Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Book Reviews

Technoculture and the Plausibility of Unbelief

The material and cultural roots of divine absence.

L.M. Sacasas

Photograph by Umberto/Unsplash.

We are living in an age of tech backlash. Especially given the perceived effects of social media on the outcome, the 2016 election undoubtedly catalyzed much of the critical sentiment about the role technology plays in our private lives and in society at large. This backlash can be attributed to a shift in thinking neatly expressed by the title of sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s 2018 essay for MIT Technology Review, “How Social Media Took Us From Tahrir Square to Donald Trump.” The same technologies that, circa 2010, were expected to herald a golden age of democracy were, by 2018, more likely to be framed as authoritarian tools and threats to democracy. Around the same time, less rapt voices also gained traction in debates about the relative merits not only of social media but of smartphones, the Internet, algorithmic governance, automation, self-driving cars, and, most recently, artificial intelligence. While it is not obvious to me that this critical sentiment has amounted to a reconfiguration of how our society relates to technology, it nevertheless seems clear that our collective technoenthusiasm has been dialed down a few notches.

It remains to be seen whether the tech backlash was a genuine challenge to our technologically mediated environment or merely another expression of it. If the critique flounders, it will be in part, a function of the language we use to talk and think about technology. In short, we lack an adequate set of terms and concepts. Technology itself may be, as the late historian Leo Marx once argued, a “hazardous concept” in this regard. How useful is a term that encompasses such an immense variety of artifacts, devices, tools, systems, and processes? Is it really helpful to think of both toothbrushes and telecommunication satellites as members of the same class of things we call technology? Conversely, what genuine insights can be uncovered by fine-grained analysis of specific tools or by historical studies of the emergence of this or that technology? It seems as if something can and should be said, not just about individual technologies but about the broader material ecosystem that frames our lives. We are entangled with technology in ways that make genuine understanding of our situation all the more difficult. This methodological impasse suggests that we need a mixture of rigor and precision in our apprehension of technical phenomena; a well-tempered, multiperspectival expansiveness of vision; along with a disciplined effort to think beyond the narrow normative parameters technological culture establishes for itself.

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