Silicon Valley’s Radical Machine Cult

From afterlife to machine transcendence, Digitalism offers a new promise of paradise.

|
Oct 11 2017, 2:00pm

Image: Andrea Kovacevic/Shutterstock

We are witnessing the beginning of Silicon Valley institutionalizing its religious beliefs. As Wired reported recently, Anthony Levandowski, a top Silicon Valley engineer formerly working for Google's self-driving car company Waymo and now at the center of the trade secrets lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, founded a religious organization called Way of the Future. Its goal? To "develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence." According to Wired, Way of the Future was founded in September 2015.

It was on the 20th of that month when, 9,400 miles away in Switzerland, I first became aware that Digitalism had turned into a kind of religion. I participated in a conference in the French mountain resort of Chamonix underneath the white peak of Montblanc, where leading technologists had gathered to discuss our future. The topic of one panel discussion, featuring executives from Google and eBay and the CEO of a prominent US think tank, was "Technology is turning the world upside down—what's going on?"

As they enthusiastically discussed the many ways digitalization will make the world a better place, I started to experience my own epiphany: Slowly and all at once, I saw that these people were the evangelists of a new religion, true believers invoking the Promised Land with glowing eyes.

In this version of paradise, cars will drive, factories will produce themselves, software and technology will find cures for everything, virtual reality will enable us to live our dreams instantly, and ubiquitous robots will serve us and understand us better than we understand ourselves. A land of milk and honey, where roasted, on-demand chicken flies directly into our mouths, is just around the corner. A new benevolent super-intelligence will solve all the problems we created over the last centuries, from climate change to global poverty, while we enjoy eternal leisure, softly hypnotized by screens, entertained and served by machine slaves.

"The evangelical fervor is fascinating," William Gibson said about Silicon Valley in an interview this year with Das Magazin. "These people are atheists, they don't have a religion, but the mechanism is the same. God comes and saves us all. Just that in their case God is technology."

But I think Gibson was wrong. They do have a religion: Digitalism, or machine religion. Digitalists believe in transcending the human condition, ultimately overcoming death through machines.

Just as Christianity promises ultimate redemption from Original Sin, Digitalism promises redemption from the unavoidable sin of our messy, distracted, limited brains, irrational emotions, and aging bodies.

As Wired founding executive editor Kevin Kelly put it in a 2002 article titled "God is the Machine," Digitalists literally believe in the transcendent power of digital computation. In that sense, Digitalism is linked to the beliefs of transhumanists and similar movements, and thrives on a broader global terrain where traditional religion is in decline (while evangelical movements are on the rise), the internet continues its march across the planet. We're on fertile ground for digitalism.

Risks? Computers will soon be intelligent enough to manage them, so why worry? You might expect even the most radical Digitalists to at least recognize cybersecurity as a potential concern. Despite the premise of the discussion's title, the panel did not utter one word about any risks, for that matter. Nothing.

The longer the panelists talked, the more common traits between Digitalists and the followers of all other religions became apparent. If you don't profess to Digitalism, you will be left behind; you will be part of a miserable, inferior, anachronistic species in a dysfunctional, dirty, analog world soon to be extinct; Hell on earth, in effect. Not an unrealistic scenario, if the so-called Singularity—the moment machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence—becomes reality faster than we could ever imagine, as digital dementia might make humans dumber than Siri is today. However, no need to worry: computers will create opportunities and find purpose for those left behind in the age of digitalization.

At the heart of the Digitalist premise of technology's empowerment is a belief in the inherent incompleteness of humans. Just as Christianity promises ultimate redemption from Original Sin, Digitalism promises redemption from the unavoidable sin of our messy, distracted, limited brains, irrational emotions, and aging bodies. Digital redemption will come upon us in the form of super-intelligent machine intervention, chips to implant in our brains and hard disks to upload our consciousness to (or so goes the vision of Google's prophet, futurist Ray Kurzweil). While traditional religions believe in the immortal soul, Digitalists believe in the immortality of the lines of code they aim to reduce our mind and consciousness to.

Digitalism claims to provide a set of final answers to all of humanity's problems and promises to bring paradise. Their belief is driven by deep contempt for humans, for humanity. The Digitalist religious vision is to remove the human factor altogether.

Christopher Mims, in a January piece about cybersecurity for the Wall Street Journal, articulated this when he wrote of humans as the "critical, unpatchable weakness." "History has shown us we aren't going to win this war by changing human behavior," Mims concluded. "But maybe we can build systems that are so locked down that humans lose the ability to make dumb mistakes. Until we gain the ability to upgrade the human brain, it's the only way."

Read more: Silicon Valley Is Inserting Its Biases Into Nearly Every Technology We Use

The rejection of what Digitalists call "the human factor" combined with the dream of a God-like, perfect machine-power makes them, fundamentally, post-humanists with a more shiny, civilized façade. A darker reading might find a parallel in other contemporary fundamentalist forces. As André Glucksmann, a contemporary French philosopher, has brilliantly described in his book Dostoievski in Manhattan, the driver of what today has become ISIS is the negation and destruction of all human values—a violent, barbarian, belligerent version of post-humanism. Digitalists would readily annihilate what to their eyes is human imperfection altogether, if only they could become a machine themselves first.

Like many post-humanists, Digitalists believe we are enjoying (or suffering through) the last days of homo sapiens as we know them. If not something like a continuously-extended life, then the fusion of humankind and machine into a new super-species may be close at hand. The turning point, the return of the Messiahs, is just some 20 or so years away. According to the high-priests of the Singularity, for instance, a God-like super-intelligence will arise, the Christ of the golden machine age.

Silicon Valley, with its CEO-worship and male-oriented customs, can sometimes feel like another version of a religious state. The belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception, the myth standing at the beginning of the arrival of Christ, is not so far from the equally unexplainable mystical Digitalist belief that consciousness will soon be born out of a machine if it just processes enough 0s and 1s.

Part of this belief is the superstition that, perhaps, the universe—God herself—is a computer. Reality itself may be a simulation. By this account, if we evolve our computational power enough, we will become one with God—the ultimate yearning of all religions.

In modern times, Kelly's 2002 article, a survey of Matrix-like, variously murky scientific theories of "universal computation," appears to be one of the first that uses the term. "Somehow, according to digitalism, we are linked to one another, all beings alive and inert, because we share, as [theoretical physicist] John Wheeler said, 'at the bottom—at a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source,'" Kelly wrote. "This commonality, spoken of by mystics of many beliefs in different terms, also has a scientific name: computation. Bits—minute logical atoms, spiritual in form—amass into quantum quarks and gravity waves, raw thoughts and rapid motions."

There is, in a sense, one marked difference between digitalism and modern religion: the Digitalists, in their scientistic emphasis, believe that they aren't believers.

"We only talk about facts", said one of the panel members when the audience challenged the panel's visions.

If God punishes in the form of a misfortune, fanatical believers of all religions assume they have not been religious enough. For the panel in Chamonix, any problem that technology might create is, therefore, easy to solve—with more of the same. God is just testing your faith; you need to intensify your belief. The Digitalist vision calls for solving the problems computation brings with more computation, less error-prone human interference, a society on AI-guided autopilot. Two-hundred years after Kant, humans will finally be able to stop using their imperfect brains and searching for answers so the future can finally arrive.

In Chamonix, as an epilogue to their mass—it was truly surreal—they played "Imagine" by John Lennon. It strangely sounded as if they had found an ideal anthem:

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can.

Yes, thank you Airbnb and Uber.

Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.

This is happening, just check your Terms and Conditions.

And the world will live as one.

As in, one brain-linked social network of the future, connecting us all into one superhuman supercomputer. (Should we call it "the Matrix"?).

It sounds like a paraphrase of Facebook's complex and convenient new mission: To "give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," as Mark Zuckerberg told a crowd of Facebook Group leaders earlier this year. If we believe it's good for us, and join the flocks and go along with it, well, we too can live in the Promised Land. As the logic of social media demonstrates, the story we tell ourselves about the future doesn't need to be true. It just needs to be shareable.

In the rush of the stream, it can be hard to remember that these visions of the future often tend to turn out very different from what their creators had envisioned. Think of fake news or the Uber culture or the walled gardens of tech giants; part of the problem, as Salon put it recently, is a CEO-worship problem—powerful priests offering narratives of biblical dimension.

However, in order to get to their Promised Land, anything that doesn't fit into the brave new machine-world must first be cut to size in the Digitalists' bed of Procrustes, the world of 0s and 1s, streamlining all life into dead and sterile bits and bites.

Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try.

Wolfram Klingler is Founder and CEO of Switzerland based XTP Group. He is also Founder of credX. Both businesses increase transparency and cost efficiency in the financial services sector using a proprietary technology driven approach with the goal of supporting institutional investors in safeguarding their interests.

GIFs by 30000fps.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.