What Would Thoreau Do?

Yesterday, July 12th, was Henry David Thoreau’s 195th birthday, or 195th anniversary of his birth, or however that is best put when the person in question is no longer alive. In any case, Thoreau is best remembered for two things. The first is his experiment in living simply and in greater communion with nature in a cabin on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. The cabin was situated on Walden Pond and Thoreau’s reflections on his “experiment” were later published as Walden.

Thoreau is also remembered for making a better pencil. It seems that Thoreau is actually not generally remembered for this, but it is nonetheless true. His family owned a pencil factory at which Thoreau worked on and off throughout his life. Thanks to his study of German pencil making techniques, Thoreau helped design the best American pencil of its day. Apparently, in the early 19th century, there remained significant technical challenges to the making of a durable pencil, mostly having to do with the sturdiness of the graphite shaft and fitting it into a casing. Among Thoreau’s many accomplishments was the development of a process of manufacturing the pencil that solved these engineering problems.

I thought of Thoreau yesterday not only because it was the anniversary of his birth, but also because I had come across an article titled, “Tweets From the Trail: Technology Can Enhance Your Wilderness Experiences” (h/t to Nathan Jurgenson). The author, novelist Walter Kirn of Montana, had the temerity to suggest that maybe there is something to be gained by brining your technology out into nature with you, rather than venturing into nature in order to escape technology. As you might imagine, many of Kirn’s Montana nature-enthusiast friends were less than pleased.

Now, we should note that these distinctions we make — nature/technology, for example — are a bit complicated. To illustrate here is the opening of a recent, relevant post by Nick Carr:

A couple of cavemen are walking through the woods. One sighs happily and says to the other, “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being out in nature.” The other pauses and says, “What’s nature?”

It’s 1972. A pair of lovers go camping in a wilderness area in a national park. They’re sitting by a campfire, taking in the evening breezes. “Honey,” says the woman, “I have to confess I really love being offline.” The guy looks at her and says, “What’s offline?”

You see the point. Our idea of “nature” owes something to the advance of technology just as our idea of “offline” necessitates the emergence of online. But back to Kirn’s article. He discovered that his writing flourished when he set up a work station on an old wooden telephone wire spool under the big, blue Montana sky with badgers and gophers scampering all about. Subsequently he made a habit of screening movies on his iPad in “natural” settings such as the seaside or the shores of a river. Finally, he confesses to the manner in which being out in the wilderness inspires fits of creativity that he feels compelled to tweet and post. And here is his eloquent conclusion:

“To sever our experience of wilderness from our use of technology now seems to me an unnatural act, shortsighted and unimaginative. No one appreciates a ringing cell phone while they float on a muddy river through western badlands or stand in the saddle between two massive mountain ranges, but short of such rude interruptions of heavenly moments, technology has a mysterious way, at times, of providing the perfect contrast, the happy counterpoint to scenes and experiences and settings that are easy to take for granted or grow numb to. Along with harmony, contrast is one of the two great rules of art. It wakes the senses, jars the tired mind, breaks up routines that threaten to grow mechanical. If you don’t believe me, try it. Travel to that secluded spot you keep returning to, the one where you go to leave the world behind, and turn on some music, play a movie, capture a passing thought and send it onward, out of the forest, out into society, and then wait, while the wind blows and the treetops sway and the clouds pile up a mile above your head, for someone, some faraway stranger, to reply. Even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, this proves, and in the deepest heart of every wilderness lurks a miracle, often, the human mind.”

I can’t help but wonder, what would Thoreau think? I can’t pretend to know Thoreau well enough to answer that question. I suspect that present day technophile’s would suggest that Thoreau ought to approve, after all he took his pencil to Walden and that was a technology. Well, yes, but he didn’t string a telegraph wire to the cabin.

I wouldn’t discount the dynamic Kirn describes, particularly since it is measured (let’s do without the ringing cell phone) and it still recognizes the contrast. The juxtaposition of unlike things can be creatively stimulating, and if that is what you are after, then Kirn’s formula may indeed yield something for you.

But what if your aims are different? What if you’re seeking only to listen and not to speak? What if your goal is not to be inspired toward yet another act of self-expression? We may carry technology with us into nature, in fact, we may carry it within us. But this does not mean that we ought always to answer to its prerogatives. Nor does it mean that we should always assume the posture toward reality that technology enables and the frame of mind that it encourages. And, of course, different technologies enable and encourage differently. It is the difference between the pencil and the telegraph and the smartphone.

I am not against human civilization (which is a silly thing to have to say), and the human mind, as Kirn puts it, is a “miracle” indeed. But the miracle of the human mind lies not only in its ability to create and to build and to express itself and impose its own symbolic order on the world. The miracle lies also in its ability to listen and to receive and to contemplate and to be itself re-ordered; to be taken in by the world as well as to take the world in. Perceiving the value of such a stance draws us into an awareness of the various ethical or philosophical frames that inform our evaluations. I cannot sort all of those out, but I can acknowledge that for a wide array of people the point would not be to speak, but to be spoken to. Or perhaps, even to find that we are not addressed at all.

An even greater array of people would likely agree that our posture toward this world ought to be more than merely instrumental. Human civilization must advance, but it does so best when it abandons Promethean aspirations and acknowledges its finitude along with its power.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying that beauty resides not only in what we make and say, but also in what we find and encounter. But shouldn’t this found beauty be shared? Maybe. But perhaps not before it has done its work on us. Perhaps not before we have allowed it to speak to us and to transform us. The space in which beauty can do its work is precious, and it would seem that the logic of our technologies would have us collapse that space in the service of sharing, commodification, self-expression, capturing, publicizing, and the like.

I don’t want to speak for Thoreau, but I would venture to guess that he might have us preserve that precious space where beauty has its way.

The Borg Complex

[Update: See the Borg Complex primer here.]

“Is technology good for religion?”

Well, it was only a matter of time. Actually, I’m surprised I’ve only lately come across the question. The formulation echoes previous queries such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” In this case, the title does not belong to a fully developed essay in The Atlantic, but rather to a brief blogpost. It was published at The Immanent Frame, a scholarly site devoted to the sociology of religion, and it pointed readers to a recent (and not quite scholarly) piece in the Washington Post by Lisa Miller.

The title of Miller’s article dispensed with the pretense of an interrogative, opting instead for a confident declarative: “The religious authorities and pundits are wrong: Technology is good for religion.” So there you have it. Case closed. End of discussion. Although, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

I read a lot about technology and its consequences for individuals, institutions, and society. To the writing of such articles, essays, and books there is now seemingly no end. The quality of such work varies considerably; some of it is thoughtful, some of it hysterical (and not in the humorous sort of way). Perspectives on the relative merits of technology vary greatly as well. There are unabashed critics and boosters, and more temperate souls as well. All of this is as one would expect, and I typically don’t mind reading pieces from points all along the spectrum.

But occasionally I will come across a piece that irks me. Usually it is not the content that manages to unbalance my humors, it is the tone. This tone arises from what I’ve just now decided to call a “Borg Complex.” The implicit tone of those with a Borg Complex can be summed up by the line, “Resistance is futile.” That line has entered our pop-cultural lexicon through the Star Trek franchise. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Borg lore; I’ll only note that the Borg always announced some variation of the following to their victims: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

The spirit of the Borg lives in writers and pundits who take it upon themselves to prod on all of those they deem to be deliberately slow on the technological uptake. These self-appointed evangelists of technological assimilation would have us all abandon any critique of technology and simply adapt to the demands of technological society.  Except, of course, that when this message is articulated by humans with a Borg Complex it loses the tone of cool, malevolent indifference and instead takes on a tone of grating condescension. The tone is also characterized by the annoying self-assurance of those who have seen the light and feel a mixture of pity and disgust toward the poor souls who remain in the darkness.

Miller’s essay is a case in point. Although it displays a milder manifestation, it still helpfully demonstrates some of the standard symptoms of the Borg Complex.

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims: “Technology can greatly enhance religious practice. Groups that restrict and fear it participate in their own demise.”

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur: “Luddites insist that nothing can replace the human touch of a faith community …”

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns: “And this, of course, is true. But …”

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia: “To insist that new ways of relating are not good or Godly ones is backward looking.”

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation: “When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.”

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate: “If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.”

In the coming days I might work on a fuller diagnostic guide for the Borg Complex with some suggestions for treatment.

Until then, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance were discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.


Read updates to the Borg Complex case files here.

While My Robot Gently Weeps

The possibility of a robot-apoclaypse — in which robots either enslave, destroy, or otherwise disrupt human civilization — has been a recurring plot of science-fiction for some time now. The Terminator franchise is perhaps the most recognizable and popular variation on the theme. In these stories the robots are malign in their clinical, calculating, robot-like way. Not the sorts of creatures one would envision offering comfort and sympathy by one’s death-bed. But this is the scenario Dan Chen’s installation, “Last Moment Hospital,” invites us to imagine and even experience.

The robot Chen created amounts to a padded mechanical arm that “senses” the impending moment of death and while stroking the patient’s outstretched arm offers these words of succor:

“I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on Earth. I am sorry that your family and friends can’t be with you right now, but don’t be afraid. I am here to comfort you. You are not alone, you are with me. Your family and friends love you very much, they will remember you after you are gone.”

According to Leslie Katz’s write up of the exhibit, Chen’s intent is two-fold:

“On the one hand, the image ‘reveals the cruelty of life, lack of human support/social connections,’ Dan Chen, who created the robot, tells Crave. ‘On the other hand, the robot becomes something that you can trust/depend on. It could give you the ‘placebo effect’ of comfort.'”

This, again, is an art exhibit, but one does not have to stretch the imagination very far to imagine it as a very real feature of end-of-life care in, say, Japan, for example, where robots already serve many similar purposes.

There’s a great deal that can be said about this exhibit, its message (if I may be so crass), and its plausibility. Others will be able to say most of those things with greater depth and wisdom than I; but there’s one observation I’d like to register, however inadequately.

It will be tempting for many to see in this installation a parable of technology’s nefarious application, of the manner in which machines barbarize society. But this exhibit, and its materialization if it comes to it, signals not the manner in which machines brutalize humanity, but rather another sad truth, how humanity brutalizes itself.

Technology is not neutral. This is the point I usually stress. But we are not, therefore, absolved of the manner in which we put our technologies to use. Moreover, we are not absolved of the guilt incurred by the creation of conditions which finally necessitate the design of technologies of care that must perform the acts of love and mercy that are the proper work of human persons.

The robot-apocaplyse, if it comes to it, will not arise from the maliciousness of robots, but from the inhumanity of human beings toward each other. It is a paradox: our machines become more human to the degree that we become more machine-like. The great task before us, then, is to fulfill our humanity in such a way that robots will never be needed to do for us what we alone can do for one another.

Keeping Time, Keeping Silent

What shape does a well ordered life take and how does one achieve such a thing? I certainly don’t have a story of personal triumph on this score to share with you, but I’m fairly certain that if I did it would focus on the re-ordering of a disordered relationship to time. Time, in fact, is the theme of a commencement address delivered by Paul Ford to the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The speech, titled “10 Timeframes”, addresses the changing frames by which we measure and understand our experience of time, from the farmer whose frames are the changing season to the computer scientist who works with nanoseconds.

Commencement addresses are difficult to do well or in any kind of original fashion, but Ford managed both and my excerpts here will not convey either the feel or the insight of the whole. That said, here are the fragments of Ford’s speech I want to bring into conversation with the second piece which I’ll get to in just a minute. After giving a few illustrative examples, Ford reminds his listeners of the following:

“So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.”

He introduced the nanosecond by referring back to a book published in the early 1980’s on the history of the computer, The Soul of a New Machine. After quoting one engineer describing the significance of nano-seconds, Ford then tells his audience,”One of the engineers in the book burned out and quit and he left a note that read: ‘I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.'”

Ford, who is speaking to creative types who will design digital tools that other creative types will use to do all sorts of work, concludes: “And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?”

Perhaps it would not be so bad to be in a commune in Vermont, but Ford clearly understood that one engineer’s decision to be the product of exhaustion — exhaustion that resulted from continuous work within a frame of time that led to a disordered experience of life.

Many of the discontents and disorders associated with modernity, discontents and disorders that are exacerbated by the advent of digital culture, revolve around time. Ford reminds us that our experience of time has a history, a history intimately tied to our machines for measuring time as Lewis Mumford observed many years ago. Mumford’s observations about the mechanical clock, whose origins lie in medieval monasticism, segue nicely (and somewhat paradoxically) to the second piece.

“How Silence Works”, a transcript of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s email interviews with Trappist monks in the Benedictine Order living in Quebec, also dwells on the shape of the well ordered life. As the title suggests, the interviews focus on the place of silence in the monastic life. Contrary to popular belief, the Trappists take no “vow of silence,” although silence is an integral part of their communal life. As with Ford’s piece, I encourage you to read the whole, it is brimming with timely wisdom and insight.

Out of the many passages that are worth noting in the email exchanges, I’ll draw your attention to two. The first ties in nicely with Ford’s concerns. Mesiano-Crookston asks, “Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?” In response one monk wrote,

“I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to [in a previous question] seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don’t know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant.”

The practices of the monastery, including the practice of silence, a practice that has the collateral effect of slowing down time, yield a frame of time (to borrow Ford’s terminology) quite different from the frame of time most of us work with in our day to day life. Saying as much is probably stating the obvious. But without suggesting that we all take up the monastic life, it would seem that with smaller gestures we might come closer to an ordering of time that was, simply put, better for us. Perhaps taking a cue  from the monastic life, we might learn to cultivate small rituals that establish a more humane rhythm for our daily life. Such small gestures are certainly within the realm of the possible for most of us. We might find that such small gestures — micro-practices to borrow sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s wording — may have a considerable impact on the shape of our experience.

Asked whether they believed the practice of silence were beneficial for all people, one of the monks replied,

“I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can’t find it? Not to worry—it will find them.”

Perhaps. It is hard to quibble with a point so eloquently put; but while silence may indeed find us, I think that we ought also to do a little searching for it ourselves. At the very least, we should be prepared to receive it when it does find us. Perhaps then, in silence, we will find ourselves better able to recalibrate our frame of time and achieve something more closely resembling a well-ordered life.

The World of Tomorrow, Inc.

“Man’s temples typify his concepts. I cherish the thought that America stands on the threshold of a great awakening. The impulse which this Phantom City will give to American culture cannot be overestimated. The fact that such a wonder could rise in our midst is proof that the spirit is with us.”

— Journalist Fredrick F. Cook, writing of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Statue of Washington faces the Perisphere and Trylon, symbols of the 1939 fair.

The religion of technology was represented exceptionally well at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In fact, in the 1939 fair with its “World of Tomorrow” theme, the techno-utopian message of the religion of technology may have found its most compelling medium. Prior to 1939, the American world’s fairs had always been characterized by what Astrid Böger aptly called a “bifocal nature,” that is they “served as patriotic commemorations of central events in American history even as they envisioned the nation’s bright future.” Janus-faced, they looked back on a glorified past and forward toward an idealized future. The fairs of the 1930’s, however, consciously focused their vision on the future. It is true that a glance was still cast backwards – the ‘39 fair for instance commemorated the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration – but the emphasis was clearly on the wonders that lay ahead.

The ’39 New York fair, in particular, was explicitly eschatological. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow, Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power supported by benign government planning. And little wonder, 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 explains, “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.” And by the late 1930s, technology appeared to be on the verge of delivering on this promise. “Earlier world’s fairs, in which science had not played so great a role, had also been conceived in utopian spirit,” noted Folke T. Kihlstedt, “but not until the 1930s did science and technology seem to possess the potential for the actualization of a utopian vision.”

While engineers had achieved a place among the clergy of the religion of technology during the late nineteenth century, by the 1930s they had been displaced by the industrial designer who, in Kihlstedt’s phrasing, “quickly became the chief promoter of a utopian future served by the products of technology.” The industrial designer “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian.” This “visionary gaze” and the attention to the affective dimension of technology made the industrial designer the ideal prophet of the religion of technology.

The planners of the 1939 New York fair instructed the industrial designers to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits. The 1939 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” Robert Rydell explains, “they decided to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism by highlighting the importance of industrial laboratories in exhibit buildings devoted to specific industries.”

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 repentance and 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.

Ritual Fairs

Historians and critics of the world’s fair have mostly focused their attention on the intention of the fair designers. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But its debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Warren Susman, writing of 1939 New York World’s Fair, concluded:  “The Fair was not open for long,” he noted, “before the people showed both the planners and the commercial interests how perverse they could be about following the arrangements so carefully made for them.” Despite the best efforts of planners, “the people proceeded on its own way.”

Yet for all of this, the fairs were making an impression on fairgoers and Astrid Böger suggests a way of understanding that impression: “world’s fairs 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 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explains 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 hones in on in these observations is the distinction between the intellectual content of the fairs as intended by the fair planners and the actual experience of the fairs by those who attended. 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 fairs, was a liturgical religion. In his articulation of the religion of technology, Noble emphasized the explicit and the propositional. His focus was on belief and theology. But the fairs suggest other dimensions of the religion of technology, practice and ritual.

The particular genius of the 1939 New York World’s Fair lay in the manner in which the two most popular exhibits blended their explicit message with 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 controlling the fairgoer’s experience of the miniaturized environment. Earlier fairs sought to present 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 the 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, which is to say it gave ritual expression to the religion of technology.

Democracity, inside the PerisphereAs David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the fair as a whole 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 began describing the features of this idealized 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 extoled 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 suggests 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. Each visitor experienced a nearly identical presentation, and many did so repeatedly. The message was both explicit and memorable.

Corporate Liturgies 

Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Rydell in particular 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 be in the case of Social Darwinism). 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, aimed to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.

General Motors Futurama Exhibit

“From the beginning,” Rydell observes, “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 likewise notes, “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.” Interestingly, 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, the corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a perfect, rationally planned and yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.

The major American world’s fairs functioned as microcosms of American society. At the fairs, the ideals of cultural, political, and economic elites are put on display. These ideals were anchored in a mythic past and projected in an equally mythic future. The fairs not only reflected the ideals of American elites, they also registered an indelible impression on the millions of Americans who attended.  The precise measure of the influence of the fairs on American society, however, remains difficult to measure. Yet, framing the 1939 New York World’s fair within the larger story of the religion of technology reveals the emergence of a powerful alliance of technology, religious aspirations, and corporate power. This alliance was certainly taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and decisive fashion. Through the careful deployment of an imaginative liturgical experience, the fair instilled the virtues of this alliance in a generation of Americans. This generation would go on to build a society that, for better and for worse, reflected the triumph of the incorporated religion of technology.