsequent developments such as those in face recognition software and automated categorization should not be underestimated. Secondly, that improvements in what we might today call retrieval and accessibility can generate an order of abstraction and detachment from the concrete embodiment of media. And this matters because the concrete embodiment, the book as opposed to the text, yields kinds and degrees of engagement that are unique to it.

Let me try to put the matter more directly and simultaneously apply it to the case of photography. Improving accessibility meant that readers could approach the physical book as the mere repository of mental constructs, which could be poached and gleaned at whim. Consequently, the book was something to be used to gain access to the text, which now appeared for the first time as an abstract reality; it ceased to be itself a unique and precious window on the world and its affective power was compromised.

Now, just as the book yielded to the text, so the photograph yields to the image. Imagine a 19th century woman gazing lovingly at a photograph of her son. The woman does not conceive of the photograph as one instantiation of the image of her son. Today, however, we who hardly ever hold photographs anymore, we can hardly help thinking it terms of images, which may be displayed on any of a number of different platforms, not to mention manipulated at whim. The image is an order of abstraction removed from the photograph and it would be hard to imagine someone treasuring it in the same way that we might treasure an old photograph. Perhaps a thought experiment will drive this home. Try to imagine the emotional distance between the act of tearing up a photograph and deleting an image.

Now let’s come back to the problem Google Photos is intended to solve. Will automated sorting and categorization along with the ability to search succeed in making our documentation more meaningful? Moreover, will it overcome the problems associated with memory abundance? Doubtful. Instead, the tools will facilitate further abstraction and detachment. They are designed to encourage the production of even more documentary data and to further diminish our involvement in their production and storage. Consequently, we will continue to care less not more about particular images.

Of course, this hardly means the tools are useless or that images are meaningless. I’m certain that face recognition software, for instance, can and will be put to all sorts of uses, benign and otherwise and that the reams of data users will feed Google Photos will only help to improve and refine the software. And it is also true that images can be made use of in ways that photographs never could. But perhaps that is the point. A photograph we might cherish; we tend to make use of images. Unlike the useless stuff around which my memories accumulate and that I struggle to throw away, images are all use-value and we don’t think twice about deleting them when they have no use.

Finally, Google’s answer to the problem of documentation, that it takes us out of the moment as it were, is to encourage such pervasive and continual documentation that it is no longer experienced as a stepping out of the moment at all. The goal appears to be a state of continual passive documentation in which case the distinction between experience and documentation blurs so that the two are indistinguishable. The problem is not so much solved as it is altogether transcended. To experience life will be to document it. In so doing we are generating a second life, a phantom life that abides in the Cloud.

And perhaps we may, without stretching the bounds of plausibility too far, reconsider that rather ethereal, heavenly metaphor–the Cloud. As we generate this phantom life, this double of ourselves constituted by data, are we thereby hoping, half-consciously, to evade or at least cope with the unremitting passage of time and, ultimately, our mortality?

Machines, Work, and the Value of People

Late last month, Microsoft released a “bot” that guesses your age based on an uploaded picture. The bot tended to be only marginally accurate and sometimes hilariously (or disconcertingly) wrong. What’s more, people quickly began having some fun with the program by uploading faces of actors playing fictional characters, such as Yoda or Gandalf. My favorite was Ian Bogost’s submission:

Shortly after the How Old bot had its fleeting moment of virality, Nathan Jurgenson tweeted the following:

This was an interesting observation, and it generated a few interesting replies. Jurgenson himself added, “much of the bigdata/algorithm debates miss how poor these often perform. many critiques presuppose & reify their untenable positivism.” He summed up this line of thought with this tweet: “so much ‘tech criticism’ starts first with uncritically buying all of the hype silicon valley spits out.”

Let’s pause here for a moment. All of this is absolutely true. Yet … it’s not all hype, not necessarily anyway. Let’s bracket the more outlandish claims made by the singularity crowd, of course. But take facial recognition software, for instance. It doesn’t strike me as wildly implausible that in the near future facial recognition programs will achieve a rather striking degree of accuracy.

Along these lines, I found Kyle Wrather’s replies to Jurgenson’s tweet particularly interesting. First, Wrather noted, “[How Old Bot] being wrong makes people more comfortable w/ facial recognition b/c it seems less threatening.” He then added, “I think people would be creeped out if we’re totally accurate. When it’s wrong, humans get to be ‘superior.'”

Wrather’s second comment points to an intriguing psychological dynamic. Certain technologies generate a degree of anxiety about the relative status of human beings or about what exactly makes human beings “special”–call it post-humanist angst, if you like.

Of course, not all technologies generate this sort of angst. When it first appeared, the airplane was greeted with awe and a little battiness (consider alti-man). But as far as I know, it did not result in any widespread fears about the nature and status of human beings. The seemingly obvious reason for this is that flying is not an ability that has ever defined what it means to be a human being.

It seems, then, that anxiety about new technologies is sometimes entangled with shifting assumptions about the nature or dignity of humanity. In other words, the fear that machines, computers, or robots might displace human beings may or may not materialize, but it does tell us something about how human nature is understood.

Is it that new technologies disturb existing, tacit beliefs about what it means to be a human, or is it the case that these beliefs arise in response to a new perceived threat posed by technology? I’m not entirely sure, but some sort of dialectical relationship is involved.

A few examples come to mind, and they track closely to the evolution of labor in Western societies.

During the early modern period, perhaps owing something to the Reformation’s insistence on the dignity of secular work, the worth of a human being gets anchored to their labor, most of which is, at this point in history, manual labor. The dignity of the manual laborer is later challenged by mechanization during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this results in a series of protest movements, most famously that of the Luddites.

Eventually, a new consensus emerges around the dignity of factory work, and this is, in turn, challenged by the advent of new forms of robotic and computerized labor in the mid-twentieth century.

Enter the so-called knowledge worker, whose short-lived ascendency is presently threatened by advances in computers and AI.

I think this latter development helps explain our present fascination with creativity. It’s been over a decade since Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, but interest in and pontificating about creativity continues apace. What I’m suggesting is that this fixation on creativity is another recalibration of what constitutes valuable, dignified labor, which is also, less obviously perhaps, what is taken to constitute the value and dignity of the person. Manual labor and factory jobs give way to knowledge work, which now surrenders to creative work. As they say, nice work if you can get it.

Interestingly, each re-configuration not only elevated a new form of labor, but it also devalued the form of labor being displaced. Manual labor, factory work, even knowledge work, once accorded dignity and respect, are each reframed as tedious, servile, monotonous, and degrading just as they are being replaced. If a machine can do it, it suddenly becomes sub-human work.

(It’s also worth noting how displaced forms of work seem to re-emerge and regain their dignity in certain circles. I’m presently thinking of Matthew Crawford’s defense of manual labor and the trades. Consider as well this lecture by Richard Sennett, “The Decline of the Skills Society.”)

It’s not hard to find these rhetorical dynamics at play in the countless presently unfolding discussions of technology, labor, and what human beings are for. Take as just one example this excerpt from the recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen (emphasis mine):

Global unemployment is rising, too—this seems to be the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates. One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!”

As always, it is important to ask a series of questions:  Who’s selling what? Who stands to profit? Whose interests are being served? Etc. With those considerations in mind, it is telling that leisure has suddenly and conveniently re-emerged as a goal of human existence. Previous fears about technologically driven unemployment have ordinarily been met by assurances that different and better jobs would emerge. It appears that pretense is being dropped in favor of vague promises of a future of jobless leisure. So, it seems we’ve come full circle to classical estimations of work and leisure: all work is for chumps and slaves. You may be losing your job, but don’t worry, work is for losers anyway.

So, to sum up: Some time ago, identity and a sense of self-worth got hitched to labor and productivity. Consequently, each new technological displacement of human work appears to those being displaced as an affront to the their dignity as human beings. Those advancing new technologies that displace human labor do so by demeaning existing work as below our humanity and promising more humane work as a consequence of technological change. While this is sometimes true–some work that human beings have been forced to perform has been inhuman–deployed as a universal truth, it is little more than rhetorical cover for a significantly more complex and ambivalent reality.

Do Things Want?

Alan Jacobs’ 79 Theses on Technology were offered in the spirit of a medieval disputation, and they succeeded in spurring a number of stimulating responses in a series of essays posted to the Infernal Machine over the last two weeks. Along with my response to Jacobs’ provocations, I wanted to engage a debate between Jacobs’ and Ned O’Gorman about whether or not we may meaningfully speak of what technologies want. Here’s a synopsis of the exchange with my own commentary along the way.

O’Gorman’s initial response focused on the following theses from Jacobs:

40. Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
41. The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.
42. Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.
43. Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.
44. We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.

46. The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.

O’Gorman framed these theses by saying that he found it “perplexing” that Jacobs “is so seemingly unsympathetic to the meaningfulness of things, the class to which technologies belong.” I’m not sure, however, that Jacobs was denying the meaningfulness of things; rather, as I read him, he is contesting the claim that it is from technology that our lives derive their meaning. That may seem a fine distinction, but I think it is an important one. In any case, a little clarification about what exactly “meaning” entails, may go a long way in clarify that aspect of the discussion.

A little further on, O’Gorman shifts to the question of agency: “Our technological artifacts aren’t wholly distinct from human agency; they are bound up with it.” It is on this ground that the debate mostly unfolds, although there is more than a little slippage between the question of meaning and the question of agency.

O’Gorman appealed to Mary Carruthers’ fascinating study of the place of memory in medieval culture, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, to support his claim, but I’m not sure the passage he cites supports his claim. He is seeking to establish, as I read him, two claims. First, that technologies are things and things are meaningful. Second, that we may properly attribute agency to technology/things. Now here’s the passage he cites from Carruthers’ work (brackets and elipses ellipses are O’Gorman’s):

“[In the middle ages] interpretation is not attributed to any intention of the man [the author]…but rather to something understood to reside in the text itself.… [T]he important “intention” is within the work itself, as its res, a cluster of meanings which are only partially revealed in its original statement…. What keeps such a view of interpretation from being mere readerly solipsism is precisely the notion of res—the text has a sense within it which is independent of the reader, and which must be amplified, dilated, and broken-out from its words….”

“Things, in this instance manuscripts,” O’Gorman adds, “are indeed meaningful and powerful.” But in this instance, the thing (res) in view is not, in fact, the manuscripts. As Carruthers explains at various other points in The Book of Memory, the res in this context is not a material thing, but something closer to the pre-linguistic essence or idea or concept that the written words convey. It is an immaterial thing.

That said, there are interesting studies that do point to the significance of materiality in medieval context. Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, for example, dwells at length on medieval reading as a bodily experience, an “ascetic discipline focused by a technical object.” Then there’s Caroline Bynum’s fascinating Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, which explores the multifarious ways matter was experienced and theorized in the late middle ages.

Bynum concludes that “current theories that have mostly been used to understand medieval objects are right to attribute agency to objects, but it is an agency that is, in the final analysis, both too metaphorical and too literal.” She adds that insofar as modern theorizing “takes as self-evident the boundary between human and thing, part and whole, mimesis and material, animate and inanimate,” it may be usefully unsettled by an encounter with medieval theories and praxis, which “operated not from a modern need to break down such boundaries but from a sense that they were porous in some cases, nonexistent in others.”

Of course, taking up Bynum’s suggestion does not entail a re-imagining of our smartphone as a medieval relic, although one suspects that there is but a marginal difference in the degree of reverence granted to both objects. The question is still how we might best understand and articulate the complex relationship between our selves and our tools.

In his reply to O’Gorman, Jacobs focused on O’Gorman’s penultimate paragraph:

“Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read—each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve ‘wanting’ for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.”

It’s an interesting feature of the exchange from this point forward that O’Gorman and Jacobs at once emphatically disagree, and yet share very similar concerns. The disagreement is centered chiefly on the question of whether or not it is helpful or even meaningful to speak of technologies “wanting.” Their broad agreement, as I read their exchange, is about the inadequacy of what O’Gorman calls “philosophical volunatarianism” and “technological instrumentalism.”

In other words, if you begin by assuming that the most important thing about us is our ability to make rational and unencumbered choices, then you’ll also assume that technologies are neutral tools over which we can achieve complete mastery.

If O’Gorman means what I think he means by this–and what Jacobs takes him to mean–then I share his concerns as well. We cannot think well about technology if we think about technology as mere tools that we use for good or evil. This is the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach to the ethics of technology, and it is, indeed, inadequate as a way of thinking about the ethical status of artifacts, as I’ve argued repeatedly.

Jacobs grants these concerns, but, with a nod to the Borg Complex, he also thinks that we do not help ourselves in facing them if we talk about technologies “wanting.” Here’s Jacobs’ conclusion:

“It seems that [O’Gorman] thinks the dangers of voluntarism are so great that they must be contested by attributing what can only be a purely fictional agency to tools, whereas I believe that the conceptual confusion this creates leads to a loss of a necessary focus on human responsibility, and an inability to confront the political dimensions of technological modernity.”

This seems basically right to me, but it prompted a second reply from O’Gorman that brought some further clarity to the debate. O’Gorman identified three distinct “directions” his disagreement with Jacobs takes: rhetorical, ontological, and ethical.

He frames his discussion of these three differences by insisting that technologies are meaningful by virtue of their “structure of intention,” which entails a technology’s affordances and the web of practices and discourse in which the technology is embedded. So far, so good, although I don’t think intention is the best choice of word. From here O’Gorman goes on to show why he thinks it is “rhetorically legitimate, ontologically plausible, and ethically justified to say that technologies can want.”

Rhetorically, O’Gorman appears to be advocating a Wittgenstein-ian, “look and see” approach. Let’s see how people are using language before we rush to delimit a word’s semantic range. To a certain degree, I can get behind this. I’ve advocated as much when it comes to the way we use the word “technology,” itself a term that abstracts and obfuscates. But I’m not sure that once we look we will find much. While our language may animate or personify our technology, I’m less sure that we typically speak about technology “wanting” anything.  We do not ordinarily say things like “my iPhone wants to be charged,” “the car wants to go out for a drive,” “the computer wants to play.” Although, I can think of an exception or two. I have heard, for example, someone explain to an anxious passenger that the airplane “wants” to stay in the air. The phrase, “what technology wants,” owes much of its currency, such as it is, to the title of Kevin Kelly’s book, and I’m pretty sure Kelly means more by it than what O’Gorman might be prepared to endorse.

Ontologically, O’Gorman is “skeptical of attempts to tie wanting to will because willfulness is only one kind of wanting.” “What do we do with instinct, bodily desires, sensations, affections, and the numerous other forms of ‘wanting’ that do not seem to be a product of our will?” he wonders. Fair enough, but all of the examples he cites are connected with beings that are, in a literal sense, alive. Of course I can’t attribute all of my desires to my conscious will, sure my dog wants to eat, and maybe in some sense my plant wants water. But there’s still a leap involved in saying that my clock wants to tell time. Wanting may not be neatly tied to willing, but I don’t see how it is not tied to sentience.

There’s one other point worth making at this juncture. I’m quite sympathetic to what is basically a phenomenological account of how our tools quietly slip into our subjective, embodied experience of the world. This is why I can embrace so much of O’Gorman’s case. Thinking back many years, I can distinctly remember a moment when I held a baseball in my hand and reflected on how powerfully I felt the urge to throw it, even though I was standing inside my home. This feeling is, I think, what O’Gorman wants us to recognize. The baseball wanted to be thrown! But how far does this kind of phenomenological account take us?

I think it runs into limits when we talk about technologies that do not enter quite so easily into the circuit of mind, body, and world. The case for the language of wanting is strongest the closer I am to my body; it weakens the further away we get from it. Even if we grant that the baseball in hand feels like it wants to be thrown, what exactly does the weather satellite in orbit want? I think this strongly suggests the degree to which the wanting is properly ours, even while acknowledging the degree to which it is activated by objects in our experience.

Finally, O’Gorman thinks that it is “perfectly legitimate and indeed ethically good and right to speak of technologies as ‘wanting.'” He believes this to be so because “wanting” is not only a matter of willing, it is “more broadly to embody a structure of intention within a given context or set of contexts.” Further, “Will-bearing and non-will-bearing things, animate and inanimate things, can embody such a structure of intention.”

“It is good and right,” O’Gorman insists, “to call this ‘wanting’ because ‘wanting’ suggests that things, even machine things, have an active presence in our life—they are intentional” and, what’s more, their “active presence cannot be neatly traced back to their design and, ultimately, some intending human.”

I agree with O’Gorman that the ethical considerations are paramount, but I’m finally unpersuaded that we are on firmer ground when we speak of technologies wanting, even though I recognize the undeniable importance of the dynamics that O’Gorman wants to acknowledge by speaking so.

Consider what O’Gorman calls the “structure of intention.” I’m not sure intention is the best word to use here. Intentionality resides in the subjective experience of the “I,” but it is true, as phenomenologists have always recognized, that intentionality is not unilaterally directed by the self-consciously willing “I.” It has conscious and non-conscious dimensions, and it may be beckoned and solicited by the world that it simultaneously construes through the workings of perception.

I think we can get at what O’Gorman rightly wants us to acknowledge without attributing “wanting” to objects. We may say, for instance, that objects activate our wanting as they are intended to do by design and also in ways that are unintended by any person. But it’s best to think of this latter wanting as an unpredictable surplus of human intentionality rather than inject a non-human source of wanting. The wanting is always mine, but it may be prompted, solicited, activated, encouraged, fostered, etc. by aspects of the non-human world. So, we may correctly talk about a structure of desire that incorporates non-human aspects of the world and thereby acknowledge the situated nature of our own wanting. Within certain contexts, if we were so inclined, we may even call it a structure of temptation.

To fight the good fight, as it were, we must acknowledge how technology’s consequences exceed and slip loose of our cost/benefit analysis and our rational planning and our best intentions. We must take seriously how their use shapes our perception of the world and both enable and constrain our thinking and acting. But talk about what technology wants will ultimately obscure moral responsibility. “What the machine/algorithm wanted” too easily becomes the new “I was just following orders.” I believe this to be true because I believe that we have a proclivity to evade responsibility. Best, then, not to allow our language to abet our evasions.

Algorithms Who Art in Apps, Hallowed Be Thy Code

If you want to understand the status of algorithms in our collective imagination, Ian Bogost proposes the following exercise in his recent essay in the Atlantic: “The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with ‘God’ and ask yourself if the sense changes any?”

If Bogost is right, then more often than not you will find the sense of the statement entirely unchanged. This is because, in his view, “Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.” Bogost goes on to say that this development is part of a “larger trend” whereby “Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites.” Science and technology, he fears, “have turned into a new type of theology.”

It’s not the algorithms themselves that Bogost is targeting; it is how we think and talk about them that worries him. In fact, Bogost’s chief concern is that how we talk about algorithms is impeding our ability to think clearly about them and their place in society. This is where the god-talk comes in. Bogost deploys a variety of religious categories to characterize the present fascination with algorithms.

Bogost believes “algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.” Later on he writes, “the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action.” Additionally, “Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially ‘big data,’ whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity.” “We don’t want an algorithmic culture,” he concludes, “especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate theocracy.” The analogy to religious belief is a compelling rhetorical move. It vividly illuminates Bogost’s key claim: the idea of an “algorithm” now functions as a metaphor that conceals more than it reveals.

He prepares the ground for this claim by reminding us of earlier technological metaphors that ultimately obscured important realities. The metaphor of the mind as computer, for example, “reaches the rank of religious fervor when we choose to believe, as some do, that we can simulate cognition through computation and achieve the singularity.” Similarly, the metaphor of the machine, which is really to say the abstract idea of a machine, yields a profound misunderstanding of mechanical automation in the realm of manufacturing. Bogost reminds us that bringing consumer goods to market still “requires intricate, repetitive human effort.” Manufacturing, as it turns out, “isn’t as machinic nor as automated as we think it is.”

Likewise, the idea of an algorithm, as it is bandied about in public discourse, is a metaphorical abstraction that obscures how various digital and analog components, including human action, come together to produce the effects we carelessly attribute to algorithms. Near the end of the essay, Bogost sums it up this way:

“the algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it wear the garb of divinity. Concepts like ‘algorithm’ have become sloppy shorthands, slang terms for the act of mistaking multipart complex systems for simple, singular ones. Of treating computation theologically rather than scientifically or culturally.”

But why does any of this matter? It matters, Bogost insists, because this way of thinking blinds us in two important ways. First, our sloppy shorthand “allows us to chalk up any kind of computational social change as pre-determined and inevitable,” allowing the perpetual deflection of responsibility for the consequences of technological change. The apotheosis of the algorithm encourages what I’ve elsewhere labeled a Borg Complex, an attitude toward technological change aptly summed by the phrase, “Resistance is futile.” It’s a way of thinking about technology that forecloses the possibility of thinking about and taking responsibility for our choices regarding the development, adoption, and implementation of new technologies. Secondly, Bogost rightly fears that this “theological” way of thinking about algorithms may cause us to forget that computational systems can offer only one, necessarily limited perspective on the world. “The first error,” Bogost writes, “turns computers into gods, the second treats their outputs as scripture.”

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Bogost is right to challenge the quasi-religious reverence sometimes exhibited toward technology. It is, as he fears, an impediment to clear thinking. Indeed, he is not the only one calling for the secularization of our technological endeavors. Jaron Lanier has spoken at length about the introduction of religious thinking into the field of AI. In a recent interview, Lanier expressed his concerns this way:

“There is a social and psychological phenomenon that has been going on for some decades now:  A core of technically proficient, digitally-minded people reject traditional religions and superstitions. They set out to come up with a better, more scientific framework. But then they re-create versions of those old religious superstitions! In the technical world these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.”

While Lanier’s concerns are similar to Bogost’s, it may be worth noting that Lanier’s use of religious categories is rather more concrete. As far as I can tell, Bogost deploys a religious frame as a rhetorical device, and rather effectively so. Lanier’s criticisms, however, have been aroused by religiously intoned expressions of a desire for transcendence voiced by denizens of the tech world themselves.

But such expressions are hardly new, nor are they relegated to the realm of AI. In The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, David Noble rightly insisted that “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 essentially religious endeavor.”

So that no one would misunderstand his meaning, he added,

“This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”

Along with chapters on the space program, atomic weapons, and biotechnology, Noble devoted a chapter to the history AI, titled “The Immortal Mind.” Noble found that AI research had often been inspired by a curious fixation on the achievement of god-like, disembodied intelligence as a step toward personal immortality. Many of the sentiments and aspirations that Noble identifies in figures as diverse as George Boole, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Edward Fredkin, Marvin Minsky, Daniel Crevier, Danny Hillis, and Hans Moravec–all of them influential theorists and practitioners in the development of AI–find their consummation in the Singularity movement. The movement envisions a time, 2045 is frequently suggested, when the distinction between machines and humans will blur and humanity as we know it will eclipsed. Before Ray Kurzweil, the chief prophet of the Singularity, wrote about “spiritual machines,” Noble had astutely anticipated how the trajectories of AI, Internet, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Life research were all converging on the age-old quest for the immortal life. Noble, who died in 2010, must have read the work of Kurzweil and company as a remarkable validation of his thesis in The Religion of Technology.

Interestingly, the sentiments that Noble documented alternated between the heady thrill of creating non-human Minds and non-human Life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the equally heady thrill of pursuing the possibility of radical life-extension and even immortality. Frankenstein meets Faust we might say. Humanity plays god in order to bestow god’s gifts on itself. Noble cites one Artificial Life researcher who explains, “I fee like God; in fact, I am God to the universes I create,” and another who declares, “Technology will soon enable human beings to change into something else altogether [and thereby] escape the human condition.” Ultimately, these two aspirations come together into a grand techno-eschatological vision, expressed here by Hans Moravec:

“Our speculation ends in a supercivilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outward from the sun, converting non-life into mind …. This process might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity … the thinking universe … an eternity of pure cerebration.”

Little wonder that Pamela McCorduck, who has been chronicling the progress of AI since the early 1980s, can say, “The enterprise is a god-like one. The invention–the finding within–of gods represents our reach for the transcendent.” And, lest we forget where we began, a more earth-bound, but no less eschatological hope was expressed by Edward Fredkin in his MIT and Stanford courses on “saving the world.” He hoped for a “global algorithm” that “would lead to peace and harmony.” I would suggest that similar aspirations are expressed by those who believe that Big Data will yield a God’s-eye view of human society, providing wisdom and guidance that would be otherwise inaccessible to ordinary human forms of knowing and thinking.

Perhaps this should not be altogether surprising. As the old saying has it, the Grand Canyon wasn’t formed by someone dragging a stick. This is just a way of saying that causes must be commensurate to the effects they produce. Grand technological projects such as space flight, the harnessing of atomic energy, and the pursuit of artificial intelligence are massive undertakings requiring stupendous investments of time, labor, and resources. What kind of motives are sufficient to generate those sorts of expenditures? You’ll need something more than whim, to put it mildly. You may need something akin to religious devotion. Would we have attempted to put a man on the moon apart from the ideological frame provided Cold War, which cast space exploration as a field of civilizational battle for survival? Consider, as a more recent example, what drives Elon Musk’s pursuit of interplanetary space travel.

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Without diminishing the criticisms offered by either Bogost or Lanier, Noble’s historical investigation into the roots of divinized or theologized technology reminds us that the roots of the disorder run much deeper than we might initially imagine. Noble’s own genealogy traces the origin of the religion of technology to the turn of the first millennium. It emerges out of a volatile mix of millenarian dreams, apocalyptic fervor, mechanical innovation, and monastic piety. It’s evolution proceeds apace through the Renaissance, finding one of its most ardent prophets in the Elizabethan statesman, Francis Bacon. Even through the Enlightenment, the religion of technology flourished. In fact, the Enlightenment may have been a decisive moment in the history of the religion of technology.

In the essay with which we began, Ian Bogost framed the emergence of techno-religious thinking as a departure from the ideals of reason and science associated with the Enlightenment. This is not altogether incidental to Bogost’s argument. When he talks about the “theological” thinking that plagues our understanding of algorithms, Bogost is not working with a neutral, value-free, all-purpose definition of what constitutes the religious or the theological; there’s almost certainly no such definition available. It wouldn’t be too far from the mark, I think, to say that Bogost is working with what we might classify as an Enlightenment understanding of Religion, one that characterizes it as Reason’s Other, i.e. as a-rational if not altogether irrational, superstitious, authoritarian, and pernicious. For his part, Lanier appears to be working with similar assumptions.

Noble’s work complicates this picture, to say the least. The Enlightenment did not, as it turns out, vanquish Religion, driving it far from the pure realms of Science and Technology. In fact, to the degree that the radical Enlightenment’s assault on religious faith was successful, it empowered the religion of technology. To put this another way, the Enlightenment–and, yes, we are painting with broad strokes here–did not do away with the notions of Providence, Heaven, and Grace. Rather, the Enlightenment re-named these Progress, Utopia, and Technology respectively. To borrow a phrase, the Enlightenment immanentized the eschaton. If heaven had been understood as a transcendent goal achieved with the aid of divine grace within the context of the providentially ordered unfolding of human history, it became a Utopian vision, a heaven on earth, achieved by the ministrations Science and Technology within the context of Progress, an inexorable force driving history toward its Utopian consummation.

As historian Leo Marx has put it, the West’s “dominant belief system turned on the idea of technical innovation as a primary agent of progress.” Indeed, the further Western culture proceeded down the path of secularization as it is traditionally understood, the greater the emphasis on technology as the principle agent of change. Marx observed that by the late nineteenth century, “the simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of — as all but constituting — the progress of society.”

When the prophets of the Singularity preach the gospel of transhumanism, they are not abandoning the Enlightenment heritage; they are simply embracing it’s fullest expression. As Bruno Latour has argued, modernity has never perfectly sustained the purity of the distinctions that were the self-declared hallmarks of its own superiority. Modernity characterized itself as a movement of secularization and differentiation, what Latour, with not a little irony, labels processes of purification. Science, politics, law, religion, ethics–these are all sharply distinguished and segregated from one another in the modern world, distinguishing it from the primitive pre-modern world. But it turns out that these spheres of human experience stubbornly resist the neat distinctions modernity sought to impose. Hybridization unfolds alongside purification, and Noble’s work has demonstrated how the lines between technology, sometimes reckoned the most coldly rational of human projects, is deeply contaminated by religion, often regarded by the same people as the most irrational of human projects.

But not just any religion. Earlier I suggested that when Bogost characterizes our thinking about algorithms as “theological,” he is almost certainly assuming a particular kind of theology. This is why it is important to classify the religion of technology more precisely as a Christian heresy. It is in Western Christianity that Noble found the roots of the religion of technology, and it is in the context of post-Christian world that it has presently flourished.

It is Christian insofar as its aspirations that are like those nurtured by the Christian faith, such as the conscious persistence of a soul after the death of the body. Noble cites Daniel Crevier, who referencing the “Judeo-Christian tradition” suggested that “religious beliefs, and particularly the belief in survival after death, are not incompatible with the idea that the mind emerges from physical phenomena.” This is noted on the way to explaining that a machine-based material support could be found for the mind, which leads Noble to quip. “Christ was resurrected in a new body; why not a machine?” Reporting on his study of the famed Santa Fe Institute in Los Alamos, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich observed, “Judeo-Christian stories of the creation and maintenance of the world haunted my informants’ discussions of why computers might be ‘worlds’ or ‘universes,’ …. a tradition that includes stories from the Old and New Testaments (stories of creation and salvation).”

It is a heresy insofar as it departs from traditional Christian teaching regarding the givenness of human nature, the moral dimensions of humanity’s brokenness, the gracious agency of God in the salvation of humanity, and the resurrection of the body, to name a few. Having said as much, it would seem that one could perhaps conceive of the religion of technology as an imaginative account of how God might fulfill purposes that were initially revealed in incidental, pre-scientific garb. In other words, we might frame the religion of technology not so much as a Christian heresy, but rather as (post-)Christian fan-fiction, an elaborate imagining of how the hopes articulated by the Christian faith will materialize as a consequence of human ingenuity in the absence of divine action.

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Near the end of The Religion of Technology, David Noble forcefully articulated the dangers posed by a blind faith in technology. “Lost in their essentially religious reveries,” Noble warned, “the technologists themselves have been blind to, or at least have displayed blithe disregard for, the harmful ends toward which their work has been directed.” Citing another historian of technology, Noble added, “The religion of technology, in the end, ‘rests on extravagant hopes which are only meaningful in the context of transcendent belief in a religious God, hopes for a total salvation which technology cannot fulfill …. By striving for the impossible, [we] run the risk of destroying the good life that is possible.’ Put simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.” I suspect that neither Bogost nor Lanier would disagree with Noble on this score.

There is another significant point at which the religion of technology departs from its antecedent: “The millenarian promise of restoring mankind to its original Godlike perfection–the underlying premise of the religion of technology–was never meant to be universal.” Instead, the salvation it promises is limited finally to the very few will be able to afford it; it is for neither the poor nor the weak. Nor, would it seem, is it for those who have found a measure of joy or peace or beauty within the bounds of the human condition as we now experience it, frail as it may be.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the religion of technology appears to have no doctrine of final judgment. This is not altogether surprising given that, as Bogost warned, the divinizing of technology carries the curious effect of absolving us of responsibility for the tools that we fashion and the uses to which they are put.

I have no neat series of solutions to tie all of this up; rather I will give the last word to Wendell Berry:

“To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover ‘the secret of the universe.’ We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given.”