New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
I had the felicitous coincidence of watching season one of American Gods whilst reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus.
American Gods (watchable in Australia through Amazon Prime Video) is a recent television adaptation of the sprawling, modern-mythological-fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. The story follows Shadow Moon, an ex-con who gradually discovers the supernatural underworld of America, where an epic war is brewing between the old gods and the new gods.
So there I am, comfortably arranged on my couch with a bag of chips balanced on my belly, enjoying the delightful visuals of eyeballs gouged from sockets, arcing fountains of blood, and annihilation by vaginal ingestion–and hey, that’s just the first episode! I’m not sure whether I’m liking this deliberately artful and graphic adaptation with its frequent use of slow-mo’s, but its bizarreness has me hooked.
Mr Wednesday’s perpetual elusiveness and Shadow’s bumbling seriousness get a bit tiresome, but I thoroughly enjoy the banter between zombiefied Laura and Mad Sweeney. The menacing New Gods of Media, Technical Boy, and Mr World pop up and do their thang, basically fluffing their feathers and proclaiming that the world is already theirs.
This is now merging in a wacky way in my head with Harari’s theses:
‘…technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious visions, like a waiter that demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That’s why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands fantasised about different paradises than peasants and why the revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.’
Harari argues that although traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism still give meaning to the lives of millions of people, they have little to contribute in terms of shaping the future of humanity. In the past, they were the major organising forces of society. But now, Harari thinks, they are playing catch-up.
There seems to be truth in this. What is one of the most underrated but precious commodities in our modern world? Our attention. Our attention is our time. Our time is our energy, our efforts, and our lives. Nowadays, our attention is poured into consuming, and producing, social media.
On an individual level, this shapes us psychologically. We have a sense of our ‘online self’, as described by our Facebook or Instagram profile. We experience real-life events through the lenses of our phones: our meal or party or fun run become more real, more concrete, when it is captured in digital form. The social media world has replaced the local village as our source of connection, support and validation. Our attention spans become briefer as our brains adapt to multi-tasking and scrolling through infinite feeds of infinite information. Anything longer than a page becomes a struggle.
On a societal level, this has implications for the dissemination of ideas. News and information reach us more rapidly through Twitter and Facebook feeds than through the evening news or a periodical publication. Ideas can spread across the world in, quite literally, an instant. Does anyone else think this is f*cking crazy?! A couple of centuries ago, if you had a great idea, you told your local priest, your wife, your mates at the corner pub, maybe set up a little society in a basement to cultivate more ideas and get word out to the public, maybe, if you were lucky, spark a little cultural progress. Nowadays, a wave of fear, anger or ideology can spread across the globe in a matter of days. We can be united in congregations of thousands, millions, even billions. That’s the power of the New Gods.
On the other side of the same coin, the sources of our information have also changed. When the information that reaches our eyes is influenced by corporate giants and when anyone can become an online ‘expert’, it becomes harder but more important to be discerning about the information you trust. What slice of the world are you really seeing, when most of your news come from an online algorithm that has reams of data about your demographics, interests, and search history? Weeding out cognitive biases and dodgy sources of information are the superpowers of our age.
The new gods of today (media, the internet, technology) are already drastically different from how they looked ten years ago. What does all this mean for the future? I’m sure Homo Deus will have some speculations. Harari has packed his book with a broad reach of ideas and integrated them skilfully into his arguments. However, I wonder if he’s neglected to discuss the power of fear in the twenty-first century: a flame that is fanned by religious ideologies, capitalist self-interest and high-speed internet connectivity.