Worship of Technology'
James I. McNelis III,
Wilmington College, OH
2001. Links updated January, 2009.
Worship of Technology
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, Argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew,
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'Locksley Hall,' 1842
Worship of Technology is a concept more easily associated with our own
times than with the end of the first millenium. Moderns tend to think
of religiously oriented cultures as analogous to those modern Islamic
states which view technology with a mix of contempt and fear, insofar
as it is perceived as an unstoppable incursion of western and secular
values, as well as the inevitable threat to absolutist monarchy. Anglo-Saxon
England did not share these reasons for fearing technology, nor the
modern westerners' reasons for fetishizing it; nonetheless, technology
was something both admirable and terrifying to them in a variety of
of the film "Gladiator" may have come away from it with a
newfound respect for the technological achievements of the Romans, which
went far beyond retractable stadium roofs and arena trap-doors with
elevators. Medieval technology, preserving and augmenting the innovations
of the ancients, was similarly more advanced than popular modern stereotypes
of the period tend to assume (the recent Nova broadcast on the resurrection
of the medieval trebuchet provided a vivid case in point).
most obvious technology of fear to Anglo-Saxons, and the one most easily
introduced under this collection's title, is the dragon on the prow
of a Viking raider. While the Chronicles attest to the pesky problem
of UFOs in past centuries as well as our own (dragons seem primarily
to have been perceived as lights in the night sky, rather than as winged
reptiles in daylight), it was instead the identified aquatic object--a
dragon ship in the water--that brought the fear of God and of the end
of days most forcibly to the Anglo-Saxon people, as in the 'Sermon of
the Wolf' by Wulfstan (Melissa Bernstein's Electronic Sermo Lupi ad
Anglos provides a firstrate online introduction).
is worth remembering just how deadly the Viking's ship design was. Optimized
for coastal raiding, the form of the ship--with a draft of as little
as two feet, apart from the steerboard--allowed not only the rapid landing
necessary to achieve surprise and a local superiority of force, but--even
more important--enabled a quick and prudently timed push-off for departure
before the force equation tilted against the daytrippers as the alarm
spread. The ornamentation of Irish church doors with the skins of Norsemen
unlucky enough to miss the last bus home attested to the necessity of
this form of rapid transit; one of the constants of warfare from medieval
times to our own is that mercenary actions are highly imprudent if the
exit avenues are not readily available. The ability to attack a hostile
coast in some less predictable location than an established seaport
is critical for success, a phenomenon demonstrated in the last century's
use of the Mulberry artificial harbors to invade Normandy,
and in MacArthur's tour-de-force landing at the almost completely inhospitable
Incheon site in Korea.
means of defense against such raids in Anglo-Saxon times seem to have
been limited to coastguard watchers, like the brave loner who greets
Beowulf. Such a system had allowed a strong Celtic resistance to Caesar's
first landing centuries before (and, in Japan in the late 19th century,
the rapid assembly of over 100,000 samurai to confront Dewey's ironclad
--impotent though they were to interfere with it). Unfortunately the
logistics of overland travel in Anglo-Saxon England meant that even
a sharp-eyed spotter would have effectively no chance of summoning decisive
numbers before the high-speed raiders had come and gone. The American
Civil War battlefield maxim of "getting there firstest with the
mostest" was already well understood by the Vikings, and used to
the modern period, our society nurses a fear that may be held up in
analogy: that of the "rogue state" missile attack, which is
being used to justify the construction of a spaced-based defense system.
The objections to its effectiveness against enemy nukes--which would
after all travel better in a suitcase than on a rocket--are so obvious
that it seems plain the actual targets for such a system would be those
which, by their nature, are space-based: enemy warheads set for high-altitude
burst to maximize electro-magnetic pulse damage; missiles aimed at our
overseas military bases, rather than our domestic cities; space satellites
of enemy states; or, perhaps more important yet, hunter-killer machines
sent up to attack our own satellites and those of our allies.
further possibility that such a system may be intended for use against
our present-day dragons, those mysterious lights in the night sky, seems
far-fetched. As usual, the powers that be in the U.S. are not as forthcoming
in their views on that particular topic as has been, for example, the
Belgian air force, whose open discussion of a spectacular UFO pursuit
in 1989--complete with pilot interviews and air-to-air combat radar
data records of the event, along with hundreds, even thousands, of ground
witnesses to the bizarre chase--seems to have established beyond a reasonable
doubt that such things do appear to happen; to what end, no-one seems
either able, or willing, to say.
willingness of the US to fund the extraordinary expense of an anti-missile
system, with no realistic assessment of what it might actually be used
for or why--at least none discussed publicly by the American government--is
certainly Exhibit A in the documenting of the modern worship of technology,
both in the limitless fear of an unseen enemy's mechanical reach, and
in the equally limitless faith that throwing money into research labs
can make the problem go away.
future holds far more insidious invaders. One possibility is biological
weapons, whose threat far exceeds that sometimes imputed to them by
Western experts who have not studied the extensive development of rapid
dispersal methods and materials which may well be the Soviet Union's
most hellish legacy. And microscopic threats may not necessarily
be organic; Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age presents a vivid
forecast of a world in which nanotechnology may create microscopic machines
which, cheaply manufactured in uncounted millions, drift through the
atmosphere until they latch onto a target and perform any number of
possible unpleasant activities upon (or within) it. Counter-weapons
drift through the air in Stephenson's drama as well, seeking out and
disabling the enemy "mites" in a never-ending microscopic
dogfight--the bodies of both victors and vanquished polluting the air
and littering every surface with grimy dust. Nanotech is rapidly moving
from theory to reality, and the occasional mass-media articles about
developments in that area do not begin to orient the reader towards
its potential to overthrow much of what we have taken for granted about
most material aspects of physical human existence. Although horrific
weapons are one possibility, effective medical immortality and unlimited
free food for all are just two of the other mind-bending options now
being seriously contemplated by those familiar with this emerging field. The future may be, not
only stranger than we imagine, but, like the physical universe revealed
by quantum theory, stranger than we can imagine. The possibility that
accelerating technical change will create a "singularity"
in time beyond which we can no longer make projections about the future
is becoming a primary concern of serious futurists (see, e.g., the links and
essays presented by Ray Kurzweil).
who fear technology will have ample fuel for their views in the events
of the 21st century, and ample reason to remember what Churchill said
about the technology of the 20th: that it enabled a given amount of
ill-will to go much farther than it had in the past. It will certainly
go farther yet in the century to come.
Berliner, with Marie Galbraith, Antonio Huneeus. "Unidentified
Flying Object Briefing Document: The Best Available Evidence?"
Presented by CUFOS, FUFOR, MUFON, copyright the UFO Research Coalition,
December 1995. International Space Sciences Organization website: http://www.isso.org/inbox/ubd/case/1990.htm
Melissa J. 'The Electronic Sermo Lupi ad Anglos.' http://www.cif.rochester.edu/~mjbernst/wulfstan/index.html.
c. 1996. accessed 5.25.01.
Foresight Institute. Palo Alto, California. Online: www.foresight.org.
Raymond. 'KurzweilAI.net.' Online: www.kurzweilai.net. Accessed 5.25.01.
Magazine. Publisher, Bill Spence. Online: www.nanozine.com. Accessed
Preston, "The Bioweaponeers." New Yorker, March 9 1998: 52-65.
of Lost Empires--Medieval Siege.' Nova episode #27ms. First broadcast
Feb 1 2000.
Stephenson, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.
New York: Bantam, 1995.