Distraction Free Reading

Technology and Religion: An Interview with Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing (Part 1)

(Michael Sacasas is a PhD candidate in the “Texts and Technology” program at The University of Central Florida. He blogs about technology at The Frailest Thing.)

Thank you for agreeing to an interview for CASTAC. I read your blog on a regular basis, largely because you write cogently on the relationship between religion and technology. Both are traditional anthropological topics currently undergoing a renaissance within the discipline, yet they are not commonly set in explicit conversation. In contrast, you write within a tradition of thought in which technology and religion are commonly set in explicit conversation.

For example, in a February 2014 post, Traditions of Technological Criticism, you suggestively compare the place of theology as an organizing and animating principle in the medieval university to the place of technology in the modern university. Can you elaborate?

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to the conversation at CASTAC. I’m an outsider to the discipline of anthropology, but I’m glad to hear that there is renewed interest in both religion and technology. As you note, my work, such as it is, has been influenced by scholars who have enriched our understanding of technology by exploring its religious dimensions.

In the post you mention, I’d begun by considering the semantic challenges that arise from the word technology. As Leo Marx noted in an article titled, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” the term technology initially designated the study of human making; in time it came to designate the things that were made by humans. Marx worried that the word, which became a catch-all for all manner of human-made objects and systems, reified what it sought to name and consequently made possible, perhaps even encouraged, the attribution of agency to “technology” as if it were a force independent of human design, action, etc.

Marx raised a valid point; at the same time, as Langdon Winner has argued, the same vagueness and indeterminacy that led Marx to take issue with technology tells us something about the pervasiveness and opacity of our present technological milieu. It also suggests that we are becoming more aware of the consequences of what we make.

It’s in this context that I suggested we imagine that technology still named a field of study and, if that were the case, that it could serve the same unifying function that theology served in the medieval universities. It was a way of suggesting that technology was a thread that could be traced through most, if not all, disciplines. I imagined this in both the sense that (a) many disciplines now depend on technology for their advance, particularly in the sciences of course, and (b) that each discipline can contribute to our understanding of technology and its place in human affairs. The economist, the social scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the engineer, the philosopher, and so on—each of these can tell us something important about the role of technology in society.

Additionally, as I wrote in that post, we might also think of technology as St. Paul thought of God, as the reality in which “we move and breathe and have our being.” Technology, in other words, is the material base of human culture; it is both a product of culture and that through which culture is produced.

Increasingly, I find that the study of technology is best understood as the study of human beings. The needs technology addresses are human needs. The aspirations, desires, and values expressed by and through technology are human aspirations, desires, and values. Our economic, political, and legal quandaries regarding technology are ultimately about justice for human beings. Etc.

Put all of this together, then, and we might say that all disciplines can speak to the topic of technology and in doing so they ultimately help us understand the contemporary shape of human culture.

I wonder if you can comment on some of the divergences and points of confluence between David Noble’s Religion of Technology, particularly his notion of the “prelapsarian impulse”, and David Nye’s American Technological Sublime. The first work dealing with the perfection of the individual and the latter with the perfection of the American republic.

These two works pair well together. Each considers the religious aspects of the technological project but from different vantage points. I frame their complementary perspectives this way. Noble’s approach is historical, and Nye’s sociological.

For his part, Noble insists that the relationship between religion and technology is not merely metaphorical. It is not simply that we might usefully characterize the relationship people have to their devices, for example, as something akin to worship or idolatry. Rather, it is a matter of historical fact. From roughly the tenth century onward, the advance of technology in the West has been spurred by a quest for transcendence whose point of departure was the Christian theological tradition. (I think it useful to characterize the religion of technology as a Christian heresy.) Noble demonstrated how from the high middle ages through the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Enlightenment, and on into the twentieth century, technological innovation was spurred by the impulse to transcend our natural limitations and perfect our human nature. While the explicitly Christian aspects tended, for the most part, to fall by the wayside over the ensuing centuries, the motives and aspirations driving the development of atomic weaponry, space travel, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering still reflect this quest for transcendence and perfection. The Transhumanist movement is an excellent example of the religion of technology as Noble understood it.

As you suggest, the motive forces Noble documents tend to focus on the perfection of the individual (although there is also a concurrent hope that technical advance will usher in a new society). In the formative stages of the religion of technology, technology came to be understood as a means toward the recovery of a lost Edenic, or prelapsarian, state of moral, intellectual, and physical perfection. Individuals made in God’s image, but compromised by sin and the resultant curse, could, through technical ingenuity, reverse the effects of the curse and regain their original perfection.

Nye, however, is more interested in a social phenomenon than he is in individual experience. His focus is also narrower, chronologically and geographically: he takes under consideration roughly 200 years of American history. But his conceptual tool kit is a bit broader. While Nye’s argument is grounded in historical research, he frames his investigation philosophically and sociologically. Leaning on Burke and Kant, he theorizes American encounters with new technologies of impressive scale and dynamism as encounters with the sublime (these include, for example, railroads, suspension bridges, skyscrapers, electrified skylines, the Hoover Dam, and the Saturn V rockets). And, in a Durkheimian twist, he shows us how these sublime encounters were channeled within a tradition of public ritual and ceremony that functioned as a civil religion. Furthermore, Nye argued that, in its role as a civil religion, the experience of the technological sublime became a unifying force in American culture.

Nye’s closing chapter discusses what he calls the consumer sublime, a degradation of the American technological sublime into fabricated commercial simulation exemplified by Disney and Las Vegas. In other words, the experience of the technological sublime has been on the decline. But one need only think of the gatherings surrounding the farewell tours of the retired space shuttles and the crowds that gathered for their final launches to see that bursts of the technological sublime as civil religion still occasionally present themselves. The fanfare surrounding the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, also exhibited some of the same qualities. On the whole, though, it seems to me that we will see less and less of the technological sublime in its role as a civil religion.

We could say, then, that the difference between Noble and Nye is this. Noble focuses on ideas or beliefs that motivate action, and Nye focuses on practices that channel and shape powerful quasi-spiritual experiences. Or, to put it another way, Nye describes the ritual shape of the religion of technology in its American manifestation.

One last point of complementary difference between both works: Noble helps us understand the forces that have driven technological innovation, and Nye helps us understand how technology has been integrated into American culture after it has been developed and deployed.

Together, they have amply demonstrated that the techno-scientific project in the West has not been the coolly rational and wholly secular affair that it is often assumed to be.

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