Idols of Silicon and Data

In 2015, former Google and Uber engineer, Anthony Levandowski, founded a nonprofit called Way of the Future in order to develop an AI god and promote its worship. The mission statement reads as follows: “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.”

A few loosely interconnected observations follow.

First, I would suggest that Levandowski’s mission only makes explicit what is often our implicit relationship to technology. Technology is a god to us, albeit a “god that limps,” in Colin Norman’s arresting image drawn from Greek mythology’s lame, metal-working god, Hephaestus. We trust ourselves to it, assign to it salvific powers, uncritically answer its directives, and hang our hope on it. But in its role as functional deity it inevitably disappoints.

Second, it seems to me that the project should be taken seriously only as an explicit signifier of implicit and tacit realities. However, as Levandowski’s project makes clear, quasi-religious techno-fantasies are often embraced by well-placed and influential technologists. To some degree, then, it would seem that the development of technology, its funding and direction, is driven by these motives and they should not be altogether ignored.

Third, the article discussing Levandowski’s project also leans on some comments from historian Yuval Hariri, who has developed something of reputation for grand claims about the future of humanity. According to the article, “history tells us that new technologies and scientific discoveries have continually shaped religion, killing old gods and giving birth to new ones.” He then quotes Harari:

That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasised about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.

Both miss the reciprocal relationship between society and technology, and specifically between religion in the West and technology. It is not only a matter of technology impacting and effecting religion, it is also a matter of religion infusing and informing the development of technology. I’ve cited it numerous times before, but it’s worth mentioning again that David Noble’s The Religion of Technology is wonderful place to start in order to understand this dynamic. According to Noble, “literally and historically,” modern technology and religion have co-evolved and, consequently, “the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.” We fail to understand technology in the West if we do not understand this socio-religious dimension.

Fourth, the author goes on to cite advocates of transhumanism. Transhumanism is usefully construed as a Christian heresy, or, if you prefer, (post-)Christian fan-fiction. I elaborate on that claim toward the end of this post.

Fifth, some of our most incisive tech critics have been people of religious conviction. Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Illich, Walter Ong, Albert Borgmann, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben come to mind. Neil Postman, who was not a religious person as far as I know, nonetheless attributed his critical interest in media to a reading of the second commandment. The tech critic of religious faith has at least one thing going for them: their conviction that there is one God and technology is not it.* Valuing technology for more than it is, then, appears as a species of idolatry.

Sixth, all god-talk in relation to technology takes for granted some understanding of God, religion, faith, etc. It is often worth excavating the nature of these assumptions because they are usually doing important conceptual work in whatever argument or claim they are embedded.

Seventh, in the article transhumanist philosopher Zoltan Istvan claims of the potential AI deity, that “this God will actually exist and hopefully will do things for us.” The religion of technology is ultimately about power: human power over nature and, finally, the power of some humans over others.

Pieter Brueghel, Construction of the Tower of Babel (1563)


*Clearly, I principally have in view the monotheistic religious traditions.

5 thoughts on “Idols of Silicon and Data

  1. Hello Michael,

    I really enjoy reading your articles. I wish A LOT more people would read them.

    Do you know about Godfrey Reggio? I think the documentaries he directed are Luddite films. Reggio himself was a Catholic monk for many years and he often speaks critically about Technology, especially in relation to religion. Usually using the “Technology as idolatry” argument and influences by Ellul.

    I read and watched almost every lecture and interview with Godfrey and he led me to reading Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman. Getting me more into the Luddite and techno-critic thoughts.

    Soon I’ll try to write critically about Technology from a Buddhist / Shamanic viewpoint.
    I hope Buddhism and Shamanism can offer new viewpoints on the criticism of tech, besides the dominant Christian ones.

    Thank you for taking the time to write your articles. Have a good day.

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