Now, as all of you will have had reason aplenty to discover for yourselves, there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.
The extract is from the book “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman, whose central point is a war between gods. On one side you have the old gods, the kind you find in Norse mythology, the kind of gods for whom human and animal lives were sacrificed until a while ago, who gave rise to peculiar superstitions like putting a silver coin washed in rainwater under your silk pillow on a full-moon night that falls on a Tuesday, so that you can see the man you’re going to marry. On the other side, we have the new gods that are mentioned in the quote above, that we ourselves wouldn’t call gods at all, in fact. To us, they are more like technologies that help improve our lives, not at all the sort of entities that give rise to weird habits.
The first time I encountered the association between tools that we use in our daily lives and gods was when I read the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. I found ground-breaking at that time the extent to which we use collective imagination to solve mundane tasks, especially outside the world of spirituality. He gives as an example the corporation Peugeot S.A., which, oddly enough, would continue to exist even if all its factories were closed, all employees left the company, or all its cars were destroyed. Moreover, the company, not the people behind it, can borrow money, go bankrupt, or make profits. All of this is because of a legal concept called “limited liability companies.”
How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches. It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them. [...] In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus — a new company was incorporated.
— Yuval Noah Harari
When you put it this way, it seems obvious that much of the modern economy is based on mutual trust. In “American gods,” however, one of the main so-called new gods was technology. At first, this was harder for me to grasp and I mainly dismissed it as a figure of speech designed to incorporate the entire story of old vs. new into a catchier narrative. After all, technology is a solid concept. You see technology deliver results that are scientifically asserted and quantified, you see it making things move, and, most importantly, even if tomorrow everybody starts believing that a computer cannot do anything, I can still power on my laptop and it will produce the same results as today.
You can therefore say that technology simply exists, that it is physical, palpable. Or… is it really so? Well, of course, you can touch robots, for instance, but their power does not necessarily lie in the metal case. It’s in their “brain,” the program that was written to make them perform a certain task. A computer chip, a mass of silicon carved in such a way that tiny blocks we call transistors are formed, is useless without the programs that power on such chips, that synchronize these transistors in such a way that they produce what we call bits, which we then combine to achieve all sorts of results, such as a display showing a picture of a cat playing in a carton box1.
And what is a program other than a description of the functionality that such a device is supposed to achieve? It describes the events that need to take place inside that machine, written in a language that can be understood by (some) people and, indirectly at least, by machines. However, these programs are written by people themselves, who must see a purpose in what they are writing, in the task that the machine is supposed to do. People must have a vision for the behavior of these machines, guided by the belief in the power of these devices2. We now take the multitude of apps and functionalities of our computers for granted, forgetting that not so long ago not even people at the forefront of innovation saw how these devices could find a place in our daily lives. One of the co-founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, recalls his views on computers for personal use:
“An engineer came to me with an idea about a home computer,” he recalled. “I said, 'Gee, that's fine but what would you use it for?'” He could only think of a housewife using it to keep recipes on. “I didn't think that would be a very powerful application, so I didn't think Intel should pursue a personal computer at that time.
— Gordon Moore
So apart from the expertise needed to write code for these machines, we also need the foresight about their purpose. Multiple collections of nicely-indented text then go on to tell the story of how a machine will behave and make the magic happen. You might see where this is going. Religious books are structured in a similar way. The major difference is that computer programs tell stories that we can see now, whereas religious texts tell stories that happened a long time ago and whose validity is hard to check. It’s the detail that seems to make all the difference between these two. Then why am I bringing this up?
Well, I find that while religious texts make some people believe in events of the past, computer programs give us hope for events that will happen in the future. For instance, I truly think we would be able to create the means to colonize Mars. Sure, it might be a huge effort with billions of dollars invested, but I see no way why this shouldn’t be possible, although I haven’t heard of anything like it having ever been built. This kind of faith is tremendously important, being able to move money, people and resources in the direction of progress that helps us live longer, healthier, and perhaps happier than before. Is this always the case, that trust in these systems can only move us forward? Can too much trust in at least some technologies be also damaging?
An example that comes to my mind is our belief in social media. I have worked in a team on developing a strategy for a product as part of a competition. On the day of the final presentations, we discovered that all the teams, including ours, proposed as a marketing strategy promoting the product on Instagram, or through bloggers and influencers. All of us. The social media appeal is so impregnated in our minds, that it didn’t matter if this was the most effective solution or not — it had the highest availability in our heads, so we just went with the flow and followed it. We can see similar patterns in the way we use messaging applications, hoping they will enable us to stay connected with our peers, or in the way we aimlessly scroll for new posts on various platforms, suspecting that there is something tremendously important that we would otherwise miss.
The few people I meet that do not have social media accounts or smartphones usually admit their partial retreat from the modern world with an almost sheepish attitude, probably out of fear of being judged by others as old-fashioned. We should be tolerant of people of all faiths, smartphone-owners or not, right? Fortunately, as with every action there is at least a thin reaction. In my bubble, at least, there is an emerging trend of thoughtfully kicking out of our lives gadgets that are counterproductive or anxiety-provoking. The reference book for this new school of thought is Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” (I haven’t read the book, but I have listened to a podcast about it, and in our days this is almost as good as having read the whole thing).
Along these lines, we can also think about the extent to which technology dominates us, and not the other way around. Although we like to think of ourselves as highly autonomous human beings, truth is most of us would agree that our devices often absorb more of our time and attention than we’d like to. In this regard, maybe they’re not so far from being a sort of god that exerts control over us. It’s like our sacrifice, in this case, is not a person or an animal, but time slots of our mind. Sure, other people were the designers of these addictive mechanisms that sweep us away, but if you are an atheist you probably also think the same about religion.
I admit this parallel between gods and science may seem too far-fetched. You can probably find analogies in almost anything if you look hard enough. Do I believe that technology is really a god? No, I don’t. Can this thought experiment, however, be of any use besides stretching our imagination?
Well, for one thing, I think it challenges us to search for the irrational in the rational. An entire field may be extremely important for humankind, but this doesn’t imply that all of its subcomponents are equally beneficial. Another takeaway is to not let our digital tools dominate us in ways we are not prepared to acknowledge. It’s true, inanimate entities can have a tremendous influence on us when they act as proxies of others.
Lastly, it’s worth looking for solutions to our problems in more places. Is technology the right answer in that particular case we have to tackle? If yes, can we look beyond the typical answers that are flooding us nowadays (social media, ads, machine learning, AI, etc.)? We have to coexist with this overly optimistic side our ours when it comes to the power of technology and perhaps temper it from time to time.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.
— Yuval Noah Harari
1. I am aware of the fact that this is a gross oversimplification and I hope my reputation as an engineer won't suffer because I said that bits come out of transistors.
2. I have the feeling a lot of people will cringe when they see words such as belief and faith in relationship with computers.