The Struggle for Awe in a Robotic Age

Why it is so urgent now.

Posted May 08, 2017

The following is excerpted from the Prologue of my new book The Spirituality of Awe: Challenges to the Robotic Revolution (Waterfront Press, 2017). For more information, click here.

Virtually every social peril we face today is traceable to roboticism; our tendency to act like and be replaced by machines. As I write these words, we’re in the midst of a firestorm of twitter feeds, fictional news stories and unfiltered propaganda that all seem to converge on one basic purpose: to compel a needy populace to “heel” at the foot of the powerful. Right here in the freedom-loving U.S.A., we have been thrust into a fantasy world of strong-arm leadership, simplistic sloganeering, and monarch-style nationalism. It’s not that these qualities have been absent at earlier times in history; far from it. But now they are showing up in ways, both subtle and gross, that permeate civic life.

Are we truly entering the age of the Orwellian nightmare with the control of large swaths of the U.S. population, whether by gun or computer or ideology, desperate to be controlled? Desperate to be lifted out of their own nightmare of physical and emotional impoverishment, the grind of routine, the hollowness of relationship, whether corporate or domestic or communal?

Just where is the world of texting and Instagram and Snapchat, automated news, communication through sound bytes,and endless streaming taking us? How has it made us susceptible to a government that mocks freedom of the press, squelches inquiry and chides the dialogues among nations, ethnicities and cultures? Is it any wonder that some 60 million of us in America have chosen this contraction, just as the speed, instant results and packaging of technology have reached an historical peak? We’re looking for FIXES in part because this is what our age promises, and on the other hand, provides little or no help to counter. 

Automation, the machine-model for living, is permeating our consciousness (as well as our work force!) and many of us welcome it, indeed hunger for it on a myriad of levels.  This problem is no less true in many other parts of the world, particularly militarily.

Yet what is lost in this headlong embrace is depth; the awesomeness, not just of our machines, but of our flesh, our capacity to feel, and our capacity to dwell in the miracle of the unknown.

Does our technology enhance this venture, divert us from it, point us toward it? Probably all three. But why aren’t we using our new-fangled gadgets to tap into every corner of our aliveness and our abilities to foster aliveness in others? Why is it mostly such a grind for people, and the nagging sense that we are marching collectively—and willingly—to our doom. This at least is what many of our science fiction writers warn. Our artists. But it is also what I see daily as a depth psychotherapist[1]--the shaken spirits of once animated souls; abysses of pain in the heart of silicon glitter.

The outlook, moreover, is no less concerning. For today we face not just automated “enhancements,” but literal “replicants.” These are creations that may not just substitute for, but could potentially replace our mortal coils.

Such are a few of the heavy, and indeed central questions that I pursue in this volume. I do all I can not to lapse into either nay-saying cynicism or bright-eyed enthusiasm—but rather to shoot straight from the heart. As a depth psychologist, and as a privileged witness to people’s most intimate stories (including my own), I try to tell it plain about what it’s like to live here, now in this harrowing new age. I feel it’s my duty.

[1] As a depth psychotherapist, my emphasis is on longer-term, relational encounter. I also focus on complex life issues, such as freedom, finitude, and meaning, and not merely outward behaviors.