As we pulled away from the terminal getting ready for takeoff, the plane stopped fifty feet away. There we waited inexplicably for about a half hour before the pilot came on the speaker.
He reported that the ground crew had pulled us away from the terminal but forgotten to free the steering mechanism of the plane. The ground crew went inside, and they were not answering their phones to call them back. Not even those inside the terminal could reach them downstairs. We were so close yet so far away. We were sealed inside our metal cylinder unable to move or exit to the outside world. Finally, someone came and fixed the problem.
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This was certainly a case of the frustrations of technology. It comes from that sensation of losing control over the processes that technology puts in motion. It leads to the helplessness in the face of problems that seem so easy to solve in other manners. We lose that human touch that makes life unique and interesting.
Putting Technology in Perspective
My purpose in presenting this theme is not to condemn technology. Far be for me to deny the obvious good effect it has had upon the world. Indeed, the Church has always promoted the proper development of technology. The Middles Ages was a period of explosive technological growth. It has often been called the First Industrial Revolution.
In this sense, technology facilitates. Technology improves. Technology can even help sanctify.
However, there is another side of technology that I do criticize. It is the frenetic intemperance by which modern technology is applied to society and its harmful effect upon human dignity and man’s search for meaning.
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Here, technology threatens. Technology devastates. Technology frustrates.
Promises and Great Expectations
The first frustrations of technology came from its broken promises during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). The prospect of a technological utopia electrified the air. People had an unbounded confidence in technology, vaguely analogous to the absolute confidence medieval man placed in Divine Providence.
Technology, writes sociologist Richard Stivers, “assumed the form of an absolute value, a sacred; western societies looked upon it as the engine of progress, the solution to all problems.”1 The expectations were so great that some thought that death itself might be banished through the marvels of technology.
These great expectations did not materialize. Instead, technology produced many undesirable and unintended consequences that dehumanized man.
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People Functioning Like Machines
Thus, the first frustration involves this dehumanization. Technological society transforms us from organism to mechanism. Against our organic nature, we are impelled to function like machines. We are so enmeshed in the production process as to be reduced to “human resources.”
This frustrates us because we are not machines. We require pondered choices, creative opportunities and varied rhythms that correspond to our organic nature which is oriented above all toward God.
The victory of the machine is that it has become our model. Machines do their work with apparent perfection and obedience and tend to be automatically imitated. However, machines function so differently from humans. The machine admits no exceptions or nuances since it treats everyone with strict equality, brutality and speed. Nevertheless, we tend to organize our society likewise.
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Technology refers not only to machines and computers. It also refers to those identical methods and procedures that we employ equally upon others imitating the action of efficient machines. This can be seen in bureaucracy, teaching methods, advertising, and public relations practices. All these techniques tend to imitate the processes of a machine or computer.
We also tend to organize our personal lives into machine-like processes. “It would be a major error to limit technology to mere machinery and to material culture as such,” warns sociologist Robert Nisbet. “Technology is no less present in rationalized, efficiency-oriented structures of the organization in education, entertainment, and government than it is in the churches of our day, and even in family life.”2
Today there is no field of human action that is not modified in such a way as to impel us to act like a machine or computer. Inside these systems, all must be simplified, planned, and engineered to adapt to the machine and subsequently minimize individuality and maximize efficiency.
A History of Tomorrow
Technology goes much farther than just machines, computers and mechanical processes. Where technology is headed is outlined very well in the 2017 bestselling book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
His central thesis is that all life can be reduced to mere chemical reactions and algorithms. He clearly states that “Organisms are algorithms.” He further claims there is no soul, no free will, no unified identity and no eternal destiny. There is no God, and technology will allow us to construct our own “immortality, eternal bliss and divinity.” Ye shall be as gods is the promise of our latest technological achievements.
Here, technology not only frustrates by causing anxiety but by denying the purpose for which we are created. By recreating ourselves, we usurp God Himself.
A Brutal Pace of Life
The big problem with a technological society is that it creates appetites whereby people both enjoy functioning as machines while suffering from anxiety and frustration because of it.
One such appetite is a mania for speed. Most early inventions of the Industrial Revolution, whether train, steam ship, or telegraph, celebrated speed more than any other aspect.
The mania for speed unleashes pent-up disordered passions deep inside us that explode like fireworks and express themselves in ever greater sensations and pleasures.
This adoration of speed manifests itself in all that is instantaneous. It creates impatience with time and space based on the idea that nothing should stand between ourselves and the objects of our gratification.
It stimulates inside us a restless desire to search for new sensations. We see this in the intense sensations of designer drugs and our hypersexual culture. It can be found in those instant yet superficial connections on social media or the addictions of fast-paced games and apps.
Thus, many now relish the nanosecond networks that supply us with immediate sensation and novelty—be it in entertainment, communication, advertising, or sports. Speed becomes what Milan Kundera calls a “form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”3
It becomes a means whereby people “escape subjective reason and lose themselves in the sensation of the moment.”4
A Nausea for Reflection
A second dehumanizing appetite is what might be called a nausea for reflection. People come to enjoy noisy distractions while suffering anxiety, stress and frustration for lack of that true leisure so needed for the human soul to function properly. We do not seek what Lewis Mumford calls the “time to converse, to ruminate, to contemplate the meaning of life.”5
As a result, many disregard tranquility, recollection, and true leisure in favor of the exhaustion of constant activity. “Instead of contemplation,” writes Daniel Bell, “we find substituted sensation, simultaneity, immediacy, and impact.”6
A Shallowness of Thought
Finally, this quickening of the pace of life affects our thought processes with an obsession for all that is shallow.
Especially in our Internet-driven world, we are bombarded with the external stimuli of gadgetry whereby we instantly connect through ever shorter bursts of information. Such distractions tax our ability to concentrate and know things profoundly. The mind cannot relax and ponder meaning or nuance, thereby reducing us to a shallowness that inhibits face-to-face communication.
“The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions,” warns journalist Nicholas Carr in his troubling book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. This assault on the mind’s processes leads to an erosion of our humanness that “diminishes our capacity for contemplation” and is “altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.”7
The Unintelligible Universe
All these frustrations involve points of intemperance and our ability to adjust to reality. However, there is a far more serious kind of frustration that involves a materialistic worldview molded by technology that clashes with that of the Church.
Our transformation into a technological society has given us a rationalized outlook on the world that excludes any higher reality. God plays no real significant role.
About this outlook, Gilbert Simondon wrote, “By reducing the object to nothing but its dimensions, technology does not recognize in it any internal or symbolic meaning or any significance beyond its purely functional utility.” He concludes: “For this reason, one might say that ‘technology desacralizes the world’ to the extent that it progressively imprisons man in nothing but objects, without allowing him to catch a glimpse of a higher reality.”8
The Devastating Effects of This Worldview
By reducing everything to matter, this perception strips the universe of all metaphysical meaning. According to this random vision of nature and man, everything becomes unintelligible since all appears as a “flux of blind and aimless causation.”9
This perception leads to the worst frustrations, for there is no worse frustration than failing to find meaning and purpose in things. Inside an unintelligible universe, we doubt all past certainties, narratives, identities, and even our own technology. God is implicitly denied.
We fall prey to a cynical skepticism found in all postmodern philosophy and reflected in a nihilistic culture that destroys logic, unity, identities and all norms of morality.
Lamentably, we do not recognize the dehumanizing frustrations of our technology. We tend to make light of technology abuse as if it were only a matter of too much iPhone use. We are not addressing this intemperance in moral terms. We are not considering a scientific establishment that wants to change the nature of humanity into homo deus. We should be talking about speed, refection and shallowness. We need to address our unintelligible world.
To use the metaphor of Catholic thinker Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, pre-modern technology used to serve man as a horse serves its rider. But today’s modern technology is like a galloping horse that drags its fallen rider from the stirrup. The rider falls because he does not have sufficient zeal for his humanity and dignity.10
We need to free technology from that which makes it inhuman. We need to broaden our narrow horizons so that technology can return to its role of serving humanity—amply and freely—as a means to true progress and even our sanctification.
The article above is an adaptation of a paper given by the author at the 8th Annual Symposium on Advancing the New Evangelization held on March 29-30, 2019 at Benedictine College in Atchison Kansas. The topic of the symposium was “Technology and the Human Person.”
1. Richard Stivers, The Culture of Cynicism: American Morality in Decline (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994), 162.
2. Robert A. Nisbet, The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 245.
3. Milan Kundera, Slowness (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 2, quoted in Stivers, Shades of Loneliness, 38.
4. Stivers, Culture of Cynicism, 146.
5. Lewis Mumford, Pentagon of Power, 2:138. See also Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998).
6. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 111.
7. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 221.
8. Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Paris: Aubier, 1958), quoted in Acquaviva, Decline of the Sacred in Industrial Society, 140.[
9. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 173. We are also reminded of John Locke’s definition of the identity of man: “The identity of the same man consists; viz., in nothing but a participation of the same continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized body.” John Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in Locke, Berkeley, Hume, vol. 35 of Great Books of the Western World, 220.
10. See Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, American Studies Commission meeting, Dec. 21, 1987, Corrêa de Oliveira Documents.