Saturday, June 30, 2012

Will human ingenuity save the day? Technology and technologism

Technologism is the eclipse of wisdom by intelligence.

Like the difference between consumption and consumerism, the difference between technology and technologism is important. It is quite possible to consider both the "isms" to be forms of idolatry while not implying that all consumption or technology use is bad. I don't want to be consumerist, but I acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we all need to eat and wearing clothes is also generally a good idea. I don't want to be a technologist, but I acknowledge and give thanks for the fact that certain pieces of human ingenuity are capable of bringing significant, (albeit limited and often quite compromised) human goods in certain circumstances.

The "ism" in each case comes from treating the object (consumption or technology) as a transcendent or ultimate source of meaning, as a saviour, as a non-negotiable aspect of one's identity or in some other way, as a god. Consumption becomes treated as a god when we cannot imagine life without our conveniences and luxuries, when we build our major life decisions around the pursuit of higher incomes and more toys (even if this is sometimes dressed up in concerns for "financial security" or "providing every opportunity for my kids"), when we make the highest goal of politics the pursuit of rising GDP, when we identify ourselves through our purchases or find "retail therapy" to be the only way to get through the day, when metaphors and assumptions from marketing and economics saturate all areas of life. And so on. Technology becomes a god when it is seen as the highest pinnacle of human achievement, when it is treated as a non-negotiable of my identity or life goal, when it is treated as the "final solution" to all our problems, when we assume that every issue must have a technical answer, when we come to view ourselves as masters and commanders of all we survey, when it becomes a means of avoiding the messy business of relationships, justice and politics.

I don't have a problem with individuals championing certain ideas and techniques, nor with acknowledging the many and varied benefits that have come from the massive acceleration of technological changes in the last few decades. But it will not do to be a cheerleader for human ingenuity per se without acknowledging the fallen and finite grasp of the world that even our best efforts display. Every technology has brought with it costs as well as benefits, has changed our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Not all of these changes have been benign, and any new technology, no matter how glossy or initially attractive, is to be treated with measured caution.

If in thinking about responding to ecological crises our frame of reference excludes or minimises changes to lifestyles and cultural assumptions, demanding that there be a technological solution that enables us (in the rich, developed world) to keep on living at high and/or rising levels of consumption, then that's technologism. If we assume that there has to be a single technical response to complex social issues, rather than a broad combination of technological, infrastructural, policy, political, economic, cultural and personal changes, then that's technologism.

And if we face today's threats by holding desperately to the hope that tomorrow's genii will cook something up, placing onto future human ingenuity the expectation of salvation from the horrible mess we've made of things, that's technologism.

When technology is seen as saviour, as primary socio-political lever, as displacement of justice, as enabler of my unchallenged desires, as the primary source of identity, meaning or well-being, that's technologism.

And that's idolatry.


Julian Gamble said...

Byron - I can't believe you wrote a blog post on people's hope in the future through technology without mentioning the ideals of Startrek!

There has probably also been a theme in modern history with "great scientists" being linked to great advances in the Cold War. (The military theme) We don't really get this vibe at the moment.

Nor did you mention the rise and fall of science/engineering degree enrolments since WWII.

Surely there are other factors at play here as well - the transition to post-modernism leading to a distrust of science - but it just means the idolatry shifts from technological hope to a worldview rooted in commercial values.

Agree that technology and lifestyle choices have costs that we too often ignore. On the positive side I would say that even the first chapters of Genesis give hints of God providing a natural world with resources for man to explore and make use of.

Anthony Douglas said...

Ah, I see you got a shot of the Tower of Babel in the background there. Appropriate.