Nettime mailing list archives

Re: <nettime> Transmissions of Intelligence
douglas kellner on Mon, 22 Mar 1999 06:25:20 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> Transmissions of Intelligence

I enjoyed Ken Wark's review of some recent books and append as attachment
my own review of the David Noble book that has a somewhat different
critical take on it. Cheers, Doug Kellner

At 06:57 PM 3/20/99 +1100, you wrote:

>Transmissions of Intelligence
>Fom the book to the internet, the way we communicate 
>shapes the kind of society in which we live, argues McKenzie 

Review of David Noble, The Religion of Technology. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf. 274 pages; $26.00 hardcover

                       By Douglas Kellner

     In his classic texts America by Design and Forces of
Production, David Noble traces the interconnections between
science, technology, and capitalism. He instructs us in these books
to look for the economic roots of science and technology and the
ways that capitalist economic forces shaped the actual development
and forms of science, technology, and industry in a historically
specific context. This neo-Marxian optic taught us to look at the
economic roots and socio-political functions of science and
technology and to develop critical perspectives on these forces,
interpreting them as instruments of power and profit, as part of
systems of social domination.

     Noble's recent The Religion of Technology sets out to explode
the myth that there is a necessary conflict between religion and
technology, that advocates of science and technology are
necessarily opponents of religion, and that the two ways of
processing the world are at odds and antithetical. Rather, Noble
attempts to demonstrate that major figures in the development of
modern science and technology were deeply religious and that the
search for scientific truth and technological invention were driven
by religious motivations of discovering God's order in the universe
and of perfecting human life, restoring humans to their Adamic
perfection, preparing humans for the Second Coming and creating a
higher and better species worthy to enter the Kingdom of God. 

     Noble's argument is that technology is the dominant religion
of the present era, that the religion of technology has deep
historical roots, and that we should break with this religion in
order to cultivate more critical and skeptical attitudes toward
technology so as to criticize its costs and benefits, its
contributions and limitations. He sets out to demonstrate that

     the present enchantment with things technological -- the very
     measure of modern enlightenment -- is rooted in religious
     myths and ancient imagings. Although today's technologists, in
     their sober pursuit of utility, power, and profit, seem to set
     society's standard for rationality, they are driven also by
     distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural
     redemption. However dazzling and daunting their display of
     worldly wisdom, their true inspiration lies elsewhere, in an
     enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation

     Noble's analysis purports to explain that the current
infatuation with technology and revival of religious fundamentalism
are not contradictory phenomena because religion and technology are
not at odds as some popular conceptions would have it, but share
certain historical roots and aspirations. Noble claims that for
over a thousand years promotion of technology and the useful arts
and scientific explanation were "inspired by and grounded upon
religious expectation" (4). For Noble at bottom, the technological
enterprise is a "religious endeavor" and "modern technology and
religion have evolved together" so that "as a result, the
technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with
religious belief" (5).

     On Noble's account, for the first Christian millennium,
technology and transcendence were antithetical and only God's grace
could restore fallen man to the divinity and perfection before
Adam's fall. But beginning in the early Middle Ages "technology
came to be identified more closely with both lost perfection and
the possibility of renewed perfection, and the advance of the arts
took on new significance, not only as evidence of grace, but as a
means of preparation for, and a sure sign of, imminent salvation"
(13). Benedictine monks served as advocates of the practical arts
as instruments to produce human perfection, making man more
godlike, and introduced technologies such as wind and watermills
and agricultural technologies. Other theologians, such as Erigena,
also valorized the mechanical arts as instruments of human
improvement, while the Franciscans and diverse monastic orders
likewise praised the industrial arts as a means of restoring
humanity's earlier perfection. These theologians promoted
exploration of the new worlds, believing that the entire world
needed to be converted to Christianity to prepare for the Second
Coming of Christ -- a view held, according to Noble, by both the
Franciscans and Columbus.

     In the following chapters, Noble demonstrates the deep
religious convictions of major architects of modern science and
champions and creators of modern technology, including Kepler,
Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Priestly, and Clerk-Maxwell. The order
they found in the universe was taken as evidence of the existence
of God and modern technology appeared to represent evidence that
humans were gaining more power over nature, ready to ascend to
godlike perfection during the coming millennium when God would
return to earth and restore humanity to its original perfection.
Arguing that the scientific and technological revolutions
associated with modernity have deep and important roots in the
Medieval period, Noble documents how religious preoccupations
pervade the history of modern science and technology up to and
through today's most advanced technological frontiers, including
the space program, the computer revolution, the quest for
artificial intelligence, and programs of genetic engineering. 

     In the first half of The Religion of Technology, Noble
journeys through European and early American history and argues
that an apocalyptic millenarianism infused not only major
architects of modern science, but explorers like Columbus,
champions of technological progress like Ben Franklin and the
Freemasons, Comte and the positivists, inventors like Samuel Morse
and Thomas Edison, and socialists like Edward Bellamy. In these
cases, Noble claims, scientific and technological progress were
interpreted as useful instruments preparing humans for the
millennium, for the Second Coming, when God would restore humans to
a paradisiacal condition.

     In the second part of his book, Noble demonstrates that major
figures associated with the creation of atomic weapons, space
exploration, the invention of computers and seekers after
artificial intelligence, and genetic engineers also possessed
Christian millennial views, often of an apocalyptic sort,
associating technological progress with salvation and preparation
for the Kingdom of God. For Noble, the religion of technology tends
to be elitist and authoritarian, dividing the world into those
capable of technological perfection and worthy of the exercise of
technological power and those not capable who must be ruled and
controlled by the elite. Noble indicates that part of this division
is a gender-division, that technological perfection and domination
is primarily a male project, that women are historically excluded
from the technological elite. Noble suggests that there are
religious roots to the patriarchal dimension of technological
domination, that harking back to he Biblical story of Adam and Eve,
it was Adam who was God's perfect creature, out of whom Eve was
created, and thus it is a reversion to the perfect Adam, the
restoration of Adamic powers at the Creation before the Fall, that
technological creation aims.

     Lost in religious fantasies of perfection, redemption, and
restoration of humanity to the powers it possessed before the Fall,
those in the thrall of the technological project, Noble claims,
disregard human needs and limitations because the very project of
technological perfection is not to meet human needs but to perfect
humanity, to create a higher form of human being, that can only
occur through transcendence of human limitation and frailty and
thus by definition are only open to the chosen and superior (male)

     these technologies have not met basic human needs because, at
     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 mortals nor of the earth they inhabit are of any
     enduring consequences. And it is here that the religion of
     technology can rightly be considered a menace (206-207)

     Noble calls for a break with the "thousand-year convergence of
technology and transcendence," for a down-to-earth critical
skepticism that assesses costs and benefits of technology and the
extent to which technologies do or do not meet human needs. Thus,
he calls for a critical optic on technology, a break with the
religion of technology, and a decoupling of technology from its
religious foundations. 

     It is easy to agree with this position, to reject the more
fantastic versions of the technological imaginary, and to separate
technology from religion. However, Noble's narrative provides the
impression that all major scientists, inventors, architects of the
nuclear age, avatars of the space program, creators and promoters
of artificial intelligence, and biogenetic manipulators of DNA who
wish to create artificial life are all deeply imbued with religious
motivations, seeking to become like God, to restore humanity to its
pristine Adamic innocence, freeing humanity from the limitations of
sinful nature and a finite and decaying body. But this story leaves
out all of the scientists, inventors, astronauts, and promoters of
new technologies who are atheists, driven by Enlightenment-inspired
scientism and critical materialism. In Noble's narrative, by
contrast, not only is there no conflict between technology and
religion, but technological and religious motifs together create a
religion of technology and imbue scientific and technological
progress with religious motifs.

     Obviously, this project forces Noble to leave out
countervailing evidence and examples that would suggest a conflict
within modern culture between those who see science and religion as
compatible and those who see them as antithetical. Moreover, there
are also indications that Noble distorts the views of the
individuals who he presents as advocates of technology as religion,
exaggerating their religious motivations and taking quotes from
their writings out of context to provide the (mis)impression that
they are investing technology with cryptoreligious significance.
For instance, Noble writes:

     The religious rapture of cyberspace was perhaps best conveyed
     by Michael Benedikt, President of Mental Tech, Inc., a
     software-design company in Austin, Texas. Editor of an
     influential anthology on cyberspace, Benedikt argued that
     cyberspace is the electronic equivalent of the imagined
     spiritual realms of religion. The "almost irrational
     enthusiasm" for virtual reality, he observed, fulfills the
     need "to dwell empowered or enlightened on other, mythic,
     planes." Religions are fueled by the "resentment we feel for
     our bodies' cloddishness, limitations, and final treachery,
     their mortality. Reality is death. If only we could, we would
     wander the earth and never leave home; we would enjoy triumphs
     without risks and eat of the Tree and not be punished, consort
     daily with angels, enter heaven now and not die." Cyberspace,
     wrote Benedikt, is the dimension where "floats the image of a
     Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelations.
     Like a bejeweled, weightless palace it comes out of heaven
     itself... a place where we might re-enter God's graces...laid
     out like a beautiful equation" (159-160).
     Knowing Benedikt personally for many years, I can attest that
he is a professor of architecture at the University of Texas who
has a much more nuanced and complex take on cyberspace than Noble's
quotes indicate. The quotes, put in context, first cite what
Benedikt notes as the quasi-religious enthusiasms that many invest
in cyberspace (i.e. see Michael Benedikt, editor, Cyberspace.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, p. 6 where he prefaces the
passage that Noble quotes with the qualification "some might say").
The latter passages that Noble cites denotes a hypothetical
situation in which the key phrase is "if only we could," but
Benedikt knows that we cannot (i.e. escape death). The key phrase
in the last passage which Noble quotes is "floats an image,"
expressing the transcendent aims that some devotees attribute to
cyberspace. Indeed, Benedikt is developing distinctions between
architecture as reality, as creating abodes wherein we live and
die, and the quest for transcendence, for building a Heavenly City,
a more perfect and lasting domicile and is suggesting that
cyberspace for some is of this nature. He is not, as Noble implies,
himself celebrating a "religious rapture" of cyberspace, but
contextualizing it, in one of its many threads, within a religious
framework in addition to several other frameworks that Benedikt
deploys to interpret cyberspace (history of technology,
architecture, mathematics); further Benedikt himself is author of
a 1987 book, referenced in the cyberspace study that Noble cites,
For an Architecture of Reality (New York: Lumen Books).

     One could find much more critical and down to earth quotes as
well in Benedikt's extremely detailed and insightful analysis of
the many dimensions of cyberspace and ways that various individuals
and groups interpret and live it, but Noble chooses to cite, out of
context, solely quotes that attribute a religious view to
cyberspace. One wonders, therefore, to what extent Noble is
exaggerating the religion of technology, in particular the extent
to which the technological imaginary is bound up with religious
transcendence and fantasies. While from the Middle Ages to the
present there was a tendency to interpret technology in
relationship to religion, which was after all the dominant frame of
reference for many individuals and groups and continues to be in
some quarters, many, many other advocates of science and technology
explicitly opposed religion and interpreted science and technology
in a solely secular and often anti-religious fashion. Given that
religion was and continues to be in certain quarters a hegemonic
form of culture, it is not surprising that many advocates of
science and technology chose to present their views in ways that
conformed with dominant religious views, or that they fuse their
objects of ultimate concern.

     Furthermore, I suspect that Noble's coupling of technology
with certain specific technological-religious fantasies  -- e.g.
creating perfection, producing a godlike spiritual transcendence,
providing the preconditions for a new millennium and the salvation
and redemption of the human-species, and thus the production of a
more godlike being -- that this highly extravagant presentation of
the technological imaginary provides itself a technophobic myth of
the technological imaginary as anti-human, dangerously impractical,
and out of touch with human needs and our common humanity. That is,
Noble's citations of many who code technology and science in
religious terms creates the impression that key figures in the
history of modern science and technology are dangerously out of
touch with reality, that they live in curious fantasy worlds, that
they should not be trusted.

     Moreover, while it seems likely that at least some religious
fantasies inspired many of the technological priesthood, as Noble
has documented, it seems a mistake to privilege religious
motivations over more mundane concerns such as profit or power as
the driving force of technological development and progress. No
doubt many of the technological priesthood and elite share some of
the religious yearnings and fantasies that Noble documents, but
more worldly imperatives toward profit, success, and progress
should also not be discounted. It is a bizarre tale that Noble
weaves, documenting the extent to which major promoters of science,
technology, and technological progress have been driven by
religious fantasies and dogma, coding their activity in Christian
milleniarian discourse, but this is not the whole story of the
genesis and effects of modern science and technology -- as Noble
himself has made clear in his earlier books.

     While the resonance of technological fantasies to the public
at large may in part have religious roots -- though Noble does not
undertaken such broader sociological analysis himself --, it is the
magic of the technologies themselves and their fetishization in the
consumer society that accounts in part for the religious awe
ascribed to technology, especially high tech, among the general
public. Noble is surely right that there is a religious and
fetishistic dimension to our fascination with technology, that this
religious dimension often blocks critical thinking and assessment,
and that some of the religious yearnings driving scientists and
technologists are dangerous and fanciful, but his account of the
specific Christian-milleniarian dimension exaggerates the religious
roots and motivations of the technological project and imaginary at
the expense of economic, political, and more broadly cultural
roots. Hence, the imaginary of contemporary science and technology
is as much Enlightenment as Christian, as bound-up with more
secular worldviews and values as religious ones.

     In particular, while it is somewhat startling to discover the
extent of orthodox Christian millennium fantasies informing the
world views, or at least official discourse, of major elites of the
technological priesthood, including astronauts and officials of the
space program, biologists and promoters of genetic engineering,
computer geniuses and avatars of artificial intelligence, and
ideologues of the scientific and technological priesthood, another
study, dedicated, for example, to showing how the technological
elite is dangerously and crassly secular could easily marshall the
same array of data and quotes to show that technological progress,
as Weber, the Frankfurt School, Ellul, Heidegger, and others have
argued, is in the thrall of instrumental rationality, capitalist
profit imperatives, and strictly secular values.

     Noble's analysis, by contrast, provides the impression that
major avatars of scientific and technological progress are all
driven by religious motives, that technology is fundamentally in
the service of religious fantasy, that the dangers of technology
out of control result from the excesses of fanciful religious
dreams of perfection and divinity, with technology making men like
gods and providing godlike powers over man's dominion. Such drives
may indeed be part of what constitutes the technological spectacle,
but surely part of the religion of technology is the extent to
which it is tied up with much more mundane and worldly drives for
profit and power. Indeed, part of the problems with the
technological imagination is the extent to which to a large extent
it is divorced from all moral, spiritual, and religious values. For
many, technology has become an end in itself, a demonic force
attempting to create an instrumental and secular world in its own
image, rather than being a religious force attempting to divinely
transfigure the human and transcend worldly and earthly being.

     Noble neglects the entire literature of technology as
instrumental rationality, as an autonomous force that repels other
cultural forces, that is part of a highly secular and worldly
modernity that displaces tradition and traditional values with its
own instrumental and technological devices and ends. While Noble's
account indicates the one-sidedness and limitations of this
conventional view -- dominant in Weberian and some neo-Marxian
currents such as the Frankfurt School --, suggesting that
instrumentality and spirituality, immanence and transcendence, are
not necessarily antithetical, that they can work hand in hand, and
that a traditional, albeit peculiar, religious optic is often part
and parcel of the technological imaginary. Such qualifications of
the instrumental view and demonstration of the extent of the
religious dimension is certainly useful and it is Noble's merit to
put in question the dominant view of science and technology purely
as forces of a secular modernity, opposed to religious values and

     Yet exaggerating the religious dimension covers over the
extent to which a secular instrumental and often profit-driven
configuration of science, technology, and industry provides a
juggernaut of technological progress and domination that is a major
force in constituting the contemporary world. In particular, it is
surprising that Noble, previously a major figure in neo-Marxian
science and technology studies, downplays the imbrication of
technology with capitalism and the extent to which our current
configuration exhibits what I call technocapitalism, a new stage of
capitalism in which technological development and new technologies
provides a key role in the constitution of an emergent form of
global capitalism.

     Nonetheless, Noble's study provides important aspects of a
broader and more comprehensive view of technology and the need to
devote critical energies to critique the religion of technology, to
demystify the quasi-religious dimension and claims on behalf of new
technologies, to skeptically dissect the varying legitimating
ideologies for contemporary technology. There is no question but
that technology is one of the major forces of the present era, that
it is invested with quasi-religious powers, that individuals
project religious fantasies into technology, and that it is often
uncritically worshipped and fetishized rather than critically
analyzed and appraised. Just as Noble had previously taught us to
look for the capitalist imperatives and economic roots of science,
industry, and technology, he now instructs us into searching for
and critically appraising its religious roots and dimensions.
Perhaps in future studies he will demonstrate how these dimensions
are interconnected and so provide a critical theory of technology
that contributes multiperspectival analysis and critique of this
demiurge of the contemporary world with its priesthood, avatars,
and elites -- and its instrumental rationality and connection with
political power and economic profit.


1. For instance, Benedikt writes that cyberspace can be seen either
as a "new stage in the etherealization of the world we live in, the
real world of people and things and places, or, conversely, as a
new stage in concretization of the world we dream and think in, the
world of abstractions, memory, and knowledge" (1991: 124). Benedikt
then indicates that both positions are "useful," but one-sided and
himself proposes more nuanced positions, whereas Noble ascribes to
Benedikt a problematic one-sided position that equates cyberspace
with religious transcendence and fantasies

Douglas Kellner
Graduate School of Education
Moore Hall Mailbox 951521
Los Angeles, CA 90095

kellner {AT} ucla.edu
Fax: 310 206-6293
Phone: 310 825-0977
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} desk.nl and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner {AT} desk.nl