Jeremy Naydler, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in theology and religious studies, and is a philosopher, cultural historian and gardener who lives and works in Oxford, England.
He has long been interested in the history of consciousness and sees the study of past cultures – which were more open to the world of spirit than our own, predominantly secular, culture – as relevant both to understanding our situation today and to finding pathways into the future.
His longstanding concern about the impact of electronic technologies on our inner life and on our relationship to nature has found expression in his book In the Shadow of the Machine (Temple Lodge 2018) and in his new book Struggle for a Human Future: 5G, Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things (Temple Lodge 2020).
KINGSLEY DENNIS (KD): You have said that the biggest threat of technology is not from the apparatus itself but from its corruption of the human essence. What is the major threat of technology against the human essence?
JEREMY NAYDLER (JN): This is something Heidegger wrote about in his seminal essay, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’. He said that technology encourages us to adopt an instrumental relationship to the world, so we tend to see things as means to our own ends rather than as ends in themselves. If that becomes our default mode of relating to the world then that reduces us as human beings. We lose our reverence for nature, we lose our openness to the fundamental mystery of existence, and our sense of the sacredness of life. Then our hearts become hardened. Rather than living in wonder, we find ourselves cut off from spirit, and that is how we lose touch with what it means to be human. This is because to live humanly is at the very least to live with our hearts open to the mystery of existence. I would also say that freedom belongs to the human essence, and the more sophisticated technology gets, the more it tends to undermine our freedom. By freedom I mean the capacity to live by the ideals, aims and values that we have ourselves adopted, rather than having them imposed on us. One of the effects of the technologisation of our lives is that we are more and more hemmed in and forced to conform to a machine-dominated world, with the result that our ability to act freely is compromised.
JN: I wouldn’t want to say that all technology places us in opposition to the cosmic order. There are many technologies that don’t have the devastating effects that we have seen produced by more recent technological developments. It was really with the scientific and industrial revolutions that we collectively embarked upon a course that has led to our “falling out of the Tao.” Our human activities have increasingly been commandeered by the power of our modern technologies, and this is because we have surrendered to an unremittingly instrumentalist attitude, which tells us that the more efficiently we can exploit nature, the better. And so our technologies lead us even further into imbalance. How can anyone look at what is now occurring in the world today and not know that we are rebelling against the cosmic and natural order?
JN: When we consider the digital revolution, and the process of miniaturization that electronic technology has gone through, we can see how incredibly useful it has been to us. The computer and the smartphone have become indispensable for most of us, if we are to function in the contemporary world. But we also need to see that these technologies play into our weaknesses. They cannot really satisfy our deeper yearnings. Rather, they tend to distract us away from what is living within ourselves as our deeper purpose, and instead we fall prey to our more superficial desires. There is the shadow! Or one of the shadows.
We are all so hungry, but what are we actually hungry for? We can so easily misunderstand our own inner yearnings. We must keep asking: What is it that will really satisfy us? I don’t think it is the next seductively designed iPhone or smartwatch. The “feel good” factor of the shiny new device doesn’t last long, because in the end it is just a thing. And while this technology certainly enables us to do so much more than we can do without it, it does not in itself satisfy the deeper hunger that lives in the soul.
JN: I fear this is what is happening, and it has been accelerated in recent months by the way governments all over the world have responded to the global coronavirus pandemic. There is grave danger that in different countries – even those with long democratic traditions – citizens become adjusted to living under a state of emergency that then becomes normalised. We have very quickly become habituated to the drastic limitations placed on our freedom by our governments, under the pretext of protecting the public from a fatal infectious disease (which it turns out is not nearly as fatal as at first predicted). Then the armoury of state surveillance, electronic tracking and tracing, cashless transactions, immunity passports and so on, is brought to bear on us.
Because of the global nature of the pandemic, there has been a degree of harmonisation in the responses of governments to it. Global organisations like the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the WEF (World Economic Forum) are key players influencing governments. There is now an attempt backed by the WHO and the UN to create a global legal framework for dealing with the pandemic. While this may seem perfectly reasonable, it makes me feel uneasy. I can foresee a situation in the future when if you haven’t been vaccinated then you will not be permitted to travel abroad. And that could well be the least of what is in store for us.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has been an outspoken critic of the Italian government’s response to the pandemic, has warned that we are rapidly moving to a situation in which we may all find ourselves controlled far more effectively than under any of the old fascist and communist totalitarian regimes of the mid-twentieth century. And that is thanks to the electronic infrastructures that have already been put in place, and are being constantly upgraded, in so many countries all over the world.
KD: You also state that the electronic ecosystem will enable machine-organism hybrids to usurp natural organisms as part of an extension of human control over nature. To what extent does such technology represent a ‘replacement of nature’?
JN: I will give you an example, which is not exactly a machine-organism hybrid, but it is a machine that is mimicking a living organism and has been designed specifically to take over the functions of that particular creature. The creature is the honeybee, which has suffered an enormous decline over the last few decades. As it is vital for the pollination of many different crops, the decline of the honeybee has caused much concern.
There is a great deal of evidence that points to the use of insecticides, especially neonicotinoids, as adversely affecting bees, which is hardly surprising given that they are insects! But bees are also highly electro-sensitive, and many studies also point to the saturation of the atmosphere with electromagnetic fields as another significant factor in their decline. What better solution to the problem of honeybee decline than to design a “robot bee” to replace the honeybee? It won’t be susceptible to either of these pollutants, so we can use it without having to worry about its health or the possibility of it going extinct, because we will be able to mass produce them. A robot bee won’t sting us either. Over the last decade various laboratories around the world, one of which is based at Harvard in the USA, have been developing different “robobee” designs, to make an artificial creature that can replace the real one. (But will it make honey? I don’t think so!)
What you see here is the technological mentality aggressively stepping into nature and, instead of us taking the measures needed to reduce the threats to the honeybee population, their plight is seen as an opportunity to make a new commercial product that will replace them. This is just one example. It is by no means the only one, in which technological innovations are being designed to replace living creatures.
KD: You ask in your book whether people are prepared the make inner development (the ‘inner turn’) a part of their life. Is the ‘inner turn’ the only way to counteract the encroaching dominance of technology?
JN: What I notice both in myself and in others, especially since the use of mobile phones and then smartphones became so widespread, is that they take on the role of “the constant companion,” to whom we turn for comfort and reassurance, almost as if they are our best friends. Sherry Turkle wrote a book in 2005 called The Second Self, in which she explored the psychological role of our digital devices, and how we have come to constantly refer to them. We can feel our whole lives are somehow “in them,” and as we live our lives online more and more, if we lose them or they crash it can seem like a devastating loss. Some people Sherry Turkle interviewed said that when their device crashed it felt as if they had lost their lives! It was like a death.
That is why it is so important that we keep making the inner turn. In the world’s sacred traditions, there is the figure of the inner companion, sometimes pictured as our guardian angel, or the Sufi “inner friend of the soul,” or the Christ within. Building our relationship to this transcendent inner figure is an important part of the work of spiritual development. It teaches us to remember that there is a higher level of ourselves, the “immortal within the mortal person,” which we have to keep trying to connect with. By no means easy! But you can see how our digital devices can supplant this far more important task, presenting to us a counterfeit “second self” or “inner companion” in place of the authentic one. If we can work on building up the connection with our true “inner friend,” then we become inwardly strengthened and less beholden to the technology.
KD: You made an intriguing reference to how Rudolf Steiner regarded electricity as light in a fallen, degraded state. There is the suggestion here that electricity is to Lucifer what Light is to the Sacred Source. Is the enveloping ‘electrosmog’ a way to sever humanity’s connection to its sacred Source?
JN: Steiner had many extremely interesting things to say about electricity. And one of them was that it should be regarded as light in a sub-material state. That is, it is light that has fallen below the level of nature, into what he termed “sub-nature.” For this reason he warned us to be very wary of building our whole culture on the basis of electricity, because its tendency is to draw us away from nature and to pull us down into sub-nature.