Sunday, November 13, 2011

Taking Thaumatagens

I posted my review of Morris Berman’s Why America Failed yesterday, over at Goodreads (here). One thing I did not address in the review was Berman’s critique of technology. I did struggle with that a bit. While I certainly agree with the premise that technology comes with unanticipated consequences, and limits some freedoms while expanding others, and we do need to engage in more critical thinking about technology to mitigate our current utopian technological idolatry, still… I think we need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I admit that as a sci-fi fan from a wee age, I’ve perhaps drunk the Kool Aid, so to speak, and am in love with the wonder that technological advancement evokes. We could call technology a thaumatagen, a wonder-making drug. Indeed, like entheogens (“God-making” drugs), technology is like a drug under whose influence we experience and believe in wonders.

But like a lot of drugs, our perceptions under the influence of thaumatagens are widened in some ways but restricted in others. We love the high but we’re blind to their downsides. Yes, automobiles allows us access to places we might not have been able to travel to in the past, but once they were invented, society reorganized itself around them such that, in places like Atlanta, you simply have to have a car. The freedom to opt out isn’t freedom at all. The spell cast by thaumatagens prevents us from bringing foresight to bear on our inventions and anticipating how they might impact the common good. Instead of integrating tech into our human lives, we rearrange our lives and schedules at the behest of the machine. This is ironic because Prometheus, who brought us the Divine Fire that is often associated with invention, was forethought – that’s what his name means. So why don’t we have any? Is it because we are not actually the Prometheans we pride ourselves on being, but are instead Epimetheans, scions of Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought”?

While doing yard work today, I listened to Erik Davis’ Expanding Mind podcast (here). The guest was Jason Silva, who is a self-proclaimed techno “wonder junky.” And this is where it struck me that techno progressives (actually, techno transhumanists) like Silva are embodying the puer aeternis, the Eternal Child archetype. They’re off on flights of fancy and seek to escape the grounding – the laming – that comes from living in a mortal body. Meanwhile, Berman is embodying the Senex, the Wise Old Man archetype, warning the techno puers that they’re heading for a fall and they’re going to take us all with them.

Isn’t there a middle ground? A sacred way in which we can use these thaumatagens for insight without becoming addicts fated to crash and burn and hit rock bottom? Can we not have something akin to the ancient Mysteries, where we can take our thaumatagens in the context of the sacred and society? That is, use technology’s intoxicating effects not just for material gain but to enliven society and culture? Technology made in the context of culture, rather than the context of Capitalism and individualism. Tech that doesn’t cause us to “bowl alone” or only in virtual leagues in online games instead of in-person. Tech that brings us together rather than sets us apart, as in the individual cells of our automobiles during rush hour. How can we honor the puer’s sense of wonder without falling into the Senex’s depressive gloom?

I don’t know.

I think Berman’s right that an individual solution will only work for individuals. We need a systemic solution to address a systemic problem, and the alienating effects of technology are systemic to society. We don’t see it because we’re on drugs. And yet, I keep going back for more hits -- as this blog, and the Internet it rides on, attests. As does my livelihood, too – making computer games. Eternal Child, indeed.

1 comment:

Boris the Spider said...

As an addendum, I've come to realize that it's time to read some Paul Virilio. John David Ebert makes the case here.