- Technology and Its Discontents:On the Verge of the Posthuman
Immediately after 9/11, a Middle East correspondent for The Nation summarized the coming war on terrorism as "[their] theology versus [our] technology, the suicide bomber against the nuclear power." 1 His statement missed the point: technology is the American theology. For Americans, it is not the Christian God but technology that structures the American sense of power and revenge, the nation's abstract sense of well-being, its arrogant sense of superiority, and its righteous justification for global dominance. In the introduction to Technological Visions, Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas declare that "in the popular imagination, technology is often synonymous with the future," but it is more accurate to say that technology is synonymous with faith in the future—both in the future as a better world and as one in which the United States bestrides the globe as a colossus. 2
Technology has long been the unacknowledged source of European and Euro-American superiority within modernity, and its underlying mythos always traffics in what James W. Carey once called "secular religiosity." 3 Lewis Mumford called the American belief system "mechano-idolatry" as early as 1934; a few years later he deemed it our "mechano-centric religion." David F. Noble calls this ideology "the religion of technology" in a work of the same name that traces its European roots to a doctrine that combines millenarianism, rationalism, and Christian redemption in the writings of monks, explorers, inventors, and NASA scientists. If we take into account the functions of religion and not its rituals, it is not a deity who insures the American future but new technologies: smart bombs in the Gulf War, Viagra and Prozac in the pharmacy, satellite TV at home. It is not social justice or equitable economic distribution that will reduce hunger, greed, and poverty, but fables of abundance and the rhetoric of technological utopianism. The United States is in thrall to "techno-fundamentalism," in Siva Vaidhyanathan's apt phrase; to Thomas P. Hughes, "a god named technology has possessed Americans." Or, as public policy scholar Edward Wenk Jr. sums it up, "we are . . . inclined to equate technology with civilization [itself]." 4 [End Page 569]
Technology as an abstract concept functions as a white mythology. Yet scholars of whiteness rarely engage technology as a site of dominant white cultural practices (except in popular culture), and scholars of technology often sidestep the subtext of whiteness within this mythos. The underlying ideology and cultural practices of technology were central to American studies scholarship in its second and third generations, but the field has marginalized this critical framework; it is as if these works of (mostly) white men are now irrelevant to the field's central concerns of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnic identity on the one hand, and power, empire, and nation on the other. In this essay I will integrate some older works into the field's current concerns to situate the current posthuman discourse within an unmarked white tradition of technological utopianism that also functions as a form of social evasion. By the conclusion, I hope to have shown that the posthuman is an escape from the panhuman.
This is an important moment to grapple with the relationship of technology and whiteness since many scientists, inventors, and cognitive philosophers currently hail the arrival of the "posthuman." This emergent term represents the imminent transformation of the human body through GNR technologies—G for genetic engineering or biotechnology, N for nanotechnology, and R for robotics. "The posthuman," as N. Katherine Hayles defined it in How We Became Posthuman (2000), "implies not only a coupling with intelligent machines but a coupling so intense and multifaceted that it is no longer possible to distinguish meaningfully between the biological organism and the informational circuits in which the organism is enmeshed." To be reductive, the posthuman envisions the near future as one in which humans are cyborgs—in which the human organism is, for all practical purposes, a networked being composed of multiple human-machine interfaces. Underlying cultural beliefs in technological determinism matched with the inalienable right of consumer desire will soon produce what even cautious critics...