Are we all bunkering billionaires?

This article is a reworked version of a talk, ‘Technology in the hands of image-bearers’, Servaas did for a Krux conversation in 2019. This article originally appeared on wayward.

Douglas Rushkoff’s TED Talk, How to be “Team Human” recounts how he was probed by tech billionaires who wondered whether New Zealand was the right location to build their doomsday bunkers. What bothered Rushkoff about what these tech billionaires were planning?

In the article What’s up with billionaires bunkering down in New Zealand? I mentioned Douglas Rushkoff’s TED Talk, How to be “Team Human” in the digital future, in which he recounts how he was probed by tech billionaires who wondered whether New Zealand was the right location to build their doomsday bunkers. They were concerned about a looming “event” that might end the world as we know it, and even more so about their place in such a post-apocalyptic world. The idea of a nearing “thermonuclear war, or climate catastrophe, or social unrest” did not bother Rushkoff as much as the manner in which some of the world’s most powerful people were planning to respond when it hits.

Rushkoff laments the failed promise of the digital renaissance; what was meant to foster community and teamwork resulted in a winner takes all zero-sum game. He interpreted these tech gods as saying that when “the event” hits, they will be using their technology and money to get away from the rest of us. He was shocked by the idea that the so-called winners of the digital economy will use their means to turn away from humanity and assure their own survival, instead of thinking innovatively about how to remain part of and enhance ‘Team Human’. Especially when considering that our digital technology promised to bring us closer together and help us share resources.

But is it unusual for these billionaires to think in this way, and what fueled digital technology’s promise of a community? Before we look further into this, let’s first consider that this tech revolution is not essentially that different from earlier (or future) ones. 

Every major tech revolution prior to this one tended in a similar direction.

Listening to Andy Crouch deliver his Q talk, Overcoming our Greatest Affliction, one would expect to hear him say, “All major revolutions had a detaching, disembodying or isolating effect on humanity.” Prior to the digital revolution, there were financial, industrial, and computational revolutions. And ahead of us lies the biological revolution. 

He mentions the Medicis’ founding of the first bank in 1397 as the launch of the financial revolution, after which wealth was no longer based in land, but in money. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that work was no longer done by human bodies but by engines. Claude Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948 is marked as the beginning of the computational revolution, providing us with a formalised, mathematical way of handling knowledge. Throughout history, knowledge about how the world works and how to act in the world was handed down through wisdom from generation to generation but then began spreading in the form of information. (Personal note: could this perhaps be described as a shift from narrative to decontextualized facts?) Lastly, he mentions the biological revolution, which will mean that life will no longer be begotten but made. I understand the foreseen effects of this scenario, in this context, as procreation involving less relational engagement and weaker interpersonal bonds.

Crouch recognises the primary, obvious result of these revolutions (of which he says, most people listening to his talk are beneficiaries) as the “creation of untold wealth, health and happiness by many measures.” Arising from the desire to overcome various challenges, these revolutions undoubtedly had and continue to have positive consequences. What he draws our attention to, however, are the misplaced desires and fallen tendencies these technologies reveal and nurture. “Personhood traded for power, the personal for the impersonal,” is Crouch’s summary of the paradoxical prosperity brought about by these revolutions. He highlights how in each revolution “a personal form of human engagement with the world and human actualisation in the world” is traded for impersonal, far more powerful tools. Neighbours with faces are traded for money, machines, and information systems. Or, as we might hear Rushkoff say, for data and bunkers.

Are (some) humans or (some) technology the problem? 

Could the physical bunkering also be symbolic of an ongoing ‘isolationist’ tendency, that extends beyond Silicon Valley’s billionaires and how The Sovereign Individual shapes some of their ideas about the future? Is there perhaps a greater story about humanity and even an eschatology (theology concerning how this age will draw to a close) at play in how all of us view the world? I once heard it said that when most people are asked to imagine ‘the perfect future’, they tend to picture themselves isolated from all things and all others they deem problematic, possibly on an island. I’m certainly one of those whose picture of a more peaceful world involves me taking residence in the countryside where I grow my own food and take long walks through my scenic surroundings. Rushkoff seems to describe such an isolationist tendency at play, which I summarise as follows:

Fulfilment and freedom lie only in a future, other place – not in relationships here and now. People exist as things among other things, and as means to reach that future, other place. Isolation from others is the route towards future fulfilment and freedom. People and relationships are means through which we create our own, isolated future and benefits, not ends in themselves. It is within this story that we develop the technology that continues to shape us into characters made to thrive in such a story. We use the digital revolution’s tools to mine persons for their data instead of being present with them and enjoying them. Even our so-called humane technology, developed with the understanding that it will bring us together, tends to isolate us from one another.

And yet, Rushkoff doesn’t seem to find fault with us or our tools. “It’s not a matter of rejecting the digital or rejecting the technological. It’s a matter of retrieving the values that we’re in danger of leaving behind and then embedding them in the digital infrastructure for the future,” he suggests. So, the problem is that we’ve embedded our tools with wrong values and consequently pursue the wrong things. 

But what does “retrieving our values and embedding them in our technology” mean? 

Ed Brookes and Pete Nicholas, in Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital World, explore this question in light of Martin Heidegger’s idea that technology is not neutral: the essence of technology isn’t anything technological but a vision of human flourishing. In other words, technology is developed from a belief about what the ‘good’ life is. That’s why we don’t sell our digital inventions through messages about its parts or its basic functions but rather through narratives about how it will enable us to live better, and supposedly more human, lives. These narratives about ‘human flourishing’ or the ‘good’ life are the stories (or, the main story) by which we live and determine the things we value. So, when we develop our technology it’s because we already value certain things (more than others) and desire tools through which we can obtain those things more easily. These things range from relationships to education to entertainment to wealth to longevity.

What is more, the story bound up in a piece of technology is also, like every other story, reflexive. It not only reflects our understanding of reality onto the world but also shapes our mode of being in the world, accordingly. Heidegger refers to technology as being “like a frame through which we see the world, which then becomes the world in which we live”. Consider social media apps developed to foster community, for instance. Online social platforms already involve beliefs about what ‘good’ communities require and then becomes the frame through which we cultivate community and that continues to shape our communities. For one, there is the belief that if we have constant access to everyone in our community’s everyday whereabouts it will strengthen our bonds. In reality, we might find that because a superficial connectedness is experienced more regularly, people tend to spend less time together connecting in person. Despite spending more time ‘with’ community, people feel more lonely. For all the ‘connection’ digital interfaces brought us, we see so many studies revealing how we not only lose touch with others but also with ourselves and embodied experiences of reality, and how anxious living our lives online make us. Don’t stress, however! Heidegger also shared some good news with the bad: all of this is only problematic if we remain blind to the fact that technology isn’t neutral.

But surely, when we admit that technology isn’t neutral, we’re admitting that it’s primarily humans who aren’t neutral. That’s why Brookes and Nicholas add to Heidegger’s view that of Charlie Brooker, writer of the television series Black Mirror, who demonstrates through his stories how technology impacts the world around us. “I hope that the stories demonstrate that it’s not a technological problem we have. It’s a human one. Human frailties are maybe amplified by it,” is Brookers’ response to those who suspect his work of being anti-technology.

Technology that fosters bunkering is then the necessary outflow of existing human tendencies towards bunkering. 

It is our desires and values that shape our technology and, in turn, ourselves. It is the stories by which we are identified and through which we encounter ourselves that guide our desires and shape our values. “Retrieving our values and embedding them into our technology” is, therefore, a matter of understanding ourselves as characters in a better story and becoming wise human beings in that story. Considering what Crouch highlighted about the computational revolution’s trading of wisdom for information, it may involve recontextualising those values we believe humanise us, to understand them not merely as facts or maxims but as embodied practices that originated within a specific narrative. It requires reentering those stories and contexts that used to (or still do) shape those missing values in societies. The wisdom passed down from generation to generation will be retrieved as we grow as human characters in these stories. Embedding human values into our technology requires embedding ourselves into human stories. 

Being embedded as image-bearers in a Sovereign’s story frees us from bunkering. 

As a wayward people, we’re called to remember that our characters are shaped as image-bearers within the Biblical narrative, and to continually re-enter this narrative through engagement that involves our reason, emotions and practices. We create and use technology from a recognition that we are all bunkering billionaires. I imagine how Christ might point to the faultline running through our humanity: “It’s not the tools you use that defile you but the desires that flow from within,” or, “You’ve heard it said that tech billionaires are using their power and creativity to bunker up, but many of you without those means have already committed bunkering in your hearts.” It is this diagnosis that calls us to define our lives and our values according to His narrative at the cost of our own.

In Christ, God reveals what true humanity looks like and calls us to become human by embedding our stories in His story. A story in which the essence of human flourishing is most vividly displayed in God as a Jewish carpenter who creatively subverts Roman values by being hung on a wooden execution device, fastened by means of the tools of his trade; hammers and nails. Such a strange and unexpected story and yet, the one that frees us from bunkering and allows us to see and engage one another anew. In this story, we are restored as image-bearers: freed to imagine an alternative to ‘bunkering’, tasked to cultivate our shared world into God’s kingdom, and so inspired to develop our technology accordingly. The question to us then, if this is the story that humanises us, what does it mean to enter and participate in Christ’s life and grow as characters in His story?