Technology or Biophilia?

Computers, unlike flesh-and-blood creatures, entirely lack the charms of spontaneity, playfulness, affection, sensuality, passionate attachment, and so forth.  Yet recent films, to my continued bafflement, offer bizarre scenarios of “intimate relatedness” between humans and synthetic sentients (for instance, “Her,” “Ex Machina”–and even more sickeningly, the human clones of “Never Let Me Go.”)  Two hundred years ago, the 19-year-old Mary Shelley showed more acute insight than today’s technophiles–by conjuring up a startlingly ironic contract between the coldly grandiose Dr. Frankenstein and his suffering and emotionally sensitive “monster.”

Whence this fascination with “artificial intelligence”—(dis)embodied, calculating ratiocinators which are presumed to be somehow superior to human fallibility and irrational emotions?  In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx diagnosed a “fetishism” of commodities, whereby humans project their alienated, atrophied qualities and capacities into the very products of their creativity.  (Marx analogized from the notion of “primitive man,” carving a wooden effigy of his “god”—and then worshiping this fetish as somehow endowed with supra-human powers.) Anthropologists had also postulated that the earliest stage of religiosity was “animism”—the projection of “consciousness” into such inanimate forms as rivers and mountains.  Only much later, the pioneering anthropologist Edward B. Tylor wrote, did such “primitive” animism develop gradually into nature-deities, and, eventually, anthropomorphized gods and goddesses.

In a previous short piece “The Twilight of Technolatry,” I suggested (hopefully) that since the products of 20th century technologies caused nuclear and chemical disasters on such an unprecedented scale — not to mention a minor glitch called “global warming” — widespread disillusionment with technological innovations, per se, could lead to reduced energy-consumption, less (superfluous) goods, and less reliance on technology in general.  Yet if we characterize technolatry as an (awestruck) over-valuation of the technical mediation of human experience, then this “religion” — however false and destructive — has now almost superseded less “efficacious” forms of worship.

Of course, venture-capital always seeks to invent new (but false) “needs”—of late, relentlessly marketing and promoting the latest technical gadgets and devices.  (In 1993, only 5 million people in the U. S. found it necessary to use a “cellular phone.”)   But also, as in the case of “primitive magic,” as people have felt increasingly stymied and trapped, they have turned in desperation to more “ritual techniques” (in this case, “empowering” gadgets).  As the late Theodore Roszak perceptively wrote, such “techno-hubris” has also been a historical byproduct of an urbanized existence, whereby countless millions of people, cut off from the natural world, have increasingly shared certain delusions about the omnipotence of Capital, the Market, and the State.

In perhaps his best book, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendance in Post-Industrial Society (1972), Roszak called for a revitalization of a Romantic-aesthetic sensibility, akin to that of the 18th century poets Goethe and Blake, as a healing alternative to the utilitarian-mechanistic “scientism” which produced industrialism and its disastrous consequences.  In the Nineties, Roszak championed a new field of “ecopsychology,” whereby people may re-awaken stunted feelings — of rootedness in an evolved, natural world — and thereby feel the necessary love and devotion for it to find a militant commitment to environmental activism and related initiatives.  The pioneering ethologist Konrad Lorenz, deploring the aesthetically barren, lifeless moonscape of modern cities, also hoped that younger generations would recapture a deep reverence for wild nature and biodiversity–by embracing “de-urbanization.”

To paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci: to understand and preserve the natural world, one must first learn to love it (“biophilia”).

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