I noticed in today’s Guardian newspaper the summary of an interview Julian Assange did for the BBC in which Assange rails against the irresponsible and unaccountable exercise of “god-like” powers by governments and corporations, particularly as this relates to mass surveillance.
The command of “god-like powers” is quite to the point. But “command” is quite different from “mastery”, and this is the particular problem of Late Modernity.
Technology is, in a real sense, the theft of fire from the gods — the appropriation of powers formerly thought to be the exclusive property of the gods. “Tele-vision” was an attribute of “far-seeing Zeus”, which now everyone exercises who watches television. “Far-shooting Apollo” is now performed in the missile and the space programme by that name (as well as the gun). The swiftness (and trickery) of Hermes is reproduced in the Hermes 450 drone. The powers of Shiva are even claimed and appropriated by human beings in the ideology and application of “creative destruction“.
Rationalists used to mock the medieval idea of the “affinities” — that flowers, for example, might share the same “virtue” of the planets. Now they do exactly the same, but blindly, in which machines have this same affinity with the ancient gods.
Moreover, we confer on corporations the rights of personhood, even as legal “immortal” entities because corporations outlive the lives of their mortal members and shareholders. To grant “immortal” personhood to corporate entities is to basically deify them as semi-autonomous beings, even though they — like Church and State — are only the imaginative creations of human beings. We even surrender our wills to the clock — to Kronos — and allow this machine-god to dictate and determine the daily course and rhythms of our lives until it seems even “natural” to us that we should and must submit and surrender to the god’s power and its rule as a fate. We even proudly wear his shackles on our wrists.
It is perhaps no wonder that “God is dead”, as Nietzsche announced, when human beings now apparently wield, or are in the process of acquiring through science and technology, all the powers and potencies of the ancient gods — and now, even in the form of mass surveillance, not just the far-seeing eye of Zeus, but also the all-seeing eye of Jehovah.
We have become idolatrous in our worship of power in the form of technology. For, as I have said, to command the powers is one thing, but to master them is quite another. Our lack of mastery of these powers is what confers upon them an aura of invincible autonomy — as “the System”, for example — a fear (a not unreasonable fear in fact) of technology running on “fast forward” — running amok and out of control. “You can’t fight progress” is the fatalism of surrender and resignation.
Command without mastery is the question of human responsibility or irresponsibility for the exercise of these “god-like” powers. This is the question of responsibility for the exercise of power that Romano Guardini asks us to contemplate in his book The End of the Modern World, for we witness daily the destructiveness of these powers by individuals and institutions alike. The present “crisis of ethics” is, at root, about power and, with the “death of God”, also about our lack of guidance for the positive and creative use of this power which, achieving a degree of autonomy, may well turn round and devour us too, or crush us under its wheels like the Hindu’s monstrous carriage of Jagannatha, “Lord of the Universe”.
Command is not mastery — and that is another of those basic value confusions at our “end of history”. That confusion is what concerns so many social observers from Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul, Romano Guardini, Alvin Toffler, Jean Gebser, James Chiles and others. We may, as Shakespeare put it, summon powers from the dusky deep, but can we make them obey? This is the fear of the “Accident”, the “Consequential,” or “Future Shock” — the perverse outcome, the unintended consequence, the “revenge effect”, “blowback”, “reversal of fortune”, and so on. These problems attest to the fact that command and mastery are quite different issues. We may summon the powers, but will they obey?
That is to ask the question whether these powers will serve the purposes and ends of life or death, Genesis or the Nihil. H.G. Wells, disillusioned like so many others amongst the intelligentsia following the World Wars, wrote Mind at the End of its Tether, in which he began to doubt the capacity of the mental-rational consciousness to master the circumstances it had created for itself, having unleashed powers it could not responsibly control. We see something of that in the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster or in other “runaway” technological accidents examined by James Chiles in Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology.
Nietzsche, of course, grappled with the problem of power and nihilism following the “twilight of the gods” and merely hoped that our consciousness and “will to power” would remain identified with life as a whole and creation rather than with death and destruction. “Be true to the Earth!” was his plea for human responsibility — for being more “pro-biotic” rather than “anti-biotic”, as it were. Mastery of power could only be assured so long as human consciousness remained identified with the life process — that is to say, with Genesis.
The “anarcho-primitivists”, on the other hand, despair that human beings can master the powers they now command. Their cry is “away with all reason! Away with all creativity!” for they see nothing but the thrusters of death in all that is called “progress”. That attitude is the other extreme.
The irony of it all is, that having dismissed the gods and spirits of nature, myth, and magic, and the compulsions of the stars and planets and their “affinities”, the mental-rational consciousness has reintroduced them in secular disguise — in the forms of technology. They are the same compelling powers — the same “necessities” and fates. And the more it confuses the “natural” with the “reasonable” — as the Mechanistic philosophy does — the more autonomy it confers upon technological power as our “second nature” — as an artificial nature. This confusion of the natural and reasonable is part of what Jean Gebser calls the problem of the “deficiency” of the mental-rational consciousness.
And this confusion of “natural” with “reasonable” explains, to a large degree, why there is also the confusion (and delusion) of command and mastery. This confusion is equally what concerned the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener when he wrote The Human Use of Human Beings and God and Golem, Inc, and his worry that the mind’s sense of responsibility was not adequate or commensurate with the powers of technology it had summoned.
Nietzsche and others in our time knew — to survive what we have become, we must now transcend what we have become, or we will altogether perish from ourselves.