Image of Boston City Hall

The Irrational Religion of Future-Worship

Image of Boston City Hall
Boston City Hall, from the Library of Congress collection.

There is a vague yet dogmatic assumption in the minds of modern men that the latest technology is somehow inevitable, and whatever negative consequences arise from it must be endured.  After all, the newest technology is new because of efficiency (this adjective/adverb-turned-noun may well be responsible for the modern world), and that any preference of older, more rustic methods of doing such-and-such is either quaint or irrational.

This is nonsense.

What could be more irrational and quaint than the assumption that whatever appears latest is somehow better than what appeared before?  What could be more irrational than trusting to a vague and indeterminate spirit of the future?  A preference for any given point of the past in any given area may be incorrect.  Indeed, it may be cruelly, even terribly, incorrect; but it is not and cannot be quainter than a preference for the future.  After all, the past has passed.  It can be known, and thus, judged.  It can be evaluated.  It can be learned from.  But the future is indeterminate; it cannot be known, and it cannot be judged.  It cannot impart wisdom to us.

The future can only be worshipped.

The future can only be worshipped because the future can only be approached in faith and hope (or in dread).  Faith and hope (and, indeed, dread) are not marks of rational detachment, but of religion.

What else could inspire temples of concrete to the god of the invisible hand?  What else could inspire so hideous a totem as a stop sign?

Are we so blinded by future-worship that we cannot rightly compare warehouse megachurches to gothic architecture, or even the stripped and simple Protestant chapel?  Can our hodge-podge, hulking, concrete places of learning not be measured against the old-world university halls–even if they appear on the same campus?

A preference for the new over the past, when the new is truly superior, is not only sane but sound.  Cathedrals were at one time a novelty, after all.  But a preference for that which is new, simply because it approaches nearer the future—that secret god of darkness—is madness.  Future worship is indeed a secret darkness, for it blinds us, and it is a darkness we can never pierce.  The future, after all, is ever elusive.  We can measure Queen Ann architecture against that of a shopping mall.  We cannot measure a shopping mall against the future.

Far from being irrational, the man with the backward glance, in contrast with the future-worshipper, simply wishes to compare his present reality with that which has come before.  He is comparing the real with the real.  And if the present comes up short, can he help but wish for the past again?  Consider, if you will, C.S. Lewis’s “On a Vulgar Error”.

No. It’s an impudent falsehood. Men did not
Invariably think the newer way Prosaic
mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church? Did anybody say How
modern and how ugly? They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror? They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor’s breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can’t do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

I wish to remove all such mysticism from the future.  I wish to recall the clarity of the backward glance.

In doing so, we are not left with only an impotent longing for the past; we are still left in the present.  And although I may never convince the mass of men known as “society” that they are adherents to a strange and terrible religion which worships concrete sprawl, I can attend a church with arches rather than basketball hoops.  I can note the difference and point out the contrast.

Nostalgia looks for a bygone past that is irrecoverable.  It is an old wound with no chance to heal, a time of youth and health long past.  Fair enough, but I do not wish to invoke mere nostalgia.  “You cannot turn back the clock,” they say.  Nonsense.  As Chesterton said:  we can turn back the clock just like we can turn back human society: because it is a human invention.

Now, what of this turning back?  Does it mean giving up the internet, concrete, and antibiotics?  Does it mean giving up, in short, “technology”?  I say: no.  Or rather:  neither yes nor no.  I may have the quixotic and romantic notion of reconstructing the 13th century.  Does this mean I shall have no internet?  Only if I believe the heart of the 13th century resides not in the Cathedral, but in the absence of the world wide web.

There are two equal and opposite errors that accompany nearly every discussion of “technology” (a fairly useless word which I regretfully employ), and they are this:  first, that “technology” is itself completely neutral to human behavior and can be employed for either good or evil, waste or usefulness; and second, that any comparison with the past contains the assumption of a loss of “technology.”

Much has been said against the first error (indeed, since Plato at least), though it seems few have listened.  That certain inventions, products, and services contain latent implications, very often negative, has been noted by keen minds like Marshall McLuhan.  The car is an extension of the foot, he points out, but it is also an amputation.  We walk less, and any negative physical, psychological, and societal consequences of that loss are just as innate in our use of the car as is the increase of mobility.  Likewise, you have probably read at least one article which claims that frequent internet use causes decreased memory capacity (and if you haven’t, then what have you been reading on the internet?).  “Technology,” then, is not entirely neutral.

What then of “technology” in our reconstructed 13th century society?  Must we get rid of cars to have beautiful, pedestrian town squares again?  Without denying the truth of the above paragraph, I ask in return: what guarantee do we have that, if we get rid of cars, the town square, or cathedral, or pleasant architecture of any kind, will fill the void left by the sprawl?  Will not the same diseased imagination which conceived of the concrete sprawl find some other equally horrid convenience to construct?  Conversely, could not an urban environment be designed which put the car to limited and good use?  (Even if that meant keeping the car out of the urban environment?)  We need not totally forsake the car in order to re-imagine our use of it.  Television, say, may have truly damaged the modern imagination—but our goal cannot merely be the removal of television, but the restoration of something superior to it.

Let us consider another example: the internet.  What vast potential!  What a glorious archive of knowledge rests just beyond our keyboards!  But instead, we use the net for Twitter.  And porn.  Lots of porn.  Consider, instead, what use the medieval would have put the capability of the internet to had it been created in their consciousness.  While it is doubtful that they would have traded their highly ornate and exquisitely crafted illuminations for digital pixels and Calibri font, the sheer organizing potential of the internet would certainly have held its appeal.  As C.S. Lewis notes in his Discarded Image, their favorite modern invention would probably have been the library index.  One can imagine a vast Latin JSTOR, or monkish Wikipedia, or a Christendom-wide interlibrary loan system.  (Of course, since I can only imagine the scenario through comparisons of existent websites, my metaphors are poor.)

Let us finally consider an example of something not necessarily new, but something more readily available via “technology” in the modern age: concrete.  Lots of concrete.  In case you couldn’t tell, that last building was a colossal, publicly funded middle-finger to the residents of Boston.  But need our concrete creations be industrial, hulking, and drab caricatures of stone?  On the contrary, consider Rudolph Steiner’s first and second “Goetheanums,” which employ concrete as fluid.  (Steiner, by the way, was not a dedicated architect, but a philosopher and mystic).  Steiner’s innovation was truly unique, yet do I say, in Lewis’s words, “How modern and how ugly?” I do not.  The reactionary does not hate the new because it is new, but because it is ugly.  Steiner’s creativity shows that the new and the innovative need not stand in hideous contrast to the past.

Which is to say, we can imagine a modern world better than it is.  We can do this because we can look to the past and note where it is superior.  Otherwise, we shall remain enslaved to that irrational religion of future-worship.

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