Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud reportedly quipped, and sometimes technology is just a tool. But sometimes it becomes something more. Sometimes technology takes on symbolic, or even religious significance.
In 1900, Paris welcomed the new century by hosting the Exposition Universelle. It was, like other expostions and worlds’ fairs before it, a showcase of both cultural achievement and technological innovation. One of the most popular exhibits at the Exposition was the Palace of Electricity which displayed a series of massive dynamos powering all the other exhibition halls.
Among the millions of visitors that came through the Palace of Electricity, there was an American, the historian and cultural critic Henry Adams, who published a memorable account of his experience. Adams was awestruck by the whirling dynamos and, perhaps because he had recently visited the cathedral at Chartres, he drew an evocative comparison between the dynamo and the power of the Virgin in medieval society. Speaking in the third person, Adams wrote,
As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring — scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power — while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.
Writing in the early 1970s, Harvey Cox revisited Adams’ meditation on the Virgin and the Dynamo and concluded that Adams saw “what so many commentators on technology since then have missed. He saw that the dynamo … was not only a forty-foot tool man could use to help him on his way, it was also a forty-foot-high symbol of where he wanted to go.”
Cox looked around American society in the early 70s, and wondered how Adams would read the symbolic value of the automobile, the jet plane, the hydrogen bomb, or a space capsule. These too had become symbols of the age and they invited a semiology of the “symbolism of technology.”
“Technological artifacts become symbols,” Cox wrote, “when they are ‘iconized,’ when they release emotions incommensurate with their mere utility, when they arouse hopes and fears only indirectly related to their use, when they begin to provide elements for the mapping of cognitive experience.”
Take the airplane, for example. In his classic study, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, Joseph Corn summarized a remarkable article that appeared in 1916 about the future of flight. In it, the author predicted trans-oceanic flights by 1930 and, by 1970,the emergence of “traffic rules of the air” necessitated by the heavy volume of airplane traffic. Then the timeline leaps forward to the year 3000. At this point “superhumans” would’ve evolved and they would “live in the upper stratas of the atmosphere and never come down to earth at all.” By the year 10000, “two distinct types of human beings” would have appeared: “Alti-man” and “ground man.” Alti-man would live his entire life in the sky and would have no body, he would be an “ethereal” being that would “swim” in the sky like we swim in the ocean.
As Corn put it, “Alti-man was nothing if not a god. He epitomized the winged gospel’s greatest hope: mere mortals, mounted on self-made mechanical wings, might fly free of all earthly contraints and become angelic and divine.”
This may all sound tremendously hoaky to our ears, but Corn’s book is full of only slightly less implausible aspirations that attached themselves to the airplane throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. And it wasn’t just the airplane. In American Technological Sublime, historian David Nye chronicled the near-religious reverence and ritual that gathered around the railroad, the first skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, the Hoover Dam, atomic bombs, and Saturn V rockets.
Taking an even broader historical perspective, the late David Noble argued that the modern technological project has always been shot through with religious and quasi-spiritual aspirations. He traced what he called the “religion of technology” back from the late medieval era through pioneering early modern scientists to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
The symbolism of technology, however, does not always crystalize society’s hopes and ambitions. To borrow Cox’s phrasing, it does not always embody where we want to go. Sometimes it is a symbol of fears and anxieties. In The Machine in the Garden, for instance, Leo Marx meticulously detailed how the locomotive became a symbol that collected the fears and anxieties generated by the industrial revolution in nineteenth century America.
As late as 1901, long since the railroad had become an ordinary aspect of American life, novelist Frank Norris describes it in The Octopus as “a terror of steam and steal,” a “symbol of vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder, over all the reaches of the valley,” and a “leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Collussus, the Octopus.”
The sublime experience accompanying the atomic bomb also inspired fear and trepidation. This response was most famously put into words by Rober Oppenheimer when, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
This duality is not surprising given what we know about religious symbols generally. Drawing on sociologist Emile Durkheim, Cox noted that sacred symbols “are characterized by a high degree of power and of ambiguity. They arouse dread and gratitude, terror and rapture. The more central and powerful a symbol is for a culture the more vivid the ambiguity becomes.” The symbolism of technology shares this interplay between power and ambiguity. Our most powerful technologies both promise salvation and threaten destruction.
So what are the symbolic technologies of our time? The recent farewell tour by the space shuttle fleet evoked something approaching Nye’s technological sublime, and so too did Curiosity’s successful Mars landing. Neither of these, however, seem to rise to the level of technological symbolism described by Cox. They are momentarily awe-inspiring, but they are not quite symbols. The Singularity movement certainly does contain strong strands of Noble’s “religion of technology,” and it explicitly promises one of humanity’s long sought after dreams, immortality. But the movement’s ambitions do not easily coalesce around one particular technology or artifact that could collect its force into a symbol.
Here’s my candidate: Google Glass.
I can’t think of another recent technology whose roll-out has occasioned such a strong and visceral backlash. You need only scroll through a few months worth of posts at Stop the Cyborgs to get a feel for how all manner of fears and anxieties have gathered around Glass. Here are some recent post titles:
Google Won’t Allow Face Recognition on Glass Yet
Überveillance | Think of it as big brother on the inside looking out
Consent is not enough: Privacy Self-Management and the Consent Dilemmas
Stigmatised | Face recognition as human branding
The World of Flawed Data and Killer Algorithms is Upon Us…
Google Glass; Making Life Efficient Through Privacy Invasion
Glass has appeared at a moment already fraught with anxiety about privacy, and that was the case even before recent revelations about the extent and ubiquity of NSA surveillance. In other words, just when the fear of being watched, monitored, or otherwise documented has swelled, along comes a new technology in the shape of glasses, our most recognizable ocular technology, that aptly serves as an iconic representation of those fears. If our phones and browsers are windows into our lives, Glass threatens to make our gaze and the gaze of the watchers one and the same.
But remember the dual nature of potent symbols: we have other fears to which Glass may present itself as a remedy. We fear missing out on what transpires online, and Glass promises to bring the Internet right in front of our eyes so we will never have to miss anything again. We fear experiences may pass by without our documenting them, and Glass promises the power to document our experience pervasively. If we fear being watched, Glass at least allows us to feel as if we can join the watchers. And behind these particular fears are more primal, longstanding fears: the fear of loneliness and isolation, the fear of death, the fear of insecurity and vulnerability. Glass answers to these as well.
Interestingly, the website I cited earlier was not called, “Stop Google Glass”; it was called, “Stop the Cyborgs.” Perhaps Google Glass is the icon the Singularity project has been looking for. Glass is not quite an implant, but something about its proximity to the body or about how it promises to fade from view and become the interface through which our consciousness experiences reality … something about it suggests the blurring of the line between human and machine. Perhaps that is the greatest fear and highest aspiration of our age. The fears of those who would preserve humanity as they know it, and the aspirations of those who are prepared, as they see it, to trascend humanity are embodied in Glass.
Long before he visited the Exposition Universelle, Henry Adams wrote to his brother:
You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.
We might think all that nonsense, but it wasn’t that long ago that fears of a nuclear winter gripped our collective imagination. More recently, other technological scenarios have fueled our popular cultural nightmares: biogenetically cultivated global epidemics, robot apocalypses, or climate catastrophes. In each case, the things we have made “become Death, destroyer of worlds.” With Glass, the fear is not that we will blow up the world or unleash a global catastrophe. It is that we will simply innovate the humanity out of ourselves. Remembering how the story turned out, we might put the temptation this way: If we will place Glass before our eyes, they will be opened, and we will become as gods.
Of course, reading the symbolism of technology is not quite like reading palms or tea leaves. The symbols necessitate no particular future in themselves. But they are cultural indicators and as such they reveal something about us, and that is valuable enough.