Evangel

Technologizing the Good News

Not so long ago, I was enjoying a rather restful weekend on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Reading the daily newspaper one morning, I happened upon an advertisement for an upcoming business forum in Australia (I forget where exactly, but that isn’t important). One of the keynote speakers was Guy Kawasaki, an ex-Apple executive, who was dubbed a (former) “Chief Evangelist” for the tech-giant. The turn of phrase caught my eye, since I’d never come across it before. But it wasn’t simply the fact of the title’s unfamiliarity; what struck me in particular was the evocative use of a distinctly religious term: evangelist. It is, I think, quite instructive, and offers a window – unwittingly, perhaps – into the significance technology bears within modern (Western) societies. What I want to do here is reflect on what the title itself says about the kind of society we inhabit, and the values, priorities and constructs that dominate it.

Before moving on, however, it’s necessary to provide a brief summary of the concept of “Chief Evangelist” (hereafter, CE). The development of CEs marked an evolutionary shift in the way companies – particularly technology companies – market their products. Salesmen of previous generations would ply their trade during allotted hours, in order to sell discrete consumer items to potential buyers. By contrast, modern CEs style themselves, not as salespeople per se, but as heralds of personal and social transformation through the application and adoption of their favoured technology. This isn’t as a “snake-oil salesman” approach to marketing, where every kind of sales technique, no matter how crude or artificial, is used by the marketer to boost profits. Pioneers like Kawasaki urge CEs to live out the change they encourage consumers to pursue, to ensure their proselytization is genuine. Time-limited working hours are meaningless for a person who considers the product he commends to be a way of life. CEs seek more than just a burgeoning list of mindless consumers; their aim is the conversion of people to life-changing technology through the use of winsomeness, honesty and story-telling.

Why is this at all significant? Calling oneself an evangelist could simply be a rhetorical trick – an attempt to elevate the mundane activity of generating profits to a more rarefied, spiritual plane. But something more substantive than clever re-badging seems to be at work. Briefly, the word “evangelist” comes from the Greek evangelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news”. The Christian evangel is the good news that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God himself has come to inaugurate his kingdom, to bring about a new order of justice and peace, and to accomplish the comprehensive renewal of creation. An evangelist, then, is someone who spreads this message. For the chief salesperson at a technology company to adopt this as a title implies, at the very least, a belief in the fundamentally transformative power of technology. Drawing on a term with deep Christian roots is certainly suggestive; after all, CEs seek to win people, not merely to a new consumer item, but a new way of life. Customers are converted to a gospel-like narrative, which its proponents claim is guaranteed to bring about a dramatic change in the quality of one’s existence – a source of unmitigated good, in other words. The religious overtones are difficult to ignore.

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I’ll return to what a specifically Christian theological perspective might have to say about all this in a later post. At any rate, the phenomenon of technology firms draping their activities in religious language – to which CE is testimony – provides a particularly clear manifestation of the enveloping devotion the modern world has to technology, and the faith it places in such advancements to generate further progress. It simply makes explicit latent attitudes towards technology in societies saturated by it. Technology evangelism seems to represent a wider reality common to high- and post-industrial societies, the development of which certainly owes much to such advancements. Sociologists call it the fetishization of technology. “Fetishize” is an ugly word, but it aptly captures the enrapturing commitment the modern world has to technology. In its original context, a fetish was an object of extreme devotion. Often bearing religious significance, a fetish would be used in cultic and spiritual practices. But fetishes were also held to contain within them mystical or supernatural powers that could bring blessing and riches to devotees.

The concept of CE taps into both these streams: the constant allure of technology as something that gives substance to modern existence; and an almost mystical belief that the fashioning of technology can somehow bring about, not merely a more convenient or comfortable life, but a kind of salvation. It is, as I said, simply an overt example of a pervasive (if implicit) phenomenon, making itself felt in a variety of ways. At the same time, the message of technology evangelists fuels such fetishization by upholding and driving a narrative that casts technology in the role of saviour.

Fetishizing technology reflects the proclivity to accord great worth and value to the fruits of technical knowhow. Ours is truly a technocratic age, where technological accomplishments determine so much of modern life. We are soaked in technology, particularly those consumer products that have reached a point of complete ubiquity. Our lives, even our identities, are wrapped up with them. If this strikes some as an overstatement, just consider the extent to which we rely upon technology, even for the most mundane moments of our lives: the way we head home after work and fire up our gadgets has a faintly ritualistic quality, and reflects the deep value we unthinkingly place upon them. Certainly, it’s easy to ignore one’s own dependence on the luminous artifacts of our sophisticated age. However,  the centrality of technology in modern life, not to mention its pervasive – and invasive – presence in our lives, is palpable. This is true, not only in the case of technological expertise used for vital ends (e.g., medical technology), but for those instances where technology – and here, the role of CEs is especially germane – fills what may be called an existential “gap” with electronic amusements.

Even a cursory glace at contemporary data seems to bear out the claim that modern society is awash with, and drawn to, consumer technology. The Pew Research Centre, for example, has found that American teens, aged 13-17, are obsessive users of personal devices: 92% go online daily, with 24% reporting that they are “constant” users and 56% admitting they access the internet “several” times a day. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of adolescents have access to mobile technology, which means that are permanently “connected”. It certainly makes one wonder whether modern consumers of personal technology aren’t themselves consumed – filled with a need (unacknowledged, perhaps) to constantly curate their online selves, to view the world through a technological lens, and to allow their experience of reality to be constituted – shaped – by the complex electronic instruments they use.

Second, such fetishization also implies a near-religious veneration of technology and the allegedly transcendent power it possesses to secure dramatic, revolutionary – even redemptivechange for the human race. Again, we could point to a number of examples. Some contemporary advocates of development assume that simply imposing technical expertise upon an impoverished nation will ensure its entry into a new stage of  economic and social prosperity. Or what about neo-conservative advocates of military intervention and foreign nation-building? As political scientists Jonathan Clark and Stefan Halper have suggested in their book, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, belief in America’s ability to reshape other parts of the world is driven partly by an overweening faith in the power of weaponized technology to not only win wars, but to secure a stable platform for the radical transformation of countries according to the model of Western liberal democracy. Despite their obvious differences,  both examples encapsulate the central  belief that the mere application of technology to problems will invariably and inexorably solve them.

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The fetishization of technology – of which the evolution of CEs is but one manifestation – is problematic, failing to account for the ambiguities and imperfections inherent within every human endeavour. The issue is not so much to do with technology per se. Rather, it is a question of framing: how modern societies frame and construct technological progress, what it is and what it does. How we invest technology with certain meanings, and the uses to which we put it are, therefore, fundamental. Specifically, the issue concerns the inflated sense of confidence that flows from the presence and application of technology to modern life. Talking about the “good news” of technology’s unremitting blessings to people simply elevates its significance to a point that it cannot hope to reach in practice. Unfortunately, advocates subscribing to this kind of underlying philosophy may not be able to see this, so committed are they to the narrative of technological salvation.

Technology, for all its undoubted benefits (and let’s be clear: technological change has enriched our lives in manifold ways), cannot hope to do what some of its advocates think it can do. Or, to put it more precisely, technology cannot be the basic subject of an evangelist’s message for two, related reasons. First, it is but an instrument in human hands; it cannot function as the ultimate basis for change (redemptive or otherwise), since it is only a contingent tool used by the individuals who create it. Second, technology needs to be framed morally if it is to be of any use to humanity. That is, if technology is to create the kind of change its advocates promise, then it must first be embedded in a particular moral structure. Recall the earlier example of development advocates tacitly relying on technology’s power to transform impoverished and under-developed nations. As the economist William Easterly has pointed out, technical knowledge must be integrated with a particular set of moral values if it to be of use. He himself argues that it needs to be wedded to a philosophical-economic commitment to strong property rights and open markets if it is to succeed (something with which I happen to agree). At any rate, Easterly’s wider point is clear.

Technology, then, can never function as the bedrock of positive, enriching, life-giving change without being married to a particular ethical and philosophical view which allows it to assume that role. By itself, it is morally inert, static – neutral. Humans are the ones who decide to develop and employ their technical expertise to harness the forces of nature so that suffering may be alleviated. Alternatively, it may be used to add to the sum total of human misery.  After all, nuclear energy can either power a city or destroy it; the technology itself remains the same. Nazi Germany produced a technological monster, pressing it into service as the instrument of a racist, genocidal ideology. As such, arguing for the inherently beneficent power of technological progress is simply reductionistic.

But aside from deeper moral structures, and the manner in which they influence the way we use technology, there is also the question of technology’s limits. This is not always readily acknowledged by advocates and evangelists for technological veneration. On the contrary, it can breed a certain kind of arrogance, which unjustifiably inflates the power of technology to produce desired results. Underlying such an attitude, it seems, is the human tendency to believe that the imposition of complete rational control over events is a possibility.

American neo-conservatives, who have been extreme in their zeal for war and regime change in the Middle East, are a case-in-point (Clark and Halper detail this in America Alone). Their faith in a relatively straightforward application of American power to achieve desired ends was buttressed by a deep belief in the power of sophisticated military technology to effect change – to bend reality, in other words, to the will of those who wielded it. It was the conviction of some, prior to the second Iraq War (2003-), that such power would allow the United States to accomplish a swift and comprehensive victory in that country, with very little cost. But that faith turned out to be tragically misplaced: the United States, for all its might, could not successfully fashion a functioning democratic state out of Iraq. Fourth-generation warplanes could identify and destroy enemy targets with impunity, but they could not seed an open, pluralistic culture – or even prevent the country from sliding precipitously into a sectarian bloodbath. The technology employed in that war could secure narrowly-defined aims, perhaps, but it was impotent in the face of a situation marked by diabolical complexity. Even if one couldn’t say that technological arrogance was the main reason for the disastrous forays the US has made in the Middle East in the last 15 years, it has certainly been a contributing factor. And, as if to underline the point, it is but one example of how technology – itself morally neutral, as we have seen – is viewed as the means by which man gives life to the delusion that he can exert mastery over the vagaries of objective reality.

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The inability of mere technological advance to realize the utopian goals of technology evangelists is seen, too, in more mundane (though no less tragic) ways. The author and prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has written extensively about the plight of what he terms the “underclass”, or the lower reaches of Western societies. Having worked closely with many of those who languish in that environment – characterised, he says, by chronic relational instability, feeble family structures, domestic violence, resentment, enraged jealousy, child neglect, and so on – he argues that the problem faced by the benighted is not material indigence, “but poverty of soul”. In Life at the Bottom, Dalrymple  admits that he was forced to accept the “terrible conclusion” that what besets the denizens of the British underclass is “spiritual and emotional vacuity”, lives “emptied of meaning”. Its members are privy to the latest in personal forms of technological wizardry – smartphones, plasma TV screens (Dalrymple says that the modern Briton watches 27 hours of TV a week), tablets, games consoles, and the like – but seem to live lives that are bereft of anything that ennobles or enriches. Technology has not been able to prevent families from fraying, or arrested the moral enfeebling of wide swathes of society. Contrary to the beguiling message of the CE, the accumulated results of technological progress do not constitute a sufficient condition for human elevation.

Moreover, it seems that in the case of the lower classes of British society (and there’s no reason to think that the same hasn’t happened elsewhere) technology has actually contributed to the moral, spiritual and existential decline of certain sections of contemporary society. Again, I am not blaming technology as such; as I have said, its influence upon the state of human beings depends on the moral frameworks we have created for ourselves. It can be used to create networks and connections across vast tracts of land and sea where none existed previously. Equally, however, it can be used to wall people off, until their worlds have shrunk to the size of a glowing Android screen. Certainly, this is a phenomenon affecting all sections of modern society, even if the results amongst the lower classes are especially bleak. Such is the magnetic allure of digital TV (or the internet, or a smartphone app) that those whose lives lack the animating force of transcendent meaning may well be given over to that which only succeeds in further blunting one’s imagination and domesticating one’s ambition. If Dalrymple’s observations are anything to go by, products of this kind can, by themselves, only ever offer a superficial, yet ultimately empty, form of spiritual and psychological fulfilment. This is a far cry from the promise of technological salvation.

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I have intimated already that the message technology evangelists seek to convey is simply a product of the world in which we live. It only has currency because of the present saturation we experience as members of the technological age. The original evangel was something entering the present world from outside, to change it, to heal it, and to renew it. By contrast, the gospel of technological salvation is a message that simply reflects the cultural and economic norms of contemporary Western society. Despite what its advocates may think, it is not a radically new word from above, for it simply articulates what is already a widespread (if mistaken) assumption. And, if what I have said is in any way true, then technology can never function as the basis for some kind of salvific “good news”. Rather, it seems to represent one more example of the tendency to try and realize one’s vision of utopia within the limits and chaos of the present world, simply through the application of human ingenuity. Ultimately, however, it is a Quixotic project that will dash the hopes of its adherents.

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