“God-Like” Powers

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.

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6 responses to ““God-Like” Powers”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    It isn’t a foregone conclusion that human beings will achieve mastery of the powers they have appropriated (but not subdued, by any means).

    But this attitude toward power, nonetheless, reveals how much we live in a “post-Christian” age in the West (if we might call it that), and that Nietzsche’s “be true to the earth!” was, in effect, an attempt to recapture something of the early Christian spirit.

    Here’s Paul “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”

    That is to say, what Buddhists call “samsara” or the realm of pain (dukkha) and which Blake calls “Ulro”. Power, for the early Christians, was service in the liberation (“redemption” or “salvation”) of “the whole creation” from this condition of pain or suffering — through love, compassion, mercy, empathy.

    In secular society, though, power is not employed by man for this purpose, but rather the opposite — to exploit, enslave, subject, subordinate and mechanise even now extended towards the domination of that which is called “human nature” through psychological technologies of social and political control.

    The result is, man’s consciousness is no longer identified with the life process, but has been mechanised to a very great degree as itself “nature” in its mechanical aspects. To the early Christians, though, this was Nature in its “fallen” condition, and was not considered the norm, but an aberrant state, as Paul’s statement attests. The human mission was service — the emancipation of all creation from this fallen state through love and compassion. This is also the role — the vow — of the Buddhist “bodhisattva” — not to enter nirvana until every last atom has been liberated from samsara — from the realm of pain.

    Quite different conceptions of the world and the meaning and purpose of human activity.

  2. alex jay says :

    Of course, it follows that eventually the life pocess itself will be delegated to the machine and the human will become a zombie (I’m not being metaphoric either):

    From an article in Washington’s Blog:

    “Bear in mind that the Pentagon is also running an AI program to see how people will react to propaganda and to government-inflicted terror. The program is called Sentient World Simulation:

    “U.S defense, intel and homeland security officials are constructing a parallel world, on a computer, which the agencies will use to test propaganda messages and military strategies.Called the Sentient World Simulation, the program uses AI routines based upon the psychological theories of Marty Seligman, among others. (Seligman introduced the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ in the 1960s, after shocking beagles until they cowered, urinating, on the bottom of their cages.)

    Yank a country’s water supply. Stage a military coup. SWS will tell you what happens next.

    The sim will feature an AR avatar for each person in the real world, based upon data collected about us from government records and the internet.”

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/clues-to-future-snowden-leaks-found-in-his-past/5363350

    And morality will also be delegated to the machine:

    “:Military drones set to get stronger chemical weapons and could soon make their OWN decisions during missions.”

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2532800/Military-drones-set-stronger-chemical-weapons-soon-make-OWN-decisions-missions.html

    Pretty much confirms what you’ve articulated above. The “matrix” is no longer a metaphor : (

    • Scott Preston says :

      Of course, it follows that eventually the life pocess itself will be delegated to the machine and the human will become a zombie

      That is pretty much already the case, and has been the case for as long as the mechanical philosophy has been dominant.

      There’s a certain ambiguity to these times. In some form or another “the Matrix” has always existed, and was known to others in the past by different names — Blake’s Ulro for example, Maya, or simply as “this world”. It’s always been known to some that “this world” was a veil that covered over another, truer reality that lay hid within the empirical and phenomenal order. If we seem to be more deluded today than in the past — more image dominated — it is, ironically, because more people are beginning to perceive “the Matrix”, and finding it the proverbial “abomination of desolation” which it always was, for “Satan” was always the Great Perception Manager. Therefore he was called “Prince of Darkness” and also “Prince of This World”. He is the Architect of the Ulro. The ancient Gnostics called him “the demiurgos”; the Buddhists “Mara”.

      A certain degree of high anxiety comes with this insight, too, and many will flee from it, just like Neo tried to do in the movie. Why? Because most people have invested their energies in it — they live within the images and these images are their identities. To recognise the images as “empty” as “nothing” is profoundly disturbing to the ego-consciousness, because to realise the emptiness of the images is, for it, the same as ego death. “Rationalisation” and “denialism”, cognitive lock and even “symbolic belief”, all have their roots here. Fear of the “infinitisation” of consciousness — this is very strong, and people will cling to very narrow perspectivism (egoism) rather than risk all that. They think they are preserving their lives, but it’s just the opposite in fact — zombiedom — and they remain merely puppets and muppets when they are, in fact, far far more than that.

      There was a recent example of this in the Guardian, reported as a minor anecdote about Christmas shopping fever but which has far profounder truth to it. The author of the article, citing research on this, noted that most people only used “0.0004%” of their consciousness on a daily basis (this number is absurd, but it is symbolic truth nonetheless). It’s miniscule. That number is derived from the observation that at any moment, human beings perceive about 11,000,000 “pieces of data”, but select only about 40 of these “pieces” for attention. And while it is quite absurd to speak of reality in terms of 11,000,000 “pieces of data” or factoids, it does, nonetheless, bespeak a truth. We are far less conscious than we think we are, or that we are capable of becoming.

      0.0004% is already pretty close to the condition of unconsciousness, and of the complete machine or automaton — zombiedom or the living dead, or what Blake calls “the spectral”.

  3. Abdulmonem says :

    It is nice to sweep the mental debris from the road, however this task becomes futile when the throwers are many and the cleaners are few, that is why the position of the faithful throughout the ages is to bear witness and indulge himself in the process of self-cleaning and shy away from judging the others. Mohammad told god that they do not believe , god tells him to forgive and tells him, thus we have created the human , some do believe and some disbelieve, some use ,some abuse. It is important to know the setting , to save our self the pain associated with the falsification that run through everything. killing god is not a simple task.

    • Scott Preston says :

      It is nice to sweep the mental debris from the road, however this task becomes futile when the throwers are many and the cleaners are few….

      That made me laugh out loud. It’s a very good way to put it. So appropriate in more ways than one. The litter-bugs of the mental-rational consciousness….

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    For every person who goes about the day’s business with a wide awake consciousness, there are hundreds who are sleepwalking. This is what’s made this assault on humanity possible.

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