Responding to predominantly unfavourable letters regarding his essay on consumerism and new technology, Wendell Berry writes: “I can only conclude that I have scratched on the skin of a technological fundamentalism that, like other fundamentalisms, wishes to monopolise a whole society and, therefore, cannot tolerate the smallest difference of opinion.” Then, with delightful irony, in a later essay he adds: “Some of us, it seems, would be better off if we would just realise that this is already the best of all possible worlds, and is going to get even better if we will just buy the right equipment.”
More so than ever, we see the growing conviction that technology will bring about heaven on earth.
But the technological fundamentalism that Berry identified in the late 1980s pales in comparison with our present mood towards technology. More so than ever, we see the growing conviction that technology will bring about heaven on earth.
Putting Our Faith in Technological Progress
I touched on this fundamentalism years ago in a post exploring the unshakable belief that technological progress will inevitably triumph over all our economic, social, and physical ailments. Most of us consider technological innovation, in its various forms, to be entirely good and devoted to the betterment of human life. As Berry says, we all participate in this “cultish” faith.
We are worshippers, convinced that our digital deities will bless us with a better future, happier lives, and fewer problems. However, as Berry goes on to say: “The existence of the future is an article of faith.” Therefore this hope is unfounded. The future does not exist. Nor will it necessarily be better. One need only recall the utopian optimism propped up by technological progress early in the 20th century—until the two bloodiest wars in history made such faith untenable.
Most consider technological innovation to be entirely good and devoted to the betterment of human life.
Despite the common sense in Wendell Berry’s observations, nearly all of us still subscribe to a fundamentalist faith in technology. These convictions are evangelistically preached by tech companies and their zealous consumers. From apps to new devices, we believe that technology enriches living. And as Berry writes: “At the slightest hint of a threat to their complacency, they repeat, like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in industry. The past was gloomy, drudgery-ridden, servile, meaningless, and slow. The present, thanks only to purchasable products, is meaningful, bright, lively, centralised, and fast. The future, thanks only to more purchasable products, is going to be even better.”
Berry’s words are frighteningly prophetic, and therefore immensely pertinent for those of us living in the digital age.
The Digital Trinity: Smartphones, Streaming, and Social Media
None of us can imagine a world without smartphones, streaming services, and social media. Even though this digital trinity is less than 20 years old we all believe our lives are more “meaningful, bright, lively, centralised, and fast,” because of it. And, as Berry says: “thanks only to more purchasable products,” the future, “is going to be even better.”
We religiously believe ‘purchasable products’ will improve our lives.
The rate at which we replace our devices proves Berry’s point. We religiously believe “purchasable products” will improve our lives. The same can be said of the unprecedented amount of time we abandon to consuming media, scrolling predominantly inane feeds online, or passively allowing Netflix to play the next episode. Despite the mounting evidence that these habits are damaging, few of us regularly unplug from our technology or practice social media and streaming fasts. We simply cannot give them up—not even periodically. Our faith in technology has given way to worship and devotion. “O Israel, behold your gods” (1 Kings 12:28).
Some Concluding Questions
Has the miraculous advent of the infinite scroll really enriched our souls?
Admittedly countless more posts could be written on this topic. So let me conclude this one with a few questions that I hope will stoke further reflection and perhaps some interaction. Is the digital age as fulfilling, meaningful, happy, and delightful as those who profit from its success claim it is? Has our faith—our almost religious devotion and worship—been rewarded? Has the miraculous advent of the infinite scroll really enriched our souls? Have the hours sacrificed on the alter of streaming services brought about blessing? Finally, isn’t it time we reconsidered the dogmatic belief that these new technologies only make our lives better?