These days the Super Bowl in the U.S. attracts international attention sometimes for the game, but certainly for the commercials, which have become triumphs of artistic creativity. At $4 million per 30-second slot, you just know they will be good.
This year Microsoft stood out with a fabulous ad about life made better by the astonishing achievements of scientists, designers and engineers. A little boy whose artificial legs mean he can run and play ball, a blind artist able to paint using a computer, a deaf girl enabled to hear, a wheelchair-bound father, Steve Gleason, former NFL player suffering from a terminal neuro-muscular disease, communicating through a computer.
Interspersed with these brilliant, life-affirming scenes is the computer-generated voice of Gleason as he asks, “What is technology?” “What can it do?” “How far can we go?” “It has the power to unite us.” “It inspires us.” “It gives hope to the hopeless; a voice to the voiceless.”
And why not? Technology certainly does plenty of those things and more. Surely very few of us are so attached to an imagined romantic past that we would wish to return to a time before reliable cars, safe airlines, antibiotics and pain-free dentistry.
But the almost religious overtones of the Microsoft commercial serve as a reminder of the way in which, these days, humans tend to put their faith in technology in a manner that is bound to disappoint.
Neil Postman, the social commentator and educator, writing in the 1980s looked at the way technology increasingly determines everything that passes for culture in society – a state of affairs he called 'technopoly':
'Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists of the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.
Craig Gay reminds us that science and technology have reinforced the plausibility of practical atheism in modern society and culture. He suggests that technology has encouraged us to be so pre-occupied with our own knowing and creating that we put aside the possibility that we too might be subjects of a creator. In such a context, God seems irrelevant.
But could it be that no matter how far the wonders of technology can take us—and that’s pretty far—if our hope rests on human achievement alone, we will be left hungering for something more, but without any idea how to find it?