The Gods Must Be Crazy—and Bezos is Their Prophet
By Brian Emmet
To clarify from the beginning: I do not know Jeff Bezos, founder and president of Amazon.com. I use his name as an exemplar, a type, but do not impute to him craziness or prophetic grandiosity, nor do I cast any aspersions on his person, character, reputation or work.
I suppose most every one in every age feels that their time is both the best of times and the worst of times. Our digital age is no exception: depending on the vantage point we take, we are living in an exciting time of rapid, helpful and hopeful innovation, a time when we will make the world anew. Or we are sheepishly being herded towards the robot apocalypse.
As a Christian, I see digital technology as an aspect of God’s good Creation. Digital technology “works,” in all the ways that it does, because we have discovered aspects of Creation that were “built into” Creation by God. God created a world potentiated with possibilities; it is the human task to discover those potentials and cultivate them, so that Creation and the humans who inhabit it (along with all other creatures) can live fruitfully and flourishingly. So we should begin with at least two cheers for the digital revolution.
We’re not quite ready for that third hearty cheer because of what the “prophets” of the revolution, the world-remaking movement, are heard to proclaim and pronounce. By “prophet,” I mean the recognized thought-leaders: men (thus far, they are all males) like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, along with many others. We see it in the names of companies: Oracle, Sun, Amazon, Google, Apple. “Oracle”—the voice or pronouncements from a divine source of some kind. “Sun”—the giver of light and therefore life; Amazon–the mightiest river of the world, the source of fruitfulness, life, and amazing biodiversity for all of its 4345 mile length (thanks, Google!), except where human interventions have, as we say, muddied the waters. Google—the largest of large numbers, speaking of infinite connections and possibilities. And Apple, with its Genesis-inspired bite: don’t listen to those hopelessly-out-of-it fuddy-duddies. Taste and see that this fruit is beautiful, delicious, nourishing, and good for making one wise. Steve Jobs was more than happy to sell i-things to your kids, but resistant to his own children using them. From what did he seek to protect them?
Every age has its “gods” and their prophets. By “gods,” I mean everything from personifications of power to ruling desires to dominant themes and ideas. The “gods” are perceived, in ways often mysterious, to superintend what happens; they are the sources or the dispensers of what is needed to make life whole and good and worth living. The gods of ancient Greece included Poseidon (in charge of the seas), Mars (the god of war), Athena (the goddess of wisdom). Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market is still widely worshipped in many countries. The “god” of Marxism was the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; the god of capitalism is “the free market”: the “god” of modern science is philosophical materialism (the belief, admittedly non-scientific, that nothing exists besides matter and energy).
So the digital revolution, and the world it is creating, has its own gods. They bear names like Speed, Innovation, Technology and Progress. I am not equating the language of “gods” with words like “evil” or “false” or “in fact non-existent.” Innovation is a thing, and can often produce very beneficial things; the same holds for Technology. Progress, widely revered, enjoys a certain Teflon-coating that we apply to our preferred gods: they don’t have to explain themselves. No one is allowed to ask “progress towards what end or goal?” All her worshippers need do is cry, “Change such-and-such represents Progress!” and that means the conversation is over. Innovation has a similar problem, but Innovation’s consort is The Free Market, who grumpily tamps down some of her wilder excesses.
If I had to nominate the Zeus, the chief god among the gods of our digital age, I would nominate Gnosis, from the Greek word for “knowledge.” What does it mean to be a human being? According to Gnosis, it means to be a brain-on-a-stick. All the real action occurs in the head. Thought is the exercise of our rational capacities; our bodies are merely “sticks” that our brains need to move around. What is the ultimate source of power for and over life? According to Gnosis, it is knowledge that is power, thus, Francis Bacon was an early oracle for Gnosis. What is the essential human dilemma, even the fundamental tragedy of human existence? According to Gnosis, that we are trapped in bodies, in materiality and physicality.
So gnostics, worshippers of Gnosis, believe first that the natural world, the realm of the physical, is a realm of unfair limitation, and unjust enslavement and imprisonment. Your body is merely a “meat machine” in which the real you, your true self, the divine spark, is trapped. Hence the modern gnostic drive to “upload consciousness” into the cloud, thereby escaping both materiality and death.
Second, since the natural world is primarily a prison, anything we do to “escape” it is a good thing. Hence all the tech-talk that really has as its goal and purpose the refashioning of human beings into … something else. Nobody can say exactly what, but we draw on the language of ancient mythology to describe it: chimera, for example, which are human-animal recombinants. So Amazon is no longer a river of life-giving water, but a river of (supposedly life-enhancing) consumer goods, flooding into your home at the touch of a button. The “real” Amazon River has been quietly working away for millions of years, but who wants to wait? The god Speed and his protégé Cheap demand something better, know that we in fact deserve something better, which Amazon.com is happy to supply. Just don’t ask about the conditions under which those cheap consumer goods are produced, or the costs of having so many things that we neither need nor actually use, nor about the employment practices and conditions of the thousands of mostly part-time Amazonian workers.
So thirdly, the god Gnosis puts a high premium on knowledge. But it is a knowledge that is secret and mysterious, disclosed only to certain elect or highly-advanced adepts. To escape the prison of earth and flesh is no undertaking for mere boobs; it requires a cadre of elite way-makers and way-showers. But the way to enlightenment, to freedom and release, is difficult and costly. Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have a combined value of over 2 trillion dollars, and each of those dollars came from the sacrifices of grateful worshippers.
The “gods” of our age are not entirely crazy. There are problems to face and solve, and innovation and technology have proven of tremendous help. It is wonderful to find out the length of the Amazon River in under five seconds, or to connect and sustain relationships around the world, to have near-instant access to such vast arrays of knowledge and information, and so much else.
But listen to what the prophets of these gods are actually saying, noticing especially the many, and increasing number of times that the prophets find themselves dismayed by the performance of their gods. “We thought if everyone could have her voice widely and easily heard that the world would be a better place! We thought that rapidly increasing social connectivity would only make the world a better place! We thought the favors of our gods would be equally and fairly distributed among all! We thought we were the ones to finally cancel the law of unintended consequences! We were sure that we had at last evolved to the point where we were ready to take on the task of directing our future evolution!”
“We thought we could remake the world according to our own image and likeness, that what is ‘real” is to be finally found in what we will, what we choose and decide. It’s not quite working out that way we hoped and predicted … yet! But trust us: our gods are not crazy, and we are their prophets.”