The other day I wrote a piece for this site on the Post Office scandal and what it has to tell us about the prospect of digital mayhem when the entire scandal derived from an over-reliance on technology that wasn’t understood by anyone involved and which was defective.
Peter Cardwell of TalkTV picked up the article and interviewed me yesterday. You can watch the interview here. He’s an excellent interviewer who asks very perceptive questions and listens to the answers. I much enjoyed the experience but of course we barely scraped the surface of the subject, and I was also left thinking about what he’d said.
One of his questions was: why have we ended up placing so much trust in all this tech and what do we do about it? That left me thinking.
Human beings have always looked to a higher and infallible authority for reassurance, to seek help in an uncertain future, to provide coherence and structure to life, and to legitimate or validate our actions, among which are some of the most terrible conflicts in human history. Cult is also used for coercion and control and so often it works because coercion and control masquerade as security and stability. As soon as literacy came into being around 5,000 years ago, it’s religion that became one of the first aspects of human culture recorded, and from the start it was integral to the state.
A proliferation of gods appeared in antiquity as well as evidence for cult, and most of all the performance of ritual in which human beings seek to propitiate the gods and seek their support. Colossal quantities of resources were poured into the performance of cult and temples in antiquity, not least because the regimes depended for their entitlement to rule on the ‘approval’ of the deities.
Let’s take a single example. Egyptian Pharaohs routinely claimed that they had been sired by the god Amun who had appeared in guise of their fathers and impregnated their mothers. Not surprisingly then, the Pharaoh handed over vast amounts of booty and slaves into the Amun cult which became a state within a state. The remains of the cult centre at Karnak, just outside Luxor in Egypt, bear witness to this: despite being ruinous, it’s still one of the largest religious complexes in the world. Amun was constantly depicted as the god in whose name the Pharaoh did everything, from appearing in a temple procession or brutal wars of conquest that destroyed cities and enslaved thousands. The cult of Amun was a machine which managed resources, owned vast tracts of land and goods and controlled labour.
In our highly secularised state it seems to me that perhaps we’ve transferred our need for reassurance to a new form of cult: technology. Instead of rain dances and sacrifices we look to weather forecasters, satellites and modelling to tell us the weather future. Instead of expecting gods to protect us, we have turned to computers and electronics and all their attendant systems to run the world around us. They are increasingly treated as if they were infallible, as if they were a pantheon of gods, mainly because we want them to be. In our uncertain world we are desperate for certainty. This thread ran throughout Covid, but that kind of belief in what mathematics and technology and the will to believe we can control our environment runs through almost every part of our society now.
The Post Office scandal exhibits this perfectly. Even when it had become manifestly obvious that the Horizon system was flawed, no one involved in enforcing its operation was prepared to admit that. The possibility was simply too agonising and terrifying to contemplate. It meant, quite literally, admitting that the god of Horizon was not infallible, that the liturgy of the software might be incapable of delivering the promised control and order. The implications went way beyond the tragedy inflicted on sub-postmasters.
I’m not some kind of Luddite, pleading for a return to the old world of religion and to obliterate the science and technology of our era. Not for one minute would I like to live in the Middle Ages or in some fanciful post-apocalyptic rural idyll. Religion has led mankind into some of its most terrible places, peddled outrageous lies, and in some parts of the world it is still doing so. At the time of writing, it has the potential to act as catalyst to a new era of conflict.
But we do need to try and understand ourselves. There is a prevailing sense that science is somehow different, that it represents our leap into a whole new type of human existence. To some extent that is true but human beings have not changed fundamentally. That is why technology has become a new kind of cult, even if we do not appreciate it on an everyday basis.
We are all now being drawn deeper into the systems and protocols of technology. We have to interact with the Government and banks through machines, following new types of rituals which (as everyone knows) can leave us reeling with frustration and despair when confronted with some new digital dead end. We have become ever more infantilised because technology is capable of performing far more actual tasks than conventional religion; moreover, it is also beginning to take on a life of its own. That means everything from a satnav (which annihilates the native ability to develop a sense of direction) to calculators that have reduced our ability to perform basic arithmetic, diminished our capacity to remember things, and made us reliant on machines we not only are unable to repair but which are also designed to be unrepairable. And every moment of our lives is being recorded by these machines.
Alongside the machines, we are invited time and time again, like the omens of old, to treat scientific modelling as a form of fact. No real scientist would ever pretend it was so, but some do, and more to the point, many of us want it to be – everything from weather forecasting to predicting school results, Covid deaths and election results. They are all laid out before us, all ‘validated’ by their scientific credentials as a reliable depiction of the future. The evidence that none of this is truly reliable, that the future is only certain when it’s in the past, doesn’t stop us sliding ever further into this new form of religion.
It cuts both ways of course. Technology is also breeding new forms of doomsday saviour cults that are wholly anti-technology, or at least profess to be. These cults promise redemption if all of us bow down before their dogmas and liturgies and unquestioningly obey their precepts and demands. And like all such cults they are veering ever closer to ruthless enforcement and suppression of any diversity of thought. The great paradox of course is that the theology of these cults is founded on forms of scientific modelling, mathematical prophecies of the end of the world, rather than punitive thunderbolts hurled down by Zeus, which are trotted out with ever more frantic and zealous hysteria.
None of this should occasion any surprise to anyone. ‘Know thyself’ has always been one of the best pieces of advice, or in this case, know ourselves. Human beings have not changed. The Post Office Horizon catastrophe might serve as a timely warning, but I’m not holding my breath. Cult, whatever form it takes and everything it involves or leads to, is a facet of the human experience, a product of ourselves. We could start by understanding that.