On Digitization and Deification
Lara T. Singl surfs the web: self-improvement, infotainment, political partisanship, neurotica, fluff. They are rewarded as badges appear and new windows of experience open. Then they adjust their privacy settings, delete cookies, ask not to be tracked, visit sites anonymously, and trade in non-monetized knowledge. Lara is punished with longer wait times, constant phishing messages, notices of underperformance, and social exclusion. ‘You are a data point,’ they are reminded, ‘not a damnable person.’
Lara’s fictional experience recalls themes that Lewis Mumford anticipated in his essay, “Utopia, the City, and the Machine” (from 1965): “Though each new invention or discovery may respond to some general human need, or even awaken a fresh human potentiality, it immediately becomes part of an articulated totalitarian system that, on its own premises, has turned the machine into a god whose power must be increased, whose prosperity is essential to all existence, and whose operations, however irrational or compulsive, cannot be challenged, still less modified.” Cautionary tales abound, in fact and fiction, from then and now. Perhaps there is no way out, as Mumford pessimistically suggested, even for those with the wherewithal to seek it, but merely the disembodied experience of surfing on Gossamer wings.
Tempted by the knowledge of everything that was or can be, biting the apple while gazing out windows, humankind sanctifies itself as all-powerful captains of industry in the image of our corporate creators. It is an experience of limitlessness and wonder, a realm of infinite powers and continually refreshing pleasures. But it is also the lot of the fallen, a crude approximation of substantive insight, a Pyrrhic victory by information over wisdom, a virtual open-air penitentiary of illusory freedom and binary walls. This isn’t quite a new phenomenon, having been prophesied for millennia but achievable only just now.
The Next Big Thing
Technology is ubiquitous and invisible all at once. By design, the devices themselves are captivating, powerful, all-consuming, and ever-changing, making them nearly impossible to resist. The internal workings, power dynamics, algorithms, and values embedded in modern technology, however, are largely opaque to end users of these artifacts. At best, one may be asked to check a box of consent that exposes some of the shielded aspects in fine print and boilerplate language, but that mundane hurdle is insufficient to promote wider scrutiny of the ways in which devices are built to enrapture and entrance.
This combination of hardware and software renders technology quite literally “awesome” in the sense of being incredibly powerful and mysterious, yielding a latent aura of potential anxiety over what it can do to us, but an even deeper well of fear associated with ignoring its omnipotence. Like a modern deity, serviced by high priests of the code and paid obeisance by user-parishioners worldwide, technology comes to us as an all-knowing oracle, a beneficent panoptic overlord, an omniscient force that knows us better than we know ourselves, a proverbial deus ex machina distributed across myriad personal portals.
The immanence of contemporary technologies is a subject marked by equal parts uncritical celebration (“the next big thing is going to be amazing!”) and unremitting lamentation (“the next big thing will destroy us all!”). The former notion is peppered throughout numerous media outlets, trade publications, marketing platforms, and the incessant engagement of users themselves. The latter is more often found in the realm of science fiction as dystopian parables of human susceptibility (e.g., Black Mirror), but also in emerging research on the cumulative effects of techno-immersion, as reported even on mainstream platforms. However it tracks, this technological moment signals that something momentous is at hand.
The Price of Freedom
Our modern-day Moloch, a tantalizing machine of awe, comes to us from unseen central quarters, and is ingeniously distributed through an interlinked network that gives the impression of decentralization, personalization, and individual articulation. This master actually cares about you; it promises not the eradication of your unique identity, but rather its full realization. The maximal apotheosis of distinctive branding is reinforced with every new innovation, each badge and icon, all of the pings and affirmations. Our attention is coveted, prized as a commodity by the architects of awesomeness, desired by the deity.
But it is a jealous god, this upstart Moloch. Its capacity to be totalizing and individualizing all at once renders it potentially more perilous than previous incarnations, yet it is more so an extrapolation than a wholly new invention—despite its penchant for relentless novelty. Modern technology presents itself not as a space of destruction of individuals and environments, but as a savior that promises expansive pleasures, unbounded abundance, and perhaps someday eternal life. And all of this comes at the low price of “free” in the sense of demanding only our freedom in exchange for a well-crafted simulacrum.
To wit, the apparent emergence of a “new religion of artificial intelligence” that intends to focus on “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI).” According to its progenitor (pre-ChatGPT, mind you): “It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” Whatever we call it, (t)here it is: “With the internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cell phones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, the ‘whatever’ will hear everything, see everything, and be everywhere at all times. The only rational word to describe that ‘whatever’ … is ‘god’—and the only way to influence a deity is through prayer and worship.” Ergo: QED.
Thus is fealty paid to the omnipresent yet shrouded entity that is at once beyond comprehension yet instantly accessible everywhere. Finally, we have a god that isn’t above us, but in and around us; it isn’t more powerful than us, but instead powerful because of us. The “church of technology” makes all of the profane places sacred, and all the sacred places profane. Every mundane behavior, every keystroke and search string, every acquaintance and locale—all are discernible and of interest to the digital deity, and each of us is cast as both product and creator in its expanding web of misdirection and hypervigilance.
Today’s tech may be sleeker and slicker, but its essential workings are time-tested and well-established. Herbert Marcuse wrote in the early 1940s about how individuality was being “dissolved” by a totalizing “mechanics of conformity” that cultivates “reasonable submissiveness” and from which there is “no personal escape.” Two decades later, Lewis Mumford aptly reflected on the “new deities” lurking within “a system that deliberately eliminates the whole human personality,” and lamented an ostensible Faustian bargain of attaining “every material advantage” in exchange for “one’s life at the source.” In the digital age, we’re residing in a Hotel Silicon Valley where you can log out but you can never leave.
Three more decades on, Donna Haraway further discerned how “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves are frighteningly inert,” how their “ubiquity and invisibility” plus their chimerical nature as cyborgs makes them difficult to spot and potentially deadly. But these cyborgs are us, with our altered vision and adulterated foods and replacement parts. Our very health and wellbeing are bound up with the machine; they are the machine, we are the machine. How can you unplug from something that cannot itself be unplugged without destroying the one seeking to unplug it? Every generation has its own disease; in the end the one that has infected the last half century might be an overdose of irony.
Slivers of Slippage
Which brings us right to the present. It’s the age of on-demand infotainment, electronic courtship, the anticipatory longing for every new bell and whistle—yet it’s also an era rife with digital anxieties, digital distractions, and digital overload. People are so infused with the zeitgeist, so enchanted by the ghost in the machine, so binge-drunk on the nectar of the programming gods, that it’s hard to see a way beyond what Chelsea Manning calls “the dystopia we signed up for.” Perhaps some people feel that the punitive aspects of this new techno-religiosity—an erstwhile echo of creationism that has morphed into a spirit of innovationism—are somehow deserved, as penance for the multitude of pleasures available through its munificence. Nevertheless, as Manning insists, “we must figure out how to maintain our connection with society without surrendering to automated processes that we can neither see nor control.”
Forging identities outside the totality of technological awesomeness is the order of the day. As Haraway reminds us, we exist within “a matrix of complex dominations” resistant to some easy distillation into a “totalizing theory” that can work against the impetus toward “taking responsibility” for the trajectory of technology. For his part, Mumford resists the temptation to embrace technological absolutism, urging that our “constructive efforts must include technology itself”—but only if we are prepared to challenge the “underdimensioned ideology” that has made authoritarian usurpations possible, and if we remain guided by the humanist mantra that “life cannot be delegated.” Even Marcuse, who lamented that there may be “no escape,” nonetheless finds a sliver of tenuous hope in the capacity of technology to relieve material burdens in a manner that “may become the basis for a new form of human development.”
Perhaps, after all, the Machine is pliable, being the product of human interpolation. Like all gods before it, the modern Moloch sets forth the conditions and terms for receiving its blessings, but it is plagued at the outset by the recalcitrance of our inexorable deviations. Our identities may be conditioned by the apparatus through equal parts reward and punishment, but there is always slippage between what is given and what actually transpires. Astonishing adaptations, unexpected juxtapositions, humanistic errors, daredevil defiance—maybe we are not so docile in our convenient supplication as it sometimes appears. Indeed, the inevitable gap between who our technical overlords want us to be and who we will become is worth monitoring. In the end, the sin of slippage may be our best hope for eternal salvation.
NOTE: This epistle was originally drafted in 2018-19, before the COVID pivot ushered in near-total digital reliance, yet already then noting the trend clearly going in that direction regardless; this piece got stuck somewhere between academic and polemic, so apologies for adding density on the road to destiny!