The Borg Complex Case Files

UPDATE: See the Borg Complex primer here.

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“Resistance is futile.” This is what the Borg, of Star Trek fame, announces to its victims before it proceeds to assimilate their biological and technological distinctiveness. It is also what many tech gurus and pundits announce to their audiences as they dispense their tech-guru-ish wisdom. They don’t quite use those words,of course, but they might as well. This is why I’ve taken to calling this sort of rhetoric a Borg Complex.

I first wrote about the Borg Complex last June in response to an article on technology and religion which confidently announced that “religion will have to adapt.” The line, “Resistance is futile,” could have unobtrusively made its way into the article at any number of places.

Using this same article as a specimen, I identified six tell-tale symptoms of a Borg Complex.

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

These symptoms may occur singly or in some combination, and they may range form milder to more hysterical manifestations. Symptoms of the Borg Complex also tend to present with a smug, condescending tone, but this is not always the case. Those who suffer from a Borg Complex may also exhibit an earnest, pleading tone or one that is mildly annoyed and incredulous.

As a more recent example of symptom number 2, consider Tim Wu writing in the NY Times about the response of some communities to apps that allow one to book cabs or rent out an apartment:  “But they’re considerably less popular among city regulators, whose reactions recall Ned Ludd’s response to the automated loom.” Clearly a bad thing in Wu’s view.

An interesting case of the Borg Complex was on display in a Huffington Post interview of Evernote CEO, Phil Libin. Libin is discussing Google Glasses when he says:

“I’ve used it a little bit myself and – I’m making a firm prediction – in as little as three years from now I am not going to be looking out at the world with glasses that don’t have augmented information on them. It’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff. That’s going to be the universal use case. It’s going to be mainstream. People think it looks kind of dorky right now but the experience is so powerful that you feel stupid as soon as you take the glasses off… We’re spending a good amount of time planning for and experimenting with those.”

“It’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff.” Here’s an instance of the Borg Complex that does not fit neatly within the symptoms described above. It’s some combination of 1, 5, and 6, but there is something more going on here. Context provides a little clarity though. This case of the Borg Complex is wrapped up in the potential sale of some future product. So the symptoms are inflected by the marketing motive. It is perhaps a more passive-aggressive form of the Borg Complex, “You will not want to be without __________________ because everyone else will have _________________ and you’ll feel inadequate without __________________.”

A more direct and intense variation of the Borg Complex was on display in Nathan Harden’s essay about the future of higher education. Here are the opening lines:

“In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.”

Harden sums up his introduction with the announcement, “The college classroom is about to go virtual.”

Kevin Kelly, a tech-guru par excellence and one of unbounded optimism, also exhibits Borg Complex symptoms in his much talked about essay for Wired, “Better Than Human” (the title, it is worth clarifying, was not chosen by Kelly). Early on Kelly writes,

“It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation. Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines. In other words, robot replacement is just a matter of time.”

And perhaps it may be so. A diagnosis of Borg Complex does not necessarily invalidate the claims being made. The Borg Complex is less about the accuracy of predictions and claims than about the psychological disposition that leads one to make such claims and the posture toward technology in the present that it engenders.

The contrasts among Libin, Harden, and Kelly are also instructive. Libin’s case of Borg Complex is inflected by commercial considerations. I’m not sure the same can be said for either Harden or Kelly. This moves us beyond the work of identifying symptoms and leads us to consider the causes or sources of the Borg Complex. Libin’s case points in one plausible direction. In the case of Kelly, we might reasonably look to his philosophy of autonomous technology. But further consideration of causes will have to wait for a future post.

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

Borg

Hole In Our Hearts

Writing for Gizmodo, Matt Honan describes his experience at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and it reads like a passage from Augustine’s Confessions had Augustine been writing in the 21st rather than 5th century.

The quasi-religious overtones begin early on when Honan tells us, “There was ennui upon ennui upon ennui set in this amazing temple to technology.”

Then, a little further on, Honan writes:

“There is a hole in my heart dug deep by advertising and envy and a desire to see a thing that is new and different and beautiful. A place within me that is empty, and that I want to fill it up. The hole makes me think electronics can help. And of course, they can.

They make the world easier and more enjoyable. They boost productivity and provide entertainment and information and sometimes even status. At least for a while. At least until they are obsolete. At least until they are garbage.

Electronics are our talismans that ward off the spiritual vacuum of modernity; gilt in Gorilla Glass and cadmium. And in them we find entertainment in lieu of happiness, and exchanges in lieu of actual connections.

And, oh, I am guilty. I am guilty. I am guilty.

I feel that way too. More than most, probably. I’m forever wanting something new. Something I’ve never seen before, that no one else has. Something that will be both an extension and expression of my person. Something that will take me away from the world I actually live in and let me immerse myself in another. Something that will let me see more details, take better pictures, do more at once, work smarter, run faster, live longer.”

Here is the confession, the thrice-repeated mea culpa, alongside a truly Augustinian account of our disordered attachments and loves complete with a Pascalian nod to the diversionary nature of our engagement with technology.

I call this an Augustinian account not only because of the religiously inflected language and the confessional tone. There is also the explicit frame of an unfulfilling quest to fill a primordial emptiness. Augustine’s Confesssions amounts to a retrospective narrative of the spiritual quest which takes him from dissatisfaction to dissatisfaction until it culminates in his conversion. He famously frames his narrative at the outset when he prays, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” The restless heart knows its own emptiness and seeks, often heroically and tragically, to fill it. It loves and seeks to be loved, but it loves all the wrong things.

Pascal, writing in the shadow of Augustine’s influence, put it thus:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

In a post titled “Making Holes In Our Hearts,” Kevin Kelly agrees to a point with Honan’s diagnosis, but his interpretation is quite different and also worth quoting at length. Here is Kelly:

If we are honest, we must admit that one aspect of the technium is to make holes in our heart. One day recently we decided that we cannot live another day unless we have a smart phone, when a dozen years earlier this need would have dumbfounded us. Now we get angry if the network is slow, but before, when we were innocent, we had no thoughts of the network at all. Now we crave the instant connection of friends, whereas before we were content with weekly, or daily, connections. But we keep inventing new things that make new desires, new longings, new wants, new holes that must be filled.

Yes, this is what technology does to us. Some people are furious that our hearts are pierced this way by the things we make. They see this ever-neediness as a debasement, a lowering of human nobility, the source of our continuous discontentment. I agree that it is the source. New technology forces us to be always chasing the new, which is always disappearing under the next new, a salvation always receding from our grasp.

But I celebrate the never-ending discontentment that the technium brings. Most of what we like about being human is invented. We are different from our animal ancestors in that we are not content to merely survive, but have been incredibly busy making up new itches which we have to scratch, digging extra holes that we have to fill, creating new desires we’ve never had before.

Kelly is on to something here. Discontentment is generative. Dissatisfaction can be productive. When Cain, having murdered his brother, is cursed to be forever a wanderer alienated from God and family, he builds a city in response. Here is an allegory to match Kelly’s observation. The perpetually wandering, alienated heart builds and makes and creates.

But does it follow that we should then celebrate discontentment, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness? I don’t see how. It is hard to cheer on misery, and it is a certain misery that we are talking about here. Perhaps the more appropriate response is the kind of plaintive admiration we reserve for the tragic hero. They may posses a real nobility, but it is finally consumed in despair and destruction.

The narrator of Cain’s story tells us that he built his city in the land called Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for “wandering.” This touch of literary artistry poignantly suggests that even surrounded by the accouterments of civilization the human soul wanders lost and alienated – never satisfied, never home, never secure.

There is at least one other reason why we need not celebrate generative misery. Misery is not the only fount of human creativity. Love, wonderment, compassion, kindness, curiosity, beauty — all of these might also set us to work and marvelously so.

Augustine understood that finding rest for his restless heart in the love of God did not necessarily extinguish all other loves. It merely reordered them. Having found the kind of satisfaction and happiness that our stuff (for lack of a more inclusive word) can never bring does not mean that we can never again create or enjoy the fruits of human creativity. In fact, it likely means that we may create and enjoy more fully because such creation and enjoyment will not be burden with the unbearable weight of filling the primordial vacuum of the human heart.

The simplest and only way to enjoy penultimate and impermanent things is to resist the temptation to invest them with the significance and adoration that only ultimate and permanent things can sustain.

Saint Augustine by Phillippe de Champaigne, c. 1645

Kevin Kelly, God, and Technology

As I have read and thought about technology and its cultural consequences, I have especially appreciated the work of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Albert Borgmann.  My appreciation stems not only from the quality and originality of their work, but also from a curiosity about the manner in which their religion informed their thinking; all were deeply committed to some expression of the Christian faith.  We would do well to add the name of Kevin Kelly to the list of theorists and students of technology who bring a theological perspective to their work.

Of course, the Christian tradition is an ocean with many currents, and so it is not surprising that despite their common core commitments, the work of the scholars mentioned each takes on a distinct hue.  Of those mentioned, Kelly is in my estimation the most optimistic about the future of technology and that comes across quite clearly in his recent interview with Christianity Today.

There Kelly connects technology with God’s own creative capacity and the freedom with which He endows humanity:

We are here to surprise God. God could make everything, but instead he says, “I bestow upon you the gift of free will so that you can participate in making this world. I could make everything, but I am going to give you some spark of my genius. Surprise me with something truly good and beautiful.”

He also provides the following explanation of the term technium which he coined:

I use technium to emphasize that human creation is more than the sum of all its parts. An ecosystem behaves differently from its individual plant and animal components. We have thoughts in our minds that are more than the sum of all neuron activity. Society itself has certain properties that are more than the sum of the individuals; there is an agency that’s bigger than us. In the same way, the technium will have a behavior that you’re not going to find in your iPhone or your light bulb alone. The technium has far more agency than is suggested by the word culture.

I find this emergent model to be an interesting way to get at the influence of technology.  I try to navigate a path between approaches to technology that take the tools to be determinative of human action on the one hand, and others which take the tools to be merely neutral objects of human action on the other.  I’m not sure if I’m prepared to unreservedly endorse Kelly’s formulation, but I am generally sympathetic.

I’m less inclined to sign onto the remarkably positive outlook Kelly articulates for the technium, although I must admit that it is both refreshing and invigorating. Kelly is sure that “… the world is a better place now than it was 1,000 years ago. Whatever quantifiable metric you want to give to me about what’s good in life, I would say there’s more of it now than there was 1,000 years ago.” And, indeed, by many if not most measures, it most certainly is.  Yet, I would hesitate to claim that in every way that life has improved it has done so because of the technium, and I would be inclined to argue that in certain important respects elements of the technium have worked against human happiness and fulfillment.

Kelly acknowledges, but underemphasizes the fallibility and folly of humanity. He believes that God’s grace, seemingly operating through the technium, more than cancels out the folly.  I share the hope in principle, but would not so closely connect the operations of God’s grace to the sphere of technological advance.

Perhaps the point of tension that I experience with Kelly’s position stems from his definition of goodness:  “… overall the technium has a positive force, a positive charge of good. And that good is primarily measured in terms of the possibilities and choices it presents us with.”  Kelly illustrates his point by asking us to imagine Mozart being born into a world in which the piano has not been invented – what a tragedy.  This resonates, but then we might ask, what of all of those would be Mozarts that did in fact live, as surely they did.  Is their happiness and fulfillment so tied to an as of yet future invention that their life is otherwise rendered unfulfilled?  Would this not suggest that, in fact, the grass is always greener in the future perpetually and so happiness and fulfillment is never finally attainable?  Fulfillment would taunt us from just around the corner that is the future.

Perhaps the problem arises from too quickly eliding the infinite creative possibilities of the Creator with the limited, derivative creativity of the creature.  To be human is to flourish within the limitations of material and embodied existence. Expanding choice is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but hitching the possibility of human fulfillment to the relentless expansion of choice seems to overlook the manner in which the voluntary curtailment of choice might also serve as the path to a well-lived life.

Curiously, Kelly practices a way of life that would seem on the surface to be at odds with the gospel of choice maximalization.  He has written engagingly about the Amish and recommended aspects of their approach to technology.  In his personal life, Kelly has implemented a good bit of Amish minimalism.  When asked about whether this constituted an inconsistency between his words and his actions, Kelly responded:

Technology can maximize our special combination of gifts, but there are so many technological choices that I could spend all my time just trying out technologies. So I minimize my technological choices in order to maximize my output. The Amish (and the hippies) are really good at minimizing technologies. That’s what I am trying to do as well. I seek to find those technologies that assist me in my mission to express love and reflect God in the world, and then disregard the rest.

But at the same time, I want to maximize the pool of technologies that people can choose from, so that they can find those tools that maximize their options and minimize the rest.

I can see his angle and would stop short of suggesting that this was indeed an inconsistency on Kelly’s part, but I will say that for my part I find more wisdom in Kelly’s practice than in his unbounded hope for the technium.

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See also Nicholas Carr’s comments on Kelly’s interview (as well as Kelly’s response in the comment thread) and Kevin Kelly’s TED Talk.