July 5, 2010

Bet you didn’t know that the world is now in a new dark age? After all, the last century, indeed the last 10 years, has been the greatest period of technological advance in human history. More than that, increasing numbers of people are receiving advanced education and the amount of scientific research is unparalleled. Prosperity has spread from the Western world and is showing clear signs of spreading across nations such as China and India.

These trends and events are good. So how can anyone say that a dark age is upon us?

Yet, in a 1976 article on industrial growth, George Grant, one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals of the 20th century and a committed Christian as well, made that claim. Grant examined the opinion that the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used. The computer, he noted, is seen as a neutral instrument, one that does what you tell it to do.

Yet, the computer is more than an instrument; it is not neutral. It does more than contribute to human autonomy and material well-being. In fact, Grant argued, computer technology is a driving force toward the homogenization of human societies. It is a driving force that bulldozes moral decision-making into the ground by opening up seemingly endless possibilities for individual and societal “progress.”

We are moving into a dark age, because moral thought has been rendered impotent in the face of endless autonomy. The philosopher is of no value in comparison with the inventor; the importance of the priest has been dwarfed by that of the geek.

Grant wrote this 34 years ago when the only computers filled large rooms. It was an era before personal computers, before the world wide web, before Facebook and before Web 3 when all data will be stored in “the cloud,” rather than on your personal computer. We now have tremendous personal autonomy, but at the price of Big Brother having the capability to know more about you than you know about yourself.

For Grant, the role of the philosopher now is to tell us that we are homeless, people without roots. The role of the thinker is to bring into the light the fact that our god of personal autonomy is a god of darkness. The role of the Christian is to bear witness to the reality “that there is something ‘beyond’ both thought and practice.”

This is a tall order.

Smashing all the computers is not a viable or positive option. But convincing people that personal autonomy is not an absolute value and that what really counts is a life lived in communion with God and other people — and that living that life will mean constraints on autonomy — is going to be an uphill battle.

We love our freedom. But real freedom only comes when we accept that we are subject to immeasurable values that are outside and above the self.