Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | Techno-Worship

Super Bowl Ads are as renowned as the game itself, whether in their humor, sentimentality, or propensity for setting off a blaze of controversy. This year’s ads didn’t disappoint, whether Tim Tebow’s #nocontract ads, Budweiser’s adorable “Puppy Love” commercial, or the blaze of controversy clogging my news feed, for some reason, over the the Coke ad (because ‘merica, English, and something or other).

One ad seems to have been left by the wayside, though. Your friends at Microsoft aired an optimistically disturbing and mildly creepy ad extolling the virtues of technology entitled “Empowering,” which we all ignored in the rush to yell about the sins of rampant multiculturalism (oh, the horror!).

The Myth of Techno-Empowerment

It’s no secret that I’m a techno-skeptic. I proudly wield a dumbphone, believing that smartphones can provide too much of a distraction from embodied living, and am concerned that the way we treat knowledge during this information age may actually be dumbing us down (see “Information Overload” Part 1 and Part 2). Don't get me wrong, I don't want to deprecate the many valuable contributions that technology has made to our way of life. Allowing kids to walk, surgeons to operate, and soldiers to talk to their families are all great things. But the problem with technology is that it is a human tool, created by humans and used by humans, and therefore has the potential to exacerbate some of humanity's more problematic tendencies.

Enter the Microsoft ad. Cue scenes of happy people living the techno-life, with a creepy mechanical voice saying things like, “technology has the power to unite us!” “it gives hope to the hopeless!” “it has given voice to the voiceless!” “how far can we go?” and “empowering us all!”

Or, as my roommate said, “that awkward moment when Microsoft's commercial is more religious than Scientology's.”

The language is quasi-religious, after all. It encourages the viewer to place his hope in technology's ability to create a better world – a world where the lame can walk, the mute can speak, the blind can see, and the deaf can hear. It's a world in which human progress pushes forward in ever new ways. Always upwards, always towards something better. It traffics in the language of transhumanism, the idea that technology is capable of redefining what it means to be human (an idea that has been called one of the most dangerous in the world, and which has a number of adherents at big tech corporations).

At its core, it's not a new impulse. It's been around for centuries, and it always follows the same structure. Man comes face-to-face with the harshness of reality, desires deliverance from this plane of existence, and attempts his own salvation. It can be found in the Gnostic cults of antiquity, which sought to transcend this material existence through some kind of hidden knowledge. It's found in the Renaissance humanists, who believed that societal ills could be cured by means of education. It's found in the European revolutionaries, who believed that a rationalistic political order could bring about a perfect society. And now it's found in the techno-thinkers of today, who believe that the most significant of man's ills can be cured by means of technological advancement.

Much of the impulse is tied to a legitimate desire. Technology can be put to many excellent uses – saving lives, closing gaps in time and distance, creating wealth. The problem comes when people turn to see it as salvific, coating it in a language of empowerment, hope-giving, and limitless opportunity. The problems that afflict the human condition are ones that technology can never solve, in fact, they are ills that humanity can never solve, and any attempt to cure those ills must ultimately run smack up against the Fall.

Fortunately, there is a man who also made the lame walk, the dumb speak, and the deaf hear. But beyond solving material ills, he proclaimed a deeper salvation, one that cut through the material ills that technology seeks to solve and pierced straight into the soul. But his salvation, contrary to any progressive idea of deliverance, is promised on the condition of surrender, not humanistic self-establishment.

By Nick Barden
For further reading, consider Neil Postman's Technopoly.

1 comment:

  1. Love it! Great observations. Heard about a book this weekend called "Along Together." Have you heard of it? Hoping to read it soon.