The Operating Principles of the Contemporary Social Imaginary: 6. Progress and the Value Neutrality of Technology

The “modern”mindset also holds that “…as our knowledge becomes both broader and more unified, we will experience continued progress (and they have in mind not only technological progress, but also social, political, and moral progress).”Consider Condorcet’s [1743-1794] optimistic Sketch for A Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mindin which he declares that

the whole foundation for belief in the natural sciences is this idea, that the general laws directing the phenomena of the universe, known or unknown, are necessary and constant. Why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man than for the other operations of nature?

The time will therefore come when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history and on the stage; and when we shall think of them only…to learn how to recognize and so to destroy, by force of reason, the first seeds of tyranny and superstition, should they ever dare to reappear amongst us.[1]

The vision cast here by Kant and the other Enlightenment philosophers was an enlightened populous perpetually at peace with other peoples and steadily advancing in every area experiencing continued of perpetual progress. This was the promise of the Enlightenment.

In the modern imaginary,this expectation of relentless progress is reflected in a certain restlessness or dissatisfaction with the way things are. Having grown accustomed to the constant evolution of technology, the late modern individual tends to generalize and project this movement on almost every area of life. Accordingly, the economy has to grow. Relationships, friendships and allegiances have to change and evolve. Ideas (even truths) have to be developed. Speeds have to increase. Superstitions have to be overcome. This often takes the form of an outright rejection of the past. The beliefs, values and aspirations of those who have gone on before us are thrown off simply because they are of the past. Like everything else these things have been modernized and improved upon. Those no longer on the progressive side of life’s curve are shunned and hidden away. The immanent obsolescence of just about everything leads to an idolization of the new and improved.

We come, then, to expect a steady stream of improvements, uninterrupted progress. We excitedly look for and buy every new software upgrade, every new gadget, the latest fashion, the newest cars. This expectation easily slips over into a kind of euphoria, that heady feeling of being on the cutting edge of progress. But as with all forms of euphoria, as expectations rise our level of caution sinks. For the sheer joy of gadgetry, we fail to think about its implications, its meanings, the impact it may have on our lives, or the possible limits to progress itself.

Of course, some observers such as the Club of Rome and Herbert Marcuse have warned us.

“Progress’ is not a neutral term; it moves toward specific ends, and these ends are defined by the possibilities of ameliorating the human condition. Advanced industrial society is approaching the stage where continued progress would demand the radical subversion of the prevailing direction and organization of progress. This stage would be reached when material production (including the necessary services) becomes automated to the extent that all vital needs can be satisfied while necessary labor time is reduced to marginal time. From this point on, technical progress would transcend the realm of necessity, where it served as the instrument of domination and exploitation which thereby limited its rationality; technology would become subject to the free play of faculties in the struggle for the pacification of nature and of society.[2]

But most of us are not listening. Caught up in the delights of progress we seek to preserved unfettered access to every advance either by not raising any objections to them at all or by unquestioningly accepting the assumption that all the elements, structures, devices, and technologies produced by society are value neutral. The argument runs something like this: “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.”Suppose we were to say, “Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.”Or, “The smallpox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.”Again, “Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.”[3]But to many this makes little sense. “For psychological and cultural reasons, it has been hard for people to grasp this. In particular, it would seem almost impossible for individuals living in societies such as ours to entertain the notion that technology is not neutral.”[4]So most of us simply embrace, uncritically, the prevailing theory and remain naively convinced that we in using these tools, can decide to use them for good or evil, that we can guarantee positive outcomes and meanings. But as Morris Berman writes,

“The only problem with this theory is that it is wrong. From Robert Redfield to Lewis Mumford to Marshall McLuhan to the Frankfurt School for Social Research (which includes Herbert Marcuse) to the techno-critics of today, the one thing they all agree upon, and have been able to substantiate in various ways, is that the “tool” theory of technology is hopelessly naive. It ignores the fact that most technologies are not appropriate; rather, they carry with them a mindset, a way of life, that once introduced into a culture changes that culture forever.”[5]

No wonder, then, that Marshal McLuhan refers to support for this idea as “the voice of the current somnambulism”as “the numb stance of the technological idiot.”[6]It dangerously ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, namely, that each one brings with it presuppositions and meanings that simply cannot be separated from the medium itself and which inevitably alter our perceptions.

Some would agree that modern technology and its devices do bring with it some risks, but find it hard to extend the potential of that danger to all elements of our society as I have done (economic structures, moral order, legal code, educational institutions, political foundations). Nonetheless, what we have learned is that “what modern technology (and not just media technology) does is translate everything into mechanism (including cybermechanism)—people and human life included. If you live in a hustling society, everything is a commodity; if in a technological one, everything is a means, an instrument. There is nothing “neutral”about this.”

To be fair to ourselves don’t we have to say that, at least in some cases, we have used the tools of culture for good? In spite of having become totally immersed in North American culture, in spite of (or perhaps because of) having accepted the value neutrality of technology, have we not been able to resist, deflect, even correct for some of the negative meanings and consequences of these mechanisms? Haven’t we done more good than harm? Hasn’t the Church been growing precisely because we have been using these technologies? One would certainly hope that Christians, of all people, would be able to use some of these tools for good since they should be motivated and guided by the pure, noble, and pious motives of the faith. They certainly have done that in the form of email lists, Facebook accounts, and parish websites. Usually the only justification they need for deploying societies’resources in the Church is availability. If it is available to us we get to use it. Of course, this takes place with very little thought and almost no theological reflection, because we are so confident that the tools are neutral and that we can control them. For example, one parish website initiates the use of an on-line payment options with these words, “We live in a digital age, and sometimes it is hard to bring remember to bring (or mail) that check. We have had several requests for online giving options over the years, and we have now partnered with “Easy Tithe”to offer secure, online giving…”[7]So the reasons given for using this technology are simply that it is available, that is, we live in a computerized age so, just because it is available, we can justifiably make use of its possibilities. Furthermore, some of our people have asked for this convenience. As I said, there is no evidence of any critical thought here and there is an obvious absence of any theological/biblical input. What we have is rather an uncritical acquiescence to the twin business principles of availability and convenience. Obviously, that is no way to make such important decisions in the Church.

There may be one other side-effect of the anticipated perpetuity of technological advance that has an impact on the Church and that is the universal fear and loathing of what is referred to as boredom. This is an emotional state experienced when an individual is not sufficiently stimulated to activity, thought, or commitment. It most often occurs when a situation does not challenge the student, reader, viewer, the worshiper with an adequate and, above all, enjoyable, opportunity to interact with the latest gadgetry or the most up-to-the minute information. Boredom is the underbelly of the expectation of inevitable progress. Because not all information or technology is meaningful, significant, or useful we are sometimes at a loss for how to use it. The telegraph, for example, rendered much of the information it relayed irrelevant. What practical value is knowing the temperature in London is gained by the early 20thcentury New Yorker. So, “where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use.”[8]“’What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?’And in one form or another, the, answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?”[9]So it was that entertainment, the fascination with useless information, took on its dominant role in North American society mediated primarily by radio, television, and movies.

Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.[10]

Unfortunately, the malaise caused by the absence of the “exciting” the “contemporary,” and the “progressive” has crept into the Church and there one often hears of a desire to alleviate the boredom experienced by some during the services by tweaking the traditional formats and practices in such a way as to make them more tolerable, attractive, and, yes, exciting. Some now make a distinction between Traditional and Contemporary services. In a spoof of this trend a group of young people calling themselves “Blimey Cow” suggested a number of ways of making the Sunday Liturgy more appealing. In their YouTube clip they propose the use of fog, lights, volume, blue jeans, iPads, and the like.[11]It seems then we have to provide perpetual technological progress or, at a very minimum, boredom dispelling adjustments to traditional practice

[1]Condorcet, Sketch, 199. Cited by Hauptli, “The Enlightenment Project”.

[2]Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society 18.

[3]McLuhan, Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man, Location 210.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Berman, Why America Failed : The Roots of Imperial Decline, 93.

[6]As quoted by ibid., 94.

[7]Easy Tithe is a secular company that provides the technology needed for on-line giving. Of course, it does so at a cost. Some (quite a bit actually) of what is being tithed goes to the company. Cf. http://www.easytithe.com/pricing.htm

[8]Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death : Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Locations 1368-1370.

[9]Ibid., Locations 1365-1366.

[10]Ibid., Locations 1387-1391.

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