against cyber-millenarianism

Critics of American technology companies argue that their leadership is motivated by a powerful ideology: cyber-utopianism. The writing of Evgeny Morozov and the documentaries of Adam Curtis perhaps most pointedly critique technology companies for cyber-utopianism, arguing that they believe networked technology and computer calculations will save the world.  It is a critique lodged squarely at enthusiasts of an unquestioned conception of “the Internet” as a place securing human freedoms from the tyranny of governments and human mechanisms of organization.

Adam Curtis – All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Cyber-utopianism is often described by pointing to computer engineers and startup leaders’ semi-theological devotion to the Technological Singularity – an idea proposed by the 1950s computer science pioneer John von Neumann and advanced by Ray Kurzweil. It holds that exponential technological advancement in machine learning will soon hit a threshold. Artificial Intelligence will foster in a new, unbelievable era of machine-driven design and development that will overtake human decision systems and profoundly change the mode of human existence. As scary as it is exciting, Technological Singularity is a bold dream of human transcendence through computation and engineering.

Computer engineers are however not the only ones with an end of history longing. Networked society propagates other forms of utopian longing enabling power and influence in a way less assessed and far less accessible than the tech companies. To understand this, one must first recognize that cyber-utopianism is only one form of an old, crowded field of ideas about the end of history known as millenarianism.

Millenarianism is the belief in the total transformation of this world order through a disruptive and widespread event. In the western tradition, millenarianism is most closely associated with the idea that Jesus Christ will return and reign over the earth for 1,000 years, usually after a period of war and ecological disaster. I’m not certain how the idea gained currency within secular intellectual history, but it certainly proliferated in the years leading up to the first and second world war. Fusing with a social-darwinist supported nation-race superiority and struggle, millenarian longing laid the foundation for the thousand-year reign of the Third Reich and the ethnic strife that reinforced nationalist sense of superiority.

Millenarianism was probably not shaken by the wars, but rather only helped out by changes in the scale of war and mass communication of disaster. Added to that were the computer models and computation capabilities that simulated how over-population could produce food shortages, or rising carbon emissions would lead to environmental collapse, or how the proliferation of nuclear weapons would lead to assured destruction. As computers aided in the design, simulation, and graphic representation of a variety of disaster scenarios, so films and literature projected how through all kinds of tribulation a set of survivors would endure to pick-up the pieces and reconstruct the world.

Computer designed, modeled, and simulated images of environmental and societal collapse is more broadly associated with the utopianism of computer scientists under the umbrella of cyber-millenarianism. It not only marks a faith in computers to figure an image of the problem and design a preferable outcome, but also to mobilize action and transformation. There is some sense that we can manage our way out of the situation – that through software reporting and the sorting of individual preferences and relationships, ideas and behaviors are formed, supported, and amplified between networked actors.

All forms of millenarianism include some kind of catastrophic event, albeit they differ in degree. For Californian computer scientists and entrepreneurs, the tribulation is commercial disruption of existing bureaucratic or intransigent system. Uber disrupts the cabbies. Airbnb disrupts the hoteliers. According to an enthusiastic Google board member, YouTube is the fourth horseman of the Internet. There’s even an annual conference called Techdisrupt for tech startups to show off their venture capital backed killer apps. To be fair, all this is meant in the way a beret-capped Che is meant on a baby’s onesie – just minor shit-disturbers looking to ride the schumpeterian cycle of creative destruction into growth and obscene profit. Yahoo!

Not everyone is pursuing the apocalyptic aesthetic with such jest however. First example is the Five Star Movement (M5S), the political party in Italy that made surprising inroads during the 2012 election. The party strongly believes in the power of technology to transform political representation, advocating for a form of direct democracy where decisions are brought to their network of activists. The video below, produced by M5S co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio, may not represent views of M5S electorate, but it shows how a new world polity will come about after a massive and violent collapse of the existing order and aided by network technology.

Gaia – The future of politics (featuring M5S)

In the aftermath of the election in 2012, many mainstream media channels seemed to have dismissed the party suggesting infighting and poor polls. But it may be too early to make any determination concerning the future of M5S. Evaluating the party would require an assessment on its own communication network which operates to its own specification of channels and programming – strictly shunning traditional media. M5S, like quite a few other grassroots action campaigns, mobilized in a way that blinded major media outlets (possibly because a rival, Berlusconi, owned many of them). Like the infamous Kony2012 campaign, M5S mobilized significant gatherings in public spaces using

“I want to get to the things that people in the sane world just don’t say and that is that we’re living in the End Times.” – Glenn Beck talking to John Hagee

A second example of a violent cyber-millenarianism is dispensationalism. The details about dispensationalism become opaque very quickly, largely due to the variety of interpretations and motivations possible for the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Broadly speaking, dispensationalism holds that Christ will return to earth as King and/or High Priest of Israel (as it is in Palestine) and for a thousand years reign over the world. A great tribulation will take place before that happens. Christian believers may (or may not) be spared through a sudden removal from the earth.

Hal Lindsey The Late Great Planet Earth 1979

The physical location of Israel in the Middle East plays a crucial role in this doctrine and it may be a major reason why the idea became so popular in North America. While formulated by John Nelson Darby in the 1800s, the popularity of dispensationalism took off in the 1970s with “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson. Together with a film by that title featuring Orson Welles and directed by Robert Amram, Lindsey mapped the Bible’s prophecy genre to immediate contemporary situations and into popular circulation. The “Left Behind” series is a more recent part of this dispensationalist doom genre, but as we can see by their publisher – Tyndale House compared to Late Great’s Bantam – the genre is focusing in on a specific audience. Today’s networked society can increasingly facilitate more precise distribution of media content, eliminating the need to waste resources on marketing dispensationalist non-fiction to a Jew or Buddhist.

Information Communication Technologies afford further fragmentation of the means to form, support, and distribute the dispensationalist doctrine. First, the distribution of dispensationalist media content doesn’t require the consumers to necessarily know anything about the millenarian theological underpinning, rather they simply may find appeal in the prospect of an exciting story that happens to also map to concurrent world events. While the media content has a place in theological discourse, it is distributed without context carried as if solely on aesthetic and rhetoric.

The most recent example is this summer’s close courtship between a US intervention in Syria and a Russian reaction. Ebbing and flowing with media attention was the crisis in Syria as if it only became a crisis when Congress or US-based media upgraded it to a policy issue. While President Obama’s fumbled “red line” play dominated the midfield of news analysis, something else was going on in the bleachers that could influence the game. I first heard about it from a family member in Canada. There’s an unfilled prophecy concerning Syria, I was told. In Isaiah 17, the ruin of Damascus is prophesied, but has so far failed to occur. Is this not the moment? We see all this happening in our time and are just trying to make sense of it.

In a conversation with RC Sproul, theologian Robert Godfrey notes that many Christians are motivated by an interest in the future and prophecy and by that route often don’t think of the consequences or theological basis of dispensationalism. “They may not be self-consciously aware that it is part of the system,” he says. For many Christians, the dispensationalist narrative simply becomes a literal reading of the Bible while the doctrine becomes merely “theology”.

Second, freed of the theological context dispensationalism can be formed through a hodgepodge of sources without reference to an authority except what is perceived to be “in the Bible”. As Robert Glenn Howard points out in his article Apocalypse in your in-box: End Times Communication on the Internet, “Most Christian millennialists who are highly involved in electronic discourse seem, by the very nature of the electronic media less likely to be devoted to a single religious authority.” This means that the long tail of media content on the web, maybe not individually popular or authoritative, can be combined to be of significance to the formation and support of an ideology that barely shows as a blip by the usual metrics that focus on view counts, an authoritative figure, or coverage by traditional media. As Amanda Marcotte on Alternet puts it –

“The rule of thumb with bizarre Christian right beliefs, such as the belief that Syria’s conflict is a sign of the end times, is that by the time it percolates up to a Google search or a website like the Blaze, it’s been flying around in lower-profile venues such as Internet forums, Facebook posts, books sold in Christian bookstores, in-person meetings in churches, sermons and presentations, and email forwards for a long time now.”

The reason I place the contemporary (particularly 21st Century) form of dispensationalism under cyber-millenarianism is because it relies on the telecommunication networks for distribution and formation. Computer networks make a difference in the content of dispensationalism by largely obscuring it from web users for whom it would be of little interest based on aggregated preferences and social networks.

Why is the fringe doctrine of dispensationalism important? Because political decisions will be influenced by a large network of those who are basing their ability to influence action upon a system of belief that prioritizes signs and wonders over human empathy and solidarity. And the desired signs are not that of life, progress, orders, but that of death, destruction, and chaos. This may be interpreted as a want for a renewal, of a purging that will sort out and clarify, but this is not clear to me because the logic of the signs, the repeated representations do not involve any kind of dialectic or reflexivity that mean anything more than accessorizing the various castes of the existing social order with god-fearin’ and gun-packin’.

What is the use of the cyber-millenarian concept? Most importantly, it helps balance attention to the variety of eschatological narratives that proliferate in a networked society, where ideas can form, foster, and fester without any dialectical reasoning. Dispensationalists and cyber-utopianists can go a long time without crossing paths with ideas and narratives that could deepen their understanding. The great opportunity when we don’t myopically focus on one form of millenarianism, is that we seek out all ideas of societal belonging. Millenarianism is not inherently a bad thing. Could we have a sense of belonging in the greater spirit of our time or place without an end game for the tyranny of a dictatorship, the injustice of slavery, or now the terror of the security state? What I hope we recognize and reject, however, is the fire and brimstone, violent revolutionary-styled end of the world narratives that are alive and well, transmitted using network technology shaped by an equally fervent end of the world narrative.

– – –

Note on the title: In the 1800s a French Roman Catholic priest by the name of AbbĂ© Boullan and friend of Joris-Karl Huysmans “called for a spiritual elite to hasten the end [of the world] and to perform sacrificial rites to atone for the sins of the world and free man from matter” (J.W. Burrow, 2000). For Boullan, the second reign – that of Christ – was about to end and usher in the thousand year reign of the Holy Ghost, the incarnate God seceding authority to the incorporeal God. For Boullan, we could transcend into commune with the Spirit, leaving our bodies through a regiment of sexual therapy (of course).  À rebours.