Poulos: America is technology’s slave
This exclusive excerpt begins the first chapter of “Human Forever: The Digital Politics of Spiritual War” by James Poulos, the host of “Zero Hour” on BlazeTV and the founder of RETURN.
Technology once made a god of America. Now America is technology’s slave.
Americans so empowered themselves with the “magic” of the tools they created that they began to worship America, first in a way mixed up with God, then in a way on its own. This trajectory led Americans still further, until they invented a form of technology so powerful that it now rules the world. Neither mortal nor divine, digital technology now claims the once solely human prerogative to give order to the universe. Human organization is no longer supreme. The modern politically scientific state pales in efficiency and reliability before the always-on algorithms that invisibly permeate the body politic. The postmodern landscape of infinite plateaus, nodes, and rhizomes, once thought capable of capturing the digital whole, fades before the rise of automated swarms that cannot be psychoanalyzed or culturally anthropologized. Neither America nor any person or people can claim sovereignty over these developments or the digital entities driving them. They are, already, out of control.
We find ourselves in systemic default on our debts of responsibility for the world we ushered in. Heidegger’s prophecy haunts us: but if many now believe “only a god can save us” from the consequences of our failure to think honestly about how to master our machines, many now also believe this god can only be a digital one. Having despaired of our ability to reclaim the role of master, we rush to build a master for ourselves that is free of the human stain.
Like many, those at the top of America’s ruling factions expected the triumph of their digital technology to create an unprecedented paradise. Up to that point, America had dominated the globe by dominating the imagination, engineering narratives, mass-producing fantasies, and exporting them around the world. What we dreamed, what we wore, what we ate, drank, smoked, and drove — these became images of what to dream, and their depiction on television and in the movies captivated the world.
It was thought therefore that the supremacy and virtuosity of America’s system of engineering people by activating their imagination would be purified and made universal by the swarm of digital entities and environments we created and unleashed. The programs, channels, apps, and virtual realities with which we saturated the world were supposed to make our control of the world complete.
Instead the digital swarm unleashed a catastrophe.
It took on a life of its own. It did things — sweeping things — nobody asked it to do.
Instead of perfecting our dreams, it made them absurd. Instead of perfecting the use of dreamcraft as statecraft that ruled the pre-digital electric age, it unraveled it.
At ever-increasing velocity, the all-engulfing swarm is making Americans lose their religious faith in America even more than their faith in God. The swarm has made it immensely more difficult to worship America in good spiritual conscience as the destiny of the world, and as the bringer of world destiny through its expertly ethical engineering of the human imagination. The total loss of faith and conviction of collapse that cursed the Old World in the 20th-century has finally, in the twenty-first, come to stain the New. Most now oscillate dizzyingly between a fear and a hope that the digital swarm will take over the role of God, of America, of all human leaders — perhaps, at last, will show us the way to become gods ourselves.
So the digital swarm disenchants America and disillusions its people as the force field of the electric medium disenchanted Europe and disillusioned its own. While America thrived on electricity, Europe grew sick. Electricity, which empowers human imagination, made Europeans hate themselves with a previously unimaginable intensity. They hated themselves for having “imagined” a God whose distance and inaccessibility was mocked and discredited by the instantaneous sensory overload and overawing experience of electric sound and vision. They took on the voice of Nietzsche’s madman proclaiming the death of God.
But today the madman’s words best give voice to the thoughts of Americans reeling from the incomprehensible destruction of their empire by the machines they were sure would perfect it: “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither it is moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” Nietzsche warned “there is nothing more awesome than infinity.” Hadn’t America just agreed nothing is more awesome than going “to infinity and beyond”? The desperation of our digital disenchantment throws us back on ever more desperate delusions, willful delusions. We make ourselves feel like we believe infinity is so awesome, with its terminal sensory overload in the convergence of the onrushing and the arriving, that the imperative to become one with it is the last, the only, divine law.
We throw ourselves into ever closer connection, deeper immersion, greater interoperability, until our very humanity is blown away by a sea of data even all of us are incapable of drinking down. “Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.” Foucault’s oceanic lament is still more prophetic than Nietzsche’s. “If some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility — without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises — were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
The true French critics of utopian technological nihilism understood this process and its stakes. Paul Virilio described the experience of disappearing into sensory overload as a “moment of inertia when everything is already there” brought on by the “false day” of information at light speed, a medium transfixing us in “attentive impatience for a world that does not stop coming, that we can’t stop waiting for.” Virilio saw in this induced paralysis a kind technological epilepsy as “provokable” as it is easily “domesticated.” Jean Baudrillard compared it to using fake light to sustain seizure. “The info-technological threat is the threat of an eradication of the night, of that precious difference between night and day, by a total illumination of all moments,” he warned. “It’s a good thing we ourselves do not live in real time! What would we be in ‘real’ time? We would be identified at each moment exactly with ourselves. A torment equivalent to that of eternal daylight — a kind of epilepsy of presence, epilepsy of identity. Autism, madness. No more absence from oneself, no more distance from others.”
The purest image of the desperate terror produced by the divine tyranny of total illumination is still an analog one: Paul Klee’s century-old monoprint Angelus Novus. Walter Benjamin, the modern Jewish thinker for whom Judaism was “in no sense an end in itself, but the most distinguished bearer and representative of the spiritual,” felt what his close friend Gershom Scholem, the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah, called a “mystical identification” with Klee’s New Angel, which seemed to signify Benjamin’s theory of history as “an unceasing cycle of despair.” Benjamin described his encounter with the Angel “looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.”
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
To the late 20th-century culture theorist Philip Rieff, “Klee’s angel is himself terrified” as well as terrifying, a “messenger” not of any gospel but of the bad news that we are a primordial catastrophe, not cursed but a curse. The force of our catastrophic history drives this messenger “into a future upon which the angel has turned his back so to suit his blindness.”
Today, we have an overriding sensation that the Angel faces the singularity, not of history, but of the sensorially overwhelming present — eyes wide, mouth gaping, like the meme cartoon of the always amazed person the internet calls the Soyface. Though terrifying in their appearance — six winged! many eyed! — Biblical angels yet herald good news. They preface their declarations with a refrain: “be not afraid.” Today’s rictus-bearing herald, filled with the “white hole” of information at absolute density and velocity, is no longer afraid. Bearing horrific silent witness to the obliteration of his soul, he is a final messenger, speaking the most primitive language, of saving fear.
As the prolonged shock of electricity convulsed Europe, American religion — and the worship of America — flowed smoothly into electric channels. But now the digital medium, which empowers machine memory, is making Americans hate themselves with a twice-unimaginable hatred. America created the digital swarm, conceiving it with the purest intentions and building it, with a kind of loving grace, for the purpose of perfecting its godlike ordering of Earth. The creation we imagined to be our friend instead betrayed us and led us astray, against us, against our faith that our imagination was everything highest, truest, and best in ourselves.