Mention religion and the links between individuals and their creator, if they think they have one, come to mind. We imagine an individual fasting, meditating, or kneeling in prayer.
It was more common in the past however to think of a people, like the People of Israel and their God.
Our rulers, whether Kings or Pharaohs, stood in loco divinitas as the person designated to keep the people, the flock, safe. The person through whom at least in part the Good Shepherd would act. The position brought temptations – sometimes the Ruler seems to have thought he was a God.
Clinical medicine, which treats the individual, and public health, which tries to keep the tribe safe, map roughly onto this ‘religious’ divide.
In our time, the supreme virtue for individuals is to be healthy rather than holy. Our individual pursuit of health in gyms and with health foods often blinds us to the wider policy issues tackling which might stand a better chance than a workout in the gym of keeping us and others alive longer.
The other-worldly monk or nun praying in a cave or cell is not usually thought of as being interested in technologies, which are all about improving this world. Our Rulers for much of the last two millennia didn’t seem unduly invested in technologies either, except when it came to weapons, when there was no option but to keep up.
But, while simple living seems to be in line with the Bible, which contains warnings that efforts to improve our situation risks producing a Tower of Babel outcome, a strong case can be made that Xtianity, and perhaps other religions too, have celebrated efforts to improve our lot on earth.
In The Religion of Technology, David Noble, took this idea one step further. Far from religion being anti-science, as the repeated re-telling of the clash between Galileo and the Church seems designed to convey, he traces the roots of science to a religious celebration of practical virtue – an interest to develop technologies and machines.
The pace of technological developments has now quickened and here’s where the rub comes. As Noble tells the story, this coincides with an increasing sense that it might be possible to restore Eden on earth. The Biblical story, at times in his hands, feels like it might be recast not as a Fall from Grace and exile from Eden but a Quest for Eden.
Recast by the believers in technology. An increasing number of scientists linked to the military, who have been the primary supporter of technology especially in the United States, and in particular those who were behind the Atomic Bomb and Space Technology, have been committed Xtians.
Where the Bible talks about the Elect being Saved in the end days, the few who remain faithful, it seems that some of these believers figure this is absolutely the way things are going to go – as the Earth destructs, they will escape by rocket to somewhere else. This underpins their urgency to push forward with a technical agenda in our day. They have pretty well said it that explicitly.
Noble’s work prior to Religion of Technology looked at the growing application of technologies to manufacturing processes in America after the War. This all fell loosely under the heading of Cybernetics and comprised everything that gave rise to servo-mechanisms, algorithms and later the Internet.
Cybernetics was heavily sponsored by the military. Military involvement is not a problem as such. But in the 1950s, with a Cold War raging outside and McCarthyism inside, some in the military viewed manufacturing workers as the enemy within. The skilled machine operator constituted a class whose sympathies might lie with communism. Could these people be depended on to produce the aircraft, rocket and computer parts that might be needed in the event of a conflict?
(One of the creators of Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, had used his mathematical and computational skills to improve anti-aircraft weaponry before World War II began. After the War, he would have nothing to do with anything that could be turned to military purposes and made this very clear).
Cybernetics also underpinned the Post-War development of management science under headings like Systems Theory and Operationalism.
A new breed of American managers, many returning from the armed forces, took over the running of factories and businesses. They replacing owners, the entrepreneurs (risk takers who had set the business up). The new management was all about developing processes – flowcharts, guidelines, standards. Risk management rather than risk-taking. The new managers were bureaucrats.
These managers were hostile to the labor force, the shopfloor, primarily machinists in the case of manufacturing, in a way that owners hadn’t been. Most entrepreneurs knew they didn’t know how to operate machines. Comfortable in their own skills, they appreciated the craft of machinists in something like the way that religious orders who until recently owned many hospitals knew they didn’t have the shopfloor healthcare knowledge that nurses or doctors had.
Around 1950 managers were moving into manufacturing. Around 1980 they began moving into health services.
In 1950, automation offered a chance to replace workers. The argument was automation would reduce costs, enhance profits (and get rid of labor unrest). The jobs did in fact leave manufacturing but costs didn’t fall as expected. The machines and their repairs cost more than anticipated and a huge increase in managers had to be paid for.
Having a factory automated and operating on the basis of programs that management had commissioned, though, meant that skilled machinists could be replaced by lower-skilled operators. This left management in a position of feeling it knew more about what was going on in the factory, more about the job, than anyone else. Made management feel more comfortable.
The emergence of guidelines in the 1990s underpinned a similar dynamic in health services. Prior to that, health had administrators who made sure that the building stock and payroll systems worked but who depended on the discretion of nurses and doctors when it came to clinical issues.
Guidelines transformed these administrators into managers who knew what the treatments should be and could now take issue with and fire medical and nursing staff who exercised any discretion. Some doctors and nurses migrated into management. Those who didn’t increasingly found the job dictated by a bureaucracy that put filling paperwork ahead of engaging with patients.
Taken away from the factory floor and put in a medical setting, this looks less like the old clash between capital and labor that Noble reports. There is a turn to process – to bureaucratic technique.
The same transformation arguably happened in the early Xtian Church, who split off from Judaism complaining about the Pharisaical turn to process and appearances.
But every organization, even a Church, needs an administration. The Xtian administrators prayed for grace to help with the job of guiding the faithful. The grace of Kubernesis (from the Greek for Pilot).
From Kubernesis, we get government and governance and cybernetics, one derivative of which is modern management science.
The Church administration shape shifted into a management, a hierarchy, who figured that guidelines (Canon Law) were needed. There are good things to Canon Law. It gave rise to Western legal systems. But it also made the hierarchy feel comfortable. Left them feeling they knew more than the guys on the shopfloor what it was all about. The rest of us needed to be steered. We couldn’t be let think for ourselves.
In 1641, the English kicked off a Civil War which began when Charles attempted to impose a lockdown – a quarantine – to try and manage an episode of plaque. The War lasted the better part of 10 years at the end of which Charles I had his head chopped off.
The roots of the War lay in Luther’s rejection of Church Management in 1517 with a ‘this doesn’t make sense on the shopfloor’ moment.
It also coincided with a huge increase in printing technologies. Many more people were now reading the Bible and deciding what it meant for themselves, in addition to acting as their own lawyers and even physicians.
From the execution stand, Charles made a speech saying that the people didn’t want to rule themselves. That’s a job for Rulers.
“As for the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody… but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, sirs: that is nothing pertaining to them; a subject and a sovereign are clear different things. And, therefore, until they do that, I mean that you do put the people in that liberty, as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.”
The people who had turned the world upside down and executed their Ruler ended up restoring government. The herd needed managing. The twenty years in between the two sets of management were among the most fruitful ever for the development of science and technology.
There is yet another religious element to technology. We fetish it. Marx was one of the first to draw attention to this.
It becomes very easy to think guns kill people rather than people kill people. The machines can seem to be inherently productive, where it is we who are productive. Drugs seem to cure people rather than doctors. The magic leaches out of people and into the technology.
Drugs in our day have even become sacraments – something that can only do good and cannot harm. Social media and Governments won’t allow any mention of the harms that a drug or vaccine might cause. In this they have become more other-worldly than the Catholic Church who recognise that the Eucharist can harm and needs to come in gluten free versions.
The fundamental point is that Techniques don’t enhance or diminish us. We do the enhancing. And if we don’t, we diminish.
The degree to which social media has been algorithmithised is a growing problem. The room for us to enhance, to exercise discretion is shrinking rapidly. When information about the harms a medicine can cause, information necessary for any discussion a medical person and I might have if she is going to help me if I come to her for help, is automatically banned, we have a problem.
The problem is not going away because treatment is an Act of Magic. It involves bringing good out of the use of a poison or from a mutilation. It happens when two people engage and make a judgement call. This does not compute for social medial algorithms, or for insurers, or for managers.
Technologies are one dimensional. An algorithm cannot contain an internal contradiction, like poisoning or mutilating. Our decisions often do. And it is deciding with someone else on a course of action that we make each other. A Decernimus Ergo Summus moment.
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Illustration: The Heart of Medicine, © 2013 created by Billiam James