|The Threat of Modernity to Religion, Culture and Government.
MIDN Arnaud FROUEL
French Naval Academy
Homo sapiens think, imagine and invent. They create systems and devices and develop technologies that are more and more complex, that are quicker and quicker, and that are more and more ingenious. For several years, the process of modernism has been accelerating, seemingly impeded by nothing. Modernity is not without its effects on everyday life: the phenomenon concerns every aspect of society, from culture to religion to government. It also raises considerable questions. For example, how does modernity affect relationships within and external to a society? It has become a cliché to say that machines and technology will kill mankind, but to what extent is modernity a threat?
The Industrial Revolution changed the world. Scientific and technological development has deeply affected manners and customs as well as minds. Railways first and then automobiles allowed people to travel faster and faster, further and further. Consider, for example, the conquest of the western portion of the North American continent, powered by the train: physically, geographic frontiers and limits were pushed, but more importantly, social and cultural horizons were challenged. Personal exchanged between peoples expanded to an unrivalled level. This phenomenon continues and is all the more crucial today.
Information is a major issue in almost every corner of the world. Media is extremely powerful: culture has become the one with information. Newspapers remain an important means of communication concerning events on both the local and global level. Radio and television are two of the most important technological developments of the past century. We now have the Internet as well. Never before were men able to communicate, work and even play with so many different people at the same time all over the world. This is the great cultural revolution. Everything can be found or accomplished thanks to the Web: shopping, learning, and even exploring new countries without leaving one’s armchair! Culture can be and is being electronically transmitted. We no longer make the effort to open a book or pick up a pencil to write because these actions can be done using a computer. What a change! Prior to this revolution, if people wanted to create social and cultural links, they were forced to travel to meet the others, to speak with one another, and to interact personally and physically.
With the progress of science appeared the notion of scientism in the XIXth century, which challenged this thought. Scientism contends that science offers a solution to each of the world’s problems. In the beginning, technology brought hope to men seeking to improve the conditions of their lives. Could we discover how the universe works? Could we foil death through medicine? This evolution eroded the place of religion and ethics in society. Development of biotechnology has had a great impact on morality. Genetics, cloning, and reproduction in laboratories have taken man beyond his natural limits: he can now act as God himself! Life has become a great field of experimentation. This is affecting religion: belief in God made man realize he had limits. Nature remained mysterious because men were not able to decode its secrets. As a result, it was possible to remain humble in the face of the universe and its secrets. Religion is crucial in society insofar as it outlines what one may or may not do. Due to science, men are lost in a world suffering from a kind of fever: we always want to know and learn more and more. The danger is that men may not know when to stop and reflect rather than keep on discovering.
Technology has changed the world. History now runs with the rhythm of networks. We must take care to ensure that its vibrations do not destroy our cultural bases.
What about the control of technology? Just a few decades ago our parents and grandparents were forced to adapt to a world undergoing a radical change: new machines and devices, means of transport, television and so on came into everyday life. At first, a measure of control existed insofar as people needed time to get used to change.
Today, technology is a monster spreading its influence all over the world and is not easily curbed. Biological research has created new questions: we are able to clone animals, when shall we create men? New drugs offer weight loss and younger skin, but what are the consequences for the human body? In fact, with the extension of lifespans, new illnesses could appear as cancer did, or perhaps even new psychic traumas. The human body has a new dimension and that is the reason why we now see so many ethical commitees challenging the values we have long guarded.
Another important aspect is the integration of the computer into every level of society. Apart from the improvements it has brought to industry, science, and education, the advancements in data processing have been the key point of the second half of the XXth century. Simply put, computers becoming more and more powerful, a fact that has led to a new way of life based on hi-tech leisure. Every six months, the capacity of computers is doubled. We now move in totally virtual universes. Combat and flight simulators, for example, are more realistic than reality. As there is neither juridical nor political control, society has turned completely towards games and amusement. A serious concern is that we may become “leisure addicted,” as it is so very easy not to do anything productive. The tech junkie considers his anti-technological peers to live in the “dark ages”. As a result, high technology is creating a new kind of rift between people. Control of new technologies might therefore be a positive thing, as we do not have any idea in which direction we are heading. We should consider the danger of being caught in the trap of our own genius: we must not become slaves to our technology!
Modernity is upsetting society. As technology has changed, so have men and their behaviours. At the beginning of the XXth century, a firms’ prosperity was marked by its ownership of the highest skyscraper. Rivals had to build higher and more important towers. This phenomenon of technological one-upmanship continues today: even children have mobile phones, their slightly older siblings boast Palm Pilots. Modernity has become a fashion statement, marking social rank, whether real or imagined. Thanks to the Internet and other means of processing information, business is handled more quickly and efficiently. All of this leads to competition within society. Societal relationships are based on productivity and profitability as well as rapidity. But this development has also reinforced social inequalities: poor people and religious or ethnic minorities are largely excluded from this movement because their needs are not the same as the ones at the heart of modernity. New societal rifts are developing which threaten to tear societies apart.
Modernity also affects international relationships. Industry and technological “advances” have caused the pollution of the earth. Ozone depletion and the destruction of subtropical forests have yielded a sudden, global awareness. Apart from the United Nations, countries had never gathered to discuss such major issues as the environment, a crucial element to the survival of mankind. In this way, modernity and its negative effects have brought people together despite the fact that there are so many problems requiring solutions. Another paradox is also important: atomic and nuclear weapons have yielded a long period of peace since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Terror caused by the possible extinction of our species has changed relationships between governments. While it is true that tensions such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War could have had serious consequences, we must acknowledge the equilibrium that was the fruit of mutually assured destruction.
Science and technology have improved to such an extent that we could now take on the problems of famine and thirst throughout the world. Why not transform deserts into oases and areas suitable for cultivation? Technology could overcome the battle for drinking water: why not transfer water from Turkey, which has huge water reserves, to countries like Israel, Syria, and Palestine? This is a problem that merits international attention. Instead fighting between each other for territorial domination, states could unite and demand international technical help or they could find solutions together to aid populations in critical need. Modernity could be a wonderful way to unify nations and peoples in a common, beneficial aim. In this arena, modernity could provide a return to morals. Just as the abolition of slavery was a revolution of modernity 150 years ago, we could face another revolution: the unity of mankind to promote the help of poor countries, using technology in an altruistic goal...
While modernity could help international relationships in terms of improving critical situations, we must admit that there are many things that currently do not work as well as we might expect. The industrialized countries possess technologies that could help their poorer neighbors, but rather than helping them, they use this fact to put pressure on the poorer countries for political ends. Modernity is this a threat, as it may create jealousy and resentment against those who have a developed technology. The threat lies in the fact that there is no democracy in the distribution of modern means, which creates divisions in the world. Moreover, developing countries are not able to follow the same tempo of modern life that the wealthiest states can, so that difference is exacerbated by time. Modernity also presents a threat to peoples whose culture is still traditional and even primitive. The natives of Amazonia who were expelled from their natural habitat as a result of the exploitation of the rainforests offer a prime example of this effect.
We must also consider the issue of electronic control of our lives: bank transactions can be tracked trough networks, the skies are overcome with satellites that spy on us, the Internet is not so secure that our e-mails cannot be read, and, above all, we find closed circuit cameras on the streets, in supermarkets, in offices and even in homes. Governments tell us this to fight delinquency, but it also allows them to keep a close eye on our lives and on us. Modernity threatens our privacy! This is very serious because privacy is a basic right that is supposed to be inviolable. Modernity does not respect the foundation of democracy and freedom.
There are some countries in which slavery, child labor and political assassinations are commonplace, yet their level of technology continues to improve. Technology can be used to hide what happens within a country’s borders, making the international community forget that, inside, human beings are suffering. This point of view is naturally rather simplistic, but we must remember that modernity is not always linked with morality. The question remains: do human rights and liberties progress as technology improves?
In conclusion, technological development has progressed at an almost incredible rate. In doing so, it is upsetting society. Mentalities have been forced to change. There is more competition than ever before and even God may not be powerful enough to make us stop and reflect on the direction the world is taking. Modernity is such an important factor in everyday life that there is almost no political, juridical or ethical control over its role within and among societies. There are some major issues that technology could help resolve, but the divide between poor and rich countries continues to grow. The countries are simply not yet ready to help each other. Despite the fact that it could make life better for every human being, modernity is a threat. Governments and people themselves will have to make great efforts to work together if we are ever to find solutions to the world’s troubles.