As the root source of the threat to the human ecosystem Pope Francis has targeted the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – the mindset that sees in technology alone the solution to all problems. What explains this obsession with technology, both among its creators and its consumers?
It is in articles 101-136 of Laudato Si’ that we find Pope Francis’ analysis of the root of the current threat to the earth environment. First comes the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – the growing tendency to see in technology the sole and sufficient route to the future. This fosters ‘modern anthropocentrism’ – the human tendency to think of ourselves as masters of creation rather than dependent upon it. ‘Practical relativism’ follows: our tendency to solve problems in isolation, without respect to the wider and long-term impact of the ‘fixes’ we apply.
There can be no serious questioning of the weight of this diagnosis. Who can be unaware of the impact of technology – in all of its varieties – upon the physical context of our lives, from the morning alarm to the workplace computer and then, perhaps the evening TV or ‘home cinema’ experience. Technology’s impact upon our inner space is also unavoidable, and possibly even more profound. To judge by the coverage given by the media, we avidly look for news of tech fixes to every human ailment from paralysis to Alzheimer’s disease to blindness – and follow the progress of domestic robots in house cleaning and lawn control. Will there soon be powered ‘exoskeletons’ to boost our physical strength for heavy lifting? Will today’s armed drones be the precursors of fully automated warfare? Are powerful long-lasting batteries just around the corner, to make affordable electric cars the norm everywhere? And what is going on just now in nuclear fusion research, to realise the dream of limitless cheap and clean energy?
‘You’re a phone addict,’ my daughter-in-law told me in July 2015 – and she has a point. Information technology feeds this commentator’s hunger for news on everything from the Eurozone crisis to the war in Syria and Iraq, not to mention push-back among some Catholics to Laudato Si’. When away from base, in almost every idle moment, if there is a possibility of a wifi connection, I tend to reach for my phone’s browser to see ‘what gives’.
Yet my own experience leads me to look in particular for signs that the information deluge can also lead to wisdom – a realisation that there will never be an app that can do for us what wild places or prayer can do, or to deal with a sudden bereavement, or sudden redundancy, or even the news of our own impending mortality. The buzz that new technology brings is always temporary, a vain flight from the fragility and tragedy of life.
The constant truth is that, unless we do suffer some kind of grounding experience, we typically want to escape from the reality of our own limitedness and vulnerability. Disbelieving in our own value as temporary beings whose bodies will eventually be powerless to prevent their own interment or cremation, we seek to escape this reality through fantasies of invulnerability and permanence. That’s why teenage boys can spend so much time on digital games of ‘warcraft’ and why Hollywood can make billions from superhero movies. The movie title Ironman says it all: we (men especially) are typically ashamed to be mere flesh and blood – the stuff of inevitable decay.
It follows necessarily that we seek some kind of ‘add on’. The young jihadist’s Kalashnikov, the young westerner’s Smartphone and the technocrat’s executive jet are hugely different in terms of function and effect, but they all serve essentially the same private purpose: to reassure us of the value we are constantly seeking to enhance, the value we cannot believe we already possess in our naked selves.
It is this that makes us endlessly subject to the fetishisation of ‘add ons’ – accessories that give us temporary fixes to our need for reassurance. The next person’s lack of interest in what we already possess will convince us we ‘need’ whatever it is that currently fascinates him or her. Knowing this, Apple Corps and l’Oreal can always be sure that the next ‘iteration’ of their latest ‘must haves’ will be in demand
Kenneth Graham’s character, Toad, in The Wind in the Willows is a timeless archetype of this very human affliction. We meet him in a state of complete delight in his new horse-drawn caravan. This is to be his mobile home forever – or so he tells his friends Ratty and Mole. Completely convinced, these three set off to the sound of clopping hooves and the tinkling kitchen utensils that decorate the interior.
Out of the blue they are passed by a fast motor car – whose driver shows his contempt for the caravan and its occupants by failing to slow down as he passes. To their astonishment Mole and Ratty find that this single mechanical epiphany is sufficient to destroy Toad’s interest in the caravan, and to create a new and dangerous fixation. The rest of the story is an account of their failure to save Toad from the consequences.
Published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows pinpoints the human weakness that lies at the root of all technology ‘buzzes’. Steve Jobs’ success in disrupting the mobile phone market with the iPhone became the ‘iconic’ objective of all today’s entrepreneurial wannabes – and our neighbour who flashes its latest iteration will seal the doom of its predecessor. This single failing is sufficient to explain both technocracy and the endless demand for its products.
This is the root spiritual problem of human desire. First, our self-satisfaction is always unstable. Second, the merest suggestion that we will be better off with the latest ‘iconic’ accessory can trigger self-dissatisfaction and the supposition that we ‘really’ need it. A yearning for possession can then seize hold.
Notice that ‘consumerism’ is almost as inadequate a term for this problem as ‘materialism’. (Thankfully the latter does not appear even once in Laudato Si’.) All words ending in ‘ism’ imply an intellectual bias – but whose ‘consumption’ is caused by such a bias? Who sets out to be a ‘consumerist’? Mr Toad wanted to believe that his caravan was the be-all and end-all of his desire. He had no initial intent to swap it for a fast car. So it is with whatever we are currently fascinated by. It is in a combination of the instability of our self-esteem with an experience of something (apparently) better that our every next technology fetish will originate. The term ‘consumerism’ serves the dual purpose of apparently naming a problem that’s out there – and of exonerating ourselves from complicity. Until we all acknowledge our own susceptibility to the sabotaging of our present content by an endlessly innovative market – and by the acquaintance in thrall to the next ‘must-have’ – we won’t really catch hold of the problem.
For the church to recover its grip on this we merely need to see that Eve had exactly the same problem, and that we are warned about it by the ninth and tenth commandments. The ‘technocratic paradigm’ can be overcome only by a prayerful resistance to the call to endless covetousness – mimetic desire – and a passionate insistence that what we truly need is the reassurance born of relationship with the true source of our being. That is what possessed Jesus of Nazareth, and his passion was the desire to lead all of us to the same truth.
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.“ (Ex 20:17)
Sean O’Conaill July 2015
While technology alone cannot be the solution to our existential questions and problems, your third paragraph does highlight some of the benefits that advancement in technology brings, such as your example of powerful long-lasting batteries (and associated energy storage) which are needed to ween us off our dependence on fossil fuel. The Spirit surely encourages and empowers us and delights in our discoveries and advancements that benefit all of humankind and the environment.
But you put it so well when you say, “there will never be an app that can do for us what wild places or prayer can do, or to deal with a sudden bereavement, or sudden redundancy, or even the news of our own impending mortality.” In these situations technology as you say cannot help beyond providing temporary distraction or avoidance. The answer for me does not lie in withdrawing Amish-like from the world, but rather learn to continue to engage as fully, freely, mindfully and responsibly as possible, in the life we have been given and as it comes to meet us.
It not easy resisting enslavement to the ‘add on’. I was made aware of my own iPhone and on reading about the The Wind in the Willows horse drawn caravan, of my own little camper van, which is close to my ‘be-all and end-all of his desire’ 🙂 . I take consolation in the fact that my phone is an iPhone 3, now 6 years old and my van is a 1985 model. This is in line with Brian McLaren’s view that, the problem is not the fact that we own things but rather than we don’t own them enough (paraphrasing). What he means is as soon as we acquire (add-on) something we soon get bored with it and ‘cast it off’, for as you say the newer, latest thing. This is instead of getting the best of the original item and using all its features to the full for as long as possible (repair rather than replace). We are not pure spirit and therefore I don’t believe God begrudges us having things either to own or to share in the use of, but to do so responsibly, not wastefully or selfishly. Sunday’s gospel story of the feeding of the multitude suggested to me that the problem is not one of resource shortage, but of fair distribution. Ethical production is of course also an important consideration that increasingly needs to be a part of decision making when acquiring things.
But the lives of Jesus and many great saints (of all faiths) do suggest that true happiness lies in the ability to live simply with detachment, not least from things. Ultimately we need to be capable of giving up everything we (think we) own – right down to our very last breath which we will one day give out and not take back in again. And of course we take nothing with us. So the more we can give up or live without now will make the letting go easier as that day approaches. How particularly sad to see elderly men chasing their fortune in monetary terms or building their personal empires right up to the end of their days. But of course it is all relative and the challenge is one we must all face. The future of the planet, not to mention our own happiness and peace, lies in the ability to live our lives simply and justly with generosity, compassion and mindful awareness.
Meantime, I thank God for the privilege of having an iPhone and campervan. Truth is, as things stand it won’t be easy for me to let go off either when that time comes, as it surely will.
You make a very good point, Martin. The utility of a device – e.g. your camper van – can make its purchase justifiable too. A combination of utility with ‘desired by others’: that’s what we tend to find irresistible.
As for the Amish, I found myself fantasising about their horse-drawn buggies this summer when travelling fast in a 4×4 on a four-lane interstate highway in New England. Speed, asphalt, metal, noise, heat, dense traffic – all had become alienating and tiresome. I longed for something slower, gentler and closer to nature.
Isn’t there a serious spiritual danger of becoming trapped in our own technology – separated from the slower rhythms of the natural world? I’m sure you use your camper van to escape into the natural world rather than to shut it out – but mightn’t many be using technology for the opposite purpose, and in danger of losing contact with nature altogether?
Yes Sean. And I am aware of our inbuilt tendency to justify our desires to ourselves in every case.
You also do well to highlight ‘modern anthropocentrism’ and our tendency to solve problems in isolation’ to the detriment or everything else. Until we see ourselves not self-sufficient, but at one with creation in a inter-related and inter-dependent relationship, we will continue to treat it with contempt.