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Technology and the Re-Enchanted World

Ever since sociologist Max Weber popularized the term, writers about religion have discussed the phenomenon of disenchantment—the process by which the modernizing world has steadily lost its sense of God, or the divine more broadly. Rod Dreher’s controversial—and bestselling—recent book The Benedict Option carries these arguments forward. Dreher explores the latent challenges of modernity at length, and most discussions of the book have centered on its dire assessment of Western Christianity.

But interestingly, one of Dreher’s most provocative chapters has been met with little debate. Toward the end of the book, he critiques the modern obsession with technology, arguing that our online fixation “fragments and scatters our attention like nothing else.” This, in turn, strips us of the ability to engage seriously in contemplative thought and worship.

I agree with this assessment, though I don’t think Dreher’s critique of techno-modernity goes far enough. Indeed, I contend that the technological world we’ve built is, in a profound sense, a re-enchanted cosmos—but this time around, it looks far different, and far more anarchic.

In his comprehensive evaluation of religious decline, A Secular Age, Harvard philosopher Charles Taylor outlines the contours of the premodern “enchanted world.” Before the Reformation and Enlightenment, Taylor explains, the physical world was viewed in a radically different way than we grasp it now. In the medieval landscape Taylor outlines, “meanings are not only in minds, but can reside in things, or in various kinds of extra-human but intra-cosmic subjects.” Ordinary folk viewed themselves as inhabiting a world filled with demons and dark forces, agents of moral power with the capacity to overwhelm and destroy individual human identities.

All of reality was, in a way, sacramental—that is, situated at the nexus of both spiritual and physical worlds. And to the medieval commoner, the seven formal sacraments administered by the Church were flashes of light in the darkness—a mighty “white magic” through which holy forces intersected with material reality, keeping supernatural evil at bay. The Church, as the voice of God on earth, spoke with real authority over the powers and principalities of the world. No spiritual monsters could stand against that truth.

Upon first reading Taylor, I found it hard to mentally grasp the cosmos he depicts. The medieval world, I reflected, is so far from our own that we can’t realistically slip back into our ancestors’ frame of thought. But after pondering the question further, I’ve realized that contemporary digital technologies have evolved to a point where, in a powerful way, they re-enchant the world we inhabit, restoring a sense of intersection between supervening and material realities. This time around, though, the enchanted world is rather more lawless.

Consider a person entering a world like Twitter, a space that drives a great deal of contemporary discourse (and a realm in which our current President casts a long shadow). Suppose that in this digital realm, she manifests herself as she is, without pretense. She uses her real name, her real picture, and her real location—projecting a piece of her true self into the digital world.

Once she dares to comment publicly on a controversial subject, she will quickly find that dehumanized forces—modern demons and witches—patrol the boundaries of propriety. Left-wing brigades accuse their targets of failing to respect ever-changing standards of discourse, while right-wing mobs swamp their victims with death threats and ethnic slurs. These are today’s dark, malevolent forces, waiting to overwhelm unguarded souls.

Nearly all such harassers are cloaked in cyber-anonymity, their humanity hidden behind layers of avatars and icons. And that’s if the identities involved are human at all: the Internet currently teems with “bots,” computer programs that may be designed specifically to harass their quarries. Against these agents, online community administrators find themselves largely powerless.

In an era where cell phone coverage is globally ubiquitous, this liminal reality quite literally surrounds us at all times. When I walk down a physical street, online dialogues and engagements are happening around me, but only within a kind of supra-material reality. To the naked eye, any malevolent cyber-forces are invisible; to the constructed self I put forward online, they can be devastating. To attract the wrong kind of attention in that “enchanted world” is to risk a bleeding-over of consequences from the digital into the physical: think of everyone who’s been fired for ill-advised tweets. Ours is indeed a secular age, but it is no longer disenchanted.

But unlike in the medieval period, there are no sources of authority—or sacredness—in this re-enchanted world. There is no God here. There is no “white magic” that works restoration in the face of online attacks. There is no rite of absolution through which the anonymous forces of the digital realm can be held at bay. Online, the demons hold the cards.

The Internet and its sub-communities are, by and large, radically democratized spaces opposed to hierarchical governance: any talk of a Magisterium, or of a Church that dares to assert its primacy, would be rejected instantly. Without such institutions, though, no power can meaningfully counterbalance the horrors of an enchanted world. In this digital age, we all find ourselves “anti-sacramental Protestants” by default.

In short, those who long for a “re-enchantment of the world” had best be wary. In a time when we’ve cast off all authority in the name of new freedoms, they may not like what they find.

 

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  • Carlos Crestana

    Very good remarks, John! I’d add that this re-enchantment of the world can only be restored by conversion and a deepening of a life of prayer – no news here, I know – and that’s why we can see it in the life of many saints, no matter how far from the Middle Ages we are.

    (Chesterton comes promptly to my mind as the biggest (on many senses!) Catholic to have a very deep enchantment sense of reality. “Tremendous Trifles” and “Manalive” would be two great examples of this on his writings.)

    But now comes my questions. What play does technology have here? Is there anything we can do now to properly deal with it or are we to find solace only by avoiding it as much as we can? Does the “new Benedict option” also means running away from those virtual spaces, as well? “And if thy smartphone offend thee, cut it off…”?

  • I am rarely surprised (or pleased) with philosophical analysis of technology. This essay did both. I’ll have to chew on this! 🙂