Recently I’ve been making a concerted effort to cut down on the volume of email I get but one of the emails I regularly look forward to is Alan Jacob’s Newsletter Snakes & Ladders. I first found out about Alan Jacob’s after reading his books on: Original Sin, and Christian Humanism in the closing years of WW2.

In the latest issue he links to a recent essay of his on the subject of Technopoly which he defines as:

“Technopoly” may be described as the universal and virtually inescapable rule of our everyday lives by those who make and deploy technology, especially, in this moment, the instruments of digital communication.

Alan Jacobs, “After Technopoly,” The New Atlantis, Number 58, Spring 2019, pp. 3-14.

The person he’s describing is someone like me. I make and deploy technology online. I don’t work for Twitter, Amazon, or Facebook but if you live in the UK there is a fairly high chance you’ve interacted with something I’ve designed or helped build. I am not the strategist in the business but the tactician, who implements and thinks of how to execute or bring about a desired outcome in an online platform or the high street. I love what Jacob’s is saying in this piece because he diagnoses something that I think I was subconsciously aware of but had no language for.

This is especially true when he invokes the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski and his division of society into two cores, one mythical and one technological. Of technology he writes:

It describes a stance toward the world in which we view things around us as objects to be manipulated, or as instruments for manipulating our environment and ourselves.

Of myth he describes it as “is that aspect of experience that is not subject to manipulation” and that the two are always in tension with one another. This is emphasised when he compares the thinking of Kołakowski to that of another philosopher Michael Oakeshott who describes two visions of moral life. The first one is described as:

“we acquire habits of conduct in the same way as we acquire our native language” — that is, “not by constructing a way of living upon rules or precepts and learned by heart and subsequently practiced, but by living with people who habitually behave in a certain manner.”

Having recently read Hazony’s ‘Virtue of Nationalism’ this is what I believe he would describe as a ’empirical’ (mythical) vision of a moral life in contrast to a ‘rational’ (technological) moral life wherein:

“activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion.”

I see what I am calling here the empirical vision being from the ground-up and the rational vision being top-down respectively. Jacobs brings these two visions of life together, in the context of Technopoly, in an interesting way:

Technopoly is a system that arises within a society that views moral life as an application of rules but that produces people who practice moral life by habits of affection, not by rules. (Think of Silicon Valley social engineers who have created and capitalized upon Twitter outrage mobs.) Put another way, technopoly arises from the technological core of society but produces people who are driven and formed by the mythical core.

By way of example, Jacobs, in an earlier piece for The New Atlantis entitled ‘Wokeness as Myth’, uses the US phenomenon that is Wokeness as a way to expound what Kołakowski calls the ‘Mythical core’ of our society.

Something even more deep-seated is at work when student protesters’ interpretations of events, and their proffered remedies for historical or current injustice, are challenged and the students reply, “You are denying my very identity.” This response makes sense only within the mythical core, not the technological core. One cannot analytically pick apart a complex, integrated mythical framework and say, “I choose this but not that” without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless. That is what instrumental reason always does to myth.

Alan Jacobs, “Wokeness and Myth on Campus,” The New Atlantis, Number 53, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 33-44.

In light of this to speak against Wokeness or to even try and examine it analytically, is a kind of sin against the Woke, a denigration. Yet to even talk of sin, Jacob writes, is the product of an incredibly old and sophisticated Christian framework that has been refined over millenia. It is also one that until recently our society has been saturated in but many increasingly have no way to engage with its vocabulary. It’s among other things a means to talk about defilement. As Jacobs writes:

“Sin” is a concept, an idea, but an idea that arises from a more fundamental experience, defilement. Before I could ever know that I or someone else has sinned, there must be a deeper, pre-rational awareness that defilement has happened. One thinks here of a moment in Dickens’s Hard Times when Mrs. Gradgrind is asked whether she is in pain: “‘I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.’”

Yet strip that away, as we have in our Post-Christian age, and “if you have not inherited such a sophisticated moral language, might you not then be closer to the elemental experiences and their primary symbols?” This explains some of the extreme reactions we see from both the Woke and the Alt-Right.

The below video is probably one the best known examples of this.

I only mention this as an illustration to the broader point being made. That this new Myth (and this is not to say it is false as rationalists would) is enabled by Technology. This is why, Jacobs writes, we see Mobs forming. You want people engaging with your product:

It is in the interest of technopoly to produce people who swarm. Swarming is virality. Swarms live by memes. Swarms produce bestsellers. Swarms form outrage mobs. For their sociality swarms need devices, platforms, and apps, and they need people for whom dwelling within the ambit of those devices, platforms, and apps is a habituated impulse, a thing they learned to do from everyone else who does it.

The apparent captain of technopoly is what [Michael] Oakeshott calls a “rationalist” and what the historian of technology Evgeny Morozov calls a “solutionist,” but that captain can achieve his political ends most readily by creating people who are not rationalists. The rationalists of Silicon Valley don’t care whom you’re calling out or why, as long as you’re calling out someone and doing it on Twitter. And in that sense the most self-consciously radical people in our society tend also to be the most obedient and predictable. But the captain of technopoly is equally obedient and predictable: CEOs swarm too. They are ultimately as enthralled by the logic of technopoly as the meekest “end user.”

Being ‘triggered’ is therefore a reaction of people who have lost and forsaken their myths and don’t know how to respond to the world they find themselves in and this is facilitated by the design of contemporary mass media. We deny at growing cost to ourselves and our children our need for something other than systems that are the fruit of technology companies allowed to run rampant across our societies. We have become shaped by the tools we use or as the Psalmist writes:

Those who make them are like them;
So is everyone who trusts in them.

Psalm 155:8

So what does one do? Neil Postman in his book “Technopoly” advocated for the existence of “Loving Resistance Fighters” people who:

You must try to be a loving resistance fighter. That is the doctrine, as Hillel might say. Here is the commentary: By “loving,” I mean that, in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, p 182

Yet I think Postman doesn’t go far enough. Jacobs in his piece on Wokeness invokes the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in saying we need to find a way back to the language and myths that sustained ourselves for so long before this present age. Ricoeur is quoted saying:

It is in this very age of discourse that we want to recharge our language, that we want to start again from the fullness of language…. Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.

Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil

Postman’s United States isn’t the answer. According to Jacobs, and Ricoeur it is Christianity. Yet not just because it is a sustaining myth, every society has those but moreso because it is in the words of CS Lewis:

The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

I believe there is no sustainable way back from Technopoly without a recovery of the Christian language and faith our society nurtured for millenia before those of us alive today existed. The tension and strife in our society is the result of its retreat. The triumph of technology over myth. Rationalism over Empiricism.

I’ll leave you with this account of an exchange between CS Lewis and Tolkien on myth:

One thought on “Technopoly and Myth

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