Every era has its gods – the powerful entities that people routinely turn to for protection, provision, and personal fulfillment. In our era that god is technology.
Technology has achieved ascendancy in this generation, at least in the West, but it began its rise to power in the Renaissance. The advance of crank and connecting rod technology, the inventions of the flywheel and the navigational compass, and preeminently the invention of the printing press transformed the cultural landscape.
Technology has been a rising star in the pantheon of powers ever since. Transportation technologies from the steam engine to the airplane to self-driving cars have made the world more accessible. Communication technologies have made the nearly instant transfer of information possible. Health technologies have changed the diagnosis and treatment of disease to the point that some futurists are talking about lifespans without a terminus.
This has been largely good for humankind, and remarkably good in some cases. But somewhere along the way technology went from being a tool that humans used to a power that humans trusted. This was certainly the case in post-war America. Baby-boomers grew up in what was proudly called “the atomic age.” Progress was everywhere. Nothing seemed impossible for us. With technology to lead us, even the sun, moon, and stars were within our reach.
The post-war generation has witnessed the apotheosis of technology. It’s family, like Zeus’s family in ancient Greece, has been exalted above the rest of the pantheon. The trouble with technology, like most of the gods in world history, is that it doesn’t love people. This isn’t to say that the gods of a given age don’t help people; they do, but only when it serves their purposes.
We can see that dynamic at work today. Big Data is one of technology’s youngest and strongest children. Big Data is virtually omniscient. It knows what you buy and how much you are willing to pay for it. It knows how long an item sits in your shopping cart, and how many sites you visit before making a purchase. It knows your name and the names of your family, your annual income, your habits, your hotel preference, your playlist, and how much money you are likely to spend over the holidays.
Its purpose in knowing these things is not to promote your well-being. Aware of that, various agencies – the EU, the U.S. Congress, and others – have tried to limit Big Data’s reach. Their success has been limited because most people are willing to trust their lives and personal information to Big Data in return for the much-sought-after blessing of convenience.
That may change when predictive purchase behavior modeling makes it possible for companies to charge the optimum price for goods and services any given individual is willing to pay. Airlines may someday charge one person $350 for a ticket to Dallas, $50 more than it charges someone else, simply because it knows that person will pay it. A pharmacy may charge one patient 50 percent more than it charges another for exactly the same drug.
Economic costs are not the greatest danger this god presents. Humans take on the characteristics of their gods. The biblical writer captured this dynamic in a poem about those who make and worship idols: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
If a people become like the god – the power – it reveres, what does that mean for a society that idolizes technology? Technology has no compassion. It cares nothing for those it watches over. It enriches those who feed it but does so by appropriating the goods of those who don’t. Technology has no moral code; it is heartlessly utilitarian. It has no loyalty – older versions are tossed on the junk pile; it updates as it sees fit.
Does that sound like our culture? A shortage of compassion. A crumbling moral code. A lack of loyalty. Updating friends and even spouses regularly. Is that what we want – to be like the technology idol we adore?
There is only one God we can safely worship, knowing that webecome like the God we trust. It is the one who is “compassionate and gracious,slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/17/2018