Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Presentation Abstracts

Robert M. Geraci

"It’s Technically Religious: Meaning and Making in Digital Technology"

Religion is ultimately about meaning and finding ways of configuring the world to be meaningful, so it should come as no surprise that religious language permeates conversations about technology. Such a vocabulary is, quite often, the basis of appeals to technological authority, and in nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology, and more, religious imagery is at the heart of our cultural discourse. At the same time, because technology is the most powerful way of physically reshaping the world around us, religious authorities often welcome it as a path to enchantment and meaning or reject it as constitutive of a world without god or morality. This ambivalence is pervasive despite the fact that western technology emerged out of and thanks to its relationship with Christianity in the medieval and early modern periods. Although modern technologies have departed in many important ways from that inheritance, it remains the case that they have not shaken free from the religious ties of their past. This historical connection between technology and religious goals is readily apparent in western cultures, and may be pertinent outside of them, though extensive research has yet to be done. In the western world, Judeo-Christian themes are alive and well in technological practice, even if they have not been adopted with their traditional institutions of authority intact. To uncover the religious elements of technology requires that we think about technical artifacts as deeply embedded in social contexts where meanings are exchanged through physical objects, intellectual discourse, and social practices.

Thomas A. Carlson

"Between Automaticity and Interruption: Technology and the Heart of Transcendence "

Contemporary anxieties surrounding technological development and its potential to transform human experience can take two directions that stand in notable tension with each other. On the one hand, we can worry that technological transformation exposes us to unforeseeable consequences whose extreme would be the danger of radical interruption, estrangement, or death (in its multiple forms); on the other hand, we can worry that technology's hold on us and our world may subject all human life to forms of calculation and programmatic execution whose extreme would be an automaticity, or a sense of familiarity, that renders time lifeless and freedom void. Engaging both Continental philosophy (from Heidegger to Jean-Luc Nancy and Jean-Luc Marion) and traditional Christian (especially Augustinian) theology, this talk explores paradoxical slippages between familiarity and estrangement, or automaticity and interruption, within our technological existence--in order to argue that the logic of such existence can bear more than a passing resemblance to Augustinian thinking about transcendence in the constitution of human selfhood.

N. Katherine Hayles

“Transhumanism in the Digital Age: Possibilities and Problems.”

In his masterful analysis of global economic systems over four centuries, Giovanni Arrighi identifies two persistent factors: a primary focus on the expansion of capital networks, or on the expansion of territory. The reconfigurations characterizing different epochs can be understood as different ways to construct the relation between these two factors. In the contemporary period, a third factor has arisen, the spread of digital communication networks and the subsequent creation of virtual realms. Clearly virtual turf carries the potential for enormous profits, and clearly it is increasingly being enrolled in political actions. It is not yet clear, however, how virtual capital and virtual politics will interact. At stake are notions of sovereignty unanchored by physical territory, the relation between “real” and virtual money, and the relation between virtual realms and physical violence. Daniel Suarez provides a compelling depiction of these issues in his two science fiction novels, Daemon and Freedom. The novels explore the ethical stakes involved when a virtual sovereign arises as ruler of a virtual land and begins to take control of actual physical territory and financial transactions. The ethical questions are deepened because this virtual sovereign is an automated computer program, the “Daemon,” thus raising questions about the proper relation between autonomous human beings and an autonomous artificial intelligence. The novels imply that transnational global culture is on the brink of momentous changes unprecedented in modern history—a conclusion that will be elaborated in this talk.