The spiritual imagination seizes information technology for its own purposes.
—Erik Davis, Techgnosis
In much of our thinking, the sacred world is divorced from that of secular technologies. And yet the sacred can be equally at home among our technologies since technology, in some form or another, has always been present alongside humanity—from fireplace to dwelling place.
Technology has by necessity had to pass through the rough stage of its growth in order to reach the finer, more subtle stage where it will learn how to merge and blend with human needs and aspirations. Just as a diamond in the rough is still a stone of value, so too is humanity in its “pre-polished” stage. We must allow the early tentative baby steps of our developing technological systems just as we need to be tolerant of our own shortcomings. Technology is evolving and transcending its earlier aspects – just as we are too. The transformation of human consciousness goes side by side with the transformation of our technological cultures. They are both corresponding expressions of each other. Our technologies can be taken to be the reflections of our creative imagination, as each stage of human consciousness reflects a mode of technology.
When we exhibited a cruder level of consciousness our technologies were themselves raw, clunky, and sometimes unforgiving. The gun was not created because technology demanded it but because we had the mindset for its need. Surveillance is not prevalent today within modern societies because technology wishes to spy on us. It is human beings who choose to spy on fellow human beings. Technology is not neutral either, because it does not exist separate from us. It is an extended reach of the human intention, and will remain this way unless forms of technology become a distinct type of sentient species. And even if a form of artificial intelligence did emerge from the complexities of our technologies, it would not be separate from us but, in an odd way, it would be a part of the family.
Technology has been a collaborative part of the human family since our ancestors discovered fire to keep them warm. We then enlisted technology to help build our temples, our megalithic structures, our towering gothic cathedrals, and our radio signals to the starry heavens. The technological arts and human faith are not in opposition, despite what it may seem like. In fact, the technological enterprise has been a consistent partner with the human religious endeavor. The enchantment with technology has religious roots that extend further back than the New World conquest, and more than a thousand years in the formation of Western consciousness. In truth, it goes far back into the origins of Christendom.
The Marriage of Technology and Salvation
The monastic enclaves were bastions of technological innovation, often hidden behind the high brick walls of the monastery. In those days what we refer to as technology was called the mechanical arts. The innovative monastic orders such as Cistercians and Benedictines were involved in developing and improving upon such devices as watermills, windmills, metal forging techniques, mechanical clocks, eyeglasses, and the spring wheel, among others. Monastic work helped spread the idea that the mechanical arts were aids to the spiritual life, which has had an enduring influence upon the European psyche. The influential Franciscan friar Roger Bacon stated that the mechanical arts were the birthright of the sons of Adam and that much great knowledge had been lost in the Fall yet might again be fully revived as part of the recovery toward original perfection as reflected in the image of God. Roger Bacon even went as far as urging the pope to develop new inventions in case the Antichrist should arrive on Earth and seize such new knowledge for his own advantage. Roger Bacon, as well as his famed work on optics, lenses, and weights, was also reputed to have been in possession of the famed bronze head, an automaton sometimes associated with alchemists. Raymond Lully, a contemporary of Bacon, is now considered by many to be a pioneer of computation theory due to his mechanical system for arranging information. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, the inventor, scientist, and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg married his love for mechanical inventions (such as his flying machine) with his equal love for conversing openly with angels.
The marriage of technology with the religious drive for salvation continued with Francis Bacon who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, almost single-handedly revived the scientific pursuit. Bacon viewed the development of science as both a technology and a means for redemption, a concept that was mirrored in the Rosicrucians who saw the mechanical arts as a valid path to illumination. These perspectives furthered the medieval identification of technology with transcendence and informed the emergent mindset of modernity. Transcendence is now a common theme within the emerging technologies of the twenty-first century, and which without doubt underlies some of our notions of artificial intelligence and transhumanism.
This spirit of discovery infused the beginnings of the Royal Society of London, which was founded in 1663 from the more secretive Invisible College. The Royal Society devoted their resources to many areas of technology including navigation instruments, ship construction, mining, metallurgy, military instruments, and energy devices. Behind the Royal Society flowed a deep esoteric stream that included the alchemical arts. According to historian Francis Yates, in the 1720s one out of every four English Freemasons was a fellow of the Royal Society.