Jeremy Naydler, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in theology and religious studies, and is a philosopher, cultural historian and gardener who lives and works in Oxford, England.
He has long been interested in the history of consciousness and sees the study of past cultures – which were more open to the world of spirit than our own, predominantly secular, culture – as relevant both to understanding our situation today and to finding pathways into the future.
His longstanding concern about the impact of electronic technologies on our inner life and on our relationship to nature has found expression in his book In the Shadow of the Machine (Temple Lodge 2018) and in his new book Struggle for a Human Future: 5G, Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things (Temple Lodge 2020).
KINGSLEY DENNIS (KD): You have said that the biggest threat of technology is not from the apparatus itself but from its corruption of the human essence. What is the major threat of technology against the human essence?
JEREMY NAYDLER (JN): This is something Heidegger wrote about in his seminal essay, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’. He said that technology encourages us to adopt an instrumental relationship to the world, so we tend to see things as means to our own ends rather than as ends in themselves. If that becomes our default mode of relating to the world then that reduces us as human beings. We lose our reverence for nature, we lose our openness to the fundamental mystery of existence, and our sense of the sacredness of life. Then our hearts become hardened. Rather than living in wonder, we find ourselves cut off from spirit, and that is how we lose touch with what it means to be human. This is because to live humanly is at the very least to live with our hearts open to the mystery of existence. I would also say that freedom belongs to the human essence, and the more sophisticated technology gets, the more it tends to undermine our freedom. By freedom I mean the capacity to live by the ideals, aims and values that we have ourselves adopted, rather than having them imposed on us. One of the effects of the technologisation of our lives is that we are more and more hemmed in and forced to conform to a machine-dominated world, with the result that our ability to act freely is compromised.
KD: You seem to imply that technology is opposing the natural cosmic order or flow of evolution. In what way is technology in opposition to the cosmic order?
JN: I wouldn’t want to say that all technology places us in opposition to the cosmic order. There are many technologies that don’t have the devastating effects that we have seen produced by more recent technological developments. It was really with the scientific and industrial revolutions that we collectively embarked upon a course that has led to our “falling out of the Tao.” Our human activities have increasingly been commandeered by the power of our modern technologies, and this is because we have surrendered to an unremittingly instrumentalist attitude, which tells us that the more efficiently we can exploit nature, the better. And so our technologies lead us even further into imbalance. How can anyone look at what is now occurring in the world today and not know that we are rebelling against the cosmic and natural order?
KD: Your own research considers what you call the “shadow sides of technology.” Are these ‘tech shadows’ in any way representative, or a projection of, our own human shadows?
JN: When we consider the digital revolution, and the process of miniaturization that electronic technology has gone through, we can see how incredibly useful it has been to us. The computer and the smartphone have become indispensable for most of us, if we are to function in the contemporary world. But we also need to see that these technologies play into our weaknesses. They cannot really satisfy our deeper yearnings. Rather, they tend to distract us away from what is living within ourselves as our deeper purpose, and instead we fall prey to our more superficial desires. There is the shadow! Or one of the shadows.
We are all so hungry, but what are we actually hungry for? We can so easily misunderstand our own inner yearnings. We must keep asking: What is it that will really satisfy us? I don’t think it is the next seductively designed iPhone or smartwatch. The “feel good” factor of the shiny new device doesn’t last long, because in the end it is just a thing. And while this technology certainly enables us to do so much more than we can do without it, it does not in itself satisfy the deeper hunger that lives in the soul.
KD: In your most recent book you refer to the “infrastructure of electronic totalitarianism.” Would you say that our current global civilisation is shifting into a form of techno-totalitarianism?
JN: I fear this is what is happening, and it has been accelerated in recent months by the way governments all over the world have responded to the global coronavirus pandemic. There is grave danger that in different countries – even those with long democratic traditions – citizens become adjusted to living under a state of emergency that then becomes normalised. We have very quickly become habituated to the drastic limitations placed on our freedom by our governments, under the pretext of protecting the public from a fatal infectious disease (which it turns out is not nearly as fatal as at first predicted). Then the armoury of state surveillance, electronic tracking and tracing, cashless transactions, immunity passports and so on, is brought to bear on us.
Because of the global nature of the pandemic, there has been a degree of harmonisation in the responses of governments to it. Global organisations like the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the WEF (World Economic Forum) are key players influencing governments. There is now an attempt backed by the WHO and the UN to create a global legal framework for dealing with the pandemic. While this may seem perfectly reasonable, it makes me feel uneasy. I can foresee a situation in the future when if you haven’t been vaccinated then you will not be permitted to travel abroad. And that could well be the least of what is in store for us.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has been an outspoken critic of the Italian government’s response to the pandemic, has warned that we are rapidly moving to a situation in which we may all find ourselves controlled far more effectively than under any of the old fascist and communist totalitarian regimes of the mid-twentieth century. And that is thanks to the electronic infrastructures that have already been put in place, and are being constantly upgraded, in so many countries all over the world.
KD: You also state that the electronic ecosystem will enable machine-organism hybrids to usurp natural organisms as part of an extension of human control over nature. To what extent does such technology represent a ‘replacement of nature’?
JN: I will give you an example, which is not exactly a machine-organism hybrid, but it is a machine that is mimicking a living organism and has been designed specifically to take over the functions of that particular creature. The creature is the honeybee, which has suffered an enormous decline over the last few decades. As it is vital for the pollination of many different crops, the decline of the honeybee has caused much concern.
There is a great deal of evidence that points to the use of insecticides, especially neonicotinoids, as adversely affecting bees, which is hardly surprising given that they are insects! But bees are also highly electro-sensitive, and many studies also point to the saturation of the atmosphere with electromagnetic fields as another significant factor in their decline. What better solution to the problem of honeybee decline than to design a “robot bee” to replace the honeybee? It won’t be susceptible to either of these pollutants, so we can use it without having to worry about its health or the possibility of it going extinct, because we will be able to mass produce them. A robot bee won’t sting us either. Over the last decade various laboratories around the world, one of which is based at Harvard in the USA, have been developing different “robobee” designs, to make an artificial creature that can replace the real one. (But will it make honey? I don’t think so!)
What you see here is the technological mentality aggressively stepping into nature and, instead of us taking the measures needed to reduce the threats to the honeybee population, their plight is seen as an opportunity to make a new commercial product that will replace them. This is just one example. It is by no means the only one, in which technological innovations are being designed to replace living creatures.
KD: You ask in your book whether people are prepared the make inner development (the ‘inner turn’) a part of their life. Is the ‘inner turn’ the only way to counteract the encroaching dominance of technology?
JN: What I notice both in myself and in others, especially since the use of mobile phones and then smartphones became so widespread, is that they take on the role of “the constant companion,” to whom we turn for comfort and reassurance, almost as if they are our best friends. Sherry Turkle wrote a book in 2005 called The Second Self, in which she explored the psychological role of our digital devices, and how we have come to constantly refer to them. We can feel our whole lives are somehow “in them,” and as we live our lives online more and more, if we lose them or they crash it can seem like a devastating loss. Some people Sherry Turkle interviewed said that when their device crashed it felt as if they had lost their lives! It was like a death.
That is why it is so important that we keep making the inner turn. In the world’s sacred traditions, there is the figure of the inner companion, sometimes pictured as our guardian angel, or the Sufi “inner friend of the soul,” or the Christ within. Building our relationship to this transcendent inner figure is an important part of the work of spiritual development. It teaches us to remember that there is a higher level of ourselves, the “immortal within the mortal person,” which we have to keep trying to connect with. By no means easy! But you can see how our digital devices can supplant this far more important task, presenting to us a counterfeit “second self” or “inner companion” in place of the authentic one. If we can work on building up the connection with our true “inner friend,” then we become inwardly strengthened and less beholden to the technology.
KD: You made an intriguing reference to how Rudolf Steiner regarded electricity as light in a fallen, degraded state. There is the suggestion here that electricity is to Lucifer what Light is to the Sacred Source. Is the enveloping ‘electrosmog’ a way to sever humanity’s connection to its sacred Source?
JN: Steiner had many extremely interesting things to say about electricity. And one of them was that it should be regarded as light in a sub-material state. That is, it is light that has fallen below the level of nature, into what he termed “sub-nature.” For this reason he warned us to be very wary of building our whole culture on the basis of electricity, because its tendency is to draw us away from nature and to pull us down into sub-nature.
One of the purposes of the rollout of 5G is to strengthen the “global electronic ecosystem,” which our computers, large, small and tiny, all function within. But the more we live our lives through our electronic technologies, the more we become alienated from the natural world. The electronic ecosystem becomes a kind of rival to nature’s ecosystems, in the sense that it is the environment in which we spend more and more of our time, never more so than in these last pandemic months. But if the world we feel most safe in is the world mediated by the light of computer screens, then what happens to our relationship to sunlight, not to mention the flowers and trees, the wind and rain?
It is important to consider how the light of the computer screen differs from sunlight. What lives in sunlight? Steiner said it is the garment of the cosmic Logos. In saying this, he was reiterating an old teaching. In the Psalms we find God described as wrapping around himself a garment of light. I can’t go into this further here. I devote a chapter to it in my book. All I will say is that the garment of light that the divine is wrapped in is not, and simply cannot be, the light that emanates from the computer screen.
KD: If Artificial Intelligence (AI) and electricity are two sides of the same phenomenon, then AI could be regarded as a manifestation of an energy in a ‘fallen state’. Would you consider AI therefore to be a manifestation of what Steiner calls the Ahrimanic forces?
JN: When we consider what kind of intelligence is referred to by the phrase “Artificial Intelligence,” it resolves into an entirely quantitative concept. It is something entirely measurable, and it is measured by the number of “calculations per second” that a machine is able to perform. Computers perform logical operations extremely fast and can therefore be programmed to produce any number of different outputs. This can give the impression that our machines are incredibly clever, much cleverer than we are, but this is a type of intelligence that excludes any real understanding. They don’t really know what they are doing. It is intelligence without consciousness. It is mere cleverness in a meaning-vacuum. It is totally soulless.
What is it, then, that is manifesting in this type of extremely clever, but utterly cold and soulless intelligence? Could one say that it is the manifestation of a spiritual being? If so, what kind of spiritual being could it possibly be? One way of answering this is to observe what kind of affect the use of Artificial Intelligence has on us in our daily lives. How do you feel, for instance, when in order to do something online you are required to enter all these details in dialogue boxes and drop down menus, and then you have to tick this box and that box, and prove that you are not a computer by interpreting some illegible script. And if you get one single detail wrong, you have to go back and in some cases start the whole process again. I personally experience a sense of constraint, as I am forced to conform to the alien requirements of these algorithms. It feels like I am encountering something fundamentally anti-human here.
It is in these small everyday experiences of interacting with this intelligence that we begin to sense the nature of what it is we are dealing with. I think it is better not to rush in with naming it, but rather try to observe as closely as we can what we are experiencing, as if we are dealing with a person, and then build up a picture of the “Who?” behind the AI. Through personifying in this way, we learn to recognise its signature in many different aspects of life. We are constantly encountering it, and we can see it too in the much bigger trends and tendencies that are occurring in the world.
KD: You have stated that one of the challenges we face today is to “overcome our collective de-sensitisation to these subtle life-forces.” What do you mean by this?
JN: Modern urban living has de-sensitised us to nature. The digital revolution has accentuated this. To attune yourself to the life-forces in nature, you have to spend a lot of time outside, in the elements, in different light conditions, in sun and in rain. You have to spend time with plants, and in relationship to the soil, to bugs, to the birds and to countless other creatures. And much of this time needs to be spent not doing anything. Just being open, and open to Being. It is what Heidegger talked about when he said “openness to Being” defines the human essence. Just to be present to what is there. In this way, we begin to overcome our collective de-sensitisation to the subtle life-forces in nature.
KD: As succinctly as possible, how do you view the short-term future for humanity and life on this planet?
JN: There’s an extremely powerful trend today in which many human beings are caught up. Many, it seems, feel they don’t really belong to the planet anymore, and are drawn increasingly into the new electronic world that has recently announced that it is an “ecosystem” in its own right! The implication is that it can offer a habitat for the human soul. It doesn’t require great insight to see that the more time people spend online, the more they withdraw their allegiance to the planet.
One of the most powerful symptoms of this withdrawal of allegiance to the planet is the fantasy of literally abandoning the Earth and colonising Mars. This fantasy has gripped the minds of some very rich and influential people, for example the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and celebrity scientists like Brian Cox and the late Stephen Hawking. It is symptomatic of a kind of renunciation of our responsibility to the beautiful Earth on which we live. I think this inner renunciation has already taken place for many people, aided and abetted by their online lives, and this is why the fantasy of abandoning the Earth and leaving it to its fate seems so attractive.
This points to the crying need to take far more seriously our responsibility for nature, recognising that this Earth is where we as humans belong. It is to this Earth that our primary loyalty must lie. To shoulder this responsibility is also to shoulder the heavy weight of guilt, pain and despair that so many of us feel when we read, or see images, of the unceasing devastation that we are collectively inflicting on the Earth and our fellow creatures.
However, we need to get over the paralysing effect this has on us and look to see what we can do to heal nature’s wounds. We can join campaigns, of course, sign petitions and try to shop more carefully, but we should also attend to what is closest to us, so we stand more firmly on the Earth. Every garden, every plot of land, no matter how small or modest, is a point of contact with nature. It invites us to tend and care for it, to help to build up the life-forces in it. And if we don’t have a garden, then we can still make a point of walking in nature, even if it’s the local park, and give our attention to the daily miracles that abound. This giving of our attention to nature is absolutely crucial, because through it we root ourselves in the Earth.
Many of us feel trepidation for the future, but this feeling alone is not particularly helpful. We need to gather our strength to meet the future with equanimity and make it our daily practice to live with positivity and hope. And we need to know that the quality of our consciousness of nature is in itself a gift that each of us can bestow. If we can live with greater awareness and appreciation of the wisdom and beauty that surrounds us, that itself will make a difference.
Struggle for a Human Future: 5G, Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things by Jeremy Naydler is available from all good bookstores and online sellers.
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