By Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez
Modernity has given us unprecedented connectivity to the extent that we can connect families from opposite ends of the world with just a single touch. Unknowingly, modernity has also transformed this connectivity into something fluid where we are constantly connected with the world without having the ability to focus on a single emotion. We have been conditioned to see the world at a fast pace so that we can be up to date and continuously pressured to negotiate between antinomies. It stems from the fear that the lack of information will make us redundant and disenfranchised from the broader society1. Ultimately, we are bombarded with an information glut that has penetrated every aspect of our lives, from the unmissable advertisement boards to the countless notifications on our mobile devices.
As much as it is essential for technology to augment the quality of lives, it is equally important to understand that underlying every development in human society is an epistemological, political, or social bias. Sometimes that bias is to our advantage; sometimes it is not2. According to author, Neil Postman, “technological change is not additive, it’s “ecological”, and that in order for us to comprehend, manage, and even embrace the rapid changes brought on by the technological advancement happening all around us, we need to understand that technology doesn’t just add to society, it transforms it.” 3 Technology has altered the way we think of activities that are interested in developing the human being as a whole and not just a cog in the economic machine, such as religion, arts, politics and history4. Due to the brief scope of this article, it will focus on how human societies have unconsciously surrendered religion to technology.
As a disclaimer, this article is not an effort to encourage its readers to be anti-technology or modernity. However, it aims to understand the nature of technology and question those who uncritically regard technology as a solution to all of our life’s problems, including the proximity to God.
RELIGION AS ENTERTAINMENT
In the foreword of his seminal work, Postman explains the dystopian future offered by both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Both men imagined how oppression could be forced on modern societies in diametrically opposite ways. For Orwell, it was state-enforced repression that suppresses and controls the people. Whereas Huxley envisioned a world where people are controlled by inflicting pleasure to a point that they are reduced to passivity and egoism which deprived them of thinking. Based on his observation of society, Postman regards the future closer to Huxley’s vision as we have become a trivial culture5. To Postman, “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” 6 Postman blames this depravity on the transition from a print-based epistemology to an image-based culture caused by the rise of the television7.
However, it is crucial to recognise that it is not the television itself that is the issue. The problem emerges when television becomes an epistemological foundation for society to acquire knowledge and presents itself as a carrier of meaningful cultural conversations for society to understand religion, politics and education. Postman regards this transformation as dangerous. A television-based epistemology privileges entertainment above literacy. Television rarely requires prerequisite information to understand our perception of reality. In fact, it has often been accused of banalising even the most serious subjects8.
Although one can argue that Postman’s resentment of an image-based culture is an exaggeration, it is certainly no exaggeration to maintain that television thrives on entertainment that serves as a spectacle where the line between the real and the imaginary is completely blurred. In his book, The Society of the Spectacle, Debord describes the spectacle as a tool for distraction9. It reduces society to a series of images in which everything in reality becomes a commodity10. Today, the spectacle takes on different forms. It is truncated to fit a medium that intrudes every aspect of our life through advertisement boards, handheld devices, and even sponsored ads on our socials that reduces our reality to commodifiable objects.
Against this backdrop, what is the impact of the spectacle on religion and religious communities? Postman correctly observed that on television, “God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and presence of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be worshipped. […]Television’s strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads. […T]he danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion”.11 To put it simply, religion has become a tool of entertainment to domesticate the masses. It does not serve the function to educate society in discerning the sacred from profane, the beautiful from ugly, and the humane from inhumane.
Although his discourse was mainly centred on television, Postman’s critique on an image-based epistemology remains relevant when extrapolated to understand the ecological effects of social media. In fact, one can arguably regard social media as television on steroids. We see ‘religious influencers’ refashioning serious discourses such as underdevelopment into a vaudeville act to gain traction and validation. It echoes Postman’s argument that “everything that makes religion a historic, profound, sacred human activity is stripped away” 12.
In The Costs of Connection, Couldry and Mejias suggest that the digital revolution has chartered the path for a new phase of colonialism (data colonialism) that in time will prepare the ground for a new mode of capitalist production in similar ways in which historical colonialism prepared the ground for industrial capitalism13. Although data colonialism may not share the same features for which historical colonialism is remembered, such as physical violence, it continues to serve the core function of colonialism – to exploit the resources on a global scale and redefine social and economic structures in the process. In fact, the modus operandi of data colonialism is both simpler and deeper – the capture and control of human life through the appropriation of data that can be used for profit-making, behavioural change and choice shaping14. Unlike the colonial empires that came to the ‘new world’ via boats and trains, data colonialists built communication networks like social media and e-commerce platforms to harvest the data of millions.
While many critiques of data colonialism tend to focus on the role of big tech companies, it is equally important to recognise the role of certain governments using big data programmes that target religious communities. In November 2020, a Vice Motherboard report exposed the popular Muslim Pro app for sharing user information to a location data company that eventually sold this data to the US military15. These revelations substantiate longstanding patterns of the US government’s domestic surveillance of Muslims under the PATRIOT Act. Dandia explains that it stems from state-driven suspicion of Muslims that equates ‘conservative’ Muslim practices with radicalism16.
On the flip side, data colonialism has also enabled neoliberalism to flourish in the Muslim market17. The term Muslim market refers to the potential spending power of an estimated 1.8 billion Muslim consumers worldwide. Over the last decade, there has been a strong interest in this market due to the rise of a Muslim middle class and increasing demand for halal products and services within the Muslim geographies and beyond18. The State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2018/19 by Thomson Reuters and DinarStandard projected the global halal economy to hit $3 trillion in 202319. This bodes well for the functioning of a neoliberal system. According to Barylo, this confluence gave birth to a new narrative, that Muslims can be accepted in the mainstream provided they become economic actors. Realising that Muslims can be a profitable niche market has also pushed high-end brands to release modest fashion lines with hijab-wearing models representing these brands20. Marketing strategies would also use algorithms to capitalise on the Muslim market21. Accordingly, the sacred is stripped from these religious symbols. This assimilation can be seen as a response to a climate of fear imposed by the infamous war on terror.
To put it simply, to be normal is to be part of the dominant culture, even at the expense of our values and belief system. Similar to Islamophobia, neoliberalism exploits vulnerabilities. While Islamophobia excludes, neoliberalism includes.
According to Postman, there is a common understanding of technological inventions as if they were God-given and part of the natural order of things. In fact, the age of technopoly has seen the deification of technology where religions and cultures seek authorisation and find satisfaction from technology. Postman points out that such an idea is dangerous, because if people take that as a given, then there will be no control over it. People will accept it without thinking seriously about its ecological implications. Technopoly is not only a state of culture. It is a state of mind22.
In 2019, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto introduced to the world the first robotic priest in an attempt to reignite faith in a country where religiosity is on the decline. Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. Although it is not AI-powered, its creators intend to give it machine learning capabilities that will enable it to address the spiritual needs of worshippers and be tailored to solve their ethical problems23. While it has been reported that worshippers do not have any issues, it highlights a more profound concern that traditional forms of invoking God have been converted to mechanical activities. It has an impact on how we see our realities. Theology in its fullest sense is anchored in the created cosmos24. The prayer in Islam is connected to the movement of the Sun in the sky and to perform it, we have to connect with water or earth before connecting with God25. The Quran repeatedly raises the intimate relationship between human life and the cosmos to discern the wisdom of God underlying it26.
It is He who has made the sun a [source of] radiant light and the moon a light [reflected], and has determined for it phases so that you might know how to compute the years and to measure [time]. None of this has God created without [an inner] truth. Clearly does He spell out these messages unto people of [innate] knowledge 27.
Given our unwavering reliance on technology, it would not be an exaggeration to say that its collapse could spell the disintegration of religious rituals. Some Muslims might not be able to tell the prayer time or the Qiblah without the reliance on their technological devices. Instead of experiencing the Divine to the fullest, we are now subjected to the tyranny of our limited intellects. Should we continue to displace the symbiotic relationship between religion and the cosmos, it would not be surprising if we witness a time where Mindars will give out religious directives from pulpits.
His critics have often accused him of being a Luddite because of his criticism of technological advancements. On the contrary, Postman made it clear that he had no motives to destroy new technologies. As a matter of fact, he acknowledges the advantages that they bring28. His main intention is to inform society that we cannot sit back and let technology take over the reins. Historically, Luddites were not blindly opposing technologies but they were confronting forces that were forcefully displacing tradition and their way of living29. In the digital age, perhaps it might be necessary for us to apply a certain degree of Luddism to counter-balance a technological utopianism30 and create space for critical reflection of the technological world that we’re building31. I am suggesting bringing into conversation Walter Mignolo’s idea of an ‘epistemic disobedience’32 to scrutinise, reflect and evaluate the epistemologies and ecological effects of the digital revolution.
1 Harari, Y. The Rise of the Useless Class. 2017. Accessed 2021, February 10: https://ideas.ted.com/the-rise-of-the-useless-class/
2 Postman, N. Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. 1998. p. 5
3 Ibid, p. 4
4 Postman, N. Technopoly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1991. p. 48
5 Postman, N. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books. 2014. p. xix
6 Ibid, pp. 92-93
7 Ibid, p.16
8 Ibid, p. 47
9 Debord, G. Society of the Spectacle. Bread and Circuses Publishing. 2012. p. 23
10 Ibid, p. 14
11 Postman, N. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books. 2014. pp. 122-123
12 Ibid, p. 117
13 Couldry, N. and Mejias, U. The Costs of Connection. California: Stanford University Press. 2019. p. xix
14 Ibid, p. 12
15 Cox, J. How the U.S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps. 2020, November 16. Retrieved from: http://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqm5x/us-military-location-data-xmode-locate-x
16 Dandia, A. Muslim Pro: How Tech Capitalism Turns Prayer Data into Profit. 2020, December 11. Retrieved from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/muslim-pro-controversy-dangers-surveillance-capitalism
17 Rethel, L. Corporate Islam, Global Capitalism and the Performance of Economic Moralities. New Political Economy, 24(3), pp. 350-364. 2018. Available at: http://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2018.1446925
18 Ahmad, N. What Do We Know about the “Third One-Billion Market”?: A Closer Look at Muslim Consumers and Halal Phenomenon. 2017. Accessed 2021, March 1: https://kwansei-ac.jp/iba/journals/review/BandA_review_vol19_p21-39.pdf
19 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2018/19: Islamic Economy Marks Steady Growth. Salaam Gateway. 2018, October 28. Retrieved from: http://www.salaamgateway.com/story/state-of-the-global-islamic-economy-report-201819-islamic-economy-marks-steady-growth#%3A~%3Atext%3Dcountry%20placed%20second.-%2CThe%20State%20of%20the%20Global%20Islamic%20Economy%20Re
20 Barylo, W. What Amena Khan’s Apology Tells Us about the Limits of Muslim ‘Success’. 2018, February 8. Retrieved from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/what-amena-khans-apology-tells-us-about-limits-muslim-success
21 Esa, L. Halal Beauty Brands that are Redefining Southeast Asia. 2020, September 23. Retrieved from: https://vogue.sg/halal-beauty-brands-that-are-redefining-southeast-asia/
22 Postman, N. Technopoly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1991. p. 71
23 Holley, P. Meet ‘Mindar’, the Robotic Buddhist Priest. 2019, August 23. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/08/22/introducing-mindar-robotic-priest-that-some-are-calling-frankenstein-monster/
24 Nguyen, M. Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2018. p. 30
25 Ghilan, M. Technology: The New Polytheism? 2016, April 18. Retrieved from: http://www.almadina.org/studio/articles/technology-the-new-polytheism
26 Nguyen, M. Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2018. p. 34
27 Quran 10:5
28 Postman, N. Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. 1998. p. 5
29 Postman, N. Technopoly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1991. p. 48
30 Frischmann, B. Algorithm and Blues: The Tyranny of the Coming Smart-Tech Utopia. Scientific American. 2018, July 30. Retrieved from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/algorithm-and-blues-the-tyranny-of-the-coming-smart-tech-utopia/
31 Frischmann, B. There’s Nothing Wrong with Being a Luddite. Scientific American. 2018, September 20. Retrieved from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/theres-nothing-wrong-with-being-a-luddite/?fbclid=IwAR0jTptiOgCT0rpFmJxGUESxQbEcu4Naw-vP9dB6B4TIFn_tG-nVywcZBVc
32 Mignolo, W. D. Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7–8), pp. 159–181. 2009. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409349275
Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, April 2021, Volume 17, Issue 2.
Photo Source: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash