Pan-technology in and out of lockdown

Dr Andrew Hass, Reader in Religion, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Stirling

In the latest Covid-19 bite-sized lecture, Dr Andrew Hass explores how coronavirus has shifted the way we view, understand and engage with technology, and what this means for how we understand religion in an increasingly non-religious context.

Watch the lecture online or read the transcript below.

Hello, my name is Dr. Andrew Hass, and I am Reader in Religion at the University of Stirling.

In this lecture I want to address the way the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the way we view, understand, and engage with technology, and the implications this has for how we understand religion in an increasingly non-religious context.

The critical theorist Walter Benjamin wrote around a century ago: “capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion”. More current progressive thinking has refined this: it is now technology that serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion. Technology is everywhere; there is now hardly any sphere of our existence in which technology is not present and operating. And its advances have satisfied a multitude of concerns, to the point where it might be tempting to say that they have left religious concerns obsolete or irrelevant. As a colleague of Benjamin’s, Herbert Marcuse, had written, “theological dogmas no longer interfere with man’s struggle with matter”. We overcome the obstacles placed upon us by Nature now without the need of divine intervention. We’ve all heard of the Greek/Latin term “deus ex machina”, which means literally “god from the machine”, where a god intervenes to get us out of a jam. We might say, in our world, God now really comes from the machine.

But the global outbreak of Covid-19 has complicated this progressive way of thinking considerably. On the one hand, worry, anguish and disquiet have been raised to a new level, in relation first to the virus itself, and the devastation it has caused in so many lives, then to the political inadequacies and incompetencies seen and felt in so many supposedly developed nations, and finally to the economic fallout whose full measure we have yet to experience. Except for survivors of hospitalised cases, technology on these scores appears to us deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, communication and virtual mobility during lockdown have relied exclusively on screens and interconnectivity, allowing some workers to continue in their employment and the general public to retain some vestige of social cohesion. Technology on these scores, except for those too impoverished to afford it (and we should not underestimate this number), has proven itself a lifeline. So then the question stands: which of these two sides is the stronger? Has the dissatisfaction, fueled by the heightened worry, anguish and disquiet, outweighed the satisfaction, drawn from the increased ability to share with one another our heightened worry, anguish and disquiet? Has the lack of answers to our concerns rekindled a need to look beyond our technological infrastructures, and the enhancements we thought we had achieved with them?

To assist us in answering this question, let us examine briefly the infrastructures of technology a little more closely, to see how the pandemic has altered them. We might say that advanced modern technology now operates on five interconnecting levels: efficiency, cohesion, diversion, acquisition, and salvation.

1) Efficiency.

Let’s call this first level vocational technology, technology designed for the workspace. This form is characterized chiefly by efficiency, whereby our occupational activity in the process of work is expedited through time/cost savings. In theory. But in practice this form is not particularly convincing. For workplace efficiency has proven to be viciously self-consuming: what technology frees up in our processes of labour is only filled up by more work, not more leisure, and this added work requires more efficiency, whose savings are then filled up by more work, in a relentless cycle. Just think about the phenomenon of email, and we can all understand how this works. The lockdown of Covid-19 has brought to many a realization of just how vicious this cycle had become, and, perhaps, how unnecessary. All too quickly we have found we can survive very well without the constant need of responding immediately to all incoming work emails. The suspension of efficiency brought on by self-isolation and home-working has made us consider the long-term harm of our frenzied work routines. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that modernity has taught us to see labour in redemptive terms, redeeming us from the “predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process”. But when the technology employed imprisons us all the more, how can we speak of being liberated? Lockdown has provided us the chance, once the whirr of the machine has stopped, to ask anew: “What then might redeem us?”

2) Cohesion.

The second form we could call social technology, a form that carries the most subscribers. If the dominant device of vocational technology is the computer, the dominant device of social technology is the mobile phone. On this device, communication operates with the widest reach, and social media with the greatest insistence. Many argue that perpetual connectivity has brought the world closer and transformed our understanding of social cohesion. But this is not without cost. Social media may offer a sense of instant community, but in doing so it betrays a profound lack of accountability within the communal fold. What has emerged in the general social media dynamic is not a greater coming together of disparate peoples, ethnicities and communities, but in fact a moving apart, a divisiveness. As a place of unbridled opinion, social media has bred unrestrained personal attack and invective, as freedom of expression expands at the same rate as impunity. Cyber-bullying has reached the level of pastime, even for heads of state. What Covid-19 has done is impel us to redirect our energies towards a different kind of engagement, as general suffering has dominated our thoughts and experiences. The nastier side of gratuitous interaction, as encouraged by hyper-public social media sites – those for whom “going viral” reaches sanctification – has been overtaken by more privatized use, as people connect with friends, family and loved ones for their exclusive means of socialization. But can this be sustained after lockdown? There are already signs it cannot. The social binding that organized religion once provided has found no adequate substitution in social technology, and finding modes of cohesion beyond social media becomes an increasingly pressing matter.

3) Diversion.

The third type we could call cultural technology, and is related closely to the second type, though with this difference: rather than cohesion through communication, it focuses on distraction through entertainment. The internet has opened up unprecedented access to all forms of cultural diversion, from films to television, YouTube to TikTok, music streaming to meme generating, gaming to esport spectating. The volume of cultural products in this sphere is bottomless. The coronavirus has certainly played into the strength of, and need for, these diversions, for they thrive on the isolation of the viewer looking for relief from the tedium of static existence. But it has also awaken us to the fleeting, directionless, and often vacuous nature of these distractions. Digital trends, viral memes, addictive gaming, celebrity culture, the cult of sport fandom – these amusements, each with their own elements of worship and devotion, now feel like empty needs, or what the Hebrew preacher of Ecclesiastes had called a “vanity of vanities”. In the grand context of a pandemic, superficiality does not carry the same satisfactions as before; its veils are too thin to block out the glaring concerns and needs of a world in the straits of rampant affliction.

4) Acquisition.

This form we could call consumerist technology, for it promotes and expedites the accumulation of goods. Online purchase and delivery are now available for virtually every line of product, and one company stands above the rest in creating, capturing and channeling the need for consumption: Amazon. This worldwide market regime has gained its dominance by mastering integration of the first three technological spheres – vocational, social and cultural. Covid-19 has been a steroid for online shopping in general and for Amazon in particular. But consumerist technology is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows for goods to arrive directly onto our doorstep, essentials and non-essentials alike. Economies will take a brutal beating from the global pandemic, but the likes of Amazon will be seen as the ventilators that have kept them from an altogether fatal collapse. On the other hand, the endless movement of goods, as a global phenomenon, is part of the problem of infectious spread: what allows goods to travel globally around the world for consumption are the same pathways that spread a virus so quickly and extensively. Here the exploits of globalization have themselves become a virus. Wanton consumerism attacks the well-being not only of the consumer, with its false sense of prosperity, but also of the planet and its resources. Is it accidental that the largest online company for consumer technology is named after a region with the earth’s greatest biodiversity but also its greatest environmental spoliation? Covid-19 has provoked a re-evaluation of our values, and of our responsibility not only to each other but to the planet we inhabit. We might here still speak of forbidden fruit: that whose carbon footprint is ruining our environment.

5) Salvation.

The final level we could call scientific technology. This is easily the most revered and cherished. In the medical world, it involves a greater understanding of the human body and the environmental conditions within which it lives, and leads to the alleviation of certain ills, some common, some rare, towards a longer life expectancy. The coronavirus has brought out a tacit assumption or expectation about this technology: that it will eventually triumph. Very few doubt that scientists will eventually find a vaccine for Covid-19, a confidence based on our past record of discovery, and on the now global size of the scientific community working on the problem. Modern medicine will in time prevail. Scientific technology offers itself as a panacea, not because it can now solve or cure all medical problems, but because in our collective imagination it has held out the hope that it can. But if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is how little the medical industry still knows. It has not been able to give us definitive answers concerning the virus’s behaviour. It has not been able to stop all spread, or avert all casualties, even in places not yet infected. And even if it eventually discovers a vaccine, it will not put at ease the general worry that a mutated strain could develop at any time, or that a future pandemic is more than likely. We are all grateful for advances made that have kept the coronavirus under some semblance of control. But we are more conscious than ever of how our trust in scientific technology is based on assumptions and hopes that are fragile, tenuous, and ultimately unreliable, and of how our human limitations must be understood more modestly. The salvation narrative of scientific technology as the realm to solve the problem of human mortality – or, less ambitiously, to keep extending our quality of life – has been thrown yet further into question.

Common to each of these five forms of technology – vocational, social, cultural, consumerist, and scientific – is what Marcuse had called a technical rationality, a rationality that has changed little in the last one hundred years (even if the various forms of technology have). This way of thinking is characterized chiefly by an instrumentality, or by a focus on the means to an end in which the means is so prioritized that the end becomes forgotten, even irrelevant. The pandemic, in all its disruption, has revived the questions of ends: to what purpose do we do the things we do, beyond our instrumental means of activity? And can now the means be justified in light of the ends?

We don’t expect – at least, those of us in the West – that institutionalised faith traditions will quickly resurge to provide comprehensive satisfaction to these questions. But we might ask: will lockdown, self-isolation, and for many an occupational shift into neutral gear move us anew toward introspection, individual and collective? And will this introspection, having seen both the power and the limits of technology, challenge us to rethink what values and what ends we should impose upon technology, rather than what values and what means technology should impose upon us? Technology, though everywhere, will not replace religion. But might Covid-19 inspire us to a new deus ex machina, one that extricates us from the global entanglements of our own making, and frees the gods from the machines in which we have encased them?

Thanks for listening.

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