I’ve made some pretty serious claims on this site over the past few months. Even if many agree with some of the things that I’ve said, chances are high that many also think that I’ve been prone to hyperbole in certain cases. The central thesis of this blog, that modernity is essentially the gradual development of the new religion of the Antichrist, is no doubt a rather bold assertion which many regard as far-fetched. Is modernity really religious in nature? Like so many other questions, Google has an answer to this one as well.
The Progress of Utopia
The intrinsically utopian character of modern thought cannot be denied by any serious student of history or philosophy. It is no coincidence that the two greatest monsters of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, both committed their atrocities with the express purpose of bringing about an earthly paradise: the Thousand Year Reich on the one hand, and a glorious communist future of boundless peace, freedom, equality and prosperity on the other. This utopianism dominated Western thought from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It was only restrained somewhat in recent years when the horrors it inflicted at its zenith became too obvious to deny: the concentration camps, the gulags, two brutal world wars.
It was restrained, but it was certainly not abandoned. And though it is less outspoken today than it once was, it is still very much with us, only now in a new and transfigured form. It still dominates the thinking of the global elite. Because although political theorizing alone proved unable to fulfill the promise of coming utopian bliss, there is another force that is now stepping in to make good on that promise: technology.
And it is very, very hard to argue with technology. After all, like the commercials say: “it just works.”
Google’s Vision for the Future
It seems that some in Silicon Valley have a reasonable explanation for the fact that all our political theorizing was unable to produce paradise: human beings simply are not smart enough. It wasn’t a lack of wisdom, it was just a lack of intelligence. Nicholas Carr writes of Google in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain:
Google doesn’t believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms… It has a deep, even messianic faith in its cause. Google, says its CEO, is more than a mere business; it is a “moral force.”
But don’t take Carr’s word for it, or even that of Google’s own CEO. A recently surfaced video reveals the conversations going on at Google behind closed doors. According to The Verge:
The video, shared internally within Google, imagines a future of total data collection, where Google helps nudge users into alignment with their goals, custom-prints personalized devices to collect more data, and even guides the behavior of entire populations to solve global problems like poverty and disease.
In this video, they are literally talking about reshaping the world: “The ledger [i.e. the sum total of Google’s collected information on any given individual] could be given a focus, shifting it from a system which not only tracks our behavior, but offers direction towards a desired result.”
Naturally, the “desired result” is one that will “reflect Google’s values as an organization.” Suppose that you don’t agree with those values? No matter. In the glorious future, your own data will agree with them for you:
“[Google’s video] envisions a future where “the notion of a goal-driven ledger becomes more palatable” and “suggestions may be converted not by the user but by the ledger itself.”
Even better, the coming future has the power to transcend the merely personal, creating a sort of quasi-tradition to give rootedness and meaning to a world of atomized and lonely individuals. From the video:
User-centered design principles have dominated the world of computing for many decades, but what if we looked at things a little differently? What if the ledger could be given a volition or purpose rather than simply acting as a historical reference? What if we focused on creating a richer ledger by introducing more sources of information? What if we thought of ourselves not as the owners of this information, but as custodians, transient carriers, or caretakers?
Turns out Heaven isn’t for human beings after all. It’s for data. Sure, you’ll have to give up the selfish idea that you yourself will live forever, but at least you can find cosmic peace and ultimate fulfillment in the certainty that Google will still know everything there is to know about you after you are gone.
Though Google’s spokespeople insist that the video is “not related to any current or future products,” The Verge begs to differ:
Granted, Foster’s job is to lead design at X, Google’s “moonshot factory” with inherently futuristic goals, and the ledger concept borders on science fiction — but it aligns almost perfectly with attitudes expressed in Google’s existing products. Google Photos already presumes to know what you’ll consider life highlights, proposing entire albums on the basis of its AI interpretations. Google Maps and the Google Assistant both make suggestions based on information they have about your usual location and habits. The trend with all of these services has been toward greater inquisitiveness and assertiveness on Google’s part. Even email compositions are being automated in Gmail.
The Bigger Picture in Silicon Valley
This vision shared by some at Google is far from an isolated phenomenon in Silicon Valley. Jaron Lanier, considered one of the founding fathers of virtual reality, recently gave an interview entitled ‘One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong’ (warning: there is some profanity in the interview). Here’s the most relevant portion:
But at the end, I have [an argument] that’s a spiritual one. The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.
It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.
…It’s not as blunt and out there, but that is the underlying message of it and it’s ugly and bad. I loathe it, and I think a lot of people have that feeling, but they might not have articulated it or gotten it to the surface because it’s just such a weird and new situation.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, suggests that his platform can replace everything from church to Little League. He has also announced that “Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company”.
This stuff is really out there, and it’s really believed by people who are really, really powerful.
Ye Shall Be As Gods
But the real question is: don’t most of us believe it too, at least just a little bit? Every year our computers get better, our screens get sharper, our internet gets faster, our phones can do more neat things. In a world where technology progresses so rapidly that it’s practically indistinguishable from magic, it is incredibly hard not to believe that eternal and perpetual progress — in all areas of human life — is not simply an inevitability. The Myth of Progress has taken hold of our past, through the triumph of the evolutionary narrative. It is now stretching forth its hand to take hold of our future as well.
To be clear: I am not trying to say that AI is the Antichrist. But I am definitely saying that the same utopian dreams are still being dreamed. We are still building the Tower of Babel, still trying to reach all the way up to heaven. We still believe the same old lie that the devil told us in Eden: “Ye shall be as gods.” We are still working very, very hard to make that lie true, to make those dreams a reality. The increasingly magical landscape in which we find ourselves living is abundant evidence of that fact. And the vast and nearly unimaginable power which we have amassed for ourselves through our technology is very, very seductive.
Are we actually any happier now, even in a worldly sense? It sure doesn’t seem like it. And it’s clear that more and more people within Silicon Valley are turning against their own creations (again, a warning that the linked article contains some profanity).
But, despite all our past and present failures, we nevertheless still believe. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we believe
in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Watch the video from The Verge on this story below. It’s important.