Review: The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.---> homepage
By D. F. Noble. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. 273 pp.
Copyright: Canadian Journal of Communication
The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention closes more than 20 years of research of coming to terms with the power and the ambivalent character of technology in the modern (American) society. In America By Design (1977), Noble examined the convergence of science, technology, and corporate capitalism, offering a Marxist reading of the appropriation and exploitation of knowledge by the managerial class. 1984, in Forces of Production, he investigated the social history of industrial automation. In A World Without Women (1992), he focussed on the gender aspect of engineering arguing that its male-dominance continues the Christian, clerical culture from which it emerged. In the present book, Noble concludes his move from the material to the cultural forces shaping technology by examining the religious transcendentalism that motivates the techno-scientific project.
Noble addresses the question why Western Judeo-Christian culture has developed such an extraordinary obsession with technology. He argues that, at its core, technology embodies a tenet of religious millenarianism promising the transcendence of mortal life. It is the achievement of this provocative thesis to foreground that religion and technology are not so much opposing historical projects but rather that they are deeply intertwined. Noble traces the varying forms in which religious convictions have stimulated science and technology over the last thousand years and examines how they still shape their current development.
Noble begins his account in the ninth century at the court of Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne. There, in a radical departure from tradition, the philosopher John Scotus Erigena introduced the idea that the mechanical arts are "man's links with the Divine, their cultivation a means of salvation" (p. 17). Mechanical arts, a term used throughout the Middle Ages, comprised both science and technology. The knowledge (re)gained through mechanical arts, so Erigena argued, was an aspect of mankind's original endowment which had been obscured after the fall from paradise. Through the study and employment of technology, man's initial god-likeness could be, at least partially, restored. This new idea inspired a move away from seeking transcendence through the withdrawal from the world towards seeking it in extending man's dominion over nature, thus returning to the condition of paradise where Adam's knowledge was absolute. Throughout the Middle Ages a variety of brotherhoods embodied this spirit. Their members, exclusively men, viewed themselves as the vanguard to a restoration of the divine knowledge of man.
Francis Bacon and other founders of modern science devoted themselves to finding new ways of getting closer to nature and deciphering the divine message of its making. Their scientific and religious ambitions were one and the same. Not only knowledge of the forms of nature, but knowledge of the divine design of nature was the goal, as scientists raised their eyes from Adam to his Father, from the image of God to His mind. Newton saw himself as a messiah and prophet. Utterly disinterested in the practical application of his knowledge, he believed that uncovering the hidden logic of the universe was to understand and identify with the mind of the creator, who by that time was increasingly considered as the divine watchmaker. With the colonialization of America the construction of paradise on earth became a decidedly more practical matter. And the spirit of engineering easily mixed with the militant Protestantism into a specific American credence of salvation through technology. The incremental advance of technology became enduring evidence of the progress towards perfection.
The second half of Noble's account examines the religion of technology in four major projects of contemporary techno-science: nuclear weapons, space exploration, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. Neither of those projects can be understood purely in terms of being useful to the improvement of the human condition, rather they are also "technologies of transcendence," promising to leave the disdained limitations of the body behind and to open a new, brighter chapter in the history of humanity.
The chapter on the atomic weapons program is the shortest and the weakest of the second part. A reason for the relatively poor findings might be that, contrary to other technological programs, the development of the atomic bomb was centrally planned and organized under the imperative of World War II, which left little room for other motivations to be become effective. Furthermore, the connection of an atomic war with the end of the world, Armageddon, is not very original as it is such a commonly used image.
The space program turns out to be a much more fertile field of exploration. Shooting people into space is read as the most literal attempt to leave Earth behind: to enter paradise physically. As the Apollo 11, the first manned capsule, landed on the moon in a spot called the Sea of Tranquillity, Erwin Aldrin--Presbyterian, Sunday-school teacher, and the second man on board (the other was Neil Armstrong)--asked Mission Control for radio silence. He then unpacked a small kit provided by his pastor, took communion, and read from the bible. This procedure was in full accordance with NASA, an organization where many of the leading members were very explicit about their religious convictions. But not only the engineers believed in the transcendental importance of this project. After Apollo 11's return form the moon, Richard Nixon declared: "This is the greatest week since the beginning of the world, the Creation" (p. 140)
Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life both dream of creating something superior to man by endowing a bodiless machine with was is regarded as the divine part of man, his (and to much lesser extend, her) mind. The dream of creating life out of dead material is deeply rooted in mediaeval alchemy. The legendary Rabbi Low of Prague breathed life into a clay figure, the Golem in the 16th century. At least three of the major pioneers of AI, as Noble notes amused, believe themselves to be his direct descendants -- John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener and Marvin Minsky. Robotics and AI specialist at Carnegie Mellon, Hans Moravec, dreams that the brain can be downloaded into a computer system. Eternal life is just around the corner. As Moravec muses: "With enough dispersed copies, our permanent death would be unlikely." (p. 162) Paradise regained.
The most radical attempt to transcend the limitations of the fallen creation is to become the Creator Himself and to free humans from the deficiencies of their existence after the fall from grace. Physical and, ultimately, moral perfection of life itself is the goal of genetic engineers. Noble examines the Human Genome Project which has received, since 1990, massive government and private funding to map the entire gene sequence of a human being. This is not humble science devoted to bringing incremental advancement of the human condition. In the eyes of its current director, Francis Collins, this is nothing less than "the most important and the most significant project that humankind has ever mounted" (p. 191).
If technology has been deeply influenced by religious motives, why then is it so ambiguous in fulfilling its promises of a better life? As Noble concludes:
on a deeper cultural level, these technologies have not met basic human needs because, at the bottom, they have never really been about meeting them. They have been aimed rather at the loftier goal of transcending such mortal concerns altogether. In such an ideological context, inspired more by prophets than by profits, the needs neither of the mortals nor of the earth they inhabit are of any enduring consequence. And it is here that the religion of technology can be rightly considered a menace. (pp. 206-207)
This passage is as much conclusion as motivation of this book. As Noble argues, at the core of the project of technology is an irrational motivation. This needs to be acknowledged to make it accessible to a critique, urgently needed because of the threat posed by an ill-understood technology which has spun out of control.
Nobel's argument is stringent and forceful. However, he highlights only one aspect of the religion of technology: religious millenarianism. Even within this one aspect, Noble has a tendency to generalize. For him, all strands of Christianity are equal. He does not differentiate, for example, between different dogmas of Protestantism, or even between Protestantism and Catholicism. Max Weber's seminal Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where this differentiation is prominent and very different religious influences on secular culture are foregrounded, is, strangely, ignored. All this makes it somewhat difficult to assess how important this one transcendental tenet really is. Noble does not present a well balanced, cautious argument but a vigorous critique. And it is the provocative radicality that makes the book so rewarding to read for everyone who is interested in understanding why technology has become so all-powerful in Western culture and what some of the (subconscious) stimuli of its dynamic are.
Noble, D. F. (1977). America By Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
-----. (1984). Forces of Production. A Social History of Industrial Automation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
-----. (1992). A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Weber, Max (1930). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (translated by Talcott Parsons). London: G. Allen & Unwin
Felix Stalder, University of Toronto