God, Golem and the Megamachine
Norbert Wiener’s God and Golem, Inc (available also online) certainly speaks to the same issues as Lewis Mumford and his critique of “the Megamachine”, as well as Jacques Ellul’s sociology of the technological system. Wiener is known as “the father of cybernetics” and his more philosophical and sociological reflections on the “golem” (which is Mumford’s Megamachine equally) are as pertinent today as when he wrote them. In fact, I don’t think “the Matrix” is anything other than Wiener’s “golem”, Mumford’s “Megamachine”, or Ellul’s “technological system” (or, for that matter, Neal Gabler’s Life: The Movie) They are all attempts to give answer to the question that obsessed the character Neo in the movie: “What is the Matrix?”
So, what is the Matrix?
I’ve not been entirely satisfied with how others have interpreted the meaning of “the Matrix”, which is basically the invisible environment in which we live, move and have our being, as it were. It’s not the propaganda system alone, as some presume. As Ellul and others have demonstrated, the propaganda system is an adjunct and servant to the Megamachine whose primary purpose is to adjust human beings to itself, or what Ellul refers to as “the ensemble of techniques” and not just physical machines. The “Ensemble” might be another term for the “Complex”.
What is not made so explicit in all these critiques of the Megamachine, but which I believe is the concern that underlies all of them, is the fact that human beings are now diverting and investing all of their own evolutionary potentials and energies into the elaboration of the Megamachine — into this “ensemble of techniques” — leaving none over for their own spiritual evolution. This is, in fact, frankly acknowledged by those “post-humanists” (or mistakenly called “transhumanists”) who look forward to the ascent of the machine – the automaton — and the decline of Man or, more generally, “flesh”, ie, organic life.
A lot of observers of the Modern Age have lamented then that despite all this “progress” in techniques and systems, there has been no corresponding “moral progress”, but even, rather, a regression. But that is not the issue, and not the right question. Moral progress and spiritual progress are not the same thing at all. Most people, I suspect, believe that “moral” and “spiritual” are the same thing, but this also is an error rooted in a falsehood — that the Totality and the Whole are synonymous. Mores and ethos are quite distinct issues, just as “the facts of the matter” and “the truth that sets free” are also quite distinctive issues. And if “the Matrix” (or Megamachine, or Golem now called “Anthropocene”) remains invisible environment to most people, it is because they have utterly confused these issues in the mind — the universal and the integral, the totality and the whole, the “facts of the matter” and “the truth that sets free” or “symbolic belief” with actual knowledge, or the mediate with the immediate, (which is really Gabler’s issue in Life the Movie: or “How Entertainment Conquered Reality”).
This is really the meaning of Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”. This applies especially to issues of morality or spirituality, where the latter is often reduced to the former, and this was, essentially, Nietzsche’s objection to moralists and moralism against which he contrasted a life ethos of the “free spirit”. Nietzsche, in fact, saw moralism and spirituality as diametrically opposed principles precisely because he saw the Totality and the Whole as being distinct, or at least “the same but different”.
This distinction between moralism and spirituality, or mores and ethos (and therefore the confusion of the Totality and the Whole) is what also informs Blake’s saying: “One law for the Lion & the Ox is oppression”. And it does not mean what some so-called “libertarians” or Social Darwinists have made of it — an issue of predator and prey.
There is a lot more truth in the movie The Matrix than meets the eye, in fact. I recall reading one essay by two philosophers who insisted that the “Matrix” wasn’t real because it was impossible, as depicted in the movie, for machines to harvest energy from the human body. That kind of myopia and literalism is dumbfounding, because that’s not the real issue. The issue represented in that was the diversion of the potentialities for human spiritual evolution into elaborating the power of the Megamachine. That is the real issue, and the real spiritual crisis of Modern Man. It is this diversion of the evolutionary potential into the Megamachine that underscores Walter Benjamin’s remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”,
Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order
That is also pretty much the whole gist of Gabler’s Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, too. That is pretty much even the ideal of Rolf Jensen’s Brave New World of The Dream Society, which seems very close to being completely realised today — a return to the Sleep of Reason.
Technics, which should serve as an aid to mankind’s spiritual evolution, has come instead to usurp it completely. That “usurpation” is pretty much what informs Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary.
The crisis of the Modern Age is really a spiritual crisis of the Earth and its humanity as whole. And I’m almost reluctant to put it that way because of the woeful misunderstandings about what “spirituality” is, because Nietzsche and William Blake, among others, insist, rightly, that it has nothing to do whatsoever with the religion, moralism, or the Law of the Ten Commandments. And to think one can simply programme these into an artificial intelligence and therefore make “spiritual machines” is the height of folly and imbecility.
It is true, as Clive Hamilton recently argued in The Guardian, (and as the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser also argued in The Ever-Present Origin) that the Earth and its mankind are on the brink of the abyss and the abysmal — the “abomination of desolation”. The root reason, as I see it though, is that humanity is largely diverting energies meant for its own spiritual evolution into enhancing and elaborating the power of the Golem or “Megamachine”.
So, everybody today now talks of regaining “control” of their fates and national destinies from “globalisation” without the least understanding of what lies behind this sense of “loss of control”. It’s all illogic, unreason, incoherence, and frenzy (or haven’t you noticed?). “Loss of control”, “loss of identity”, “loss of self” and so on and so forth. This has come about as a consequence of man’s having diverted too much of his own energies into technologies and empowering the Megamachine, the Golem, the Anthropocene. And this is, essentially, the spiritual crisis of Late Modern Man — self-alienation.