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[Chalice] Spirituality in the [Chalice]
Technological Society

Presented October 28, 2012, by Dennis McGuire, MBA, Ph.D.

We have many technologies that we are accustomed to, that we take for granted. Sometimes we use the word technology to refer to new things we don't understand and that we don't want to spend hours learning how to utilize. New technologies like texting or twittering seem so important to entire groups in society but are foreign to us. But technology is so much a part of our life that it is natural to us. Jacque Ellul, author of The Technological Society, says, "You want to get back to nature? Your nature is the television, radio, phone, air conditioning, central heating, microwave oven, and so forth."

Let's consider the technology of writing. We know now it was invented about ten thousand years ago. In Communication in History by Crowley and Heyer they relate how a professor of Middle Eastern studies named Denise Schmandt-Besserat discovered accidentally how writing was invented. Scores of museums throughout the Middle East have displays of clay tokens. There are many thousands of these clay items of various shapes and sizes such as pea shaped, spherical, pyramid, etc. Her mission was to find out what these tokens were used for. She ascertained that these tokens were used by men to trade their produce. Instead of taking ten goats, or fifteen pigs or twenty bushels of wheat to the market he would take these tokens to represent specific types and numbers of things to trade. A small pea for example could represent five pigs, a larger one ten pigs. These tokens were standardized in terms of what they represented and how many. Over a thousand years the numbers of tokens a man had to take to market became unwieldy so they began placing them in envelopes made of clay. These envelopes were sealed. In order to designate what tokens were in the envelopes they stuck a token on the cover with marks to indicate how many of this token were inside. This continued for over two thousand years until people realized that the labels on the covers were redundant with the tokens inside the envelope. They then started using the envelope covers exclusively with the token labels on them. Thus the cover became a tablet and the labels became writing. That is how writing was invented. We take writing for granted. We don't think of it as a technology. Of course as soon as it was invented it created a class of people we would consider illiterate, i.e. all those who did not how to read the token language. We value writing as a basic skill needed in today's world and teach our children how to do it. Writing as a technology expanded the human ability to think. The knowledge of what a man had to trade was no longer existing only in his mind. Writing made it available to anyone who could read. It was the first experience of abstracting knowledge from the individual. It made abstract and logical thinking feasible. Aristotle could write: All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal. Oral traditions are very limited in their ability to think. This building and everything in it existed as written plans before they were manufactured and built. Yet writing, as Jacque Ellul constantly reminds us about every technology, is not a solely benevolent technology. We all know that the big print gives you the money and the small print takes it away.

Another technology with which we are all familiar is the one that made civilization feasible. Paleoanthropologists tell us that tens of thousands of years ago our ancestors were as evolved as we are, their brains were the same size as ours, they were as intelligent as people today. For a hundred thousand years they lived in itinerant groups, moving constantly from place to place. The reason they had to keep on the move is there was no defense against the dawn attack. Another group could attack while the tribe was sleeping, kill everyone and take their supplies. This goes on to this day among stone age tribes in South America and New Guiney. It has long been wondered what happened about fifteen thousand years ago to allow humans to be stable, raise crops and livestock, and build communities. Villages became cities and nations with remarkable speed after a hundred thousand years of moving from camp to camp. The invention that made all this possible was the dog. Yes, the dog is a technology, a human invention. DNA analysis of the ancient campsites of our itinerant ancestors has revealed that packs of wolves began following the camps. It was easier for them to feed off the garbage left behind by the humans than to go hunting. Eventually wolves and humans became less fearful of one another and over the generations people were able to breed wolves to have the qualities typical of dogs. Dogs bark, so there was the alarm system to warn of the dawn attack. And they can attack strangers with ferocity. Again there is no such thing as a purely beneficial technology. Dogs to this day can bark all night, attack children, etc.

Other familiar technologies include the clock, money, the department store; the list is inexhaustible.

Intellectual technologies such as game theory, which is actually decision theory, worked to prevent the U.S. and Soviet Union from launching nuclear weapons during the 50-year cold war. Decision makers on both sides of the globe were convinced by computer simulation games that nuclear warfare would be a lose-lose game.

Computer simulations have shown that the golden rule is not a workable strategy for relating to people. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" doesn't work when the others intend to exploit you. Being nice to nasty people can be ruinous. "Do unto others as they do unto you" works when others are cooperative and respectful as well as when they are exploitative.

In 1970 as a graduate student at Ohio State University my mentor suggested I read Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society. At that time I did not understand what Ellul was saying but one story stuck in my mind over the next forty years. Some American missionaries went down to South America's Amazon region to proselytize the stone age people there. They had stainless steel knives to give to the people to facilitate a friendly meeting with them. When they arrived the men were out on a hunt. The women were there cracking nuts with rocks, cutting things with their teeth and processing food in the most primitive way. The women were delighted to get stainless steel knives. They could now cut things, slice and chop as never before and with much less effort. When the men returned from the hunt and saw the women using these stainless steel knives they wanted to borrow them. They could not do so. The missionaries wondered what the problem was, why was the tribe disrupted? In the lifestyle of these people over thousands of years it had never happened that a man needed to borrow an implement from a woman. There were no words in their language for a man to ask a woman to use something she had. It was like if you were in China and had to find a bathroom and did not know the Chinese word for bathroom. You would have a communication dysfunction. The point the author was making is that every time a new technology is introduced into a society the communication between groups of people is disrupted. We live in a society that introduces new communication technologies throughout the year. The resulting disruptions are volcanic in nature. Disruption is the rule of the day. Jacque Ellul insists we simply have to understand and accept that. We have to understand that every new technology spawns many new technologies that are required to develop it, maintain it and expand it.

Ellul's unique insight is that while we humans create technologies we do not create what he calls "La Technique" as a force of nature like the Sun that gives energy for life and growth but also the energy for hurricanes and tornadoes. We did not create the Sun, are not responsible for its existence and don't have control of it. This is my analogy for what Ellul means by La Technique. It is a force of nature manifesting itself through human beings who are animals with imagination. We are not morally responsible for the existence of La Technique as a force of nature. We don't have control of it. Ellul insists we must understand this force of nature just as we seek to understand tornadoes, earthquakes, thunderstorms, sunshine, etc. This force has properties that are irrelevant to our moral values. For example, once we see how to do a job more efficiently we will do it more efficiently. We will not continue to do it in the old fashioned way that gets less done in more time and requires more energy. We will do it to get the better cost efficient results we want with less time and effort. We do not have a choice in this regard. The stone age women will not return the stainless steel knives and go back to bashing nuts with rocks and cutting things with their teeth. We will not give up our television, air conditioning, cars, etc. and go back to sitting on the porch rocking chair every evening. Well, the Amish like to farm the old fashioned way. Yet while motorcycling across Pennsylvania two years ago, Lancaster county is dominated by Amish people, I passed a young Amish man moving along the road in his one horse carriage with the reins in his left hand and a cell phone in his right. Especially when it comes to communication people are going to use the more efficient methods available.

Another point Ellul emphasizes is that each new technology changes society in ways that cannot be foreseen. It does not matter, he maintains, that the technology was developed with a beneficial or destructive purpose in mind. Nuclear energy was developed to create the atom bomb, a weapon designed to destroy thousands of people at once. But today it is used to generate electricity and for many medical treatments. Cell phones were developed to enhance communication and today are also used to trigger IEDs, i.e. explosive devices.

Technology does not necessarily bring wealth to a people. Thomas Misa in Leonardo to the Internet analyzes in detail how the British were able to subjugate the people of India with technologies such as the telegraph system but the only people who became wealthy were the generals in the field, the merchants selling the goods needed and the politicians involved with both. Britain as an empire building nation went bankrupt.

Both this beneficial change and disruption between groups of people and generations is the context in which spiritual experience takes place for us. The technology of propaganda is designed to persuade each of us to be so politically correct that our individuality gradually merges into what the average person is supposed to be. Yet spirituality is a very personal experience. Marketing organizations track every purchasing decision we make and correlate that data with our age, sex, socio economic status, professional or business experience, whether or not you wear jeans, etc. Each of us here can be categorized to fit into one of 32 micro populations defined by the marketing industry. We are being targeted very precisely. has a database on every purchase I have made with them and they email me constantly to promote products similar to those I have purchased. Spirituality, on the other hand, is an experience I believe to be unique to each person. It depends on each person's experience of life. A person who has had a nurturing childhood with intelligent and caring parents may not need to work at getting in touch with their inner child. Paul McCartney relates the story that his eight-year-old daughter came home from school one day and said, "Daddy, are you the Paul McCartney we were talking about in school today?" He reflected that he knows there is that Paul McCartney that is out there in the world of media; the man who founded the Beatles with John Lennon, may be the most prolific song writer in history, made hundreds of millions of dollars and was knighted by the Queen. Yet he said he always is just the same person he was as a boy doing what he loved to do as well as he knows how. He knows himself as the same person he has always been. But that is not the case with those raised in abusive families. As children they had to survive the abuse and did so. The magical thinking typical of children can be distorted to paranoia, obsessing, fear of authority, isolating, rebelling and other disorders that do not serve the person well as they make their way in the world of adults. Those tactics that were successful in surviving childhood abuse function to sabotage their efforts to live peacefully as adults. It is important for such a person to get in touch with their inner child, understand what that child had to do to survive, realize the sincerity of the inner child as well as his or her cleverness, and reach an integrating appreciation of themselves that nurtures a healthy self-esteem. I suggest this can be felt as a spiritual experience. It is unique to that person as a growth and results in renewed energy for healthy living. It is not something that occurs over and over like an athlete who gets into the performance zone where they are so immersed in the moment their ego is like a spectator watching the show. After scoring 81 points in a game Lakers star Kobe Bryant said, "You know you're there but you can't know you're there." Some may consider that a spiritual experience but I don't think it is important enough in terms of deepening a person's appreciation of life.

Another experience that I like to think of as spiritual is that of forgiveness. Many people do not want to hear that word. A friend of mine's father walked out on him when he was nine years of age. "I'll never forgive him," he says, "I'll never let him off the hook." His father is long dead but he insists on carrying the resentment against the man. Many have experienced horrible things that seem impossible to forgive. A bridge partner's 20-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver. How can a person forgive someone responsible for such horrific damage. Forgiveness can be a spiritual experience in the sense that it doesn't seem to be emotionally possible. What a person finds in forgiveness is letting go of the resentment, rage and hatred that has been blocking the natural emotion of joyfulness that has always been there within the individual. Forgiving allows that joyfulness to flow up like fresh water from a spring in the earth. It's as if the person was going through life with a backpack loaded down with bricks, takes it off and lets it slide do the ground and rejoices with, "Oh great! I don't have to carry that any more." Forgiveness has nothing to do with letting the other person "off the hook", it really lets the forgiver off the hook. Forgiveness has everything to do with changing a person's attitude toward what happened and letting go of the anger. Of course this is easier said than done.

The person who refuses to consider forgiveness probably thinks of it as an obligation rather than an opportunity. But they are like Houdini in the London jail cell. Houdini liked to promote his appearances by announcing that he would be locked in a local jail before making his way to the stage. On this occasion he gave up after an hour trying to pick the lock on his cell door. The audience waited about an hour overtime for his appearance. Finally he leaned against the door in frustrated exhaustion and it slid open. It had not been locked. One can exit the cell of resentment at any time.

I suggest that accomplishing genuine forgiveness can be a life changing or spiritual experience.

Another idea of spirituality is that advocated by promoters of meditation, yoga and similar practices. Place your feet flat on the floor, close your eyes if you are comfortable with that, sit with your spine erect, breath deeply, take the breath in, now let it go. Relax. Now imagine that you do this and find yourself wholly immersed in the present moment with no regret about anything from your past and no concern about anything in your future. You need to go to the bathroom and do so. You return to your seat to find your purse missing. "My purse is missing," you say to your neighbor. "Oh," she says, "perhaps it is on the table where lost objects are placed." You walk calmly over to that table, find your purse, check that everything in it is intact, and return to your seat. This all takes place without the slightest worry because you are fully immersed in the experience of the moment. It is a wonderful place to be. I have had several experiences like this as a result of participating in special exercises at a yoga ashram. With the support of hundreds of people we chanted a mantra continually for three days and two nights. Groups took turns chanting in the main chapel and tape recorders played the chant throughout the building as we did our chores and activities. I went to sleep with the mantra playing in my head. I woke up to use the bathroom and found myself locked out of the room in my bare feet with the temperature outside at ten below zero. That problem was easily resolved without a flicker of anxiety. By the third day I was so immersed in the moment I felt an electric buzzing in my left elbow. My elbow had been painfully inflamed for several months and had defied all diagnosis and treatment. Yet the charge I felt there completely cured whatever it was that was causing pain. I believe that all the energy usually consumed by worrying, planning and ordinary daily thinking was freed up to go where my body needed it and that energy worked the cure. Yes, it was a marvelous experience. But it took three days and two nights of continual mantra chanting with many people in support to get my mind in that state. I'm not sure I would want to live in that frame of mind always or that it is feasible for me to do so.

Such experiences feel marvelous like being in the zone during an athletic contest but I have not found them to be particularly transformative. I think experiences that transform one's appreciation of life such as integrating with the inner child and forgiving serious harm are capable of changing a person's quality of life and can be felt as spiritual in nature. Another idea of spirituality is to join an intentional community. The guru of the yoga ashram I joined preached the simple life, "Eat when you're hungry, rest when you're tired, relate to others in the spirit of love, service and surrender." There was one and only one member of our community who managed to live this way. She ate only when hungry and was in great shape, slept whenever she was tired, did her yoga stretches every day, and was friendly with everyone. She lived entirely in the moment. That was Sara, our beautiful red haired cat. The people administering the community were devoted to activities that were very hurtful to members in their charge. I understand that research on such communities indicates this is not unusual.

It is for each person to decide what is a spiritual experience for him or her. For me part of being spiritual is to understand and accept La Technique as a force of nature manifesting itself in an imaginative species that loves to do things as efficiently as possible. Technology has not made us more virtuous than our ancestors but I need to respect the knowledge it provides in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, politics, parenting and so on. To me being spiritual means doing what you are meant to do, what you are naturally designed to do and doing it as well as you can with the enjoyment that comes with doing life satisfactorily. I have to add that I am thinking of those things that are in accord with the Unitarian commitment, building community, living in peace, seeking truth in love, and providing needed service to others.


©2012 Dennis McGuire, MBA, Ph.D.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
McGuire, Dennis 2012. Spirituality in the Technological Society, /talks/20121028.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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