The least-discussed chapter in Patrick Deneen’s much-discussed Why Liberalism Failed is—I would venture—“Technology and the Loss of Liberty.” Similarly, Rod Dreher has lamented that relatively few readers or reviewers discuss the technology chapter in The Benedict Option. These oversights are unfortunate because our current cultural and political climate is unintelligible without an adequate account of the role technology, and particularly digital technology, plays in enabling and shaping our quest for freedom.
Deneen’s focus is on how the political ideology of liberalism pushes societies to develop technologies that enable autonomous individuals to satisfy their desires, although these technologies often backfire and leave us more lonely and enslaved. In Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship, Jacob Shatzer explores the inverse of this dynamic: the digital technologies with which we live subtly yet powerfully shape us into autonomous, liberal subjects. Such technologies habituate us through what Shatzer terms “liturgies of control.” These liturgies create the plausibility structures necessary to sustain the myth of liberalism: that we are autonomous individuals capable of arranging the world to fulfill our appetites. The arguments that Deneen and Shatzer advance are really two sides of the same coin; as one interpreter of Marshall McLuhan put it (perhaps paraphrasing Churchill), “We make our tools, and then our tools make us.”
Shatzer argues, then, that our tools are not neutral; they come with “inducements” that push us to use them in certain ways. Though he doesn’t cite Heidegger, Shatzer’s approach follows from Heidegger’s notion that modern technology creates a Gestell or “enframing.” Powerful technologies are not simply means; they carry their own narratives and position us to relate to the world from a particular posture. In the case of modern technologies, this is often the posture of the godlike, controlling subject. Hence our use of seemingly trivial technologies can have insidious consequences. As Shatzer warns, “without reflection and practice, we will all too easily find ourselves subject to the wrong liturgies, in the wrong stories—technology’s story and transhumanism’s story” (135).
What exactly is transhumanism’s story? In essence, it is a narrative that promotes “the continued evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form—and thus beyond human limitations—by means of science and technology” (40). There are no limits on what it means to be human; technology can endlessly enhance us.
On the one hand, as Shatzer points out, there is some common ground shared by Christians and transhumanists. Both can agree that human persons are malleable: Transhumanists like Andy Clark call persons “soft selves,” and Christians describe this reality in terms of redemption and discipleship. The implication for transhumanists is that we can use tools and treatments to accelerate and direct human evolution in whatever manner we prefer. For Christians, this reality has traditionally led to liturgies and practices that help persons become conformed to the image of Christ. (Perhaps the best essay I’ve read on this latter topic, an essay that Shatzer draws on at several junctures, is Alan Jacobs’s “Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction,” in which Jacobs argues that the church needs to recover or develop contemplative practices that can help “produce people who have minds and consciences.” As Jacobs demonstrates, the technological ecosystem we inhabit atrophies these human faculties.)
Where Shatzer argues that Christians should part ways with transhumanists is with regard to the telos of our human making. Transhumanists tend to value individual agency and autonomy above all else; if a particular technology increases your ability to attain your desires, then it is an enhancement. Such claims bring to mind Chesterton’s remark about the “unfit” whom “the scientific thinker who would finish them off because he cannot even finish his own sentence—unfit for what?” Transhumanist rhetoric rarely answers the fundamental question: enhanced for what? As Shatzer explains, “the illusion of control that technology provides us nurtures a circle: we think to be human is to be in control, so if technology gives control, it makes us more human” (31). A biblical anthropology leads to a rather different standard. According to the gospels, Shatzer writes, “human flourishing … is not oriented around the self but around God and the neighbor” (37).
At this stage, some readers might wonder what sorts of technological architecture—digital or otherwise—might humans develop to better practice a love for God and neighbor. Is it possible to construct technologies or institutions of love that differ from the technologies and institutions of control that predominate in our liberal age? Possibly, but love is a difficult virtue to practice, and no technology will make it easy. Shatzer does cite some examples–such as the decision of an Anabaptist manufacturer to get rid of email because it harmed the work environment–of communities that put frameworks in place to help their members relate to one another in love.
But for the most part Shatzer’s book takes a different—though no less fruitful—approach. After defining transhumanism, he spends three chapters looking at particular technologies that have the potential to redefine the human person through morphological freedom (or the ability to remake the body), augmented reality (or the blending of the body and the digital), and artificial intelligence (or the replacement of the body with the digital). Shatzer helpfully outlines the current and potential possibilities in each of these domains, and he also points to everyday tools that habituate us to transhumanist values and prepare us for more invasive technological options. For instance, social media offers a relatively low stakes way to experiment with constructing new personas, allowing people to grow comfortable with more drastic methods of remaking the self. Pokémon Go, fitness trackers, smart glasses, Siri or Alexa, and household robots are other increasingly common technologies that acclimate us to the more utopian—or apocalyptic—future that transhumanists envision. These tools create the plausibility structures that bolster the transhumanist narrative that technology will empower autonomous, controlling subjects.
The next four chapters turn to different arenas in which digital technologies are reshaping our view of reality: medicine, mapping, robotics, and communications. As Shatzer warns in his discussion of robotic caregivers, pets, and companions, these technologies—along with social media, where we interact with people and bots interchangably—“form us to treat relationships similarly to consumable products, products that we are free to use or not use in our quest to make ourselves who we want to be” (152). As he goes on to ask, “How can we resist this type of formation?”
In answering this question, Shatzer proposes a set of roles and practices that together can form a counter-narrative and counter-liturgy to transhumanism and its “liturgies of control.” His three central images of healthy human roles are that of the storyteller, the neighbor, and the friend. If we imagine ourselves filling these roles, we’ll be less likely to treat other persons as avatars to manipulate. Shatzer fleshes out these roles by suggesting practices such as sharing potlucks, honoring the sabbath, finding solitude, being a good neighbor, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, praying, cultivating a craft, gardening, and homemaking. These practices are not exhaustive, but they serve to help us imagine ways of being human persons oriented by a love for God and neighbor rather than a desire to maximize our own freedom and control.
Shatzer’s book is certainly not the final word on the many challenging questions raised by our rapidly-developing digital technologies. But his book is especially valuable, I think, in helping us see the ways in which the technologies we already use may be habituating us to a transhumanist narrative that we would be wise to resist. In our technological milieu, liberalism has become second nature; in large part, this is the result of a political philosophy that, as Deneen argues, redefined liberty. In light of this reality, our immediate task is to look for narratives and practices that allow us to live not as autonomous, controlling subjects, but as dependent, loving persons. And as we do this, we will be better able to work within our communities to imagine and foster technological architectures that foster love.