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The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention

Author: David F. Noble
Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
Review Published: September 2000

 REVIEW 1: John McLaughlin

In a recent review for the online journal Kairos, I referred to Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines as a brilliant book "with a hole in the middle." That hole was the lack of any extended discussion of the concept of spirituality, in the context of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and photon-based computing, Kurzweil's actual subjects. What could "spirituality" mean in such a context?

The question was, accidentally or otherwise, brushed over or put to the side by Kurzweil, given nominal treatment despite its potential fascination for audiences intrigued by the idea that future robots might indeed carry with them the spiritual qualities of the human beings from which they were descended. What would be the consequences or implications of such a non-material heritage for the 21st century computers into which our personalities, we were promised, would be downloaded? What would be the implications for the future of humanity if we were to become the house-pets of "spiritual" machinery, borne out of a mixed heritage of robotics and Darwinian genetic engineering, nanotechnology throbbing through their/our bloodstreams?

The deeply spiritual and ethical issues raised by such a vision of the 21st century were, sadly, not addressed in a work whose challenging title promised more than was delivered, with a Timeline of human past, present, and future lacking any reference whatsoever to the "spiritual machinery" -- the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe, the Casbah of the Islamic world -- of human's history, and devoted instead to more mundane engineering technology. It was an opportunity lost, a hole in the middle of the discussion.

Fortunately, in some senses, regrettably perhaps in others, David Noble's The Religion of Technology, available in an earlier hardcover edition while Kurzweil's book was wending its way through the publication process, is the answer to this missed opportunity, this hole in Kurzweil's text.

I say fortunately, because this is a vivid, highly readable narrative, from post-Augustinian beginnings in the court of Charlemagne, through the Benedictine elevation of the "menial arts" to a sacred place in the project of restoration of humankind to its prelapsarian state of perfection (arguably heretical in this reading, since it implies a Luciferian hubris on the part of the Benedictine monks), through the strange practices of the Rosicrucians to the explorers of the New World, with its promised beginning-again for Christians looking for a Millenarian transcendence of the fallen world of Europe, and on into many a pathway and byway thereafter, arriving eventually at the rightwing Fundamentalism of the American astronauts and their shared "theology of the ejector seat" with those elitist Human Genome Project scientists who, in Noble's indictment, are only too willing to abandon the known ecological problems of this Earth and flee to other planets with their computer-downloaded and genetic-engineered progeny. Every paragraph of the text is given its own end-note, with anywhere from three to five references per paragraph discussing the historical scholarship which underlies this polemic.

It is a tour de force of scholarly, polemical story-telling, and, to at least some people, may deserve as serious consideration as the equally qualm-filled musings of Sun Microsystems chief engineer Bill Joy, who, on a recent Stanford University panel with Kurzweil and Hans Moravec -- who sees nothing to be lost by turning human history over to the computers who will treat us as their barnyard animals or childhood toys -- expressed parallel misgivings to those so eloquently spelt out here by David Noble [1].

Perhaps regrettably, however, David Noble is a well-known Luddite, who, when curating an exhibit of the history of technology at the Smithsonian, one of his career moves from MIT via Drexel Institute to his latest academic position, at York University in Canada, made sure to include one of the famous -- or infamous -- sledgehammers used by the legendary followers of Ned Ludd to smash the power-looms taking away the livelihood of English hand-weavers. It's a well-known story, and there may indeed be something ad hominem about bringing it up one more time [2].

But it will make it difficult for this book to get the serious attention which I think it deserves to have, given this proudly-radical personal history. Noam Chomsky, one of Noble's erstwhile colleagues at MIT, laments the fate of people who oppose the establishment as Noble has done. While Chomsky was protected by tenure at MIT for his opposition to the Vietnam War, Noble's publication of works devoted to analyzing the economic consequences of MIT's corporate support seem pretty clearly to have been a factor in his failing to gain tenure there, although -- again -- Noble was later to surrender tenure at Drexel to move to Canada, on a point of principle that somehow has not moved Chomsky to join him in academic exile.

So it's a complicated, troublesome issue. Noble has written what I regard as a powerful book, taking in hand the subject of the religious roots of the kind of engineering expertise which underlies computer technology, the ultimate base of the genetic engineering which is the fairly unabashed goal of the Human Genome Project, for one example. He has rather clearly exposed the heavily Christian bias -- in a multi-cultural universe -- of the American space program, for another example. He has turned over some massive rocks, not least the clearly elitist escapism of such projects as the downloading of genetically-engineered "superior" specimens into fast-approaching future computers. These are fascinating topics, and not least of the virtues of this book is its vivid writing style, racing along from point to point with withering wit and alacrity.

But, in the end, will this book be dismissed as one more diatribe from David Noble? Has he too clearly established himself as a polemicist to be taken seriously? This would be, for me, a regrettable result. The same book, written by a less proudly-prominent radical figure, might have been accepted as a necessary counterweight to Ray Kurzweil's industry-friendly work, something that would prove very useful for Bill Joy in rallying people to oppose the headlong drive to the pursuit of nanotechnology beyond the reasonable restrictions that Joy would like to see placed upon the research which could prove disastrous to us in the medium-term, at least. Given its source, however, David Noble's The Religion of Technology may get less of a hearing than it deserves. And that would be regrettable indeed.

1. Michael Powell, "Raving Robots, Mad Microbes: Tekkie Says Beware," Washington Post, April 16, 2000: Page F01. For more on Bill Joy, see his article "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," which appeared in Wired 8:4 (April 2000).

2. Russell Mokhiber, "Progress Without People," Jan 4, 1999 (Forwarded to futurework@dijkstra.waterloo.ca). Mokhiber is identified as "the editor of the Washington, DC-based Corporate Crime Reporter."

John McLaughlin:
John McLaughlin is a professor of English at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. His current research interests include medieval child marriage and cyberculture.  <johnmc@esu.edu>

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