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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'The Worship of Technology'
James I. McNelis III,
Associate Professor
Wilmington College, OH

May, 2001. Links updated January, 2009.

The 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

The 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 ways.

Viewers 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).

The 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).

It 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.

The 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 their advantage.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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).

Those 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.


Don 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

Bernstein, Melissa J. 'The Electronic Sermo Lupi ad Anglos.' http://www.cif.rochester.edu/~mjbernst/wulfstan/index.html. c. 1996. accessed 5.25.01.

The Foresight Institute. Palo Alto, California. Online: www.foresight.org. Accessed 5.25.01.

Kurzweil, Raymond. 'KurzweilAI.net.' Online: www.kurzweilai.net. Accessed 5.25.01.

Nanotechnology Magazine. Publisher, Bill Spence. Online: www.nanozine.com. Accessed 5.25.01.

Richard Preston, "The Bioweaponeers." New Yorker, March 9 1998: 52-65.

'Secrets of Lost Empires--Medieval Siege.' Nova episode #27ms. First broadcast Feb 1 2000.

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam, 1995.



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