Deus Ex Machina: Tradition and the Essence of Technology
[Editors Note: This article was originally published at Northern Dawn on October 4, 2017.]
How is a traditionalist to treat his relationship to technology? For a tool destined to set us free and bring about world-wide enlightenment, technology has been largely a force of imprisonment for the masses. As the title of this essay suggests, technology was envisioned to be a literal “Deus Ex Machina”: our salvation and means to achieve peace here on Earth, and this is a point that the so-called “post-humanists” (Kurzweil, Zuckerberg, and so on) will not shy away from, although they stop just at the boundary of naming this force, this phenomenon, their own artificial Christ.
But those of us who yet retain or have salvaged some participatory and real relationship to the divine’s presence in the world are confronted with a reality in which we too are caught up within the bounds of this overwhelming and forward-seeking force. The technological is inherently tied to the philosophies which were its boon and nurturing soil. The hyper-rationalism and instrumentality of the Enlightenment has been so ingrained in the very operation and understanding of technology that it becomes very difficult for one to view the phenomenon from a non-technological perspective.
The problems of technology only breed more technology. This instrumental view of reality is a mode of being we have to consciously escape from. The modern man regards all things based on their function and benefit, while the traditional man confronts reality and “brings-forth” being.
Technology vs. Tradition
When we speak of technology we use words like “progress” or “exponential growth” and our fancy imagines a world of tomorrow full of miraculous machines which can conform to our every whim and need. This is the allure and illusion of technology: that it must and will always serve our purposes. In fact, the word “machine” is noted in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “probably related to the Greek μῆχος ‘means, expedient, remedy’”, but ultimately deriving from the Latin root machina, which in its second sense denotes “a device, plan, contrivance, a trick” (OED).
Technology: a trick of a remedy. Technology as a force, and a means to an end is temporally always future-oriented. It advances and never regresses, it always speeds up yet never slows down. This is fundamentally in opposition with the living tradition which is at its root past-oriented, while also being constantly renewed in the present. The main difference here is that although technology was present in antiquity it wasn’t there in it’s entire form, whereas we call tradition ‘alive’ because it maintains wholeness throughout time and space. Technology must always accumulate because it is never complete: there is always one more improvement to make, one more way to increase efficiency. And this is its essence.
Technology as an Essence
When speaking of the essence of technology, the purpose is to find the character of its being and relation to other beings. This is not a newly posited question. In his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger seeks to resolve the very same issue encountered here. There are many nuances to Heidegger’s argument which encompasses and builds upon his notions of being and time, but for our purposes, a few key points are crucial to understanding what is essential about technology:
First, the essence of technology is not something we make; it is a mode of being, or of revealing. This means that technological things have their own novel kind of presence, endurance and connections among parts and wholes. (Blitz)
The difficulty of separating oneself from the technological is not just one of material consequence (e.g. to remove all technological apparatuses from one’s life) but rather it is a separation that would involve the very make-up of the modern consciousness. The scientific mind places great emphasis on the “tool-making” phase of man’s evolution as a fundamental step towards our later sapience or wisdom. Thus, it is impossible to not think about technology without being caught in the philosophies and modes of thought that themselves produced technology (the post-enlightenment, modernist philosophies).
Like a snake eating its own tail, the paradox of technology endures, and all criticism of itself and the solutions to the problems caused by the technological are technological in nature themselves. In an article for the Catholic theological journal Communio, titled “Thinking About Technology” George Parkin Grant begins his piece with the quotation: “…Technology is the ontology of the age.” What he goes on to outline and explore (in dialogue with Heidegger) is that somewhere along the way we could not escape a technological way of perceiving the world, each other and as a matter of fact the divine.
The Technological as a Mode of perceiving the World
Due to being immersed in the technological mode of thought, it seems extremely difficult if not impossible to escape from it’s grip. This is especially true for those of us born in the internet age; we have accepted it to be a fact of life as natural as the function of one’s own arms,. Yet for millennia man lived and sought another mode of life: a different relationship with the world and the beings around him. This mode or experience is often described as a “naivete” or better yet an acceptance of the mystery inherent in the world. To retrieve this is to polish the philosopher’s stone. Yet while many have claimed to find their way back to the Edenic state and to be in conscious communion with the gushing divinity revealed through creation, we as Western peoples have in recent history not paid any heed to these individuals. Instead, we have rather implicitly accepted the utilitarian and instrumental experience without question. Until now, that is.
The scientific claim for the objective truth or interpretation of reality is to treat the thing out there (whether the natural or personal) as object. The scientist is he who takes a scalpel to all things (whether social, literary, natural or divine). Grant states:
At a higher level of attention we can recognize our political and social decisions are with the pursuit and realization of technological ends (613).
He later on calls the technological trend a homogenizing one (619); it devours all things in an attempt to deny anything outside of it’s objectifying gaze, like the Medusa of the ancients, turning all things into stone. Heidegger originally explores this notion as the ability of replacing “the familiar connection of parts to wholes; everything [becomes] just an exchangeable piece” (Blitz). Whether human, animal or religious, its meaning extends only as far as its use does. This is witnessed in our social and political institutions. This is true of the liberal capitalistic society where the individual is reduced to the consumer or just another component of the free market, and the Marxist, where the worker is as equal as another screw in the communist machine.
This instrumental view of reality is a mode of being we have to consciously escape from. The modern man regards all things based on their function and benefits. This is a system, or schema, or machine which has been integrated and envelopes our consciousness. It acts from the very time a babe wakes and lamentably finds him/herself in the present age and continues on through that grinding factory we call public education. In this world every lesson and sensation tells us that what is real is only what we can objectify and analyze; all else is rubbish or a primitive’s fancy.
Speaking on the new sciences (more particularly particle physics, but the point can expand to everything we encompass under the neat umbrella term STEM) Grant goes on to say:
…[the sciences] were in their essence folded toward the mastery of the energies of nature, in a way that was absent in the pre-modern (612).
Although our ancestors utilized the bounty of nature and manipulated it, the manipulation was not both the means and end within itself. Most of their mechanisms were one or two steps removed from the natural element. The classical man knew that without respect for the numinous forces present in the energies and states of matter found in the universe he would be doomed forever serve them.
The Instrument is Us
As technology progressed and took on its own being, a vague awareness permeated our subconscious that this force was an uncontrollable one with its own “mind” and intention. Today in the so called “digital age”, concerns over meddling too far with the primal forces of matter, or talk of the dangers of artificial intelligence are all too present for even the common citizen. With what great burden must he fall asleep knowing that the fate of reality is in the hands of those that see him as but another machine, a marionette doll to be poked and prodded?
The sad reality is that we did not need technology but technology required us. We Westerners are the ones instrumental to its development and eventual chaotic cycle. Although the technocrats are fooled into believing they hold the reins or press the buttons; it is technology that uses them as the “raw material” (Grant, 624) required to plaster together its Frankenstein and its own Metropolis. On this, Heidegger believes:
…these acts [the minutia of technological development] occur primarily by our own doing; we belong to the activity. Technological conscriptions of things occur in a sense prior to our actual technical use of them, because things must be (and seen as) already available resources in order for them to be used in this fashion. (Blitz)
Therefore, since the technological doesn’t encompass only the material aspect but the conscious orientation of the individual, the person wittingly or unwittingly makes oneself a propagator of its destiny. Without us the natural world has no need to assemble a Boeing 747 by its own means. Whether this destiny is our shared destiny or a challenge to spiritual man is yet to be seen. But any person adherent to tradition must be aware of its affects on one’s very perception of the world. With awareness and vigilance, we can begin to unplug from its power over us. Ever so slightly, we can lift the veil of “objectivity” anew to glance upon the living world.
The Essence of Technology is Demiurgic, Daemonic, Satanic
These three terms are not to be understood interchangeably but as different aspects of the same beast. The Demiurge – quite literally meaning “maker” or “craftsman” (OED) – was a Platonic (and heretical) concept of deity. It was later utilized by the Gnostics as a being antagonistic to the spiritual development of man and responsible for the soul’s entrapment within the material body. Like technology, the folly of the Demiurge is to not accept anything outside the bounds of its own being. It believes that it can treat everything contained within as similar in nature to itself. Such that under the gaze of the mechanism, we too become machine.
Like technology, the Demiurge has the potential to fool the masses to believe this assumption to be true. For many, anything beyond the material (read: mechanical) is incomprehensible: the brain is a computer, the mind a hologram, while the soul is written off as a glitch somewhere along the way. Yet for the few with a lingering sense of mystery and awe, however small, this is the eternal lie: there always has been something more and forever will be, to think otherwise is the folly of the fallen.
Within this context, the daemonic is from here on taken to mean “of the underworld”, “pertaining to the lower nature of man”, or more simply just “downward-looking”. The technological experience of the world focuses on sensation and phenomena claiming to ascertain their causes while in actuality only referencing back to itself and its own terminologies and neologisms. To be utilitarian is to be constantly concerned with the basic appetites: how to feed, how to bathe and how to achieve maximum pleasure.
Even when gazing heavenwards, the technological man reduces the planets (once perceived to write destinies) to statistics and chemical compositions ignoring their spiritual and symbolic significance. So we ask them, would the Egyptians, conscious of astronomical phenomenon and well-versed in their observation assign so much significance in their architecture and religion merely to dense gaseous bubbles? Or were they conscious of some significance beyond the one available to the very self same eyes we share?
Finally, arriving at the Satanic aspect, a problematic term absolutely, but one suiting for the Heideggerian essence of technology as “challenging-forth” rather than the “bringing-forth” power of the revelatory experience of being. Satan, or “shaitan” is denoted as the “adversary” or “great accuser”, the one who challenges God and all his workings. What has been the greatest challenge to the Christian conception of the world if not the technological/scientific developments which followed the 17th Century? Constant and proud in its intention to leave no stone unturned and to substitute truth with fact, technology is truly an arm of Satan. Did Blake not warn of “these dark Satanic Mills” when gazing upon the industrialization of his ancestral homeland? When explaining what he means by challenging-forth Heidegger reveals:
…that everything is imposed upon or “challenged” to be an orderly resource for technical application, which in turn we take as a resource for further use and so on interminably. For example, we challenge land to yield coal, treating the land as nothing but a coal reserve. The coal is then stored, “on call, ready to deliver the suns’ warmth hat is stored in it,” which is then challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.” (Blitz)
It is technology’s inability to see the real world outside it’s own earthward-looking gaze that challenges the sanctity and divine nature of being. Such a gaze when persisted upon will turn all that is beautiful to simple symmetry (as seen in the progression of the “modern arts”) and even all that is spiritual into the merely psychological. Or as the poetry of Blake puts it with greater force and reality than all the prosing in the world can hope to aspire to:
And all the Arts of Life they changed into the Arts of Death in Albion. (Jerusalem, Chapter 3.)
From Tool-Making Man to the Worshipping-Man
From the beginning man’s essential relationship to the world is one of praise, reverence and stewardship. The traditional man sees that the material and sensory is only one of many interpretable layers available for him to access in the universe around him. Yet this does not make it any less essential than the rest. To treat the physical as something to be avoided or moralized as evil was never the intention of this treatise, but rather to see it as a beginning point which leads us to a more whole and participatory experience of being. To do this one must escape the spiritual grip of technology.
The internet, social media and technology have been, if anything, nourishing to the spread of a traditional ontology or perception of the world. It has brought many people towards the path of light and removed many a clouded veil from the formerly lost. But it is only a means for the living tradition to transmit itself, while it remains unchanging. It would be foolish to take on a luddite approach to the bounty of technology, to completely immerse oneself in so-called “primitivism”. The substance to be transformed only begins with the body but it’s intended goal is man’s conscious perception of the world around him.
Evola’s lesser known esoteric work within the bounds of the anonymous UR Group, gives a guiding principle to take from all of this on the difference between the “cause” as seen by the spiritual man (the initiate) and the hardened scientific man (the uninitiated). They1 state:
Modern men believe that this is the same in the case of their science, since through various techniques science brings about well-known material realizations; and yet they are grossly mistaken, since the power afforded by technology is no more a true power than the explanations of profane sciences are true explanations. The cause, in both cases, is the same; it is the fact of a man who remains a man, and who does not change his nature to any significant degree.
Once the technological baggage weighing down consciousness is dissolved, then a new and meaningful universe will emerge and others will be recognized as common souls. The very same universe of Plato, of Augustine, of Dante will present itself to you: overflowing with fullness and divinity.
What is the traditional point of view, if it isn’t seeing all of creation as a sacrament of our Creator and Lord?
1: The pronoun “they” was chosen out of respect for Evola and friends’ desire for anonymity.
Blitz, Mark. “Understanding Heidegger on Technology.” The New Atlantis. N.p., n.d. Web.
Ea. “The Nature of Initiatic Knowledge.” Introduction to Magick (n.d.): n. pag. UR Group, Julius Evola. Web.
Grant, Mark Parkin. “Thinking About Technology.” Communio 28 (2001): 610-26. Print