Last modified October 11, 2006 by Nik

pt IV: The God Project

From: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Technology and Spirituality, by Michel Bauwens

Metaphorically, we can argue that technology really started when Adam bit the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, the moment that mankind said, ‘we can do it on our own and we want to understand the meaning of it all’. Technology started with the very first tools, which enhanced our mastery over Nature, rather than our harmony with it. This has been understood very well by, for example, the Australian aborigines, who only accepted three technologies, as they were aware that more tools would destroy their harmonious relationship with the environment. But the rest of us went along on the path of technology.

For spiritualists there are basically two ways of approaching knowledge, one ofwhich can lead to holiness (wholeness), the other of which will lead to a false and arrogant mastery over nature, but which will ultimately destroy us. The first, inner, approach,is based on the idea that we are indeed created as an image of God, and that by discovering our inner being we will discover our God-like aspects. (At the same time, these schools will warn their adepts that these powers are only signposts along the way, and that nobody should revel in them. As the Suufi’s say: heaven is the hell of the wise men, i.e. even the pleasures of heaven have to be abandoned to reach enlightenment). Spiritual practice will therefore give us aspects of the powers of the divine, and the wisdom literature is full of testimonies to that effect. For example, Richard Thompson, a Hindu scholar has described the 64 ‘siddhis’ (powers) one can achieve through meditation, and he describes how the technological program of mankind is an attempt to emulate these powers one by one.

And there is no denying that technology is a magical program. As Arthur Clarke said: ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. We can now routinely communicate with people over great distance, see and hear what happens thousands of miles away, walk through walls in virtual reality, etc…

But whereas the effect of the ‘inner way’ will strengthen human character, the external technological way will progressively weaken humanity. McLuhan would caution this interpretation and he also posited that technology is an extension of our senses. Machines are extensions of our muscles, computers of our brains, robots are extensions of both. Look at how the automobile in effect ‘amputates’ our legs, how the calculator destroys our capacity to calculate on our own, how text processing weakens grammar. The more we extend our technology, and thus our senses, on the outside, the less we need our inner senses. At the same time, we are creating a ‘technosphere’ (next to the biosphere and the sociosphere), which is increasingly becoming inimical to our bodies and our minds. Ocean research and space travel create conditions in which our bodies can’t survive, and information overload causes permanent stress on our minds.

Pioneering scientists, such as Marvin Minsky (Artificial Intelligence), Eric Drexler (nanotechnology), Hans Moravec (Robot science) are predicting a world in which both the body and the mind could become obsolete. A world in which a combination of technologies (which invades our bodies) and genetic engineering (which could change the very definition of what it is to become human) could lead to a post-human world. Some are taking this concept very seriously. For example the Extropians, a group of young scientists who strongly believe in the promise of technology, are already now earnestly discussing possibilities to double our lifespan (through special diets), to resurrect the dying (through cryogenics, i.e. deep-freezing the body), to download consciousness into computers, or to upload computer memory into our very brains, and to merge with our machines (cyborgism). In their radicalism, groupings like the Extropians represent the ‘Technological Unconscious’ of Western civilisation, and they force us to decide whether it is that that we really want. If we continue along our current path, we create an immortal man which can control nature and will ultimately leave Earth, in order to control the Universe. In the meantime, we are already creating a worldwide computer network (the Internet) which will soon be inhabited by Artificial Intelligences, and will reach such a level of complexity that it is no longer controllable by human intelligence. Surely, this will lead to the creation of a Machine-God, a Deus Ex Machine (cfr. Paul Virillio) that is a direct competitor of the Supreme Being of the spiritualists. Surely this is proof that their analysis of technology as a Luciferian project is right on the mark? It is also in that context that we can see the prediction of a Technological Singularity, i.e. a moment in history in which there will be as much novelty as in the whole preceding history, amoment that can be called the ‘End of History’ or ‘The End of Mankind’. Such an event would be an abomination to the spiritual Pessimists, who may well equate the advent of an overpowering Machine Intelligence with the coming of the Anti-Christ.

The Spiritual Pessimists are of course not alone in this negative analysis. Their point of view is largely shared by those who are now called ‘Neo-Luddittes’. Like the original followers of General Ludd, i.e. the English weavers who destroyed textile machinery at the end of the 19th century, many of the latter-day ‘Deep Ecologists’ would stop technological evolution in order to go back to a golden age where humankind still lived in harmony with nature. It is interesting to note the parallels: both pessimists and neo-Luddittes place their Utopia in the past; while both spiritual optimists and technological utopians place their Utopia in the future.

Surely, there are a lot of facts that would lead many readers to accept a pessimistic reading of the future, and to interpret technology as a path of destruction. However, there are also quite a few facts which could point in the other direction. The optimistic interpretation of the Wisdom Tradition would point out that technology is one more step in the unfolding of mankind’s Consciousness.

pt V: Electric Gaia