Cathedrals, Pyramids, or iPhones: Toward a Very Tentative Theory of Technological Innovation

1939 World's Fair ProgressA couple of years back, while I was on my World’s Fair kick, I wrote a post or two (or three) about how we imagine the future, or, rather, how we fail to imagine the future. The World’s Fairs, particularly those held between the 1930’s and 70’s, offered a rather grand and ambitious vision for what the future would hold. Granted, much of what made up that vision never quite materialized, and much of it now seems a tad hokey. Additionally, much of it amounted to a huge corporate ad campaign. Nevertheless, the imagined future was impressive in its scope, it was utopian. The three posts linked above each suggested that, relative to the World’s Fairs of the mid-20th century, we seem to have a rather impoverished imagination when it comes to the future.

One of those posts cited a 2011 essay by Peter Thiel, “The End of the Future,” outlining the sources of Thiel’s pessimism about the rate of technological advance. More recently, Dan Wang has cataloged a series of public statements by Thiel supporting his contention that technological innovation has slowed, and dangerously so. Thiel, who made his mark and his fortune as a founder of PayPal, has emerged over the last few years as one of Silicon Valley’s leading intellectuals. His pessimism, then, seems to run against the grain of his milieu. Thiel, however, is not pessimistic about the potential of technology itself; rather, as I understand him, he is critical of our inability to more boldly imagine what we could do with technology. His view is neatly summed up in his well-known quip, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Thiel is not the only one who thinks that we’ve been beset by a certain gloomy malaise when it comes to imagining the future. Last week, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Jayson Greene wondered, with thinly veiled exasperation, why contemporary science-fiction is so “glum” about AI? The article is a bit muddled at points–perhaps because the author, noting the assistance of his machines, believes it is not even half his–but it registers what seems to be an increasingly recurring complaint. Just last month, for instance, I noted a similar article in Wired that urged authors to stop writing dystopian science-fiction. Behind each of these pieces there lies an implicit question: Where has our ability to imagine a hopeful, positive vision for the future gone?

Kevin Kelly is wondering the same thing. In fact, he was willing to pay for someone to tell him a positive story about the future. I’ve long thought of Kelly as one of the most optimistic of contemporary tech writers, yet of late even he appears to be striking a more ambiguous note. Perhaps needing a fresh infusion of hope, he took to Twitter with this message:

“I’ll pay $100 for the best 100-word description of a plausible technological future in 100 years that I would like to live in. Email me.”

Kelly got 23 responses, and then he constructed his own 100-word vision for the future. It is instructive to read the submissions. By “instructive,” I mean intriguing, entertaining, disconcerting, and disturbing by turns. In fact, when I first read through them I thought I’d dedicate a post to analyzing these little techno-utopian vignettes. Suffice it to say, a few people, at least, are still nurturing an expansive vision for the future.

But are their stories the exceptions that prove the rule? To put it another way, is the dominant cultural zeitgeist dystopian or utopian with regards to the future? Of course, as C.S. Lewis once put, “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” Whatever the case may be, there certainly seem to be a lot of people who think the zeitgeist is dystopian or, at best, depressingly unimaginative. I’m not sure they are altogether wrong about this, even if the whole story is more complicated. So why might this be?

To be clear before proceeding down this line of inquiry, I’m not so much concerned with whether we ought to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future. (The answer in any case is neither.) I’m not, in other words, approaching this topic from a normative perspective. Rather, I want to poke and prod the zeitgeist a little bit to see if we can’t figure out what is going on. So, in that spirit, here are few loosely organized thoughts.

First off, our culture is, in large measure, driven by consumerism. This, of course, is little more than a cliché, but it is no less true because of it. Consumerism is finally about the individual. Individual aspirations, by their very nature, tend to be narrow and short-sighted. It is as is if the potential creative force of our collective imagination is splintered into the millions of individual wills it is made to serve.

David Nye noted this devolution of our technological aspirations in his classic work on the American technological sublime. The sublime experience that once attended our encounters with nature and then our encounters with technological creations of awe-inspiring size and dynamism, has now given way to what Nye called the consumer sublime. “Unlike the Ford assembly line or Hoover Dam,” Nye explains, “Disneyland and Las Vegas have no use value. Their representations of sublimity and special effects are created solely for entertainment. Their epiphanies have no referents; they reveal not the existence of God, not the power of nature, not the majesty of human reason, but the titillation of representation itself.”

The consumer sublime, which Nye also calls an “egotistical sublime,” amounts to “an escape from the very work, rationality, and domination that once were embodied in the American technological sublime.”

Looking at the problem of consumerism from another vantage point, consider Nicholas Carr’s theory about the hierarchy of innovation. Carr’s point of departure included Peter Thiel’s complaint about the stagnation of technological innovation cited above. In response, Carr suggested that innovation proceeds along a path more or less parallel to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs. We begin by seeking to satisfy very basic needs, those related to our survival. As those basic needs are met, we are able to think about more complex needs for social interaction, personal esteem, and self-actualization.

In Carr’s stimulating repurposing of Maslow’s hierarchy, technological innovation proceeds from technologies of survival to technologies of self-fulfillment. Carr doesn’t think that these levels of innovation are neatly realized in some clean, linear fashion. But he does think that at present the incentives, “monetary and reputational,” are, in a darkly eloquent phrasing, “bending the arc of innovation … toward decadence.” Away, that is, from grand, highly visible, transformative technologies.

The end game of this consumerist reduction of technological innovation may be what Ian Bogost recently called “future ennui.” “The excitement of a novel technology (or anything, really),” Bogost writes,

“has been replaced—or at least dampened—by the anguish of knowing its future burden. This listlessness might yet prove even worse than blind boosterism or cynical naysaying. Where the trauma of future shock could at least light a fire under its sufferers, future ennui exudes the viscous languor of indifferent acceptance. It doesn’t really matter that the Apple Watch doesn’t seem necessary, no more than the iPhone once didn’t too. Increasingly, change is not revolutionary, to use a word Apple has made banal, but presaged.”

Bogost adds, “When one is enervated by future ennui, there’s no vigor left even to ask if this future is one we even want.” The technological sublime, then, becomes the consumer sublime, which becomes future ennui. This is how technological innovation ends, not with a bang but a sigh.

The second point I want to make about the pessimistic zeitgeist centers on our Enlightenment inheritance. The Enlightenment bequeathed to us, among other things, two articles of faith. The first of these was the notion of inevitable moral progress, and the second was the notion of inevitable techno-scientific progress. Together they yielded what we tend to refer to simply as the Enlightenment’s notion of Progress. Together these articles of faith cultivate hope and incite action. Unfortunately, the two were sundered by the accumulation of tragedy and despair we call the twentieth century. Techno-scientific progress was a rosy notion so long as we imagined that moral progress advanced hand in hand with it. Techno-scientific progress decoupled from Enlightenment confidence in the perfectibility of humanity leaves us with the dystopian imagination.

Interestingly, the trajectory of the American World’s Fairs illustrates both of these points. Generally speaking, the World’s Fairs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century subsumed technology within their larger vision of social progress. By the 1930’s, the Fairs presented technology as the force upon which the realization of the utopian social vision depended. The 1939 New York Fair marked a turning point. It featured a utopian social vision powered by technological innovation. From that point forward, technological innovation increasingly became a goal in itself rather than a means toward a utopian society, and technological innovation was increasingly a consumer affair of diminishing scope.

That picture was painted in rather broad strokes, but I think it will bear scrutiny. Whether the illustration ultimately holds up or not, however, I certainly think the claim stands. The twentieth century shattered our collective optimism about human nature; consequently, empowering human beings with ever more powerful technologies became the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams.

Thirdly, technological innovation on a grand scale is an act of sublimation and we are too self-knowing to sublimate. Let me lead into this discussion by acknowledging that this point may be too subtle to be true, so I offer it circumspectly. According to certain schools of psychology, sublimation describes the process by which we channel or redirect certain desires, often destructive or transgressive desires, into productive action. On this view, the great works of civilization are powered by sublimation. But, to borrow a line cited by the late Phillip Reiff, “if you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” In other words, sublimation is a tacit process. It is the by-product of a strong buy-in into cultural norms and ideals by which individual desire is subsumed into some larger purpose. It is the sort of dynamic, in other words, that conscious awareness hampers and that ironic-detachment, our default posture toward reality, destroys. Make of that theory what you will.

The last point builds on all that I’ve laid out thus far and perhaps even ties it all together … maybe. I want to approach it by noting one segment of the wider conversation about technology where a big, positive vision for the future is nurtured: the Transhumanist movement. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway just to put it beyond doubt. I don’t endorse the Transhumanist vision. By saying that it is a “positive” vision I am only saying that it is understood as a positive vision by those who adhere to it. Now, with that out of the way, here is the thing to recognize about the Transhumanist vision, its aspirations are quasi-religious in character.

I mean that in at least a couple of ways. For instance, it may be understood as a reboot of Gnosticism, particularly given its disparagement of the human body and its attendant limitations. Relatedly, it often aspires to a disembodied, virtual existence that sounds a lot like the immortality of the soul espoused by Western religions. It is in this way a movement focused on technologies of the self, that highest order of innovation in Carr’s pyramid; but rather than seeking technologies that are mere accouterments of the self, they pursue technologies which work on the self to push the self along to the next evolutionary plane. Paradoxically, then, technology in the Transhumanist vision works on the self to transcend the self as it now exists.

Consequently, the scope of the Transhumanist vision stems from the Transhumanist quest for transcendence. The technologies of the self that Carr had in mind were technologies centered on the existing, immanent self. Putting all of this together, then, we might say that technologies of the immanent self devolve into gadgets with ever diminishing returns–consumerist ephemera–yielding future ennui. The imagined technologies of the would-be transcendent self, however, are seemingly more impressive in their aims and inspire cultish devotion in those who hope for them. But they are still technologies of the self. That is to say, they are not animated by a vision of social scope nor by a project of political consequence. This lends the whole movement a certain troubling naiveté.

Perhaps it also ultimately limits technological innovation. Grand technological projects of the sort that people like Thiel and Kelly would like to see us at least imagine are animated by a culturally diffused vision, often religious or transcendent in nature, that channels individual action away from the conscious pursuit of immediate satisfaction.

The other alternative, of course, is coerced labor. Hold that thought.

I want to begin drawing this over-long post to close by offering it as an overdue response to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s discussion of Peter Thiel, the Church, and technological innovation. Gobry agreed with Thiel’s pessimism and lamented that the Church was not more active in driving technological innovation. He offered the great medieval cathedrals as an example of the sort of creation and innovation that the Church once inspired. I heartily endorse his estimation of the cathedrals as monumental works of astounding technical achievement, artistic splendor, and transcendent meaning. And, as Gobry notes, they were the first such monumental works not built on the back of forced labor.

For projects of that scale to succeed, individuals must either be animated by ideals that drive their willing participation or they must be forced by power or circumstance. In other words, cathedrals or pyramids. Cathedrals represent innovation born of freedom and transcendent ideals. The pyramids represent innovation born of forced labor and transcendent ideals.

The third alternative, of course, is the iPhone. I use the iPhone here to stand for consumer driven innovation. Innovation that is born of relative freedom (and forced labor) but absent a transcendent ideal to drive it beyond consumerist self-actualization. And that is where we are stuck, perhaps, with technological stagnation and future ennui.

But here’s the observation I want to leave you with. Our focus on technological innovation as the key to the future is a symptom of the problem; it suggests strongly that we are already compromised. The cathedrals were not built by people possessed merely of the desire to innovate. Technological innovation was a means to a culturally inspired end. [See the Adams' quote below.] Insofar as we have reversed the relationship and allowed technological innovation to be our raison d’être we may find it impossible to imagine a better future, much less bring it about. With regards to the future of society, if the answer we’re looking for is technological, then we’re not asking the right questions.

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You can read a follow-up piece here.

N.B. The initial version of this post referred to “slave” labor with regards to the pyramids. A reader pointed out to me that the pyramids were not built by slaves but by paid craftsmen. This prompted me to do a little research. It does indeed seem to be the case that “slaves,” given what we mean by the term, were not the primary source of labor on the pyramids. However, the distinction seems to me to be a fine one. These workers appear to have been subject to various degrees of “obligatory” labor although also provided with food, shelter, and tax breaks. While not quite slave labor, it is not quite the labor of free people either. By contrast, you can read about the building of the cathedrals here. That said I’ve revised the post to omit the references to slavery.

Update: Henry Adams knew something of the cultural vision at work in the building of the cathedrals. Note the last line, especially:

“The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final.  Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the flèche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line; and this is true of St. Thomas’ Church as it is of Amiens Cathedral.  The method was the same for both, and the result was an art marked by singular unity, which endured and served its purpose until man changed his attitude toward the universe.”

 

Are Human Enhancement and AI Incompatible?

A few days ago, in a post featuring a series of links to stories about new and emerging technologies, I included a link to a review of Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Not long afterwards, I came across an essay adapted from Bostrom’s book on Slate’s “Future Tense” blog. The excerpt is given the cheerfully straightforward title, “You Should Be Terrified of Super Intelligent Machines.”

I’m not sure that Bostrom himself would put quite like that. I’ve long thought of Bostrom as one of the more enthusiastic proponents of a posthumanist vision of the future. Admittedly, I’ve not read a great deal of his work (including this latest book). I first came across Bostrom’s name in Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism?, which led me to Bostrom’s article, “A History of Transhumanist Thought.”

For his part, Wolfe sought to articulate a more persistently posthumanist vision for posthumanism, one which dispensed with humanist assumptions about human nature altogether. In Wolfe’s view, Bostrom was guilty of building his transhumanist vision on a thoroughly humanist understanding of the human being. The humanism in view here, it’s worth clarifying, is that which we ordinarily associate with the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, one which highlights autonomous individuality, agency, and rationality. It is also one which assumes a Platonic or Cartesian mind/body dualism. Wolfe, like N. Katherine Hayles before him, finds this to be misguided and misleading, but I digress.

Whether Bostrom would’ve chosen such an alarmist title or not, his piece does urge us to lay aside the facile assumption that super-intelligent machines will be super-intelligent in a predictably human way. This is an anthropomorphizing fallacy. Consequently, we should consider the possibility that super-intelligent machines will pursue goals that may, as an unintended side-effect, lead to human extinction. I suspect that in the later parts of his book, Bostrom might have a few suggestions about how we might escape such a fate. I also suspect that none of these suggestions include the prospect of halting or limiting the work being done to create super-intelligent machines. In fact, judging from the chapter titles and sub-titles, it seems that the answer Bostrom advocates involves figuring out how to instill appropriate values in super-intelligent machines. This brings us back to the line of criticism articulated by Wolfe and Hayles: the traditionally humanist project of rational control and mastery is still the underlying reality.

It does seem reasonable for Bostrom, who is quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of human enhancement, to be a bit wary about the creation of super-intelligent machines. It would be unfortunate indeed if, having finally figured out how to download our consciousness or perfect a cyborg platform for it, a clever machine of our making later came around, pursuing some utterly trivial goal, and decided, without a hint of malice, that it needed to eradicate these post-human humans as a step toward the fulfillment of its task. Unfortunate, and nihilistically comic.

It is interesting to consider that these two goals we rather blithely pursue–human enhancement and artificial intelligence–may ultimately be incompatible. Of course, that is a speculative consideration, and, to some degree, so is the prospect of ever achieving either of those two goals, at least as their most ardent proponents envision their fulfillment. But let us consider it for just a moment anyway for what it might tell us about some contemporary versions of the posthumanist hope.

Years ago, C.S. Lewis famously warned that the human pursuit of mastery over Nature would eventually amount to the human pursuit of mastery over Humanity, and what this would really mean is the mastery of some humans over others. This argument is all the more compelling now, some 70 or so years after Lewis made it in The Abolition of Man. It would seem, though, that an updated version of that argument would need to include the further possibility that the tools we develop to gain mastery over nature and then humanity might finally destroy us, whatever form the “us” at that unforeseeable juncture happens to take. Perhaps this is the tacit anxiety animating Bostrom’s new work.

And this brings us back, once again, to the kind of humanism at the heart of posthumanism. The posthumanist vision that banks on some sort of eternal consciousness–the same posthumanist vision that leads Ray Kurzweil to take 150 vitamins a day–that posthumanist vision is still the vision of someone who intends to live forever in some clearly self-identifiable form. It is, in this respect, a thoroughly Western religious project insofar as it envisions and longs for the immortality of the individuated self. We might even go so far as to call it, in an obviously provocative move, a Christian heresy.

Finally, our potentially incompatible technical aspirations reveal something of the irrationality, or a-rationality if you prefer, at the heart of our most rational project. Technology and technical systems assume rationality in their construction and their operation. Thinking about their potential risks and trying to prevent and mitigate them is also a supremely rational undertaking. But at the heart of all of this rational work there is a colossal unspoken absence: there is a black hole of knowledge that, beginning with the simple fact of our inability to foresee the full ramifications of anything that we do or make, subsequently sucks into its darkness our ability to expertly anticipate and plan and manage with anything like the confident certainty we project.

It is one thing to live with this relative risk and uncertainty when we are talking about simple tools and machines (hammers, bicycles, etc.). It is another thing when we are talking about complex technical systems (automotive transportation, power grids, etc.). It is altogether something else when we are talking about technical systems that may fundamentally alter our humanity or else eventuate in its annihilation. The fact that we don’t even know how seriously to take these potential threats, that we cannot comfortably distinguish between what is still science fiction and what will, in fact, materialize in our lifetimes, that’s a symptom of the problem, too.

I keep coming back to the realization that our thinking about technology is often inadequate or ineffectual because it is starting from the wrong place; or, to put it another way, it is already proceeding from assumptions grounded in the dynamics of technology and technical systems, so it bends back toward the technological solution. If we already tacitly value efficiency, for example, if efficiency is already an assumed good that no longer needs to be argued for, then we will tend to pursue it by whatever possible means under all possible circumstances. Whenever new technologies appear, we will judge them in light of this governing preference for efficiency. If the new technology affords us a more efficient way of doing something, we will tend to embrace it.

But the question remains, why is efficiency a value that is so pervasively taken for granted? If the answer seems commonsensical, then, I’d humbly suggest that we need to examine it all the more critically. Perhaps we will find that we value efficiency because this virtue native to the working of technical and instrumental systems has spilled over into what had previously been non-technical and non-instrumental realms of human experience. Our thinking is thus already shaped (to put it in the most neutral way possible) by the very technical systems we are trying to think about.

This is but one example of the dynamic. Our ability to think clearly about technology will depend in large measure on our ability to extricate our thinking from the criteria and logic native to technological systems. This is, I fully realize, a difficult task. I would never claim that I’ve achieved this clarity of thought myself, but I do believe that our thinking about technology depends on it.

There’s a lot more to be said, but I’ll leave it there for now. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

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

The World of Tomorrow 75 Years Later

April 30th will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With a decade of Depression behind them and a world war looming ahead, 44 million visitors came to catch a hopeful glimpse of the future. The essay below, an earlier version of which first appeared on this site two years ago, explores the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power that animated the vision of the future visitors encountered 75 years ago. 

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1939 World's Fair Progress“The World of Tomorrow”—that was the theme of the 1939 NewYork world’s fair. Prior to 1939, the American fairs had been characterized by what historian Astrid Böger has aptly called a “bifocal nature.” Janus-faced, they looked back to a glorified past and forward to an idealized future.The fairs were both “patriotic commemorations of central events in American history” and they “envisioned the nation’s bright future.” During 1930’s, however, the fairs turned their gaze decidedly toward the future.

The ’39 New York fair offered an especially grandiose and compelling glimpse of a techno-utopian society poised to materialize within a generation. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow—Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power and supported by benign government planning. And little wonder these exhibits were so popular: the nation had been through a decade of economic depression and rumors of war swept across the Atlantic. “To catch the public imagination,” historian David Nye has explained, “the fair had to address this uneasiness. It could not do so by mere appeals to patriotism, by displays of goods that many people had no money to buy, or by the nostalgic evocation of golden yesterdays. It had to offer temporary transcendence.”

This link between technology and the realization of religiously intoned utopian visions did not, however, appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. In fact, the late cultural historian David Noble has argued convincingly that this religiously inspired techno-utopianism has been integral to the Western scientific project since at least the late middle ages; it was the central tenet of faith for what Noble called the “religion of technology.”

The planners of the 1939 fair instructed the industrial designers, who “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian,” to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous fairs and expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits and attractions. The ‘39 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. As world’s fair historian Robert Rydell put it, “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” the designers decided “to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism.” With nearly a decade of economic depression behind them and a looming international conflagration before them, the fair planners remained committed to the religion of technology and they were intent on creating a fair that would rekindle America’s waning faith. It may not be entirely inappropriate, then, to see the 1939 New York world’s fair as a revival meeting calling the faithful to renewed hope in the religion of technology. But the call to renewed faith in 1939 also contained variations on the theme. The presentation of the religion of technology took a liturgical turn and it was alloyed with the spirit of the American corporation.

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

Ritual Fairs

Historians of the world’s fair typically focus on the explicit message fair designers intended to communicate. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But it’s debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Böger suggests a better way of understanding how the fairs made their impression. “World’s fairs,” she tells us, “are performative events in that they present a vision of national culture in the form of spectacle, which visitors are invited to participate in and, thus, help create.” Writing of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explained that it was the “striking example of the sensual–primarily visual–experience of the fair, which seems to precede both understanding of the exhibit’s technology and, more importantly, appreciation of it as an American achievement.” What Böger picks up on in these observations is the distinction between the fair’s intellectual content and the embodied experience of attending the fair. It is the difference between reading the fairs as a “text” with an explicit message and constructing a meaning through the experience of “taking in” the fair. The planners intended an intellectualized, chiefly cognitive experience. Fairgoers processed the fair in an embodied and mostly affective manner. It is this distinction that leads to the observation that the religion of technology, as it appeared at the ‘39 fair, was a liturgical religion.

1939 World's FairThe genius of the two most popular exhibits at the fair was the embodiment of their message in a ritual experience. Democracity, housed inside the Perisphere, and General Motors’ Futurama both solved the problem of the impertinent walkers by miniaturizing the idealized world and carefully choreographing the fairgoer’s experience. Earlier fairs presented themselves as idealized cities, but this risked the diffusion of the message as fairgoer’s crafted their own fair itineraries or otherwise remained oblivious to the implicit messages. Democracity and Futurama mitigated this risk by crafting not only the world, but the experience itself–by providing a liturgy for the ritual. And the ritual was decidedly aimed at the cultivation of hope in a future techno-utopian society, giving ritual expression to the religion of technology.

As David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the whole fair as “a quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future equally accessible to all … The fair was a shrine of modernity.” Nowhere was the “quasi-religious” aspect of the fair more clearly evident than in Democracity, the miniature city of the future housed within the fair’s iconic Perisphere.

Fairgoers filed into the sphere and were able to gaze down upon the city of the future from two balconies. When the five-and-a-half minute show began, the narrator described the idealized miniature landscape featuring the city of the future at its center. Emanating outward from the central city were towns and farm country. The towns would each be devoted to specific industries, and they would be home to both workers and management. As the show progressed and the narrator extolled the virtues of central planning, the lighting in the sphere simulated the passage of day and night. Nye summarizes what followed:

“Once the visitors had contemplated this future world, they were presented with a powerful vision that one commentator compared to ‘a secular apocalypse.’ Now the lights of the city dimmed. To create a devotional mood, a thousand-voice choir sang on a recording that André Kostelanetz had prepared for the display. Movies projected on the upper walls of the globe showed representatives of various professions working, marching, and singing together. The authoritative voice of the radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn announced: ‘This march of men and women, singing their triumph, is the true symbol of the World of Tomorrow.’”

What they sang was the theme song of the fair that proclaimed:

“We’re the rising tide coming from far and wide
Marching side by side on our way
For a brave new world,
That we shall build today.”

Kihlstedt believes Democracity’s designer, Henry Dreyfuss, modeled this culminating scene on Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece featuring “a great multitude … of all nations and kindreds, and people” as described in the book of Revelation. “In this well-known painting,” Kihlstedt explains, “the saints converge toward the altar of the Lamb from the four corners of the world. As they reveal the unity and the ‘ultimate beatitude of all believing souls,’ these saints define by their presence a heaven on earth.” Ritual and interpretation were thus fused together in one visceral, affective liturgy.

Democracity, inside the Perisphere

Corporate Liturgies

Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Robert Rydell, arguably the leading historian of world’s fairs, has emphasized the imperial and racial ideologies driving the design of the Victorian Era fairs. These fairs also promoted political ideals and patriotism. Additionally, they sought to educate the public in the latest scientific trends (dubious as they may have been, as in the case of Social Darwinism for instance). But in the 1930s the emphasis shifted decidedly. Böger notes, for example, “the early American expositions have to be placed in the context of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the world’s fairs after 1915 went in the direction of globalism and the ensuing competition of opposing ideological systems rather than of individual nation states.” More specifically the fairs of the 1930s, and the 1939 fair especially, sought to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.

“From the beginning,” Rydell observed, “the century-of-progress expositions were conceived as festivals of American corporate power that would put breathtaking amounts of surplus capital to work in the field of cultural production and ideological representation.” Kihlstedt put it this way: “whereas most nineteenth-century utopias were socialist, based on cooperative production and distribution of goods, the twentieth-century fairs suggested that utopia would be attained through corporate capitalism and the individual freedom associated with it.” He added, “the organizers of the NYWF were making quasi-propagandistic use of utopian ideas and imagery to equate utopia with capitalism.” For his part, Nye drew on Roland Marchand to connect the evolution of the world’s fairs with the development of corporate marketing strategies: “corporations first tried only to sell products, then tried to educate the public about their business, and finally turned to marketing visions of the future.” Nye also tied the ritual nature of the fairs with the corporate turn: “Such exhibits might be compared to the sacred places of tribal societies … Each inscribed cultural meanings in ritual … And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission.”

In this way, the religion of technology was effectively incorporated. American corporations presented themselves as the builders of the techno-utopian city. With the cooperation of government agencies, corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a rationally planned yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.

Framing the 1939 New York World’s fair as an embodiment of the religion of technology highlights the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power at this pivotal cultural moment in American history. This convergence was taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and compelling fashion. Through its imaginative liturgical experience, the fair renewed the faith of a generation of Americans in the religion of technology, and it was this generation that went on to build post-war American society.