A thinking has developed, following the Frankfurt School proponents of Critical Theory, that technology has been instrumental in “replacing” religion. Just as Walter Benjamin had famously claimed that “capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion” (Benjamin, 2005, p. 259), so now technology, in all its ubiquity, is said to deliver the same relief. Technological advance has satisfied a multitude of concerns, and has left religious concerns obsolete or irrelevant. As Herbert Marcuse had written, already in the early 1940s, “theological dogmas no longer interfere with man’s struggle with matter” (Marcuse, 1982, p. 145); we overcome the obstacles and inhibitions placed upon us by Nature now without the need of divine intervention. This has given an inverted sense to the term Deus ex machina. God now really comes from the machine.
But the global outbreak of Covid-19 has complicated this thinking considerably. On the one hand, worry, anguish and disquiet have been raised to a new level, in relation first to the virus itself, and the devastation it has caused in so many lives, then to the political inadequacies and incompetencies seen and felt in so many supposedly developed nations, and finally to the economic fallout whose full measure we have yet to experience. Technology on these scores, except to survivors of hospitalised cases, has proven itself deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, communication and virtual mobility during lockdown have relied exclusively on screens and interconnectivity, allowing some workers to continue in their employment and the general public to hang on to the remaining threads, thin as they are, of social cohesion. Technology on these scores, except for those too impoverished to afford it (and we should not underestimate this number), has proven itself a lifeline. The question then stands: has the dissatisfaction, fueled by the heightened worry, anguish and disquiet, outweighed the satisfaction, drawn from the increased ability to share with one another our heightened worry, anguish and disquiet? Has the lack of answers to our concerns, whether shared or unshared, rekindled a need to look beyond our technological infrastructures, and the enhancements we thought we had achieved with them?
Examining the intricacies of these infrastructures might give us some insight into these questions, and show us how the pandemic has altered all of them – the questions, the infrastructures, and the nature of their intricacies. Toward this end we might say that advanced modern technology now operates on five interconnecting levels: efficiency, cohesion, diversion, acquisition, and salvation.
The form of technology operating on the first level we could call vocational technology, technology designed for the workspace of homo laborans. This form, an extension of the industrial revolution, is characterized chiefly by efficiency, whereby the occupation of our being in the process of work is expedited through time/cost savings. This level is not particularly convincing, insofar as its instrumental efficiency has proven to be viciously self-consuming: what technology frees up in our working processes is only filled up by more work, not more leisure, and this added work requires more efficiency, whose savings are then filled up by more work, in a relentless cycle of what Marx called the exploitation of surplus value. Email technology is perhaps the most widely accepted example of this phenomenon. What the lockdown of Covid-19 has brought is a palpable realization of just how vicious this cycle had become, and, perhaps, how unnecessary. All too quickly we have found we can survive very well without the perpetual need of responding immediately to all incoming work emails. The suspension of efficiency brought on by the pandemic was initially, for so many, a blessed relief.
The second form we could call social technology, a form that carries the most subscribers. If the dominant device of the form of vocational technology is the computer, the dominant device of social technology is the mobile or cellular phone. On this device, social media has its fullest and most insistent expression, and communication its widest reach. But their ubiquity is both celebrated and reviled. Perpetual connectivity has brought the world closer and transformed our understanding of social cohesion, while at the same time it never leaves us alone. Social media offers a sense of instant community, but in doing so betrays a profound unaccountability within the communal fold. During the lockdown of Covid-19, social technology in general has come into its own: the nastier side of superfluous interaction encouraged by hyper-public social media sites – those for whom “going viral” is not merely a virtue but a sanctification – has been overtaken by more privatized use, as people connect with friends, family and loved ones for their exclusive means of socialization. To many, video calls have been the only portal to life outside a hermetic existence, or solitary confinement.
The third type we could call cultural technology, and is related closely to the second type, though with this difference: rather than focus on cohesion through communication, it focuses on distraction through entertainment. The internet has opened up unprecedented access to all forms of cultural diversion, from films to television, YouTube to TikTok, music streaming to meme generating, gaming to esport spectating. The volume of cultural products in this sphere is bottomless, and so too the levels of preoccupation and separation, by which non-digital reality is often reduced to a second-best option. The coronavirus has certainly played into the strength of, and need for, these diversions, for they thrive on the isolation of the viewer looking for relief from the tedium of static existence.
The fourth form we could call consumerist technology, for it promotes and expedites the accumulation of goods. Online purchase and delivery are now available for virtually every line of product, and one company stands above the rest in creating, capturing and channeling the need for consumption: Amazon. This worldwide market regime has gained its dominance by mastering integration of the first three technological spheres – vocational, social and cultural. One cannot navigate any of these spheres without soon encountering Amazon’s presence, with its platforms to acquire all material goods for both business or personal use. Covid-19 has been a steroid for online shopping in general and for Amazon in particular. What cannot be deemed essential – and even much that can – has been obtained through clicks of the mouse and the delivery vans they trigger into motion. Economies will take a brutal beating from the global pandemic, but the likes of Amazon will be seen as the ventilators that have kept them from an altogether fatal collapse.
What operates on the final level we could call scientific technology. This is easily the most revered, the most lauded, and the most encouraged. It involves the ever-deepening examination of Nature at its extremes – the microcosmic and the macrocosmic – and the harnessing of Nature’s power to control, enhance, and direct what we call our quality of life. In the medical world, this means a greater understanding of the human body and the environmental conditions within which it lives, and leads to the alleviation of certain ills, some common, some rare, towards a longer life expectancy. The coronavirus has brought out once again a tacit assumption or expectation about scientific technology: that it will eventually triumph. Very few doubt that scientists will eventually find a vaccine for Covid-19, even if there is considerable debate about its timing, and its effectiveness against mutations. This confidence is based on our past record of discovery, and on the now global size of the scientific community working on the problem. Modern medicine will in time prevail. Amid the bleakness and tribulations of lost lives, there is a soteriological promise, however deferred. Scientific technology offers itself as a panacea, not because it can now solve or cure all medical problems, but because in our collective imagination it holds out the hope that it can.
Now, if together these forms, and their unmistakable integration with one another, serve to replace, substitute, or surrogate the domain in which our greatest anxieties were once most satisfactorily allayed, the traditional domain of religion – here as faith practices and the tenets that direct them – then the current pandemic crisis has forced us to rethink this technological redemption.
The pause in our work routines has shown us how technology set up for vocational efficiency has in fact produced a more intense and demanding work environment, where endless data and incessant communication have led to a more frenetic work day. Self-isolation and home-working have made us consider the long-term harm of these frenzied routines, as we slow the pace down, and discover that, in most cases, the working world does not implode when we refrain from an instant reply to this demand or that. Labour can no longer be the redemption of life, in Hannah Arendt’s terms – that is, it can no longer redeem us from the “predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process” (Arendt, 1958, p. 236) – when the technology employed imprisons us all the more. Lockdown has provided us the chance, once the whirr of the machine has stopped, to ask anew: “What then might redeem us?”
Self-isolation has also forced us to reconsider the nature of social cohesion. What had emerged in the general polarity of the social media dynamic was not a greater coming together of disparate peoples, ethnicities and communities, but in fact a moving apart, a divisiveness characterized not merely by discourtesy but all too often by acridity and offense. Social media, as a place of unbridled opinion, has bred unrestrained ad hominem attack and invective. Cyber-bullying has reached the level of pastime, even for heads of state. What was supposed to bring us together under a shared ethos of unregulated connectivity has in fact made us much unkinder and more disparaging towards one another, as freedom of expression expands at the same rate as impunity. But while the emergence of Covid-19 has not proven to be a social leveler, for not all are equally vulnerable, it has caused us to redirect our energies towards a different kind of engagement, as general suffering has dominated our thoughts and experiences. Since the social binding and collective representations that organized religion once provided have found no adequate substitution in social technology, as is now patently evident to even the casual user, finding modes of cohesion beyond social media is now an exigent matter. Quarantine has asked us to reconceive the technology as an instrument that no longer imposes suffering but rather helps to relieve suffering by allowing us to share the experiences of suffering, beginning with the suffering of our own isolated selves.
Cultural technology offers exponential distraction, not least from this suffering. But the coronavirus pandemic has awaked us to the fleeting, directionless, and often vacuous nature of these distractions. Digital trends, viral memes, addictive gaming, celebrity culture, the cult of sport fandom – each of these amusements carry their own elements of worship and devotion. But now, with so many no longer available or replenishable in their old form, their empty need has been exposed as what the Hebrew preacher Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes had called a “vanity of vanities”. As much as we require diversion, and in lockdown more than ever, these meaningless divertimenti no longer hold our attention. Or at least we can say this much: in the grand context of a pandemic, superficiality does not carry the same satisfactions as before; its veils are too thin, its fabric too diaphanous, to block out the glaring concerns and needs of a world in the straits of rampant affliction.
In this context, consumerist technology is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom of goods to arrive directly onto our doorstep, and so furnishes the essential needs threatened by crisis. But it goes beyond this, and salves the need for non-essential acquisition, which, in capitalism’s indoctrination, is vital to our understanding of personal and national prosperity. On the other hand, that very movement, as a global phenomenon, is part of the problem of infectious spread: what allows goods to travel globally around the world for consumption are the same pathways that spread a virus so quickly and extensively. The pandemic has therefore set the conditions for its own metaphorical transference: what has allowed the rapid spread of the virus, the exploits of globalization, especially as directed by and to the West, has become a virus in and of itself. Wanton consumerism attacks the well-being not only of the consumer, with its false sense of prosperity, but also of the planet and its resources. Is it accidental, or somehow indicative, that the largest online company for consumer technology is named after a region with the earth’s greatest biodiversity but also its greatest environmental spoliation? Covid-19 has provoked a re-evaluation of our values, and of our responsibility not only to each other but to the planet we inhabit. In asking so much of the earth, we have plucked a diseased fruit, and brought travail upon ourselves, and we are left asking what reparations, what expiation, we can offer.
The ensuing inflictions and infections go beyond the physical. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is how little the medical industry still knows. It has not been able to give us definitive answers concerning the virus’s behaviour. It has not been able to stop all spread, or avert all casualties, even in places not yet infected. Politically, it has not been able to coordinate an effective and uniform strategy across major centres of population. And even if it eventually discovers a vaccine, it will not put at ease the general worry that a mutated strain could develop at any time, or that a future pandemic is more than likely. The soteriological narrative of scientific technology as the realm to solve the problem of human mortality – or, less ambitiously, to keep extending our quality of life – has been thrown yet further into question. We are all grateful for advances made that have kept the coronavirus under some semblance of control. But we are more conscious than ever of how our trust in scientific technology is based on assumptions and hopes that are fragile, tenuous, and ultimately unreliable, to the point where we are forced to recalculate the extent of our human limitations. And this is even more the case when we make that metaphorical leap to a viral condition beyond the physical body. What the various faith traditions have always provided is a comprehensive sense of soteriology: what is under the banner of salvation, however conceived, includes body, soul, spirit, and cosmos. We have always been integrated; movement between these levels, as taught in these traditions, has never been metaphorical. What infects one level in reality infects them all.
Common to each of these five general forms of technology – vocational, social, cultural, consumerist, and scientific – is what Marcuse had called a technical rationality, a rationality that has changed little in the last one hundred years (even if the various forms of technology have). This way of thinking is characterized chiefly by an instrumentality, or by a focus on the means to an end in which the means is so prioritized, so paramount, that the end becomes forgotten, even irrelevant. The pandemic, in all its disruption, has revived the questions of ends: to what purpose do we do the things we do, not just vocationally, socially, culturally, acquisitionally, and scientifically, but beyond these means of activity? And can now the means be justified in light of the ends? These questions have become more salient in our general consciousness.
Technical rationality is also characterized by what Lewis Mumford had called (even before Marcuse) matter-of-factness, wherein technology is the factor and we humans the factum (Mumford, 1934, p. p. 361). Here the “fact” is seen as an empirical solidity verified through measurement and quantification. It divests itself of any metaphorical element. In today’s digital parlance we might modulate this and say the human has become the datum, the quantification that fits into the larger schema of data organisation. In this sense it has fulfilled Marcuse’s prophetic announcement of the one-dimensional person (Marcuse, 1964). The pandemic, however, has challenged this reduction of the human to mere matter-of-factness, to being-data. Statistical numbers for human existence and human activity remain useful instrumentally; but when they are produced for that which threatens human existence and activity, when they capture the shift from existence to non-existence, and measure obliteration, our matter-of-fact attitudes provide less of an assurance, if they provide any assurances at all. Religion has never been contextualised within “the facts”. Rather, “the facts”, whatever they constituted, have, up until modernity, always been contextualized within religion. The question raised by Covid-19 is this: how ought we to contextualise our facts, now that technology has proven unsatisfactory in rationalising the harsh realities, the data and the numbers, in the statistics and graphs and tables we encounter on a daily basis?
We don’t expect traditional, institutionalised religion to quickly refill this context – at least, not in the West. But the question has been asked: will lockdown, self-isolation, and for many an occupational shift into neutral gear move us anew toward introspection, individual and collective? And will this introspection, having seen both the power and the limits of technology, challenge us to rethink what values and what ends we should impose upon technology, rather than what values and what means technology should impose upon us? Technology will not replace religion. But might it re-inspire religious thinking by means of its own limitations? Might we say, as once did T.S. Eliot’s magi, that “we are no longer at ease here” (Eliot, 1971, p.69), in this world of instrumentalised rationality, in this world of matter-of-factness, where disease becomes dis-ease, and we are compelled to seek a new dispensation? Might we invoke a new deus ex machina that releases us from the jammed plotlines of our own making, and frees the gods from the machines in which we have encased them?
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958.
Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion [Fragment 74]”. Trans. Chad Kautzer. In The Frankfurt School on Religion. Ed. Eduardo Mendieta. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Eliot, T.S. “Journey of the Magi”. In Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”. In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continnum, 1982.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1934.