Our Father, Who Art In The Apple Store: The Decline Of Christmas And The Looming Tech Nightmare

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In the past, this season was marked by a greater interest in divinity, the family hearth and the joy of children. Increasingly our society has been turning away from such simple human pleasures, replacing them with those of technology.

Despite the annual holiday pageantry, in the West religion is on the decline, along with our society’s emphasis on human relationships. Atheism seems to be getting stronger, estimated at around 13 percent worldwide but much higher in such countries as Japan, Germany and China. “The world is going secular,” claims author Nigel Barber. “Nothing short of an ice age can stop it.”

In contrast, the religion of technology is gaining adherents. In a poll in the U.K., about as many said they believe Google to have their best interests at heart as God. Religious disbelief has been rising particularly among U.S. millennials, a group that, according to Pew, largely eschews traditional religion and embraces technology as a primary value. Some 26 percent profess no religious affiliation, twice the level of their boomer parents; they are twice as irreligious at their age as any previous generation.

For millennials, religion is increasingly a matter of personalized “self knowledge” that need not be pursued in church, or as part of their community. Computer scientist Allen Downey has done interesting research that shows that Internet use is a primary driver of declining interest in religion.

Not surprisingly, religious organizations are in a digital panic. In recent months, some have bemoaned how companies like Google or Apple have replaced churches as creators of the ultimate values. Apple, in particular, notes Brett Robinson, author of “Appletopia,” has adherents who back their products with “fanatical fervor.” Tech products feed into “a celebration of the self” that contradicts most religious teachings, he argues. Even the protocols for using our phones or computers emulate those found in religious services, writes Robinson.

Our growing digital fixation has also impacted human relationships. Social media has some great positives, particularly for helping potentially isolated groups such as the mentally ill  and seniors. And it is an effective way to keep in touch with far-flung friends and relatives. However, as social media consultant Jay Baer notes, avid users of social media tend to have lots of “friends” but the fewest personal ties.

As a people, we are becoming digitally detached, argues De Paul professor Paul Booth. Many particularly millennials, increasingly prefer “mediated communication” over face-to-face interaction, also preferring to text than talk on the phone. “Friends,” as defined by Facebook, has little to do with friendship as understood down the centuries: people to talk to and spend time with in a social setting.

Perhaps most disturbing, reliance on social media tends to work against forming intimate ties, which rest on such real-world factors as proximity and shared experiences, says Rachna Jain, a psychologist who specializes in marriage and divorce. Many millennials have delayed marriage and family formation, in part due to the economy, but it’s possible that technology-enabled distancing is also playing a role.

Technology As Religion

Technology’s emergence as a secular religion has been with us since the 19th century. Saint Simon and later Marx identified it as capable of replacing God in creating an earthly paradise. Industrial entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison also believed they were laying the foundation for a new millennium; he prophesied electricity would reduce the need for sleep, help improve the senses and promote the equality of women.

This notion grew after World War II, which launched a period of rapid technological changes — jet aircraft, missile technology and nuclear power. The growing interest in technology, predicted Daniel Bell in his landmark 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, would foster the “preeminence of the professional and technical class.” This emergent new “priesthood of power” would eventually overturn the traditional hierarchies and industries and, in process, create the rational “ordering of mass society.”

Despite the threat of thermonuclear war, the 1950s and 1960s were suffused with a spirit of technological optimism. In his classic 1967 book “The Technological Society,” French philosopher Jacques Ellul drew a contemporary picture of the world of 2000, complete with regular shuttle service to the moon, synthetic foods and an end to hunger and poverty.

Tech Dreams, Tech Nightmares

Today technological change may be slower, but its effects on society are more profound, and threatening basic social institutions. Like Marx or Saint Simon, the new tech “gods,” epitomized by Steve Jobs, have pointedly dismissed religion and held themselves as the ultimate “disrupters” of the existing civilization. Techno-evangelist Nicholas Negroponte has even suggested that “digital technology” could turn into “a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”

So we continue to make the mistake of conflating technology, which does bring many blessings, with the improvement of society. As computer industry pioneer Willis Ware warned almost four decades ago, new communication technology, rather than simply making information more universally available, could also increase the “intensive and personal surveillance” of individuals. This has resulted not so much in the creation of a surveillance state” as whatDavid Lyons has referred to as a “surveillance society,” where those who control information include not only state players but certain well-positioned private ones.

Far from being liberating and diffusing wealth, the emerging information economy serves “a new tiny class of people,” the tech visionary Jaron Lanier argues, particularly at companies like Google, Facebook and Apple that are repeatedly accused of abusing private information. As Google’s Eric Schmidt put it: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

In the coming years Google and other digital heavyweights hope to involve themselves ever more in our most mundane activities, whether by monitoring our physical functions or figuring out ways to profit from our inner-most thoughts. Yet the vision at places like Google goes well beyond the mundane, aspiring to powers once believed to be the province of divinities.

Entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil, now the director of engineering at Google, sees information technology developing to the point that our biological intelligence will be merged, even subsumed, into that of intelligent machines. Freed from the constraints of life and death by imprinting our brain patterns on software, he predicts, “the entire universe will become saturated by our intelligence.”

This “transhumanist” vision reflects Kurzweil’s almost obsessive concern with aging – he takes around 150 vitamin supplements a day in hopes of delaying his own demise. This cannot be dismissed as the whimsies of a lone inventor – Kurzweil is an enormously influential figure at the pinnacle of one of the world’s most important technology and media companies, one that is exploring “biological computing,” which seeks to duplicate the brain’s functions in machine language.

Such research could have powerful and positive impacts, but the insistence on seeing information technology as the solution to basic human problems rests on a new vision that we are machines that can be infinitely improved. This suggests the growth of an ever greater chasm, according to Kurzweil, between those who refuse or are incapable of cybernetically augmenting themselves — what he labels MOSHs or Mostly Original Substrate Humans — and those who do. “Humans who do not utilize such implants are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do,” writes Kurzweil.

Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, warns that some in Silicon Valley envision a society where human labor is largely replaced by automatons operated by Bell’s “ priests of the machine.” The current decline in labor force participation, particularly among the young, could just be the beginning. All one can hope, Joy suggests, is that they serve as “good shepherds to the rest of the human race.” But under any circumstance, he predicts, the mass of humanity “will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”

Whatever the advantages that we can derive from technology, this vision of the future violates the basic moral principles of both civil society and religious faith. Before we plug ourselves in for eternity, we might consider, this holiday season, to take a non-digital path to reviving our soils, whether by reading your bible, enjoying Shakespeare, tossing a football with your kids, or simply taking a walk in the woods. Technology might help shape what humanity can do, but it cannot make us any more human. That’s up to us.