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.”

Silencing the Heretics: How the Faithful Respond to Criticism of Technology

I started to write a post about a few unhinged reactions to an essay published by Nicholas Carr in this weekend’s WSJ, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.”  Then I realized that I already wrote that post back in 2010. I’m republishing “A God that Limps” below, with slight revisions, and adding a discussion of the reactions to Carr. 

Our technologies are like our children: we react with reflexive and sometimes intense defensiveness if either is criticized. Several years ago, while teaching at a small private high school, I forwarded an article to my colleagues that raised some questions about the efficacy of computers in education. This was a mistake. The article appeared in a respectable journal, was judicious in its tone, and cautious in its conclusions. I didn’t think then, nor do I now, that it was at all controversial. In fact, I imagined that given the setting it would be of at least passing interest. However, within a handful of minutes (minutes!)—hardly enough time to skim, much less read, the article—I was receiving rather pointed, even angry replies.

I was mystified, and not a little amused, by the responses. Mostly though, I began to think about why this measured and cautious article evoked such a passionate response. Around the same time I stumbled upon Wendell Berry’s essay titled, somewhat provocatively, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” More arresting than the essay itself, however, were the letters that came in to Harper’s. These letters, which now typically appear alongside the essay whenever it is anthologized, were caustic and condescending. In response, Berry wrote,

The foregoing letters surprised me with the intensity of the feelings they expressed. According to the writers’ testimony, there is nothing wrong with their computers; they are utterly satisfied with them and all that they stand for. My correspondents are certain that I am wrong and that I am, moreover, on the losing side, a side already relegated to the dustbin of history. And yet they grow huffy and condescending over my tiny dissent. What are they so anxious about?

Precisely my question. Whence the hostility, defensiveness, agitation, and indignant, self-righteous anxiety?

I’m typing these words on a laptop, and they will appear on a blog that exists on the Internet.  Clearly I am not, strictly speaking, a Luddite. (Although, in light of Thomas Pynchon’s analysis of the Luddite as Badass, there may be a certain appeal.) Yet, I do believe an uncritical embrace of technology may prove fateful, if not Faustian.

The stakes are high. We can hardly exaggerate the revolutionary character of certain technologies throughout history:  the wheel, writing, the gun, the printing press, the steam engine, the automobile, the radio, the television, the Internet. And that is a very partial list. Katherine Hayles has gone so far as to suggest that, as a species, we have “codeveloped with technologies; indeed, it is no exaggeration,” she writes in Electronic Literature, “to say modern humans literally would not have come into existence without technology.”

We are, perhaps because of the pace of technological innovation, quite conscious of the place and power of technology in our society and in our own lives. We joke about our technological addictions, but it is sometimes a rather nervous punchline. It makes sense to ask questions. Technology, it has been said, is a god that limps. It dazzles and performs wonders, but it can frustrate and wreak havoc. Good sense seems to suggest that we avoid, as Thoreau put it, becoming tools of our tools. This doesn’t entail burning the machine; it may only require a little moderation. At a minimum, it means creating, as far as we are able, a critical distance from our toys and tools, and that requires searching criticism.

And we are back where we began. We appear to be allergic to just that kind of searching criticism. So here is my question again:  Why do we react so defensively when we hear someone criticize our technologies?

And so ended my earlier post. Now consider a handful of responses to Carr’s article, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.” Better yet, read the article, if you haven’t already, and then come back for the responses.

Let’s start with a couple of tweets by Joshua Gans, a professor of management at the University of Toronto.

Then there was this from entrepreneur, Marc Andreessen:

Even better are some of the replies attached to Andreessen’s tweet. I’ll transcribe a few of those here for your amusement.

“Why does he want to be stuck doing repetitive mind-numbing tasks?”

“‘These automatic jobs are horrible!’ ‘Stop killing these horrible jobs with automation!'” [Sarcasm implied.]

“by his reasoning the steam engine makes us weaklings, yet we’ve seen the opposite. so maybe the best intel is ahead”

“Let’s forget him, he’s done so much damage to our industry, he is just interested in profiting from his provocations”

“Nick clearly hasn’t understood the true essence of being ‘human’. Tech is an ‘enabler’ and aids to assist in that process.”

“This op-ed is just a Luddite screed dressed in drag. It follows the dystopian view of ‘Wall-E’.”

There you have it. I’ll let you tally up the logical fallacies.

Honestly, I’m stunned by the degree of apparently willful ignorance exhibited by these comments. The best I can say for them is that they are based on a glance at the title of Carr’s article and nothing more. It would be much more worrisome if these individuals had actually read the article and still managed to make these comments that betray no awareness of what Carr actually wrote.

More than once, Carr makes clear that he is not opposed to automation in principle. The last several paragraphs of the article describe how we might go forward with automation in a way that avoids some serious pitfalls. In other words, Carr is saying, “Automate, but do it wisely.” What a Luddite!

When I wrote in 2010, I had not yet formulated the idea of a Borg Complex, but this inability to rationally or calmly abide any criticism of technology is surely pure, undistilled Borg Complex, complete with Luddite slurs!

I’ll continue to insist that we are in desperate need of serious thinking about the powers that we are gaining through our technologies. It seems, however, that there is a class of people who are hell-bent on shutting down any and all criticism of technology. If the criticism is misguided or unsubstantiated, then it should be refuted. Dismissing criticism while giving absolutely no evidence of having understood it, on the other hand, helps no one at all.

I come back to David Noble’s description of the religion of technology often, but only because of how useful it is as a way of understanding techno-scientific culture. When technology is a religion, when we embrace it with blind faith, when we anchor our hope in it, when we love it as ourselves–then any criticism of technology will be understood as either heresy or sacrilege. And that seems to be a pretty good way of characterizing the responses to tech criticism I’ve been discussing: the impassioned reactions of the faithful to sacrilegious heresy.

Simulated Futures

There’s a lot of innovation talk going on right now, or maybe it is just that I’ve been more attuned to it of late. Either way, I keep coming across pieces that tackle the topic of technological innovation from a variety of angles.

While not narrowly focused on technological innovation, this wonderfully discursive post by Alan Jacobs raises a number of relevant considerations. Jacobs ranges far and wide, so I won’t try to summarize his thoughts here. You should read the whole piece, but here is the point I want to highlight. Taking a 2012 essay by David Graeber as his point of departure, Jacobs asks us to consider the following:

“How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? — or, or for that matter, an end to world hunger, something that C. P. Snow, in his famous lecture on ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences and humanities, saw as clearly within our grasp more than half-a-century ago? To see ‘sophisticated simulations’ of the things we used to hope we’d really achieve as good enough?”

Here’s the relevant passage in Graeber’s essay. After watching one of the more recent Star Wars films, he wonders how impressed with the special effects audiences of the older, fifties-era sci-fi films would be. His answer upon reflection: not very. Why? Because “they thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.” Graeber goes on to add,

“That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the ‘hyper-real,’ the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.”

Here again is the theme of technological stagnation, of the death of genuine innovation. You can read the rest of Graeber’s piece for his own theories about the causes of this stagnation. What interested me was the suggestion that we’ve swapped genuine innovation for simulations. Of course, this interested me chiefly because it seems to reinforce and expand a point I made in yesterday’s post, that our fascination with virtual worlds may stem from the failure of our non-virtual world to yield the kind of possibilities for meaningful action that human beings crave.

As our hopes for the future seem to recede, our simulations of that future become ever more compelling.

Elsewhere, Lee Billings reports on his experience at the 2007 Singularity Summit:

“Over vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and red wine at a Bay Area villa, I had chatted with the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who planned to adopt an ‘aggressive’ strategy for investing in a ‘positive’ Singularity, which would be ‘the biggest boom ever,’ if it doesn’t first ‘blow up the whole world.’ I had talked with the autodidactic artificial-intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky about his fears that artificial minds might, once created, rapidly destroy the planet. At one point, the inventor-turned-proselytizer
 Ray Kurzweil teleconferenced in to discuss,
among other things, his plans for becoming transhuman, transcending his own biology to 
achieve some sort of
 eternal life. Kurzweil
 believes this is possible, 
even probable, provided he can just live to see
 The Singularity’s dawn, 
which he has pegged at 
sometime in the middle of the 21st century. To this end, he reportedly consumes some 150 vitamin supplements a day.”

Billings also noted that many of his conversations at the conference “carried a cynical sheen of eschatological hucksterism: Climb aboard, don’t delay, invest right now, and you, too, may be among the chosen who rise to power from the ashes of the former world!”

Eschatological hucksterism … well put, indeed. That’s a phrase I’ll be tucking away for future use.

And that leads me to the concluding chapter of David Noble’s The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. After surveying the religiously infused motives and rhetoric animating technological projects as diverse as the pursuit of AI, space exploration, and genetic engineering, Noble wrote

“As we have seen, those given to such imaginings are in the vanguard of technological development, amply endowed and in every way encouraged to realize their escapist fantasies. Often displaying a pathological dissatisfaction with, and deprecation of, the human condition, they are taking flight from the world, pointing us away from the earth, the flesh, the familiar–‘offering salvation by technical fix,’ in Mary Midgley’s apt description–all the while making the world over to conform to their vision of perfection.”

A little further on he concluded,

“Can we any longer afford to abide this system of blind belief? Ironically, the technological enterprise upon which we now ever more depend for the preservation and enlargement of our lives betrays a disdainful disregard for, indeed an impatience with, life itself. If dreams of technological escape from the burdens of mortality once translated into some relief of the human estate, the pursuit of technological transcendence has now perhaps outdistanced such earthly ends. If the religion of technology once fostered visions of social renovation, it also fueled fantasies of escaping society altogether. Today these bolder imaginings have gained sway, according to which as on philosopher of technology recently observed, ‘everything which exists at present … is deemed disposable.’ 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’ll leave you with that.

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.

Revisiting “The Religion of Technology”

Several months ago I wrote a short post on David Noble’s The Religion of Technology. Having recently revisited the book I thought it would be worthwhile to post about Noble’s work once again, this time with a little more detail.

Noble’s thesis offers an intriguing perspective on the relationship between religion and technology. By tracing their historical entwinement, Noble claimed to expose more than “a merely metaphorical” relationship between the two. Noble intended the designation, religion of technology, “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.”

Noble is making an important distinction here. It is not uncommon to hear people talk metaphorically about technology in religiously inflected language or to draw analogies between religious practices and technology. As an example consider the poster below for “Login: The Conference of Future Insight” by the New! ad agency (h/t @troy_s). This poster analogically relates religion to technology by taking as its theme, “What will we worship next?” The question implies that we “worship” technology analogously to the worship of the religious believer, or that technology functions analogously to a deity in the life of the believer. This is a perfectly valid and suggestive angle of inquiry. However, it is not exactly what Noble has in mind. He unearths a concrete historical interrelationship between the Western technological project and the Christian tradition. A relationship, incidentally, which Noble hoped could be severed for the benefit of all involved.

By the New! ad agency

According to Noble, the religion of technology constitutes “an enduring ideological tradition that has defined the dynamic Western technological enterprise since its inception.” Consequently, it’s influence is evident not only upon “professed believers and those who employ explicitly religious language,” but also on many for “whom the religious compulsion is largely unconscious, obscured by a secularized vocabulary.” This influence manifests itself in the utopian hopes attached to the technological enterprise and can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. These utopian hopes include the expectation that technology would bring about the perfection of the individual and of society and serve as a vehicle of transcendence.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The religion of technology emerges out of a worldview that posits an original state of perfection that, once lost, must be retrieved. Noble’s narrative traces the manner in which technology came to occupy a central place in this effort to regain the lost paradise. The medieval Christian worldview posited the requisite fallen condition: humanity had, by Adam’s sin, fallen from a state of spiritual and material perfection, and technology’s entanglement with the project of restoring the fallen order begins in an unlikely setting. Within the Benedictine monastic tradition, according to Noble’s interpretation*, work and its tools came to be seen as a means of grace enabling the recovery of mankind’s original perfection. At the dawning of the second millennium, this redemptive view of work and its tools was then joined to an eschatological fervor that anticipated the soon return of Christ and the renewal of the created order. In Noble’s narrative, this fusion was best exemplified by Roger Bacon:

“Having inherited the new medieval view of technology as a means of recovering mankind’s original perfection, Bacon now placed it in the context of millenarian prophecy, prediction, and promise. If Bacon, following Erigena and Hugh of St. Victor, perceived the advance of the arts as a means of restoring humanity’s lost divinity, he now saw it at the same time, following Joachim of Fiore, as a means of anticipating and preparing for the kingdom to come, and as a sure sign in and of itself that that kingdom was at hand.”

Noble goes on to describe the manner in which Christianity’s evangelical and missionary impulse “encouraged exploration, and thereby advanced the arts upon which such exploration depended, including geography, astronomy, and navigation, as well as shipbuilding, metallurgy, and, of course, weaponry.” Francis Bacon – who, Noble notes, “is typically revered as the greatest prophet of modern science” – is the next key figure in the evolution of the religion of technology. Noble, agrees with Lewis Mumford’s insistence that what Bacon advanced was “science as technology.” Bacon had little patience for science that did not issue in application and he suffused his advocacy of science as technology with a very specific theological aim: “the relief of man’s estate” understood as the amelioration of the material consequences of humanity’s fall. While the advent of Protestantism addressed the spiritual consequences of the fall, the scientific revolution underway in Europe was destined to address its material consequences. Both together would result in the re-establishment of the unfallen created order.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the religion of technology was alive and well in America, and it was best exemplified, according to Noble, by the techno-utopianism of Edward Bellamy whose writings “resound with the familiar refrains of redemption, of the divinely destined recovery of mankind’s lost perfection.” The historian Howard P. Segal, cited by Noble, summarizes Bellamy’s depiction of life in the year 2000 as follows:

The United States of the year 2000 is very much a technological utopia: an allegedly ideal society not simply dependent upon tools and machines, or even worshipful of them, but outright modeled after them. … The purposeful, positive use of technology – from improved factories and offices to new highways and electric lighting systems to innovative pneumatic tubes, electronic broadcasts, and credit cards – is, in fact, critical to the predicted transformation of the United States from living hell into a heaven on earth.

Following his survey of the historical origins of the religion of technology, Noble demonstrates its continuing vitality throughout the twentieth century in chapters exploring atomic weaponry, the space program, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. In each of these fields, Noble illustrates the enduring allure of the religiously inspired techno-utopian quest for perfection and transcendence.  In the end, Noble concludes that the religion of technology ultimately hinges on a hope of salvation that technology cannot finally provide.

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*Noble’s interpretation of the Benedictine tradition should be qualified by George Ovitt’s work on the same.