Saturday, November 2, 2013

Eucharistic Summit

The recent Web Summit in Dublin had all the fervor of a Eucharistic Congress about it - a Congress for nerds. Visiting dignitaries and their entourages called on us to hear the good news, to renew our faith and go forth and convert doubters and unbelievers to the one, true religion digital future. Meanwhile, our politicians fell over themselves to share the altar stage with our esteemed visitors.

Okay, tongue out of cheek. As it happens I'm a big fan and user of digital technology, so I suppose that makes me a member of the same congregation - though more of the a la carte persuasion. Elon Musk played the part of the Papal Legate last week, calling on us to open our hearts to the needy engineering students from around the world.

The belief in progress that drives modern society - enabled by technology - is indeed a form of religion. The West's secular faith provides all the necessary requirements of a religion, i.e.: a creed (what we believe); a code (how we should behave); a community of fellow believers (to which we belong 'religare'); and a cult (of practices to reinforce our faith from time-to-time). Our creed is one which believes progress will lead us to a better future. For as Albert Camus once observed: 'the future is last transcendent value for men without God'.

But there are still many unbelievers out there - techno-atheists, you might say. John Michael Greer recently observed that:
The future... is not going to be a linear extrapolation from the present... or a simple rehash of the past. The future is a foreign country, and things are different there. That realization is the specter that haunts contemporary industrial society. For all our civilization’s vaunted openness to change, the only changes most people nowadays are willing to contemplate are those that take us further in the direction we’re already going. We’ve got fast transportation today, so there has to be something even faster tomorrow—that’s basically the justification Elon Musk gave for the Hyperloop, his own venture into antiquated futurism; we’ve got the internet today, so we’ve got to have some kind of uber-internet tomorrow. 

But talking about a future very different to the present - rather than just one that's 'bigger/faster/better' - is hard. It doesn't lend itself to reassuring soundbites, never mind sermons. There is something very convincing about the true believer, which is why we like listening to them. Richard Watson explains why:
As for whom or what gets listened to about the future, the answer appears to be that we believe people that look confident and seem to know what they are talking about – and this generally means experts in suits that use the word “Will” a lot and elude to a professional qualification or affiliation. In contrast, we tend to ignore the ideas of independent individuals that look a bit messy, appear unsure of themselves and use really confusing words like “Might” or “Could.”
Most religions benefit from a little bit of 'might' as well as 'will' from time-to-time. Our faith in progress will undoubtedly undergo its own moments of doubt and uncertainty - it already is - though I'm sure we'll enjoy a few more visits to the Eucharistic Summit before we lose it entirely...

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