In the worlds of science fiction, civilizations of the future consist of wall-to-wall technology. Whole planets are reconstructed literally as vast machines. Alien or future human environments are entirely artificial and nature is a shadowy nether land. Where life unfolds on board self-contained space ships roaming the galaxy, it is taken for granted that voice-activated nano-synthesizers will magically produce all that a living planet once provided. The glib faith behind such fantasies is that technology can, should, and inevitably will replace nature, and that people are destined to live in environments entirely defined and sustained by human will.
In truth, we live on a precarious ledge in evolutionary time. We are mere byproducts of a complex supporting biosphere. Should humankind ever succeed in creating an artificial biosphere, this would be no starship Enterprise but another Spaceship Earth. Its residents would be as dependent and vulnerable there as they are on this planet. Yet, however unscientific or out of touch with reality, such visions of life in completely man-made worlds are taken seriously because they are the ultimate fulfillment of an age-old fascination with the Ideal.
The modern incarnation of the Ideal is the machine, a Platonic Form that exists nowhere in nature. As a product of thought, imagination, definition, it is set apart from natural things by the same gulf that separates mind from matter, the concept from the thing conceptualized. Through technology, Man bridges this gulf to make the concept so: nature is remade in an idealized image. Progress means replacing an indifferent chance environment with a deliberately created one.
If passé in academic circles, the philosophy of mechanism is still the paradigm of the world at large. Our view of nature itself is seen through the twin distorting lenses of modern technology and economics. Mechanism is their common denominator. Based upon the mechanist philosophy, blind faith in technological advance and economic growth is destroying both nature and civil society. The very concept of economic globalism is mechanism writ large — a sophisticated worldwide engine of profit, to further enable an ever richer and more powerful world elite, while other people everywhere become more impoverished and disenfranchised. It is a formula to reduce the world to an idealized monoculture and all value to monetary gain.
The term machinery passed into English usage as a theatrical device: the ropes and levers and gears behind the scenery, used to produce marvelous illusions on the stage. This is exactly the function of this world machine today. With devices that are obvious, yet invisible through the willing suspension of disbelief, the overdeveloped consumer world maintains its fairy-tale lifestyle, extracted from a languishing biosphere and from the misery of neo-slaves. Mechanism masks intentions, in economics as in technology, reflecting a willful ignore-ance and the fact that the mind has always believed itself independent of matter and above nature and other souls. No doubt the separation of subject and object is endemic to human consciousness. It underlies commonly the mission to separate from nature and "man's inhumanity to man." Mining human populations for profit, for instance, is little different from raping the earth of its resources. "Resources," after all, are simply those features of the world that some people presume are there for their taking. The whole of modern civilization and its fanciful projections into the future are founded on the simple assumption that nature belongs to Man, and not the other way around.
A model and testing ground for Man's usurious attitude toward the external world has always been men's historical relationship to women. While the prospects of both globalism and the technological society are deeply political issues, we shall see that they are also gender issues. The exclusion of the feminine within men parallels the exclusion of women from the worlds men create. These issues, in turn, are infected by philosophical conundrums so far upstream in the Western psyche that we scarcely recognize their crucial importance as forces unconsciously driving culture and technology-perhaps over an abyss. Like many disciplines, philosophy tends to be specialized, parochialized, and denatured in such a way that it fails to examine the big picture or to call things by their obvious names. Nevertheless, the future of technology and that of the world may depend on the resolution of archaic tensions between the genders, as between the subject and the object. It may hinge on a primordial conflict between the human identity, as an organism driven by natural history, and our identity as the conscious symbolic creature driven out of natural history.
What, after all, makes us different from other creatures, on a separate track from nature? Is it the use of tools and grammatical language, an upright posture, the possession of an immortal soul? Of many proposed criteria of humanness, I shall argue that the crucial one is self-consciousness. For, this is the "carrot" that leads people universally to strive, through culture and now technology, to create the human world and identity.
But there is also a "stick." We remain deeply marked by the suffering and ignominy of our animal past, especially as it continues to determine the present through the tyrannies of pain, physical vulnerability, disease, mortality, and genetic conditioning. The Darwinian vision articulates what people have always intuited: that Mother Nature, after all, cares not that we suffer, only that our genes carry forth. Because we are able to imagine and manifest possibilities beyond the limitations of found reality, humankind has always labored accordingly to create a kingdom of its own, superimposed upon the natural world. We have invented gods who do care and ideal worlds in which we are self-made and free from the humiliations of the flesh — free from the mortal prison of the body, the ravages of time, and the unpredictability of nature. Virtually everything we do is touched by the need to deny or defy the limitations of this animal heritage. What makes humans different from other creatures is that we want to be different.
Self-conscious appreciation of the original and ongoing fragility of the body in nature continues to inform all cultural expressions, including modern technology. I will argue that the very intention behind culture has always been to transcend and take the place of nature. What sets homo sapiens apart from other animals, more than any specific skill or trait, is flight from the natural condition. Though inescapably part and product of the natural world, we are the creature with a will to be separate. But this intention to remove from nature is tragically refuted every day by the facts of mortal life in the body, with its programming, frailties, cravings and sufferings. Human will continues to be confounded by the reality, complexity, and resistance of things that are not of human making or choice and are beyond human control. Even so, the rejection itself of nature appears to be naturally adaptive — that is, given the success, so far, of our species at overrunning the planet.
The obvious and laudable ideal of technology is rational effort to better the general human condition. Technology promises a modern path toward salvation and heaven on earth-a materialist route to ancient spiritual and social ideals of autonomy and perfection. It is safe to say, however, that it has it failed in this promise for all but the privileged few. While technology serves power, and promotes the welfare of the few at the expense of the many, the hubris of the technological enterprise is not fully accounted for by "rational" self-interest. A deeper, darker, and more passionate motivation underlying technology, to put it bluntly, is the quest to play God. If new technologies fail to meet genuine human needs, it may be because that is not their real purpose. Avarice, power, and even altruism play their parts, of course, in driving invention. But what consistently, if unconsciously, directs much technological development is the ideology of transcendence. This is no contradiction, for capitalism and technology are but articles of faith in the modern consumer religion of the West. The philosophy of mechanism underlies both technology and economics, and inspires futurism on both fronts. We shall see that it has roots in the same idealism traditionally expressed in religion.
Transcendence is more distinctly a masculine than feminine preoccupation, however. Nature is not simply turned to advantage, but carefully imitated, reverse-engineered, and displaced literally by a man-made world. Through artifice, a second nature is fashioned in a masculine image. We shall see that the male psyche, in particular, covets the creative powers of nature, which are represented primordially by woman and only subsequently by a divine father. But power does not distinguish among its objects nor its roots. While power over nature is deeply conflated in the male psyche with power over others, and over the feminine identified with nature, fundamentally all power comes down to the power of mind to decree its independence of the body. It is the power to rule its own proper kingdom. This is what marks the passion for technology as idealism in both the normative and descriptive senses, and gives it a religious, even fanatical, flavor. Men are virtually driven to become "as the gods," creating from scratch their own artificial world. And that is a timeless world in which they already rule, in thought long before its technological fruition. At its core, it bears the promise of eternity and omnipotence. This is far from hyperbole, though not so far from blasphemy. While dreams of ultimate power are the clichés of science fiction and horror, they are also the unconscious motor of male-dominated culture at large.
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