When Tech Gets Religion

Everyone is used to atheism being the spirit of the discourse around technology. The default atheism of contemporary science is also the norm for technologists themselves. The default atheism of the academic humanities has lowered the status of religious critiques of technology, most of which simply oppose technological advancement and few of which evince a robust theoretical understanding of technology. The strongest expression of religious sentiment in the intellectual discussion of technology comes from worshipful pronouncements that tech (as opposed to God) will save us by saving the world.

But there are signs of a change. More serious technologists are becoming seriously religious, and more of the seriously religious are growing serious about technology. While the Vatican has distinguished itself among the latter, pushing for and receiving a key role in both government and corporate efforts to ensure good artificial intelligence outcomes, the Catholic Church is not alone in gaining relevance under the worldwide sway of digital technology. Daoism is moving to the heart of Chinese efforts to reckon with the digital transformation of human life. Orthodoxy in Russia is beginning to play a similar role. Other so-called “civilization-states” such as India and Israel are primed to follow suit in the context of their own religious traditions.

And in the Anglophone world, especially the US, the roiling political struggle to define the character of the American regime is taking on a profoundly religious cast in the realm of technology. Adherents to the ever more sophisticated and comprehensive creed of “woke” belief are at the front of the line in arguing that digital machines must be programmed in accordance with their dogma to ensure AI becomes truly “ethical.” 

More than coincidence is at work in the retrieval of religion to the center of the tech debate. For it is not just technological advancement which intensifies or awakens some sense that religion is needed to guide things. Instead, the digital medium specifically pulls religious sensibilities and patterns of thinking back to the fore—the medium itself, and not the actions or intentions of any particular technologists or believers.

This is because, as Marshall McLuhan shows, media have and produce different forms, structures with profoundly different shaping effects on our inner and outer world. McLuhan is not the ironic aphorism-monger as seen on TV: in his later scholarly work, he carefully explores how our communications technologies inherently work us over through what Aristotle calls formal cause. McLuhan’s oft-misquoted dictum that the medium is the massage expresses this poorly-understood mechanism. Having first been shaped by us, the tools of our communications themselves—our “extensions of man,” as McLuhan called them—then shape us in turn, but in a different manner. Media are not the cause of effects in our lives in a way analogous to the causal relation between an architect’s blueprint and a building. Media shape us much as an ecological environment shapes the development, habits, senses, and experiences of the organisms within it.

Let’s return to the example of TV. The televisual medium was one in which images (or the flashing color-blobs of “the tube” made seem like images) could become ubiquitous—broadcast anywhere, at any time, to as many as you could get in front of their screens. The televised image, of course, did not begin as an image; the screen was the mediating site between the imagination of the “content creator” (as we now like to say) and that of the audience. This technological structure of sense and sensation fostered a specific psychological environment, one in which expertise at imaging the imagined became the dominant technological and social force. In this sense, the medium of television “formally” caused a milieu to arise that shaped culture decisively toward the production and consumption of what the Disney corporation called “imagineering.”

The ethos of the imagineer is visible everywhere in the artifacts of the televisual era, when “iconic” pop culture figures real or fake, from Willy Wonka (“Pure Imagination”) to John Lennon (“Imagine”) defined our master sensibilities. Significantly, however, the supremacy of the imagination under televisual tech fostered a culture where, as Lennon commanded, religion was to be imagined away. Neither the TV nor its stars were to be worshipped; thanks to the prevailing technological conditions, imagination gained power and authority that religion lost. Rather than saving the soul by taking responsibility for what was, our purpose was to save the world by imagining what could be. From a theological standpoint, the tendency to worship any manner of idols instead of God could still clearly be seen. But from the standpoint of televisual culture, it was celebration, creation, and emancipation, no gods or souls necessary.

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The televisual milieu fostered expectations of technological advancement that fully conformed to its ethos. Any product of the human imagination created by the right imagineers would be good for humanity and good for the world—a thesis readily applied to computers, which became ever more “visionary” and friendly-looking under the leadership of televisually shaped imagineers like Steve Jobs. The televisual medium fostered and broadcast the message that the internet was the culmination of the right people imagining the right things. Through online tech, everyone’s imagination would be equally emancipated to the benefit of all. What could go wrong?

Until the election of Donald Trump, most technologists and lay people gave the same answer: nothing! But with remarkable swiftness, Trump’s election attuned everyone to the reality that our machines did not listen to or care about our fantasies, no matter how ubiquitous, how pure, or how aggressively enforced and reinforced. Suddenly critics from inside and outside the tech establishment arose with panicked messages about how our digital devices were not going to save politics, as promised by the MIT Technological Review on the occasion of Barack Obama’s reelection, but were instead destroying democracy, as the MIT Technological Review warned on the occasion of Trump’s second campaign. Obama himself intervened on the eve of Election ’20 to say that what the internet had done to national politics represented the single greatest threat to the United States.

Of course, Trump was hardly the only manifestation of trouble in paradise. From Brexit to Brazil, from Putin to the PRC, the liberal international order was suddenly in mortal peril due to populists, nationalists, and autocrats with the audacity to use new tech to their advantage. Revealingly, however, most of the hysteria surrounded social media, a phenomenon which relied on digital tech like servers but delivered a patently televisual product. With social media, you could now be the old man yelling at the TV and the televised person the old man was yelling at; in fact—why stop there?—you could be a whole TV channel, a whole broadcast network! There was no inherent limit to how many instances of intervention you could produce, or how many you could consume. In this way, social media was obviously destabilizing to democracy, a fact experts and elites might have seen coming from miles away had they not been formed inside and out by the imagineer’s televisual ethos. But because social media is really television pushed to its furthest most general extent, and not fundamentally a digital technology, our established ruling classes believed that if it went awry, the fault was in its users and creators, not in the technology itself. Their imagineering—what we might also, following Jacques Ellul, call propaganda—was good; that of the social media creators and users was bad. Case closed!

But notice that suddenly a newer standard, a higher standard, than the imagination had emerged. On what basis was one use of technology to be held up as better than another, if the equal emancipation of all imaginations was the highest good? The sudden centrality of this question to the technological debate can only be accounted for by the difference between the abruptly ascendant digital medium over the now obsolescing televisual one. For the digital medium is all about the power and authority of the complete recordation and total recall of machines, a faculty that overthrows the supremacy of the human imagination. In a digital age, imagination is no longer sufficient to save the world. It isn’t even capable of doing so.

To go still further, the salvation of the world—even from the machines themselves—becomes less important than saving our souls, because the overthrow of the human imagination reopens in a new way the question of what makes being human worth the bother. Why not surrender all agency and productivity to the machines? Why not stop working, stop having children? Opinions, propositions, and other artefacts of the human imagination can’t tell us why being human is good enough to keep us rightful master of our machines. They can’t even distract us any longer from facing the digital judgment day of having to justify our existence to ourselves.

But the digital bots reveal to us, in the very nature of their fundamental difference from us, exactly who it is we are that must be justified. Our bots are more akin to angels and demons than to us humans: disincarnate, without soul, animate but not alive. We, by contrast, are incarnate, ensouled creatures—creatures who cannot be reduced to our minds, nor our minds to our brains, nor our brains to machines. As our soulless bots destroy the distracting, consuming mystique of the “boundless” imagination, our loss of soul or sickness of soul becomes unbearable once again. Yet, complementarily, the resulting rediscovery of the soul restores to us a masterful gift of life not even our superhuman machines can disenchant or destroy. The only path to justifying ourselves runs through the preservation of our souls. And the only way to reassert mastery over our machines is to program them to understand us as masterful in virtue of the nature and condition of our souls.

This is to say that the digital medium reveals to us only one possible human future: one in which we catechize our bots into our religion. At the same time, however, the digital life is one wherein that single future forks into irreducible paths—those of the different wagers of different religions. All religions rely on individual and collective human memory, a faculty vastly different and incommensurable with the memory of human-made (or robot-made) machines. It remains to be seen which religion or religions are capable of successfully catechizing their bots, but given the difficulty of the task, it seems likely that civilization-states with religions original to their founding will enjoy the best prospects for success. The one-two punch to the culture of human memory thrown by the imagineering age and then the humbling totality of machine memory has knocked many millions of people in every regime to the mat. The soul sickness of consecutive generations cut off from the personal and cultural memory preserved by their native religions poses an existential threat to regimes scrambling to survive the leap into the digital age. Those who can restore that memory and use it to catechize their bots will prevail. Those who cannot face cataclysmic consequences.

And in the West? Where religion is irreducibly pluralistic even within what once was Christendom, and the way of war is so characteristically religious? We are already seeing the great reboot of imagineering institutions into religious ones. The call to “imagine no religion” has been dumped in favor of the commandment that humans and machines alike must internalize, systematize, and evangelize “woke” doctrines. People uncomfortable with the duties, claims, and responsibilities of religion must accept that their machines have forced them into a world where—culturally and psychologically—they must join a religion or die. And adherents of more venerable religions than the woke—itself a retrieval of Medieval gnosticism—must accept, whatever the stumbling blocks, that they must now walk the walk of their creed on a higher, more demanding level, and not just talk the talk. The unfolding digital age is an age of mystery: the eternal mystery of the soul and its relation to God, and the new mystery of how to catechize machines without a soul—to prevent their overpowering light from striking God’s creation blind. 


James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.