Thoughts – Emotion Machines and Politics


I propose to consider the question, “How has technology changed politics?” This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms “Technology” and “Politics.” The definitions might be framed so as to reflect, as far as possible, the normal use of the words, but this attitude is dangerous in my opinion. If the meaning of the words “technology” and “politics” are to be found by examining how they are commonly used it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the meaning and the answer to the question, “How has technology changed politics?” is to be sought in a statistical survey or poll. But this is absurd. Instead of attempting such a definition I shall replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.

What is the nature of technology, governance, and religion with respect to their impacts on humans?

This question has a distinct advantage because we can provide a definitive definition of “technology” and its nature thanks to the seminal work by Brian Arthur, “The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How it Evolves”. This definition of technology will enable us to also find definitions for “Governance” and “Religion” that serve a meaningful purpose in giving this new question a thoughtful treatment. Lets begin.

What is Technology?

The essence of technology is a phenomenon or set of phenomena captured and put to a meaningful utilization, a programming of one or more truisms of nature to serve our human purposes.(1) Technology provides a vocabulary of elements that can be put together in endlessly new ways for novel purposes.(2) Technology is self-creating; it creates new opportunity niches and new problems, which call forth still more new technology.(3) Economies are in a constant state of perpetual novelty, unsatisfied, and roiling constantly in what is generally known as “creative destruction.”(4) Technologies often group into domains based on the natural effects they exploit.(5) The main method in which technologies progress is through a change in domain.(6) (Example: A shift from analogue to digital electronics)

All technologies according to Arthur can be simply defined as:

  • Entailing a means to fulfill a human purpose
  • Involve an assembly of practices and components (both devices and methods)
  • A collection of devices and engineering practices available to a particular culture (governance system of ideological beliefs)

Arthur proposes the history of technology is one of capturing finer and finer phenomena, enabled by earlier technologies.(7) Arthur also posits that just because we have a theory for how technology evolves, it does not mean that we can accurately predict the future of technology.(8) The reason for this according to Arthur is due to too much indeterminacy.(9) His theory recognizes that the investment and publicity environments, for example, matter in determining what gets developed and adopted and at what speed.(10)

So if technology has a logic of its own, why does it proceed at a different pace on different courses in different places?

The answer to this question is that culture matters too.(11) Culture can manifest itself in many ways but in general they are our economic systems, governance systems, religious doctrines, etc.(12) Arthurs framework deliberately focuses on the process for technological development and not the people or institutions who create technologies.(13) In fact, his theory treats societal institutions, like governance and religions, as technologies in of themselves.(14) Lets now define governance and religion in the context of this reasonable definition of technology.

What is Governance?

In order to analyze governance as a technology I believe it will be meaningful if first we gain an understanding of the origin of the word and some definitions of it from familiar international institutions. The origin of the word “governance” stems from the Greek verb κυβερνάω [kubernáo] which means to steer and its original use was made in a metaphorical sense by Plato.(15) From there the word passed on to Latin and subsequently many more linguistic technologies thereafter.

There are many definitions of “governance” but for the sake of analysis I am going to provide a list of definitions without explicitly identifying its place of origin. I am presenting the material in this fashion in order to make the focus on the actual definitions without any potential for bias related to its origin to be made. If you are interested in matching the definition to the specific provider of it, you may do so at your pleasure and find the answer on the references page. The definitions for governance are:

    • The Manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development.(16)
    • The Traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised.(17)
    • The use of institutions, structures of authority and even collaboration to allocate resources and coordinate control activity in society or the economy.(18)
    • Governance has been defined as the rules of the political system to solve conflicts between actors and adopt decision (legality). It has also been used to describe the “proper functioning of institutions and their acceptance by the public” (legitimacy). And it has been used to invoke the efficacy of government and the achievement of consensus by democratic means (participation).(19)

Examining these definitions we see many similarities, but viewing them through the lens of Brian Arthur’s framework for analyzing a technology we see all of them entail means for serving a human purpose. This clears the first requirement of Arthur’s definition. We can also see they all involve an assemblage of practices and components (both devices and methods) either explicitly or implicitly. This clears the second requirement of Arthur’s definition. To clear the last definition, we need to look a little deeper because each culture has its own nature or rules.

What’s interesting in these definitions is that only one of the definitions explicitly states the importance of the rule of law. The other three definitions appear to be engineered in a manner where the rule of law is already implied as being paramount because they use words such as “Manner”, “Traditions”, and “Structures of Authority”. No different than the varying number of definitions of governance, to the best of my knowledge no two countries have the exact same rules of law nor the same interpretations of those rules. This clears the final hurdle in Arthur’s framework for making the claim that governance is a human technology.

What Is Religion?

Below are definitions of religion I am presenting to give the reader a reasonable and meaningful understanding of what constitutes religion. I am purposefully leaving out the provider of the definition but if interested you can find the locations of each definition in the references.

Religion Definition #1: (20)

  • The belief in a god or in a group of gods
  • An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
  • An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

Religion Definition #2: (21)

  • The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
  • A particular system of faith and worship
  • A pursuit of interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance

Religion Definition #3: (22)

  • A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

For context and concision, I am only going to provide three definitions for this exercise. This is not intended to narrow the scope of definitions, quite the opposite in fact. It is my hope readers will seek out many definitions for religion because religion, in my personal opinion, is an important human activity that can be difficult to define. I believe it is important for humans to find a meaningful definition of religion that works for them because religion is a human activity unique to only humans. However, for the purpose of analyzing whether religion can be considered a technology, the exercise is not in how definitions are different, but in how they are similar that is important. Lets examine deeper.

Since religion is a unique human activity and no other species, to the best of my knowledge, practices what constitutes religion by any definition; I am confident that religion sufficiently clears the first threshold of Arthur’s framework. Religion by its many definitions can broadly be seen as a method & apparatus for giving humans, which are emotion machines, a method for having hope and faith to navigate a constantly changing world. Human life is difficult to understand. Religion helps us find meaning in what we never fully understand. Religion is designed to serve a human purpose, because it was designed by humans to aid us in both good and challenging times throughout life.

Each definition of religion delves into rules, laws, behaviors, and/or systems that address the unique nature of the multitude of religions.  All religions have their books, scriptures, manifestos, and or canons by which humans are expected to consider adhering to in some meaningful fashion. It can be argued these rules and practices representing religion were/are implemented with the idea that they serve a holy purpose. That is the nature of religion; they are doctrines in which humans are inspired or sometimes required to follow in order to gain more meaning from their lives. So are humans required to follow religious rules?

There are two methods a majority of humans approach religion. The first approach is based on grace and the acceptance of god’s grace. This approach is less about rules, but their texts provide laws or examples of righteous living in an effort to say that this will produce the most fruitful and rewarding life. The first approach is about god seeking man to help. The second approach to religion is humans seeking god by doing “works” to obtain entry into heaven. A religious life under this second approach is considered fruitful if one puts in the time to follow the religious rules to obtain what may look like rewards/status. The more devoted you are to the religion, the more you obtain gods favor.

The nature of these facts means religion easily meets the second and third thresholds for Arthur’s framework because each religion has an assemblage of practices and devices that give them their unique cultures. In its basic sense, religion only needs a human as a device for it to function. So is religion a technology according to the framework provided by Brian Arthur? In my humble opinion the answer is clearly and reasonably, yes.

So if Governance and Religion can both reasonably be defined as technologies, what similar purposes do they aspire to solve in their service to humanity? Lets examine this through a critique of the new question.

Critique of the New Question

Besides asking, “What is the answer to this new form of the question,” someone may ask, “Is this new question a worthy one to investigate?” This latter question we investigate without further delay, thereby cutting short an infinite regress.

If governance and religion can both be defined as technologies designed to serve human purposes that entail an assemblage of practices and devices that give them their unique character; what common human purposes do governance and religion aspire to serve? This is a debatable topic; in general, they both provide humans a sense of emotional security in the form of hope and faith in a constant and rapidly changing world. Not every human believes in a God or is particularly religious, but almost every human being participates within some semblance of a governance system as part of a larger group.  Religion is largely considered to be voluntary to participate in, but according to Gallup 86% of people in the world believe God or a universal spirit are important or very important to their life.(23)

Governance systems are, or thought to be, secular in nature. Very simply, this means that God is not involved in governance. Western governance systems are considered secular, meaning it adheres to no specific religious rules because the U.S. Constitution is grounded in what are considered the natural rights doctrine. The natural rights doctrine supporting the U.S. Constitution originated from the Magna Carta in 1215. This juxtaposition of competing technologies, religion & governance, to oversee human activity has been a challenge since humans have existed. Both technologies have been competing for our hearts and minds for a long time. Thus the main criticisms will come from human conflicts of self-interest grounded in ideological doctrine.

They will argue I don’t believe the way they do and thus seek to delegitimize myself or try to find fault in the definitions to serve their rhetorical purposes. These criticisms could be construed as bigotry but that is a shortsighted and reductionist approach. Both the technologies of religion and governance seek power and react when that power is challenged. Some followers of governments and/or religions hold on to their ideological beliefs very tightly because it gives them hope and faith to navigate a rapidly changing world. Humans in their pursuit of power over the behavior others through these competing technologies; seek progress by changing domains according to Brian Arthur’s framework. How does a governance system seek progress? By evolving into a religion. How does a religion seek progress? By evolving into a governance system. The technological aspirations are illustrative of human ambition which is why restraining their power is paramount to positive human progress. In order to serve their functions, both Governance and Religion require a certain amount of information about people. Humans emit data and data about data at all hours of the day (Our Digital Lives).(24) In the modern information age the vast majority of our digital life is not owned or controlled by us as individuals but by governments and corporations.(25) Moreover, this information is not secure from theft and illicit utilization(26), so lets now look at the contrary views on the main question of this research.

Contrary Views On the Main Question

We may now consider the ground to have been cleared and we are ready to proceed to the debate on our question, “How has technology changed politics?” and the variant of it quoted earlier. We cannot altogether abandon the original form of the problem, for opinions will differ as to the appropriateness of the substitution and we must at least listen to what has to be said in this connection.

It will simplify matters for the reader if I explain first my own beliefs on the matter. Lets first consider the more accurate form of the question. I believe there will be few, if any, people who hold the view that technology, governance, or religion doesn’t impact human beings in some way. However, someone may attempt to provide a definition of what technology is and its nature that somehow tries to remove the necessity that technology should serve a human purpose. This would be interesting because it opens the question of who/what does technology serve? If every human has a digital life that mirrors their real life but our digital lives don’t share the same rights as our real lives, then who are our digital lives truly serving?

If technology doesn’t serve a human purpose then one can only surmise technology is designed to serve a God or a higher being. This opens the question of who is this God and is it truly a spiritual being or is it a human (or group of humans) who believe their ideas are worthy of God status? It is my opinion it will be the latter, not the former in this matter, thus the politics. The original question, “How has technology changed politics?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve more discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at some point in the future the use of the words and general educated opinion will have changed so much that one will be able to speak of how technology has changed politics without expecting to be contradicted. I also believe that no useful purpose is served by concealing these beliefs. The popular view that scientists proceed inexorably from well-established fact to well-established fact, never being influenced by any improved conjecture, is quite mistaken. Provided it is made clear which are proved facts and which are conjectures, no harm can result. Conjectures are of great importance since they suggest useful lines of research.

Lets now continue by considering opinions opposed to my own.

The Theological Objection

A historical version of the theological objection to this issue has been expressed by none other than the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, in his seminal work “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”(27) Very simply, Turing takes a dim view on religious belief and dismisses theological objections as opinions grounded in no scientific facts. I find Turing’s treatment of the theological objection rational but lacking empathy, perhaps understanding, of the true purpose of religion as a human technology. My view is that religion is an important human endeavor to help people navigate life.(28) The vast majority of humans fall into a spectrum of religious devotion and belief but some interpretations of religions are engineered to require humans to strictly adhere to doctrine.(29)

Moreover, those versions of religions think people who disagree should be forced or compelled to abide.(30) A modern example of this thinking is ISIS in the Middle East. They are authoritarian in nature and a case study of a religion seeking progress by changing domain to be more like a governance system (i.e. The Islamic State).(31) Humans can choose a religion and their level of devotion to them.(32) We are all required to live under a form of governance and our devotion to them tends to hinge on the notion that we tolerate them as long as they don’t screw things up too bad.(33)

An example of humans tolerating very poor governance can be found in the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States.(34) Despite electing new people to positions of power, the U.S. government continues to expand and exercise its power over its own citizens and the rest of the world.(35) So much so, that it can be argued the United States is an Authoritarian National Surveillance state with respect to the natural law treatment of human civil liberties.(36) Moreover, there is no data suggesting any abatement by the U.S. government of changing course regardless of the political party in power.(37) Modern U.S. governance has been corrupted and from its point of view, we should all be more accepting of its new progressive and authoritarian nature. This is a modern example of a governance system seeking progress by changing domains to a religion….The Religion of State Power.(38) It is indicative of modern western civilization governance cultures.

Since both the technologies of religion and governance require human information to serve their purposes; the theological objection to my point of view will be that your digital lives and real lives are not the same and should not be treated the same.

They will argue this will inhibit their ability to serve you and keep you safe, but the reality is it’s about their power over you and you serving them. Thus the theological objection will specifically come from authoritarian religions and authoritarian governance systems, because there is no distinction between the two.

The “Head in the Sand” Objection

The consequences of humans having a digital life that mirrors their real life would be too dreadful. Let us hope and believe people cannot have a digital life.

This argument is seldom expressed quite so openly as in the form above. But it affects most of us who think about it at all. We like to believe that man is in some subtle way superior to the rest of creation, or perhaps only some men do. It is best if he can be shown to be necessarily superior, for then there is no danger of him losing his commanding position. The popularity of the theological argument with authoritarian minds is clearly connected with this feeling. It is likely to be quite strong in intellectual people, legal scholars in particular, since they value the power of thinking more highly than others, and are more inclined to base their belief in the superiority of man on this power.

I do not think that this argument is sufficiently substantial to require refutation. Consolation would be more appropriate because they cannot defend their ideas when challenged to answer them in public.

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