Technology and the Return of the Old Gods

Robin PhillipsSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

At the close of the Millennium, David Noble published a book with Penguin titled, The Religion of Technology, in which he explored the spiritual underpinnings behind the modern technological vision. In the book’s introduction, Noble commented on the strange fusion of rationalism and spirituality that now animates the technocratic impulse:

“Although today’s technologists, in their sober pursuit of utility, power, and profit, seem to set society’s standard for rationality, they are driven also by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption. However dazzling and daunting their display of worldly wisdom, their true inspiration lies elsewhere, in an enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.”1

Noble, himself an historian, showed that when technological innovation first began to emerge in the Middle Ages, it was directly tied to a vision of spiritual progress, and even implicated in the Christian idea of redemption. Similarly, from the Industrial Revolution through to the contemporary era, there has been a constant fusion of spirituality and technology. Noble thus found it strange, when writing at the dawn of the 21st century, most people had come to think of technology/science and spirituality/transcendence as contrary historical forces:

With the approach of the new millennium, we are witness to two seemingly incompatible enthusiasms, on the one hand a widespread infatuation with technological advance and a confidence in the ultimate triumph of reason, on the other a resurgence of fundamental faith akin to a religious revival. The coincidence of these two developments appears strange, however, merely because we mistakenly suppose them to be opposite and opposing historical tendencies.2

Twenty-two years later, David Noble’s point is easier to accept. The gurus of Silicon Valley no longer disguise the spiritual cast to their endeavors as they pursue their techno-utopian social vision with religious zeal and fanaticism. The intersection of religion and technology has seen the rise in a new mysticism, with what Wesley Wildman and Kate Stockly refer to as “the brave new world of consciousness hacking and enlightenment engineering.” 3 It has seen the rise in a new eschatology, known as the doctrine of the Singularity. It has seen the emergence of a new corpus of prophetic literature, such as Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines.4 The spiritualized technocracy even offers its own vision of transcendence, with the pseudo-mystical cluster of ideas that now surround theories of augmented reality and the “metaverse.” 5

And now, to top it all, Mark Zuckerberg has held out technology as the answer to our spiritual longings through a series of bizarre innovations ranging from apps that enable us to pray through machines,6 to conversations with church leaders about how Facebook can enhance our worship, to attempts to colonize religious experience.7 “Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life,” commented Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times.8

As the spiritual becomes technological and the technological becomes spiritual, we are witnessing a return of primal fears long suppressed, including types of religious superstition associated with past ages of human history. Consider: pre-modern men and women were obsessed by how their lives were controlled by non-human agents, and we too seem haunted by the primal angst of invisible phenomena exerting causal power over human affairs. It is no longer angels and demons with which we must contend, but proprietary algorithms, data in “the cloud,” and invisible bots that mysteriously organize our lives and whose caprices must be pacified through an ever-expanding network of rituals, code-words, and esoteric knowledge.

As more aspects of our lives—including our employability, our social capital, our ability to borrow money, and even our ability to share our opinions —become contingent on how we stand in relation to the ecosystem of data in the cloud, we have begun looking at the bots that control this ecosystem much like our ancestors looked upon angelic and demonic forces. The parallel is not unwarranted: deep learning networks are notoriously opaque and thus not dissimilar to the forces channeled by occultists.

But even as we seek to pacify these opaque actors, we simultaneously look to them as our saviors, as if they alone can protect us from corrupting “forces” like memes, fake news, and other types of infectious content. Adam Elkus observed that these types of infectious forces are seen to function much like heresy did in earlier times, “like magic, with powers to cause real-world effects, akin to the premodern spiritual objects.”9 Through their power, infectious forces (i.e., memes, fakery, “hate speech,” etc.) threaten the stability of the community, thus requiring non-human agents—what L. M. Sacasas called “bots and opaque algorithmic processes, which alternately and capriciously curse or bless us”—to be invoked.10

As we invoke the power of the machine to restrain the darker impulses of the human, we find ourselves contending with a new fear: possession. The fear of machines becoming human that found expression in films like The Matrix, has been sidelined by a new angst—the fear of humans becoming like, and being controlled by, machines.11 As humans become more machine-like—for example, unable to think independently, communicating with predictable talking points as partisan automata that mimic the behavior of bots—media scholars have begun reaching into the quasi-spiritual language of demonology to describe the phenomena.12

Significantly, the new technocratic order not only has its own version of demonic possession, but boasts a caste of priest-kings through which the rule of our robot overlords is continually mediated. These rulers, who echo ancient god-kings in their aspirations,13 are the ones perceived to truly understand the inner workings of the digital ecosystem in which all of us now live and have our being. With data analysts as their soothsayers, these god-kings gain access to the esoteric knowledge inaccessible to the rest of us—knowledge through which they can control us. They then communicate this gnostic knowledge to the masses in vagaries that approach, but never quite achieve, full coherence. What is the true meaning of “violating community standards”? Only the technological priests know for sure. What criteria are used to determine what counts as “misinformation?” Why are videos with the word “vaccination” tagged for removal but not content using the word “inoculation”? The answers to these questions remain shrouded in mystery, as we try to decode the ever-changing updates and policy statements of our technological priests who stand between us and our algorithmic overlords.

It is impossible to describe such a state of affairs without reference to Babylonian imagery: multiple gods literally babbling all at once, saying one thing now and another thing later; people trying to understand their masters only to be lost in confusion and disorientation, before finally forming into separate tribes as the only viable coping strategy.

But even as we rage at the incoherence of our new god-kings, we remain beholden to the benefits they offer, and we do obeisance to our overlords whenever we look at them to bless us and offer absolution. These priests dictate the liturgies of our lives by controlling our technological habits, our commerce, and even determining how the world appears to us.

Meanwhile, as more aspects of reality come to be mediated through our machines, the distinction between actuality and simulation, real life and AI, reality and fakeness, become not only porous, but trivial and irrelevant for many. The next holy grail of the tech industry is actually to erase the distinction between real life and simulation.14 Like a primitive savage whose world is haunted by demons and shadowy forces, we may soon live in a shadowy netherworld where the phantasmic is mistaken for the real.

This is the dark turn implicated by the fusion of the spiritual and the technological, a fusion that presents the ultimate paradox. The spiritualized technocracy of Silicon Valley promised to be Apollonian but ended up Dionysian. As the ultimate flowering of the hyper-rational scientism that began with the industrial revolution, the technological society offered the promise of fulfilling the dream of the 19th century “scientific management” movement—a dream that aspired to structure mankind according to purely rational processes. This is the Apollonian promise of a well-organized society based on purely rational processes, whereby human experience is reduced to what can be computationally managed and controlled. Yet our technology society has also funneled a new fixation with the irrational, as it offers tools to release the animalistic side of man, to give expression to the primitive fixation with tribalism, hedonism, occultism, and nudity. This is the Dionysian turn of the technological spirituality.

The fusion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian represents the ultimate triumph of the irrational. In his 1999 book Technology as Magic: the Triumph of the Irrational, Richard Stivers identified this strange juxtaposition of the rational and the irrational, observing that our technological society offers extensive rational control juxtaposed with “the need to escape into fantasy, dreams, and ecstasy.”15 The fixation with escaping from reality—manifested most obviously in gaming but now encapsulated in technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and enhanced reality—seeks to eliminate the very distinction between the real and the fake, the rational and the irrational. Ultimately, these new innovations offer the promise of fulfilling the demonic vision of Lewis’s Screwtape, who wished for a world where a materialistic magician is no longer an anachronism.

The French sociologist Jacques Ellul saw this coming and warned, in his 1973 book The New Demons, that that “the desacralization of nature, of the cosmos, and of the traditional objects of religion is accompanied by a sacralization of society as a result of technology.”16 As the world becomes emptied of mystery, transcendence, and wonder, the sacralization of technology promises to fill the vacuum. From Ellul’s The New Demons:

“In the world in which we live technique has become the essential mystery, and that in diverse forms according to milieu and race. There is an admiration mingled with terror for the machine among those who have retrained notions of magic.”17

Ellul was right, for the old gods have returned, and with them the terror of the savage, and the primitive angst implicated by life in a world controlled by forces that remain concealed in the shadows, and whose power over us is mediated by processes that blur the distinction between order and chaos. This has bequeathed to us a society akin to what Hermann Broch described in his 1932 novel, The Sleepwalkers, where humans live suspended in a netherworld between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, caught in the horror of processes they can never comprehend, lost in the confusion of existential bewilderment. The following passage from Broch’s novel describes the state of affairs that has now become our own taken-for-granted reality:

“[Man] is helplessly caught in the mechanism of the autonomous value-systems, and can do nothing but submit himself to the particular value that has become his profession, he can do nothing but become a function of that value—a specialist eaten up by the radical logic of the value into whose jaws he has fallen… Exposed to the horror of unrestrained reason, bidden to serve it without comprehending it, caught in the toils of a process that develops far over his head, caught in the toils of his own irrationality, man is like the savage who is bewitched by black magic and cannot see the connection between means and effect.”18

Yet hope is not lost. We know that the disruption of order and the disintegration of value systems is not the end. After chaos there is creation; after Babel there is Pentecost; after exile there is Epiphany. The mustard seed of the Logos, though often hidden from sight, is at work even when—perhaps especially when—the forces of unreality seem strongest.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?19

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. David Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (New York, 1999).
  2. Ibid
  3. Wesley J. Wildman and Kate J. Stockly Ph.D, Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering (St. Martin’s Press, 2021)..
  4. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York, NY, 2000).
  5. Robin Phillips, “What the Wartortle?!”, Salvo Magazine, Issue #60, Spring 2022.
  6. Joe Allen, “Technocrats Want Us to Pray to Machines,” June 25, 2021.
  7. Nicole King, “The Church of Facebook,” Salvo Blog, August 30, 2021.
  8. Elizabeth Dias, “Facebook’s Next Target: The Religious Experience,” The New York Times, August 31, 2021.
  9. Adam Elkus, “Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2021.
  10. L. M. Sacasas, “The Analog City and the Digital City,” The New Atlantis, Winter 2020.
  11. Robin Phillips, “The AI Apocalypse Is Happening Right Now…but Not in the Way You Think,” Robin Mark Phillips (blog), July 13, 2019.
  12. Kent Anhari, “Bot Anxiety,” The New Atlantis, Summer 2021.
  13. Joe Allen, “Jeff Bezos and the New Pharaohs,” Substack newsletter, Singularity Weekly, September 6, 2021.
  14. Phillips, “Wartortle”
  15. Richard Stivers, Technology as Magic (New York, 2001).
  16. Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, trans. C. Edward Hopkin (New York, 1975).
  17. Ellul, Ibid
  18. Herman Broch, The Sleepwalkers (San Francisco, 1985).
  19. W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Poems (Springer, 1991).

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