Things R Us: How Venture Capitalists Feed the Fetishism of Technology

Venture-capital always seeks to promote new “needs”—in the last 20 years or so, through a veritable hurricane of frenzied marketing of the latest technical gadgets and devices. (In 1993, only 5 million people in the U. S. found it necessary to use a “cellular phone.”) But whence the fascination with artificial “intelligence”—“smart”-phones, cheerful robots, “Internet of Things,” ad nauseam–which are presumed to be somehow superior to human fallibility and “irrational” emotions?

In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx described a “fetishism-of-commodities,” whereby humans project their own alienated, atrophied qualities and capacities into the very products of their creativity. Marx was analogizing from the notion of “primitive man,” carving a wooden effigy of his “god”—and then worshiping the idol. Anthropologists later also postulated that the earliest stage of religion was “animism”—the projection of “consciousness” into such inanimate forms as rivers and mountains. Only much later did animism presumably develop into nature-deities and anthropomorphized gods and goddesses.

If we define technolatry as an (awestruck) over-valuation of the technical mediation of human experience, then such a “religion”–however false and destructive—has now almost replaced previously less efficacious forms of worship. As in the case of “primitive magic,” as people have felt increasingly stymied and trapped in their actual lives, they have turned in desperation to more “ritual techniques” (i.e., “empowering” gadgets). Also, as the late Theodore Roszak and others noted, such “techno-hubris” has been an historical byproduct of an urbanized existence, whereby countless millions of people, cut off from the natural world, have increasingly shared certain delusions about the omnipotence of Capital, the Market, and the State.

In perhaps his best book, Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), Roszak called for a revitalization of a Romantic-aesthetic sensibility, akin to that of the 18th century poets Goethe and Blake, as a healing alternative to the utilitarian-mechanistic “scientism” which produced industrialism and its disastrous consequences. In the Nineties, Roszak also championed an “ecopsychology”: rediscovering sustained contact with wildlife and “undeveloped” nature, he believed, may re-awaken people’s deep sense of connection with the evolved web of living things. Many have also called for a new back-to-the-land movement, arguing that living in direct contact with the harmony and beauty of nature could revive a reverence for the (endangered) living world–and inspire larger-scale resistance against the plunder and degradation of the planet.  Biophilia: the love of that which is alive.

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William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

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