Technological advancement is now seen as an end. As a collective, unified force, with all it’s aspirations, achievements and disruptions, it has become the light at the end of the tunnel, the economic Mecca that will, in the minds of the hopeful, eradicate all poverty, insufficiency, intolerance, annoyance, etc. etc., and in the minds of the paranoid, inevitably lead to apocalyptic machine dominance over humans in the realms of intelligence, violence, productivity, as well as to the degradation of humanities collective well-being, all the while dividing us, influencing us and charming us with a trance-inducing seduction that brings one and all happily over the cliff a la Brave New World.
No matter which side you’re on (doubtless, most are somewhere in the middle, taking a healthy dose of both sentiments), it is openly apparent that nearly all those actively engaged in Western civilization as it stands today – the obvious actors in Europe and North America, as well as the up-and-comers on the Eastern side – are committed whole-heartedly to technological growth as a harbinger of itself. Technology, most notably the breakthroughs which have been made in the past 30 years in robotics, retail, computer science and entertainment have proven their economic viability, as corporations such as Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. etc., have become the gold standard for American ingenuity, inventiveness, and have made a compelling case as the deliverers of the “happiness” of which the pursuit is described most pridefully in this country’s founding document. More pointedly, technology is seen by modern individuals entangled in Western economics as a holy grail, marking the gradual marginalization of economic volatility. Technological growth is seen as an endless well of sci-fi, futurist magic and mystery, wherein, so long as the private and public sector agree to continue to throw uninhibited, unregulated resources and time it’s way, all the great (or miserable) eventualities highlighted above are sure to come about.
Why is technology seen this way?
The answer is two-fold. First, technology is invariably cool, exciting, interesting and full of promise. Had there been no first line of benefits to defend the endeavor, surely the second line of harms would have won out, and technology-as-economic Mecca could never have made its proper case. Second, and perhaps more insightfully, the technologists in the 90’s and onward who have kept the wheels turning all this time have ensured their success by entangling technology with psychology.
You have heard this story before. Your phone taps on endorphins through its use of vibrant and appealing imagery, thus making it more addictive. Social media feeds on your ambitions and your limbic system (responsible for your sex drive, hormones such as fear, anger, other emotions), and encourages you to peer deeper and more inquisitively into the lives of perfect strangers, or your friends. Facebook particularly has made a sick joke of this, promoting the idea that anger and fear are so obsessively inviting that they actually keep you online by prompting you with something to hate (remember all those MAGA-hat-wearers you flamed in the comments?). This list of psychological plays quite literally goes on and on and on (an interesting thinker on this topic is Tristan Harris of the Centre for Humane Technology), but the main idea is this: technology embeds itself into the social structure, feeds norms, builds psycho-social engines and reaps the fruits in the form of clicks, ads, revenue, satiated stockholders, etc., etc.
But this all goes back to the original notion that technology is seen as an end. The point extends here to include not simply an economic end, but a social end as well. It has done so skillfully, through its a) being incredibly cool and promising and b) being incredibly hard to get away from, because it has so deeply embedded itself in our culture, our day-to-day, our everything. It fuels our economics and our social world. We need it when we’re at work and we want it when we get home.
Now on to the spirituality aspect of the title. We are starting to see a trend, particularly in Silicon Valley (where all of the above Western tech comes from), of “spirituality” as cultural phenomena. It shows up in the form of meditation apps and retreats, guided psychedelic drug use or micro-dosing, yoga in all forms (particularly kundalini, known to bring about meditative and even psychedelic states), breathing techniques, sensory-deprivation tanks and various other methods meant to spark greater mindfulness, possibly in an effort to cultivate such total awareness of one’s physical and mental state that one can transcend, reach the spiritual and objective that gives meaning to all the rest. This itself would have been inconceivable 30 years ago, when the tech-age was getting going. However, as mentioned above, one of Silicon Valley technologists two major plays is the firm footing they and their ideas have in the cultural diet of any and all modern Westerner. They push trends, the masses follow. Apps like Calm, Waking Up, 10% Happier, the recent growth in shamanism and expert-led entheogenic experiences in the Northwest and Northeast, basically anything that’s come out of Michael Pollen’s mouth in the last two years, the openly-shared opinions of podcasters like Joe Rogan (on psychedelics) and Sam Harris (on meditation) are all fueling this engine and ensuring this eventuality. It’s an almost banal subject of commentary because of how woo-woo-fairy-bulllshit this all sounds to the layman, but trends flowing as they do, it’s almost incomprehensible that Silicon Valley will fail to promote spirituality-as-modernity into an international phenomena in the coming years.
But why peddle spirituality?
This again is two-fold. Partly because of science. The science behind the healing properties of entheogens like Psilocybe cubensis (magic mushrooms) goes back to the 1950’s, with a major step backward during the War on Drugs, and now it’s all coming back again with studies into possible cancer-treating benefits at culturally and intellectually relevant institutions such as Johns Hopkins, NYU and others. So too the science of meditation is hitting the mainstream in a big way, riding partly on the coattails of the science of consciousness, itself coming into fashion with the work of researchers like Anil Seth and Giulio Tononi.
Couple the scientific underpinning with the culturally apparent fact that we Westerners look at Eastern culture and its traditional basis in meditation and free-flowing spirituality (as opposed to the organized religion we’ve all been spoon fed), and it all seems incredibly wholesome and interesting. Then, we meditate for a little while, or we pop a few mushroom caps, and suddenly we become gripped by what feels like a more enlightened perspective, and we go looking for it more and more. We then conflate our understanding of the science of hallucinogens and meditation (which is still practically null) with our first-person experiences and with the mythology of Eastern religion, and we’re completely and utterly sold on the fact that these spiritual relics will open up doors to the great and wonderful Mecca we thought tech would bring us. Again, a two-fold explanation for a major development on the shores of the Western world today.
The rise in spirituality-as-western culture is invariably tied to the increasing dependence on technology as a social and economic end. The more we see robots and cell phones taking over all the pestilences, annoyances and inconveniences of life, the more we face a big, glaring fork in the road. Do we do as Aldous Huxley predicted, and feed ourselves willingly into the passive comfort machine, or do we, being free to let robots take over civilization’s most banal exercises, use our open time to pay closer attention on the oneness of all things?
Technologists have more or less figured this one out. Spirituality is the antidote to the fork in the road. That’s why it’s being commercialized more and more in Silicon Valley, because more and more people will inevitably turn to it as a way out of a tech-infused zombified lifestyle. The economics of spirituality will become important very soon. Heed this: whatever institution controls the way spiritual guidance and spiritual tools are shared and transmitted to the masses will become of critical importance for leaders in government and captains of industry. The real point is that technology is not an end. Technology is the beginning of something new. There will be a point when the economics and the social world just can not function as they have for the last 30 years, banking on growth in the world of bits as the socio-economic holy grail. Attention could be diverted back into growth in the world of atoms, as Peter Thiel, of Silicon Valley, said on Eric Weinstein’s podcast, The Portal. If so, this atomic growth would likely come in the form of social upheaval, a redistribution of resources and a large scale reset on the Western experience, fueled, ironically, by the lifting of many burdens by technology.
I think that the real growth needed due to the inevitable stagnation in the world of bits is in the world of spirits, of woo-woo-fairy-bullshit. Couple that with a growth in the world of atoms, where the sciences of biology, ecology, chemistry and physics bring us the innovation and growth we need economically, and people are more empowered to live fuller, more interesting and vibrant lives full of meditative states, psychedelic breakthroughs and collective well-being. That may be coming. The great race now is to see which will come first: Western culture absorbing the mindfulness of Eastern mysticism, or Eastern culture absorbing the Western ideals of materialism and consumerism. It seems as though the result of that collision will be widely understood soon. The key to the result lies in how willing each culture is to be absorbed.