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On Tech and Dignity: The Posthuman Technology That Threatens Us All (Part I)

Part I addresses the threat that technology poses to human dignity because of the threat it poses to humanity itself—both elites and non-elites. Transgenderism is the first step on the road to a miserable posthuman future. Part II argues that we must recommit to the virtue of religion if we’re to resist this technologized, posthuman threat.

Humanity and technology are on a collision course.

Technology’s exponential advancement poses an existential threat to humanity itself and, therefore, to human dignity. When we discuss human dignity, we tend to focus nearly exclusively on the dignity half of the concept. But we can no longer afford to ignore the human half. Without humans, there’s no human dignity, and to continue to sit on our hands in the face of the technological revolution swirling around us is to acquiesce in the “abolition of man”—to borrow the title of C. S. Lewis’s 1943 book—which is right around the corner.

Runaway technology poses a threat to human beings and their dignity by a certain mindset that it creates in us—what I’ve elsewhere called “the technological gaze.” The technological gaze legitimizes the development and use of anti-human technology that accelerates according to its own inner logic and momentum. The distinguishing factor is not necessarily the technology itself, but rather the intention behind its creation. Technology that strikes at our humanity, our creatureliness before God, rather than aim at repairing and strengthening it, has its roots in the technological gaze.

The technological gaze is an expression of our alienation from nature and is, at its limit, contrary to humanity itself. It spurs humanity to overcome its various material deficiencies and limitations through ruthless, rational control of nature, and it trains us to view nature with fear because it’s often hostile to our (physical) well-being. The threat posed by modern technology is directed by an elite with transhuman aspirations. But at present it threatens non-elites more obviously and immediately.

Machiavelli and Technology’s Threat

To understand the technological gaze, we’ll need to engage in some intellectual history. To comprehend the present moment and where we’re going, we’ll consider Niccolò Machiavelli—whom Harvey Mansfield of Harvard dubs the “founder of modernity”—and his most famous work, The Prince.

The Prince is a “how-to” guide for would-be rulers. But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts of ruling; it’s also a deeply philosophical work. According to The Prince, the world’s source of order emerges from those who confront and overcome life’s various challenges—especially from those who subdue the greatest challenge of all: chance. For Machiavelli, necessity is the driving force behind people’s actions: seeing the verità effettuale, the “effectual truth” of things. The effectual truth is, in plain English, the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. To focus on effectual truth above all else means rejecting both Platonic idealism (Machiavellianism is an attempt to drag us back down into Plato’s Cave, which is a lowering of our moral gaze) and orthodox Christian anthropology, ethics, and metaphysics.

In seeing things as they are, we’re free to act in ways that align with our self-interest. In this way, objective morality is cast aside and emptied of its force, and the “standard” of right and wrong becomes synonymous with the most dominant human will. In this way, Machiavellianism is the fulfillment of two famous ancient Greek aphorisms: “Man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras—and former Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy) and “Justice is the interest of the stronger” (Thrasymachus—and antebellum Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas).

In this way, Machiavelli founded “new modes and orders.” That is, he effected a paradigm shift, which Michael Hanby defines as “the passing away of one world and the coming-to-be of another.” What has been brought forth is an alternative understanding of reality that has comprehensively supplanted what came before it, rendering the features and logic of the old paradigm—that old world—anachronistic.  As a rough analogy, consider payphones in a world dominated by iPhones. What’s the point?

 

There is no point because that world is gone. That is what Machiavellianism has accomplished, by severing means from ends. In familiar terms, the ends come to justify the means, but, critically, the ends themselves are no longer connected to justice: a permanent and objective standard of right and wrong, good and bad, independent of human desire and power—natural law and natural right, reason and revelation, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

According to the technological gaze, people come to conceptualize “nature”—including human beings—as mere raw material. Nature comes to be viewed as inert matter devoid of any inner purpose and structure, to be manipulated according to the whims of the powerful, in particular technocrats—those with scientific know-how—and especially when those technocrats are politically well connected.

While elites are the architects of modern technology, non-elites face the brunt of our technological paradigm’s corrosive effects in the immediate term. First I will investigate the ways modern technology impacts non-elites, then I will examine the specific ways elites harness technology for their own posthuman ends, which threaten us all. Non-elites face threats from modern technology in two ways: liquidation and degradation.

Liquidation of Humanity

“Technological liquidation” refers to the attempt to overcome human weakness by terminating its source—the vulnerable human being himself. Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, identified and criticized technological liquidation. He described various attacks on human life, “especially where life is weak and defenseless.” According to a ruthless logic of utility and efficiency maximization, those who are deemed too weak, too sick, too vulnerable, or too dependent are cast aside for the alleged benefit of the supposedly strong, healthy, autonomous, and independent.

Liquidation is highly visible in abortion, which is an attack on life at its vulnerable beginning, and euthanasia, which is an attack on life at its vulnerable end. Abortion and euthanasia have been around since the dawn of time, but the technological gaze exacerbates them. Their attractiveness increases in proportion to the power of the technological gaze in society, which in America, and the West more generally, is extremely high.

For example, increasingly sophisticated medical technology makes possible the detection of more and more prenatal “disorders” earlier and earlier. Advance knowledge of them plants fear in the minds of already anxious parents who, in their vulnerable state—and facing down the “professional judgment” of the powerful medical establishment—can be, and often are, manipulated into sacrificing their children on the anti-human altar constructed by that fear. (Never mind that certain prenatal blood tests, according to a recent New York Times investigation, are wrong 80 percent of the time or more; you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.) The more accurate the various detection methods are, the more likely the sad outcome of abortion becomes.

Similar logic applies to euthanasia, and medicine’s deep deformation in recent years has resulted in increasingly effective methods to end life more easily in its twilight stages. This also makes doing so more enticing, especially in cases where the person’s economic and social “usefulness” is greatly diminished, nonexistent, or a net negative.

Digital Degradation

The other threat to non-elites is technological degradation, which steadily lowers ordinary people to the level of beasts via technological “bread and circuses.” Through this process, people’s distinctively human faculties, especially reason, become dulled. Technological liquidation eliminates the “unfit,” whereas technological degradation pacifies the masses into unhappy obsolescence, making them more pliant.

In monopolizing and monetizing the fragile and limited human attention span—we could justifiably say that it has been stolen—platforms and providers like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and YouTube anesthetize human creativity. Eventually, they extinguish people’s capacity to experience authentic silence, which is critical for self-reflection and spiritual growth. The longer you’re on social media, the longer you’re subject to the tyranny of the “endless scroll,” and the less capable you are of experiencing leisure, which is the capacity to ask life’s big “why” questions and to receive answers. Without leisure, we can’t engage in self-reflection, undergo spiritual growth, or experience authentic silence; stripped of meaning, our day-to-day labors degenerate into oppressive toiling.

The phenomenon of being always on, something we have all experienced, is the antithesis of leisure: The more externally stimulated we are, the more stimulated we need to be, which crowds out various authentic human goods and ways of being. Why get together and tell stories or play a game when we can each, alone and on our own schedule, have a hyper-tailored media experience streamed from the internet and blasted directly into our eyes through a computer screen?

And even in cases when technology seems like a positive contribution to the human experience, we find that its expected operation undercuts basic human interaction with the world. Take Google Maps. When it works precisely as intended, the human being becomes lost in the world he inhabits, unable to travel from point A to point B without a charged phone and cell service. I think that’s a net negative.

 

Elite Transhumanism

Now we come to the elites, who have become obsessed with transcending their humanity. Their hubris poses what I think is a genuinely novel threat to the human race. I say “novel” not because I’m the first to identify the temptation to leave our humanity behind. What I mean, rather, is that for the first time, transhumanism has a real chance of being realized. But how?

In a word: transgenderism. I view transgenderism as the tip of the posthumanist project’s spear, which thus far has had almost no political success. Until now, we have been more likely to scoff at posthumanists than to give them our support. But with transgenderism, the posthumanists have their first successful inroad into mainstream society. Before Bruce Jenner said, “Call me Caitlyn” in 2015, hardly anyone had even heard the term “transgenderism,” and now we can’t seem to escape it. Virtually everyone who opposes transgenderism does so on the grounds that it’s “ero[ding] . . . the significance of biological sex” and “undermining long-held cultural assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman,” or because it dangerously psychologizes identity. That’s true. But it’s much more, and cuts much deeper, than that.

Transgenderism is an existential threat not just because it rejects human sexual nature but because it amounts to a rejection of human nature itself. Transgenderism is the delivery mechanism of the technological gaze. It teaches people that the use of technology for the purpose of radically altering their own received humanity is a legitimate goal. We’re all being ceaselessly propagandized to believe and to accept that a “going-beyond” our humanity—that’s the prefix “trans-” at work—erasing it, really, is both possible and desirable.

The intellectual building blocks for a posthuman future are already in place. Have we not, in line with Machiavelli, decided that our desires wholly dictate which actions are legitimate? What is transgenderism—the assertion that I am not what my body says that I am—other than the actualization of that view? And do we not all believe, at some level, that technology is a tool to be used merely to secure our material self-interest? Do we not mock so-called Luddites for questioning and criticizing the technological gaze?

 

Often, those who buckle under the psychological weight placed on their shoulders by highly invasive and ubiquitous social media, for example, are mocked and told to dig deeper to find the strength and self-discipline necessary to stare down a swarm of machines that never sleep and were specifically designed to exploit our all-too-human lack of self-control for profit. Moreover, to the extent that there are any ethical systems in mainstream, secular society that hold any real sway, what genuine limits do they impose? I have trouble thinking of any besides consent. We lack any firm ethical barriers to posthumanism’s full realization.

If you still don’t believe that transgenderism will result in posthumanism, consider that the road to Obergefell v. Hodges began many decades earlier. The first step was Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which constitutionalized the right to contraception for married couples. After Griswold came Eisenstadt v. Baird (1971), which did the same but for singles, leading to widespread no-fault divorce. Then came the penultimate step: Roe v. Wade (1973). You don’t need to buy into Hegel’s particular dialectical theory of history to recognize that the Griswold-to-Obergefell legal highway strongly suggests that social and intellectual movements have inner logics that unfold and grow more fully into themselves over time—in politics, law, and culture.

As contradictions and aberrations arise, social movements confront them, further developing and refining their principles through a synthesizing process. Along the way, politics, law, and culture are transformed. That process repeats itself across time, and society changes, sometimes slowly, but almost always leftward. It happened with sex and the family, and it will happen with human beings if we’re not careful.

Transgenderism is the proverbial camel’s nose that has poked its way into humanity’s tent; if left unchecked, the tent will collapse. Transgenderism was made possible by the reality that we live in the long, philosophical shadow cast by Machiavelli. It has been mainstreamed in our age by a handful of Silicon Valley nerds. It’s their world; we’re just living in it.

But there’s hope. In Part II, I’ll sketch a path of resistance, grounded in the virtue of religion, to this bleak, anti-human future.

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