Sermon: Technology & Religion: God as Network

2019 March 13

Technology & Religion: God as Network

Ana Levy-Lyons

March 10, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

The first computers in the 1950’s were so expensive only the government or large corporations could afford one. They were used for weapons development and accounting. The processor took up an entire room, used thousands of vacuum tubes, and required a staff of full-time employees to keep it running. You would approach it cautiously, like a supplicant, with a cardboard punch card, insert the card, and then wait for it to process your request. The idea that anyone would “have” one of these things individually was absurd.

In the same decade, television did become something that we “had” in our homes. This was a black and white cathode ray TV with three channels. People were enraptured with it and we were soon spending five hours a day watching it, also as supplicants hungry for what it promised us. It became the centerpiece of the American living room. Family life oriented around it. Family dinners with conversation were replaced by TV dinners with the whole family staring silently in one direction. In fact, the whole country was staring silently in one direction. A show like “I Love Lucy” was watched by 71% of TV viewers, which was the majority of the American public. These shows and the commercials that drove them taught us what “normal” looks like. There was something communal about it and profoundly isolating at the same time.

The 1950’s were a time of conformity and militarism, industry and social control. Gender roles were strict and segregation was law. As we sat alone in our living rooms being assimilated into a national groupthink, we were sold stuff to make us happy. Advertising drove a rabid consumerism that became the country’s religion.  By the end of the decade, Americans were consuming one third of the world’s goods and services. To be clear, white Americans were enjoying an unprecedented prosperity while black people and other people of color were shut out. White women were housewives whose access to a new Hoover vacuum cleaner was supposed to replace a seat at the table.

The human heart rebels against this kind of society. And rebel we did. In the 1960’s and 70’s people woke up to what was going on. Some of us in this room may have participated in that awakening. The spirit welled up in us (and I’m using “us” broadly – I wasn’t out of diapers at the time and many of you weren’t yet born), but the spirit moved in the people and we yearned for an escape from the bureaucratic, technocratic world of the giant computers and TV screens. We longed for elemental joy. We longed for a simpler connection with the earth; for messy creativity in place of sterile efficiency. We longed for human touch and relationship; peace and not militarism. We longed for racial equality and equality for all people who didn’t fit the “I Love Lucy” mold. We longed to be recognized, not as economic units, but as whole people and as embodiments of the divine. And we longed to see others this way too.

These impulses began to bloom in us and true community began to emerge, like grass pushing up through the cracks in the concrete. There was, what author Peter Gabel calls a “ricochet of recognition.” If I took the risk of recognizing the holy in you, then you were freed up to recognize the holy in your neighbor and this aliveness, like a flame, got passed from person to person. It created a movement. The movement had many faces – the back-to-the-land homesteaders, the acid-dropping hippies, the anti-war protesters, the civil rights activists, the so-called Jesus freaks, the early environmentalists, and those just letting their freak flag fly. But it was all animated by a communal vision of a different kind of society – once based in love and celebration of difference, one that cherished the uniqueness of each person, one that honored the earth, and one that righted the wrongs of history. Most of all it was a vision of deep, diverse, egalitarian human community. Through this community, we would find spiritual transcendence.

Unfortunately, we all know how the story ends. Or, not how it ends, but where it’s at now. I’ve quoted Orson Welles before – “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story.” But so far, I think it’s fair to say, the revolution hasn’t materialized. I don’t think I need to describe for you all the ways that it hasn’t. We’ve made gains in some areas, but the revolution hasn’t materialized. Why am I telling this story today as part of the technology and religion series? Because what happened to the hippies and the activists had a lot to do with the two new technologies of television and computers. They were vehicles for the undoing of the idealism of that time. We can’t do anything about what happened back then, but we can understand it and try to do it differently today.

In those years the television executives could sense the gathering clouds of resistance – a whole generation was preparing to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” of mainstream society. People were fed up with consumerism and with the ads trying to sell them the new Hoover. But capitalism is nimble. As Columbia professor Tim Wu put it, “Capitalism is a perfect chameleon. It has no disabling convictions and so can cater to any desire, even those inimical to it.” Think about the brilliant ad that Coca Cola came up with – “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” For those of you who weren’t around in the 1970’s it showed a multicultural group of beautiful young people standing on a windswept hilltop in Italy. This is what they sing:

I’d like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

I’d like to teach the world to sing

In perfect harmony

I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That’s the real thing

The ad spoke to our yearning for earthy, natural community, harmony and authenticity… “the real thing.” People bought it. We bought Coca Cola but what breaks my heart even more is that we bought the notion that the ideals we were dreaming of, the togetherness, the end of isolation could be channeled through TV and realized in consumer goods. We somehow didn’t see that we were just deepening our entrenchment in the very culture we were rebelling against. Tim Wu writes about why the revolution of this era ultimately failed. He points out that it had nothing to do with the message itself, which was vibrant and real and compelling and beautiful. He writes, “Rather, the failure was owing to one often unremarked fact: over the 1960’s and 1970’s most people simply did not stop watching television.”

Today, the same thing is happening with computers. The depredations of television left people in a spiritual desert. But in computers, we thought we had found a new watering hole. By computers, I mean desktops and laptops and tablets and phones – all the computing devices that are known as “personal.” Before they were thought of as “personal,” the hippies saw computers as the ultimate symbol of hierarchy and centralized control – the polar opposite of the flowy world of peace and love and self-expression that they were trying to build. But somewhere along the way, a shift happened. Thought leaders like Stewart Brand came along and said that, no, actually technology gives you the tools to express your individuality! As he put it, “the power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”

The computer-makers seized on this idea and touted computers as a way to create the very network that the counterculture was longing for – a community where everyone shared power equally, where ideas would emerge collaboratively. It was a utopian vision of transcendence through technology. Through the network, old divisions of race and class and gender would melt away and each of us could be beautiful in our own way. We could finally be free from the forces of conformity and reach the glittering promised land.

The famous Apple ad from 1984 was a stunning illustration of this idea. Google it if you get a chance (not right now, though). It shows a fascist society in a dystopian future like George Orwell’s 1984 – a voiceover droning propaganda as drab, identically dressed citizens march in formation. Then you see them sitting passively in a large movie theatre while the giant face of their leader fills the screen. He’s saying, “We are one people with one will, one resolve, and one cause…” Meanwhile you see a woman dressed in colorful clothes with hair flying behind her running toward the theatre with a giant hammer. She’s being pursued by soldiers who look like Stormtroopers. With a cry, she flings her weapon at the massive screen like David throwing his stone at Goliath. It hits, the screen shatters and explodes and goes white. A voice says, “On January 24th, Apple will introduce McIntosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” And a rainbow Apple logo appears.

By using a McIntosh personal computer, you can fight fascism and you can win your freedom. And people bought it. People bought the computer, but what breaks my heart even more is that people also bought the notion that through technology and online networks we can finally find freedom. We can transcend injustice and isolation. We can finally be ourselves and “think different.”

The reality is we now have a world of people sitting passively glued to our iPhones, the way we used to be glued to our TVs, and actually thinking very much the same. We tend to live within online echo chambers in which true dissent is rare. Hiding behind the veneer of neutral, horizontal networks, today’s technologies mask how power still operates. But money drives the whole thing, just as it does with TV. And as long as we remain bathed in consumer culture, we are permitted to think and post whatever we want about it. Giant tech companies, monopolies each of them, decide who sees what posts – which are elevated and which are suppressed.

As far as creating global community and transcending our differences, social media has created the most deeply divided and antagonized time this country has ever known. With trolling and call-out culture, with the most polarizing posts getting the most views, and with brutal competition for visibility in an infinite online world, social media use is now being linked more to feeling isolated than feeling connected. We’re hearing stories these days about people’s lives being destroyed by social media attacks. We win or lose social media credit, like the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.” In China they are institutionalizing this with a system of “social rating” — people score each other in daily interactions, if your social rating is too low, you can have trouble getting a job or apartment.

Remember how the revolution of the 60’s and 70’s failed according to Tim Wu because most people simply did not stop watching television? Will today’s revolution – with all its elevated consciousness about gender and race, climate crisis, and the yearning for economic fairness – will it ultimately fail because we simply did not stop checking our phones? Because we located our desire for connection and community in the online world instead of the real world?

Here at First U is one place where we are seeking that connection, not just in online networks, but in human networks. The Love Your Neighbor dinners we launched this week were an amazing example of this.  Our Intern Minister, Karen Madrone, along with Bryn Sumner and other members of our Caring Ministry recognized the beautiful potential of neighbors finding community together. They used technology in the best possible way to support this. Over 100 people in our community (that’s one third of the entire congregation!) participated in one of these dinners this week. That’s community. That’s the real thing.

Know that there is nothing on TV, nothing on a smartphone, and nothing we can buy that will give us what our souls crave. I’ll say that again: There is nothing on TV, nothing on a smartphone, and nothing we can buy that will give us what our souls crave. The revolution will not be televised and the revolution will not be online. It may use some digital tools for practical things. And it may indeed come about through a network, but it will be a network of human beings who come face to face and soul to soul and recognize one another as embodiments of the holy. It will come through a ricochet of recognition that enfolds all living things into its consciousness. It will come through song; it will come through dance. It will come through prayer and meditation. It will come from you and me in our bodies doing stuff in the world. It will come through breaking bread together, talking, listening, and building the beloved community here and now.

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