SRC ELECTIONS 2018

Worshipping Silicon Valley

Googling the rites and rituals of a new religion

Artwork by Zi Hui Lie Artwork by Zi Hui Lie

After the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945, head of the Manhattan project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, uttered his infamous words: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It seemed, with the advent of nuclear technology, humans supplanted the role of God—we had achieved the means to dictate the terms of our own deaths.

More than 70 years later, the CEO of Google Inc, Sundar Pichai, unveiled Google Duplex, a software update to Google Assistant that is able to mimic human speech, down to hesitations and tonal shifts, to the extent that it can make phone calls and schedule appointments on our behalf. The announcement was met with rapturous applause and cheering, arms upraised to welcome the sermon.

The perception has shifted, recently, from the belief that technology can make us gods, to technology emerging as a god in its own right. Silicon Valley comes with its own tenets. Soylent is the Eucharist and Steve Jobs is a martyr. To be a technologist is to subsume oneself into a lifestyle, one where terms like ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘blockchain’, ‘AR vs VR’ and ‘the Singularity’ hold sacred weight, one where opponents of aggressive, frenetic progress are shunned as luddites.

Technology has now morphed from a tool to—in the public eye—an abstract concept that is spoken of with both reverence and fear, and very little understanding. ‘Artificial intelligence’ and ‘blockchain’ are buzzwords loaded with authority, but wielded without a sense of technicality behind the jargon.

And like with religion, once technology’s aphorisms have been placed on a pedestal, there is no room for theological discourse.

‘Exponential technologies’ is whispered like a benediction, promising new life to the corporate sector, which has quickly turned to it, recognising the shift towards a New World Order. SingularityU, a Silicon Valley think tank, offers ‘Executive Programs’ to teach “technologies, tools, and mindsets” to anyone who can afford the $14,500 cost, in response to “the current wave of accelerating change”. Like Catholic indulgences, these programs offer a chance to pay your way to heaven, or at least, to the upper echelons of the Silicon Valley elite. SingularityU’s website is replete with buzzwords, intended to entice with the power of newfangled gadgetry, and the fear that, if one does not adapt, one will be left behind. PriceWaterHouse Coopers recently advertised for graduate positions with the slogan, “PwC VR experience: create hope in AI.” Given the nebulous relevance of virtual reality to artificial intelligence, this advertising campaign belies that PwC, a historically tax-based consulting company, has fallen into the same position as the newly converted: eager but unaware.

With this shift towards worshipping innovation also comes shifts within company culture—technology companies are notorious for game rooms and ping pong tables, standing desks, and serving kombucha. These rites are fervently adopted by the same people who read Elon Musk’s biography, in an attempt to emulate him while acknowledging he is inimitable, the same people who write “Entrepreneur: work and succeed” in their Tinder bio, who worship progress: hard and fast, but rarely stop to acknowledge the uncomfortable byproducts of technology—the jobs lost to automation, the class stratification caused by genetic engineering that only a few can afford, the security implications of the internet of things.

In many instances, progress did not wait for policy, sometimes understandably because technology eventually results in unexpected results that are difficult to plan for. A simple ridesharing app has displaced millions of taxi services and forced states to adopt clumsy, retrospective policies in an attempt to adapt. Earlier this year, the NSW government introduced a $1 levy to be paid by passengers for every Uber ride, in order to compensate for impact to taxi drivers. And with the exponential advancement of technology and the miracles it promises to industry, normative world-shaping overruled petty morality. It took God 7 days to make the world, and the iPhone a few years—but that time difference is rapidly decreasing with the rapidly increasing pace of development—and in turn, the people’s faith in technology is rapidly increasing, as it fulfils mystical feats.

The mythologising of technology into an abstract system of beliefs and rituals has created worshippers, but as with anything we can’t understand, also decriers. Vaccines are full of intimidating chemicals, and genetically modified blueberries are suspiciously perfect and unbruised—and therefore cannot be trusted. It is not difficult to see where these suspicions come from: technocrats now have the ear of governments in the same way religious figures once did.

Musk was on Trump’s advisory board, and bores mysterious tunnels underneath Los Angeles with little restriction or punitive measures. Google has contractual ties to the Pentagon; the company decided to provide its artificial intelligence software to drone footage analysis. French President Emmanuel Macron committed €1.5 billion to support artificial intelligence research. While church and state have become increasingly separated, the mythos of technology has embedded itself deep into the inner workings of government.

This is not to say that technology is not indeed powerful or beneficial to society, or that companies should not be turning towards technological innovation. However, it is difficult to be critical, or cautious, of something as blindly, unconditionally followed as religious tenets.

Technology is a tool, one that should not be unequivocally conflated with a miracle, or a sign of progress, if that progress is in a dangerous direction. We should both lower technology from its pedestal, while avoiding fear-mongering—both cases exaggerate what technology can do. Indeed, if it is as powerful as academics, and industry leaders, politicians say it is, then critical analysis, without the influence of blind worship or reactionary suspicions, is crucial.