Sunday, 19 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 4. The Rise of the Machines

We seem to be haunted by the fear of our machinery and what it is doing to us, or what might happen when it goes wrong. According to landmarks of popular culture such as the Terminator and Matrix movies and Battlestar Galactica, sooner or later the machines will turn upon us. They will use us as a source of energy, or treat us as a biological infection to be expunged. At best they will regard us with disdain. J.R.R. Tolkien dramatized the dangers of technology and the dark side of globalization in his novel The Lord of the Rings. In his letters he refers to the Ring of Power as “the Machine” – a symbol of the attempt to gain power over the world. Sauron “exteriorizes” himself in the form of the Ring in order to bind others, but in so doing he paradoxically makes himself weaker, just as we have done to the degree we have become dependent on our technology. C.S. Lewis described the same process more philosophically in The Abolition of Man.

Pope Benedict offers an unprecedented papal critique of the “technocratic mindset” in his 2009 encyclical Charity in Truth. On the one hand, “Technology enables us to exercise dominion over matter, to reduce risks, to save labour, to improve our conditions of life” (69). On the other hand, it can become “an ideological power that threatens to confine us within an a priori that holds us back from encountering being and truth. Were that to happen, we would all know, evaluate and make decisions about our life situations from within a technocratic cultural perspective to which we would belong structurally, without ever being able to discover a meaning that is not of our own making” (70). That is a perfect description of the premise of The Matrix.

Benedict’s critique rests on a profound Christian anthropology, a sense that we receive our own existence from God, that truth is a “given”, and that our true freedom lies in respect for the “call of being” (70).
“Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own ‘I’ on the basis of a ‘self’ which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control. A person's development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes. By analogy, the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the ‘wonders’ of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the ‘wonders’ of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts.” (68).
We have come to rely on “automatic or impersonal forces” to improve our lot, but this is a mistake. “When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research” (71). There must be “moral consistency” between ends and means. That is to say, technology must be at the service not of our desires and intentions, but of truth, and in particular the truth of the human person who is made for love.

The implication of all this is radical. The Pope is calling on us to change the way we think and act.
“Technologically advanced societies must not confuse their own technological development with a presumed cultural superiority, but must rather rediscover within themselves the oft-forgotten virtues which made it possible for them to flourish throughout their history. Evolving societies must remain faithful to all that is truly human in their traditions, avoiding the temptation to overlay them automatically with the mechanisms of a globalized technological civilization” (59).

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