Twilight of Technolatry

Picture yourself back in 1911: a complacent Babbitt, relaxing in your armchair after a satisfying dinner, glancing idly through the evening paper. All seems for the best, in the “best of all possible worlds”—a world which includes your new-fangled telephone and just-introduced Model T. Any serious threats to world civilization looming on the horizon? Well, just a year ago, an ostensible menace had appeared in the nighttime sky, growing ever-larger—a bringer of Doom? But Halley’s Comet proved harmless. Only devout fundamentalists feared an apocalyptic Judgment, and you are an enlightened citizen, thrilled by the advances of science in electricity, transportation, communication, even warfare. What would you have made of some itinerant prophet of doom, warning of unbreathable air, “pest-icide”-tainted food, “radioactive” contamination of groundwater, aerial incineration of tens of thousands—and possibly even a disruption of the world’s climate?

Of course, even one hundred years ago certain technical advances, such as the 1903 maiden flight of the Wright brothers (which spanned 800 feet), quickly yielded disastrous applications–by the military. In November 1911, Italian warplanes dropped bombs on a Turkish encampment in Libya, initiating an age of fearsome Air Power–from the German terror bombing of a Paris train station in August 1914 to Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Iraq (and several other nations by the dawn of the 21st century). By October 1962, the flying machine had become a B-52 bomber, on trigger-alert at the brink of a threatened nuclear war which would have annihilated tens of millions of people, wrecked “civilization,” and virtually decimated the evolved web of life on Earth.

In 1909, E. M Forster wrote The Machine Stops, depicting a future techno-dystopia in striking contrast to H. G. Wells’ more sanguine prophecies. The surface of the earth is entirely desolated, unfit as a habitat for humans, who have established densely populated cities underground. Each solitary inhabitant, connected via interactive media with others, rarely ventures out of his compartment—entirely dependent for survival on an all-too-fallible Megatechnology.

Fast-forward to reality, circa 2011: orange alerts of “unhealthy-to-breathe” air; rapid extinctions of tens of thousands of plant and animal species; an age of Perpetual War, with millions of “casualties”; pervasive, possibly fateful, contamination of food and water by oil spills and nuclear power disasters. Failed world climate conferences. A successfully concluded Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty–predicated on the production of a new-and-improved generation of nuclear weapons.

Technolatry, a failed religion, deserves oblivion in the dustbin of other fallen idols of the 20th century. The uncritical enthusiasm for applied science opened a Pandora’s box of unparalleled calamities inconceivable to the scientific enthusiasts of 1911. But religions, even discredited ones, are clung to by true believers. A technological elite, lavishly funded by its political or corporate patrons, continues to offer its latest “advances” to an all-too-credulous public. “Can Technology Save the Planet?” trumpeted the cover of Sierra Magazine in July 2005. “It’ll take toxic sniffing robot dogs, solar-paneled T-shirts, computers that recycle themselves—and all the brainpower we’ve got!”

After a century of technologically-realized horrors and imminent catastrophes of previously inconceivable magnitude, it is time to bury all remaining illusions—alongside the remains of the at least 100 million people who paid the ultimate price for our modern technological hubris. Recklessly arrogant, even amoral technocrats unleashed powers and forces which now defy control and wreak havoc. Technological progress, once confidently expected to create a utopian future, now threatens the viability of any livable future at all.

Somber reckoning and grim resolve: the 20th century is over.

Technocrats need not apply.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.