The impact of technology on our lives is an increasingly prominent discussion. As the spheres of scientific knowledge grow in scope at an ever-accelerating rate, the role of technology necessarily becomes more integral to the foundations of what it means to be human. Technology previously manifest as relatively simple tools for manipulating physical reality (cutting, moving, cooking etc.) becomes partnered with forms more closely linked with abstract internal worlds (communication, knowledge, creation). We have entered a newly digital age, where the practical applications of science are increasingly magnificent and awe-inspiring.
Alongside this new prominence, and in many ways because of it, there is growing concern about the true impact of this symbiotic relationship with the products of our collective imagination. What impact is technology having on the driving motivations for human endeavour and activity? Are we formulating a clear view of what progress means in this newly emergent age? Can we talk about a spirituality of technology, and what might that mean for notions of value and identity?
From the outset, it’s worth stating two things. Firstly, it is absolutely impossible to do justice to this topic in such a short format – and so there will be elements that are over-simplified, ignored, or incompletely considered. Secondly, this post is intended to be a starting point for discussion, exploring some of the areas that I personally find most relevant at this point in time. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, and has certainly not been well-researched!
With those things in mind, I would like to explore a few themes with you that we might consider under an exploration of the spiritual impact of technology.
The first of these themes, and one that seems the most discussed, is the tension between connectivity and alienation that modern communications technology (in particular) has brought us. The ability to exist in relationship with one another lies at the core of the human condition. From an evolutionary perspective, our social nature developed such a predominant role in our physical, intellectual and emotional make-up because it helps us form the bonds necessary to succeed both as communities and individuals. The development of globalised communication networks exponentially increased our capacity to interact with and relate to one another, breaking the limitations of geographical proximity and (to a large extent) linguistic barriers.
As a result of this, we are now hyper-connected. Able to engage with vast networks of people with minimal effort, through a large variety of mediums, and to leave a clear record of those interactions behind for others to follow. We can learn and engage, laugh and share, congregate into and mobilise countless different communities and subcultures. Technology has provided us with the ability to associate with one another like never before, and has brought considerable joy and enabled a bright tapestry of new creative expression.
And yet, it has also proven to embed a certain degree of alienation from one another. For the most part we are engaging with pixels on a screen, bereft of so much of the nuance and intangible qualities of what it means to meet with someone face to face. We might engage with many more people, but we often do so in much more shallow ways. Social media is the usual example to trot out at this stage. Our friendships turn into single sentence comments or mouse clicks; our depiction of ourselves carefully (and narcissistically) crafted, often boiling down to variations of photographic angle; the way in which we interact with strangers has a tendency to result in confrontation and rarely involves ideological compromise (and sometimes outright abuse).
We may be able to make contact with more people, but it is often in a far more dehumanised manner. Our technology has increased the capacity for equality, but seems to have diminished our respect for one another’s inherent dignity.
Wrapped up in all of this is the promotion of an increasingly individualised, ego-driven expression of what it means to live alongside one another. So much of our technology now revolves around personal items, both in ownership and use, that aligns with an overwhelmingly consumerist and materialistic view of what it means to be successful. This approach erodes our empathic links with others but also, more importantly, gives us a sense of dominion over nature and even reality itself. It strips us of humility, and enables us to approach the destructive problems we create as just engineering challenges that will be overcome with further technological advances. Our constant drive to consume, combined with the addictive quality of such consumption, leads us to see elements of nature as nothing more than objects there to be used for human utility. We overlook the sanctity of the natural world and place it as subservient to insatiable desires, forgetting that our technological advances are predicated on ever more complicated (and damaging) manipulations of the natural world and its balanced ecosystems.
Beyond the impact technology is having on us as a collection of individuals and how we relate to the planet, it is also beginning to change the manner in which we come together as society. Of particular concern here is the use of technology by structures of power in ways that encourage an unequal (and often oppressive) status quo. Topics of debate around mass government surveillance, corporate data exploitation, and the engineering of consent are well developed and often pivot around the use of technology to facilitate systemic inequality of various kinds. Indeed, to a significant degree it was technological innovation outpacing social stability that sat at the heart of the recent global financial crisis – which can be seen as a manifestation of the broader fact that we are losing control over the systems we create because of an increasing shift towards abstracting complexity, statistical reasoning and dispersed responsibility.
Consider here the exploitation of the world’s poorest communities to provide us with the vast array of modern technology. Often this production chain amounts to little more than modern-day slavery or indentured servitude, and yet we feel able to distance ourselves from the responsibility of this social order by placing responsibility at the corporate structures that are conducting the exploitation. They certainly have a lot to be blamed for, to be sure, but we can’t allow ourselves to overlook the role that we play as part of these structures ourselves. The ability for technology to exacerbate these power-driven aspects of the human condition should be of deep spiritual concern – but somehow we feel content by the mere act of expressing concern without any real action, using the very platforms and products resulting from such exploitation to give voice to our entitled sense of injustice! The ability to obfuscate these contradictions and satiate the need for substantive change is an astonishing component to this whole discussion and speaks to something very corrosive at the core of our modern relationship to technology.
Ultimately, of course, when we discuss technology we are discussing how these tools are used in practice. To a large extent, any tool is inherently neutral until it is put into use. Whether it will have a positive or negative impact thus depends on the intentions of the user, and this is self-evidently true when it comes to the vast umbrella term of ‘technology’ under discussion here. However, the ubiquity of these tools – their availability and narrative primacy – can lead us quickly down damaging avenues of activity. When the impetus behind innovation is driven predominantly by efficiency, profitability, novelty, and an ethos of economic rationalism then we shouldn’t be surprised when the manner of use lacks necessary aspects of proportionality, compassion, love, solidarity, and the common good. Technology has a multiplying effect on the underlying motivations that lead to its emergence. The problem we face today is that such motivations are, more often than not, completely disconnected from a holistic view of human flourishing and collective well-being.
This becomes particularly concerning when we start to look into the not-so-distant future. As the rate of technological advancement accelerates, we are developing an all-encompassing influence over the destiny of humanity and the other species with whom we share this planet. We have already crossed the tipping point at which biological evolution has been replaced by ideological vision, and the realities of transhumanism are something that we will have to face to some degree within our own lifetimes. As we begin to incorporate more technology into our very own biology, and use it to influence the biological makeup of the world around us, it is vital that we develop an understanding of the massive responsibility for discernment and vital need for wisdom that such a path requires.
When it comes to areas such as artificial intelligence, we should ask what image is being used as an example of sentience? If our standard of success is one based on the facade of being human – and an incomplete rational-centric one at that – and the manner in which we test this is through inherently dehumanised forms of interaction (pixels on a screen), then what is it that we are really striving to create? I don’t ask the question to be overly critical, by any means. The ability to formulate intelligent systems for data analysis, mechanical control and creative expression can (and will) lead to so many positive innovations in fields such as medicine, engineering, agriculture and other areas vital to an uplifting and positive vision of the future. I ask the question because it’s important to realise that our notions of what it means to progress are being directed by relatively limited and empirically-focused perspectives (often necessary to technological invention) whilst leaving aside so much of the intangible and unknown qualities that make each of us truly human and allow us to thrive as humanity.
The importance of having a clear and nuanced view of the spirituality of technology will come from the fact that it is this understanding of what it means to be human – not merely from a perspective of biological need, but of imaginative vision – that will dictate the form/s that we will embody when we merge with our technology and integrate it into the core of our being.
We will literally become our technology, and it will become us, in an ever closer relationship until there is no separation between the two. Not merely as tools used for good or bad purposes, but part of the very foundations of identity that will formulate the new boundaries of collective existence. If we do not approach such a step with the view of what it might mean to commune with angels acting in service of creation, then we might inadvertently find ourselves slaves to the demons invoked by the blind pursuit of domination over all. This is why the ethos at the core of this blog has always been the question: What do we want to be?
For many people, technology can be seen to supercede the need for superstitious religion and metaphysical irrationality; but even if such a view is rooted in truth it cannot escape the necessity of a positively aligned, other-centered and love-focused impulse most effectively encouraged by our spiritual and religious traditions.
This is important not merely to overcome the challenges we face as we grow further into the digital age, but also to make sure that we retain a well attuned spark of human dignity and universal goodness before we venture into a new and unknown future. We can no longer see the spheres of spiritual and scientific endeavour as separate and unrelated areas of the human condition. Each emerge from the other in reciprocity, and before we know it will once again be one and the same.