(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. This post follows on our conversation from earlier in the year which touched on some of the foundational work on the relationship between western religion and technology.)
I am glad you brought up Nye’s pessimism over the consumer sublime and his consternation over the potential drying of the technological well. Nye wrote of the consumer sublime, as embodied by Las Vegas, as a “rush of simulations” and as marking a change from a technological sublime emphasizing production, particularly in the sense of new knowledge, to one concerned solely with consumption. How do you see the relation between simulation and technological production? Do you think Nye’s pessimism is warranted?
Timely question. There’s been more than a little angst of late about technological stagnation, much of it recently associated with PayPal founder Peter Thiel. For the past few years, Thiel has been warning about trends which, in his estimation, suggest that technological innovation may have stalled out over the last thirty or so years. We were promised flying cars, he is fond of saying, and we got 140 characters instead (a passing shot at Twitter, of course).
Thiel is not alone in his pessimism, a pessimism that overlaps with Nye’s, and one that is often expressed in a craving for “moonshot” technologies, technologies of extraordinary scale and/or significance. I’ve recently suggested, in fact, that this longing for “moonshot” technologies, and other expressions of technological stagnation angst, are withdrawal symptoms occasioned by the eclipse of the American technological sublime.
Nye connected this eclipse with the rise of simulation and consumerism. More recently, David Graeber has similarly argued that simulation has replaced “real” innovation. In his view, we have been fed increasingly sophisticated simulations to veil the fact that truly transformative technologies have been few and far between.
Of course, we immediately ask, What about the Internet? What about digital technologies? What about smartphones? Indeed, these are consequential, but, phenomenologically speaking, they fail to elicit the sublime experience. In this respect, then, the tradition of the technological sublime, dependent as it was on physically imposing technologies, and the expectations it fostered may be blinding us to important, if less dramatic, technological advances. Technological stagnation angst, on this reading, would be a largely misguided failure to perceive real advances.
On the whole, I’m not sure it is misguided, though, at least not altogether. Technological innovation is a complex phenomenon dependent on both technical/material and cultural/ideological factors. Insofar as the technological sublime experience fueled the cultural imagination, it may very well have sustained and encouraged technological innovation of a certain kind. And it is also the case, it seems to me, that insofar as the engine driving technological innovation is consumer demand, then we should not be surprised that the arc of innovation bends toward decadence (to borrow an apt phrase from Nicholas Carr), i.e., toward increasingly sophisticated consumer technology and technologies of simulation. And, I should add, Carr’s line comes from a relevant post in which he formulates a theory of innovation premised on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We should not be surprised if many of our technologies are now developed to meet more complex needs for social interaction, personal esteem, and self-actualization. Of course, these tend to be, as Nye recognized, technologies of the self, narrowly construed.
But these technologies of the self can take two paths. The one, more common path is the path of consumer technology, that is of technologies that are accoutrements of the self. The other is the path is the one that leads to Transhumanism, i.e., of technologies that work on the self and seek to transform the self.
You have written about Transhumanism on several occasions. In the Kurzweil documentary *The Transcendent Man*, Kurzweil is shown staring out at the ocean and explains that he is in awe of “how much computation is represented by the ocean.” Can you speak to the connection between Transhumanism and computation?
Tentatively, since I have not seen The Transcendent Man. But I did find a bit more of the context for that line, and I think the context is instructive, so I hope you don’t mind my citing it here:
Barry Ptolemy: “What are you thinking about, Ray?”
Ray: “Well I was thinking about how much computation is represented by the ocean. I mean it’s all these water molecules interacting with each other. That’s computation. It’s quite beautiful. And I’ve always found it very soothing. And that’s really what computation’s all about. The capture of these transcendent moments of our consciousness.”
I’ll come back to that line in just a moment. Regarding the connection between computation and Transhumanism, in short, certain strands of Transhumanism bank heavily on the hope that it will eventually be possible to download human consciousness on to a computer (there’s a hint at that in Kurzweil’s ocean comments). To turn the soul into data, as it were. Such a project—if, for arguments sake, we grant its plausibility—would require massive computational power. Even less ambitious versions of Transhumanism, for example those that envision a cyborg future or the radical extension of human life, bank on computer technology to make these futures possible. Moore’s Law, the simplified version of which states that computing speed doubles every two years, is the critical article of faith animating these aspirations.
Returning to the line you cite, though, it would not occur to most people standing before the ocean, I don’t think, to comment on computation. Doing so suggests to me a rather attenuated imagination, quite frankly. Of course, I can imagine the rejoinder: Precisely the opposite is the case, it is a powerful imagination that can see what most fail to recognize. But what might it mean to talk about the computation represented by the ocean? Taken literally, I can’t make sense of it. Presumably, this is meant metaphorically or analogically. But what does the metaphor suggest? What does it illuminate? Is he simply in awe of how much computational power it would take to model the ocean? Or, is he in awe when he contemplates what sort of computer would be necessary to do what the oceans do?
What is striking, in any case, is the spiritual or devotional character of Kurzweil’s response—the appreciation of beauty, the experience of peace, the expression of hope, the desire to achieve transcendence. More to the point, it is striking how this sort of experience in the presence of the majesty of the ocean—a relatively common experience, we might say—is transformed into what we might call an experience of the technological sublime by proxy. In other words, where the technological sublime as Nye described it took an experience that was initially associated with nature and found it replicated in the presence of technology, Kurzweil’s experience is of importing the technological imagination into the experience of nature. It suggests the colonization of human experience by the computational imagination, the reading of nature in light of the computer, and it is fueled by hopes for transcendence. In Kurzweil, then, we might see Noble’s religion of technology fused with a variation of Nye’s technological sublime.