For all their complexity, we tend to think about emerging technologies in surprisingly simple ways. Either they are a force for good. That is, for eliminating disease and pain, and offering the prospect of not only extending our lives but bringing a level of physical and cognitive enhancement that even the previous generation could not have imagined. We get a sense of the apparently limitless power of artificial intelligence to help us grapple with the widest array of personal, social and physical problems, especially as we apply it to the massive and growing resource of Big Data. And we particularly enjoy the expanding connectivity that comes with all this.
Or we see them as threatening, especially as artificial intelligence increasingly makes important decisions for us, as that same connectivity is used to exploit us and as it distorts our view of the world, and as genomics explores and alters the very codes of life. They are also seen as a threat to the ecosystem through the toxicity from mining rare metals, from the gases and microplastic waste from modern appliances and through the dumping of ‘old’ technologies as the replacement cycle shortens.
Or, even more commonly, we see them as being all of this, leading us to think that all we have to do to enjoy all the benefits is to constrain the risks they pose. A comfortable trade-off, a pact of some kind.
But the story of emerging technologies may be far more interesting than this, especially if we ask questions that have not been asked before. Why is it that this ‘fear and desire’ relationship that we have with technology seems to echo a similar ‘fear and desire’ relationship that we and our forebears have had with God, with the State and even with the large corporations of the Market? Do we have – or have our forebears had – a fear of these but also a desire that the power that causes this fear be brought to bear to create sympathetic conditions for us? A series of powerful protectors and providers? Is that not similar to the relationship we are increasingly having with the new technologies? If we can see some resonance here, doesn’t that change how we should think about technology? What further questions do we then need to be asking about how this relationship works?
Technology and the Trajectory of Myth answers these and other questions. It identifies the nature of the dynamic that drives this relationship and presents evidence to show that such a dynamic has long been in play, not just with the new technologies but similarly with those ‘magnitudes’ of Deity, State and Market. This evidence is found not only in the respective fields of those magnitudes but also in science, the legislative process and in law more generally. All this allows an argument that the magnitudes have formed a trajectory that has shadowed the history of the West from the start, a trajectory in which the new technologies are a key factor in the occupation of the space previously and sequentially occupied by those magnitudes.
This dynamic is proposed as a combination of psychology and history, which not only explains the relationship between individuals and the magnitudes across this trajectory but which argues that this relationship is strongly present today. The idea of it was drawn initially from the account of mythology presented by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg but it has then been extended and widely re-worked. The result has been the imagining of this series of magnitudes as mythological entities, the purpose of which is to deal with the pressing and persistent existential fears and desires that all individuals experience. These magnitudes are claimed by their respective dominant interests to be not only absolutely empowered – they must be so to cope with the absolute nature of those existential experiences of individuals – but which have had that fearsomeness engaged to create sympathetic conditions for each individual.
The condition on which all this relies is the full subjection of the individual to the regime of idea and practice of each such magnitude in their respective eras. In fact, it is that subjection which fully empowers the magnitudes. The outcome is that, ironically perhaps, each absolute magnitude is ‘brought to earth’ by its conversion into a sympathetic form, with its power moving from absolute to conditional. The consequence of this loss of absolute status is then a search for a replacement absolute magnitude. These successive creations and failures – which see each magnitude descend into a field of failed but persistent magnitudes – constitute the trajectory. Within this field there are competitions and alliances as the dominant interests of each magnitude seek its re-emergence into an absolutely powerful condition. The operation of this field is a way to understand, for example, the contemporary alliance between the Market and both the State and emerging technologies.
This leads to the end point, the point of our present condition. That is, that technology can only take its place in this trajectory if it acquires an absolute form. We can see this emerging in the claims that technology will fully empower the individual as an Absolute Subject. Unlike the secondary position that the individual occupied in relation to the earlier magnitudes in their absolute condition, such an individual will be empowered to deal conclusively with her own existential fears and desires.
So we come back to the point at which we began. That is, the common view that technology should be seen as comprising contradictory utopian and dystopian features and that the former will be realised if the latter are eliminated or severely constrained. In fact, both features are together essential to this story of modern mythology. We need technology to be fully empowered – thereby fearsome – so that claims can be made that it will deal with the absolute existential condition of each of us. This to be done by the full power of technology in which we are to be embedded as Absolute Subject and by which each of us can create absolutely sympathetic conditions for ourselves. Utopia and dystopia need both to be brought into the context of the modern mythology not as contradictory elements but as working parts of the mythological dynamic.
But that is not the end of the story. As we have seen, the relationship between the individual and each of the magnitudes of the trajectory is based on a subjection which is best understood as the foregoing of responsibility for oneself. To recapture this self-responsibility – and experience the respect which accompanies it – means to reject this subjection. This in turn means opting out of the mythological way of organising both our sense of self and our social arrangements and dealing with existential concerns very differently, respectfully and in radical self-reliance.
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