This characteristically trenchant observation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the late Lutheran theologian and martyr of Nazism, speaks to a egregious failing of of modern society, certainly the way it is expressed today in the digital age.
Simultaneously inspired and troubled by what I have witnessed over the past two generations, I have spent the last few years developing a concept I have come to call the “Networked Human Exoskeleton.”
I argue that not only human progress but also humanity itself sprang from a networking phenomenon that started with simple forms of technology (e.g., clubs and cutting tools) the effects of which over a long stretch of time were augmented by rudimentary language, followed much later by writing and mathematics.
Over many millennia the fusion of these four concepts not only shaped our hominin forebears into fully developed human beings but also enclosed our species into a kind of cocoon – an increasingly dense network that sustains and protects us but from which we are unable to escape. For several reasons, I settled on the term networked exoskeleton to convey the sense of ensconcement that characterizes our species. While some of it is quite tangible and reflected in the technology that we use, much of it is incorporeal in nature, though all of these elements are fused together to provide our species with the protection that corporeal exoskeletons provide crustaceans and insects.
Yet, by its very nature it is like no other exoskeleton on earth – a remarkable achievement that sets us apart from every other species on the planet. It’s growth within the past seven decades following the end of the Second World War has been nothing short of astonishing. We now inhabit an exoskeleton that extends it conceptual reach into the deepest reaches of our planet’s oceans and even beyond our solar system.
Yet, our exoskeleton, despite its age and enormous complexity, essentially is no different from the survival strategy of any other species in the sense that it represents only an improvisation across a very long stretch of time. Like every other evolutionary strategy on earth, our networked exoskeleton is only approximately rather than ideally suited to our species’ needs. Indeed there may come a day decades, centuries or millennia from now in which the evolutionary strategy embodied in our exoskeleton runs into an effective brick wall.
As I have expressed a few times in this forum, we very well may be fast approaching such as impasse. For many millennia, human beings were governed by overarching narratives supplied by myth and religion or a mixture of the two.
However, within the last few centuries, largely through rapid advances in scientific knowledge, these over-arching narratives have undergone steady erosion, perhaps most aptly embodied in Nietzsche’s observation about our having killed God. Consequently, society is now ignorant of a great many moral and ethical insights that were regarded as essential to the functioning of a healthy society only a few decades ago.
The Bonhoeffer quote above adequately expresses this unsavory fact of contemporary reality better than most others. All the more troubling to me and many others is the fact that so many moral and ethical appeals are now lost within a network that has now become so vastly extended and multifaceted. Indeed, it leads one to wonder if humanity will ever succeed in developing anything resembling a new over-arching narrative.
During the height of the Cold War, the expatriate Russian novelist and sage Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed that free speech, so widely affirmed as a sacred pillar of Western society, now essentially amounts to a dead letter because in a vastly extended and multifaceted consumer society such as ours, dissident speech has been rendered effectively meaningless.
So much has changed in the four-plus decades since Solzhenitzyn offered that observation. Indeed, due to advances in digital technology our network is now so vast and complex that all manner of philosophical and political appeals, even those issued with moral and ethical contexts, have been rendered effectively meaningless.
Consequently, Bonhoeffer’s warning about the propects of morality winning out in the face of rank stupidity seem more cogent and prophetic than ever before in history.