Felix Stalder on Mon, 9 Mar 1998 09:19:24 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Praying on the Moon, or, The Religion of Technology

[For all of you who do not have the time to read a whole book. ]

Praying on the Moon, or, The Religion of Technology

Why has the Western Judeo-Christian culture developed such an extraordinary
obsession with technology? Because, at its core, technology embodies a
religious tenet promising the transcendence of mortal life. This is the
argument put forward by David F. Noble in his latest book _ The Religion of
Technology_ .

Back in the 9th century at the court of Charles the Bald, grandson of
Charlemagne, the philosopher John Scotus Erigena introduced, in a radical
departure from tradition, the idea that the mechanical arts are "man's
links with the Divine, their cultivation a means of salvation." Mechanical
arts was used as a generic name for what later became called technology.
The knowledge (re)gained through technology, so he argued, was an aspect of
man's original endowment which had been obscured after the fall from
paradise. Through the study and employment of technology man's initial
god-likeness could be, at least partially, restored. This new idea inspired
a move away from seeking transcendence through the withdrawal from the
world towards seeking it in extending man's dominion over nature. Returning
to the condition of paradise where Adam knowledge has been absolute.

This convergence of the spiritual desire to leave this dreaded world behind
and the practical endeavour to build tools for this purpose was here to
last. The history of technology can not be read without taking into account
that one of its most enduring and powerful motivations was not so much the
amelioration of human life but rather its transcendence altogether. At the
core, the project of technology is a religious project. Throughout the
middle ages this spirit was embodied in a variety of brotherhoods whose
member viewed themselves as the vanguards to a restoration of the divine
knowledge of man.

Over time, their project grew. Was initially the restoration of Adamic
perfection aspired, more hubris became apparent in the 16th century. Not
only god-likeness in knowledge but also the truly divine faculty of
creation came into focus. Francis Bacon and other founders of modern
science were devoted to finding new ways of getting closer to nature and
deciphering the divine message of its making. Their scientific and
religious ambition were deeply intertwined. The goals became more
grandiose. Not only knowledge of the forms of nature, but knowledge of the
divine design of nature was the goal, the scientists raised their eyes form
Adam to his Father, form the image of God to His mind.

Newton, born on Christmas day, saw himself as a messiah and prophet.
Utterly disinterested in the practical application of his knowledge, he
believed that uncovering the hidden logic of the universe was to understand
and identify with the mind of the creator, who by that time, was
increasingly considered as the divine watchmaker. With the colonialization
of America the construction of paradise on earth became a decidedly more
practical matter. And the spirit of engineering easily mixed with the
militant Protestantism into a specific American believe of salvation
through technology. The incremental advance of technology became an
enduring evidence of the progress towards perfection.

Today, the religion of technology is as alive as ever. It motivates the
spending of massive resources on project whose fascination and existence is
not completely explained by utilitarian, rational motives. Rather than
being directly useful to the improvement of the human condition, the space
program of the NASA, artificial intelligence and the human genome project
are indeed "technologies of transcendence", promising to leave the
disdained limitations of the body behind and to open a new, more brighter
chapter in the history of mankind.

Shooting people into space is the most literal attempt to leave earth
behind: to enter paradise physically. As the Apollo 11, the first manned
capsule, landed on the moon in a spot called the Sea of Tranquillity Erwin
Aldrin, Presbyterian, Sunday-school teacher and the second man on board
(the other was Neil Armstrong) asked Mission Control for radio silence. He
then unpacked a small kit provided by his pastor, took communion and read
from the bible. This procedure was in full accordance with NASA, a
organization steeped in millenarian spirit. After Apollo's return form the
moon, Richard Nixon declared: "This is the greatest week since the
beginning of the world, the Creation." For him personally weeks much worse
followed soon.

Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life both dream of creating
something superior to man by endowing a bodiless machine with was is
regarded as the divine part of man, his (and to much lesser extend, her)
mind. The dream of creating life out of dead material is deeply rooted in
mediaeval alchemy. The legendary Rabbi Low of Prague breathed life into a
clay figure, the Golem in the 16th century. At least three of the major
pioneers of AI believe themselves to be his direct descendants -- John von
Neumann, Norbert Wiener and Marvin Minsky. Hans Moravec, robotics and AI
specialist at Carnegie Mellon, dreams that the brain, this most valuable
possession of the human being, can be downloaded into a computer system.
Eternal life is just around the corner. As he muses: "With enough dispersed
copies, our permanent death would be unlikely." Paradise regained.

Even more radical in the attempt to create a better form of life, one freed
form the deficiencies of existence after the fall from grace is to become
the Creator itself. To take the task of physical and moral perfection of
life itself into their own hand is the endeavour of genetic engineers. The
project received a major boost in 1990 when the Human Genome Project
received its massive government and private funding to map the entire gene
sequence of a human being. The restoration of man in his Adamic perfection
is on the minds of a number of leading scientists. In the eyes of its
director Francis Collins this is "the most important and the most
significant project that humankind has ever mounted."

So why is technology so ambiguous in fulfilling its promises of a better
life? As Noble concludes, "on a deeper cultural level, these technologies
have not met basic human needs because, at the bottom, they have never
really been about meeting them. They have been aimed rather at the loftier
goal of transcending such mortal concerns altogether. In such an
ideological context, inspired more by prophets than by profits, the needs
neither of the mortals nor of the earth they inhabit are of any enduring
consequence. And it is here that the religion of technology can be rightly
considered a menace."

Noble, David F. (1997). The Religion of Technology - The Divinity of Man
and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf


Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
----- http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/~stalder 

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