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Christopher Lasch and the Digital Return of Memory

If the headlines are to be believed, the instability and uncertainty of the global situation, especially in the West, is the dangerous result of the politics of nostalgia. From Europe to the United States, from Russia to Latin America, political analysis has been explaining today’s unanticipated resurgence of illiberal, reactionary, and na­tionalist movements squarely in terms of nostalgia. But this nostalgia is not just a hunger for the past—it can be understood as a yearning to retrieve a better past. For the nostalgists, the allure of the past isn’t purely historical but can contain standards of value and valu­ation that cut against the contemporary. Rather than simply offering an occasion for self-satisfied indulgence or sheer celebration, the past offers a richer experience of worth—the fortifying mix of pride and humility that abides in us when we acknowledge the presence of a great presiding measure and conform to it. But the tenor of the new nostalgia is not often so subtle.

Some of the sharper anti-nostalgists focus on the fact that today’s yearning to recover the past reaches across ideological categories. In The Frac­tured Republic, to take one recent example, Yuval Levin argues that partisans of both major U.S. political parties have organized around romanticized recollections of a recent past that stubbornly resists resurrection. That insight should encourage a deeper consideration of the relationship between memory and nos­talgia at work in the failure of the established elite to predict today’s political disruptions. Nostalgia is indeed an incomplete, inconsistent, and illusory mani­festation of human memory.

Yet leading anti-nostalgic social scientists and public intellectuals are far too comfortable interpreting challengers to liberal progress in purely nostalgic terms. They fail to see how poorly nostalgia ex­plains today’s popular efforts to retrieve apparently obsolete poli­tical forms, relationships, and practices. They remain in vigorous if subconscious denial about why they reduce the role of memory as a political force to a merely retrograde backslide. In fact, memory is coming back as a major force precisely because both progress and nostalgia are losing so much authority. Few have been willing to face the dawning reality that, while the culture of imagination at the core of progressive liberal institutionalism has been failing for decades, it is the rise of digital technology that has retrieved and strengthened non-nostalgic forms of human memory in Western cultural and political life.

Is there anywhere to turn? The late twentieth-century social critics of progressive institutional rot may offer a better perspective, but turning to them seems like its own exercise in nostalgia. By today’s lights, much of the most prominent criticism of the 1970s was devoted to a half-imagined, half-bygone renunciatory ethos with no connection to the reality of everyday life. “The critics’ rem­edy, in the 1970s,” complains Elizabeth Lunbeck in The Americanization of Narcissism, “was in part to reinstate a culture of remissive ‘shalt nots’ and ‘shoulds’ whose passing was lamented by Philip Rieff and [Christopher] Lasch.” “The position of self-sovereignty that Rieff and other critics ascribe to the nineteenth-century bourgeois” of the preelectric age, Lunbeck objects, is itself “des­criptive of an unrealizable fantasy of independence and autonomy”; Rieff, Lasch, and other post-Freudian culture war critics offer “nothing but the narcissism of the theorist, revealing his desire to inhabit a personal without needs and attachments.” If nostalgia and narcissism go hand in hand, as Lasch’s criticism so strongly suggests, perhaps he and his ilk fell prey to that fact.

But if Lunbeck is right to suggest that neo-asceticism failed to take “the quest for self-knowledge” seriously as the expression of human needs, she and other critics leave conspicuously unanswered the question of whether Lasch’s anti-nostalgic critique of the pro­gressive imagination might gain new relevance in light of the coming digital triumph. For Lasch understood, perhaps better than any of his contemporaries, four of the five key elements of today’s destabilized age. First, he recognized that the mechanisms of institutionalized progress had broken down and were, in common understanding, increasingly self-refuting. Second, he understood that this experience of disillusionment had to do with the collapse of the progressive imagination, fueled by a commercial cult of image and illusion. Third, he discerned that populist nostalgia failed to offer a coherent alternative to the failing progressive fables of the future. And fourth, he grasped that any twenty-first-century replacement for progressivism would have to recover a form of memory without collapsing into fantasy.

Advent of the Online Imagination

Lasch painted a striking picture of how and why liberal institutions sought progress through democratizing the imagination of a seem­ingly unlimited future, and why that core mission encountered stark, fatal limits. As Lasch observes in The True and Only Heaven, “the technological conquest of scarcity and the collective con­trol over nature” taught progressives the doc­trine of “universal access to a proliferating supply of goods.” Lasch insisted, however, that “earth’s ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces.” To the contrary, “the resources required to sustain a new-class style of life, hitherto imagined to be inexhaustible, are already approaching their outer limit. Under these conditions,” he concluded, “the universalistic pretensions of the new class cannot be taken seriously.”

Lasch’s analysis, however, was itself limited by the sorts of tech­nology, industry, social mediation, and hoped-for progress that the pre-digital “electric” age held. Indeed the whole premise of digital progress is that new technological transformations have vaulted us out of the limits on universal progress inherent to merely electric economic and cultural practices. Hence the persistence of a kind of tech triumphalism, which insists that digital life will usher in what Lasch called “a universal class,” ever more leisurely, customized, and abundant.

Today, digital technology seems to upset Lasch’s theory of natural limits. Its promise of radical abundance is played out not in the physical world but in infinite copying and repetition online, with automated replication approaching zero cost, and with perpetually recyclable materials. Meanwhile, if digital technology ensures that institutionalized depravity is no longer necessary to keep material production and consumption expanding forever, then progress can also be saved from the dehumanizing excesses of image and illusion that would otherwise destroy it from within.

Nevertheless, Lasch’s account of the collapse of the pre-digital, electric-age cult of imagination casts these digital hopes into much deeper doubt. On the one hand, the primacy of image and illusion in electric-age progressivism was seen by Lasch not simply as an enhancement of universal consumerism but, increasingly over time, as a replacement. As it became more difficult to deliver material goods to everyone all the time, and implausible that markets would expand forever, it became clear to Lasch that the provision of psychological goods would become increasingly dominant. In fact, many of these ostensible “goods” were found in dehumanizing experiences and ideas. Electric-age arts and sciences scrambled to stimulate terminally bored and atomized consumers with what Rim­baud called “a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” Transgressive fantasies and dissociative spectacles became linchpins of social and economic activity, first through the conquest of the night by artificial light, then through film, television, and the electrification of music. The commodification of perversion opened vast new territories to markets otherwise on the verge of exhaustion, even if such a vast virtual bounty came at the steep cost of minimizing and fragmenting consumers’ very selves.

Lasch’s analysis of the cult of imagination helps us to understand that much of what appears to manifest a digital escape from the pathologies of dehumanizing markets really reverses digital technology back into all-too-familiar electric practices. Online, social media suffuses digital life with an enhanced experience of the sensory disorganization institutionalized in the electric age. It delivers an untold abundance of infinitely customizable and consumable experiences—superficially perspective-expanding and emotionally entertaining, but in reality dominated more by alienation, isolation, corruption, and dehumanization. These features challenge the funda­mental premise of digital progressivism today. Even if technology has “solved” the problem of universalizing material abundance by making abundance digital, the pathologies of the electric-age cult of imagination pervade life in the digital age perhaps even more than they did previously.

Unless, that is, truly digital technology shapes human life in ways likely to accomplish what Lasch thought natural ecology would do. While electric pathologies, even within digital technology, are oriented by the ultimate dreams of the unbound imagination, the foundation of digital technology itself is quite the opposite: the ultimate in memory. So far, nature has proven unable to break the scientific power of both material abundance and the rule of imagination. What the nominally digital triumphalists do not see, however—and what Lasch helps reveal to us—is that the kind of abundance ushered in by digital technology is breaking the rule of imagination. Through its tremendous development of perfect, universal memory, digital lays bare the cost, the damage, the hollowness, and the fruitlessness of dedicating our precious and fragile human selves to worshipping at the altar of imagery and illusion taken to terminal extremes. Social media’s intensification of electric-age socioeconomics reveals that much of life online merely fills digital structures with pre-digital content. The true digital revolution is one that obsolesces the electric content of the cult of imagination—through, for exam­ple, the perfection of machine memory. New “shadow libraries” like Sci-Hub, free repositories of scores of millions of scholarly writings pulled from the paywalled databases of the major scientific publishers, augur an onrushing era when inarguable knowledge is so concentrated, universal, cumulative, and retrievable that the tricks of sensory distortion will lose their potency as human controls.

Digital technology, understood in this proper sense, disenchants the imagination, destroying the power of illusion, fantasy, and even opinion to make and remake humans in their image. In so doing, digital therefore holds the singular power to retrieve human memory as a crucial supplement to its own, which is, after all, merely the memory of nonliving, nonhuman machines. In showing how nostalgia dominates today as merely the illusion of mem-ory, Lasch directs us to recognize that today’s digital disenchantment of imagination promises a return to true memory amid the ruins of electric-age progress.

From Imagination to Psychosis

The key to Lasch’s theory of nostalgia is that it reflects the inner limits of the cult of imagination. “The assumption that our own civilization has achieved a level of unparalleled complexity gives rise to a nostalgic yearning for bygone simplicity,” he stresses in The Revolt of the Elites. “Disillusionment, we might say, is the characteristic form of modern pride, and this pride is no less evident in the nostalgic myth of the past than in the more aggressively triumphal version of cultural progress that dismisses the past without regrets.” Because modern civilization rests on advancing the world solely through material development, fantasy reigns, whether projected forward or backward in ostensibly linear time. Memory becomes an enemy best ignored—the house of a regretted, retrograde past and of an inaccessible pride based in honor rather than material wealth.

In denying memory its proper place in human life, triumphal progressivism creates a warped image of the human soul. “Perhaps the most important casualty of this habit of mind,” Lasch warns of the progressive imagination, “is a proper understanding of religion.” The arrogance of both nostalgia and progressivism is to imagine that our hopelessly complex and disenchanted era holds a “monopoly on the fear of death or alienation from God,” with untrammeled imagination the only cure. Both wrongly assume that the divine is inaccessible, except through memory on the one hand and radical material progress on the other. This amounts to what Oscar Wilde terms a culture war “against the Philistines”—“against convention, against bourgeois solemnity, against stupidity and ugliness.” The 1968 rallying cry of “All power to the imagination!” Lasch laments, not only replaced memory with the fantasy of custom-built nostal­gias but even deformed the natural imagination itself. It struck a powerful but phony contrast between the foolish simplicity of an irrecoverable past and an inexorable future thrown open by the increasingly godlike creative complex of fantasy-fueled technology. The truth this false antinomy obscured, Lasch counsels, is that the cult of imagination unbound from all human origin is as old as the world itself: “Rebellion against God is the natural reaction to the discovery that the world was not made for our personal convenience.” Fancying ourselves disillusioned, “the illusion of mastery” ironically “remains as tenacious as ever.”

Were he alive today, Lasch would likely have intuited that much of what passes for digital communication is more a reversal of technological development than an extension into the future. Today, the cultural and economic hallmarks of social media are the very same as those of the pre-digital electric age at its frenetic late twentieth-century peak—superstition and dissociation, obsession and aggression, and overstimulation and enervation. The “mechani­cal reproduction of culture” Lasch bemoans in The Culture of Narcissism, with its “swirl of images and echoes” in a “society of the spectacle,” so thoroughly mediates our moment-to-moment interac­tions “that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions—and our own—were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time.”

More than thirty years before the launch of Instagram, Lasch identified the danger of the “intrusion” of an “all-seeing eye” into relations of intimacy we now gladly violate. “A smile is permanently graven on our features,” he warned, “and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.” Online life, in the maelstrom of social media, retrenches the pseudo-revolutionary slogans of the earlier, electric age. Social media democratizes the earlier, “rebellious” ethos of achieving “ever-new breakthroughs” in “a world of infinite possibility” simply by “being yourself” and “thinking different.” In the wilds of the internet, the possibilities of “thinking different” have shaken loose of approved rebelliousness, extending to flat-earth superstitions and neo-Nazi doctrine alike. But in the internet’s safer spaces, where the benumbed multitudes click and scroll, our once-revolutionary slogans largely inspire futile quests to keep up with the Instagram influencers—at worst, fruitless gripes at Twitter’s evanescent strangers. In fact, as we are harshly reminded, the “content” generated in slavish imitation of “influencers” and “engagement” only grows more trivial, more hollow, more deadening, and finally more nakedly hostile as more of the world is sucked up into this global e-village. The supposedly unbound imagination actually leads to imprisonment in individual and collective psychosis.

The Triumph of Posthuman Imagery

Lasch’s alarm over the expanding role of the psychotic in the electric age centers around his insight that the mass production of images pushes our inherently divided human identity to the breaking point. “Selfhood,” he writes in The Minimal Self, his sequel to The Culture of Narcissism, “is the painful awareness of the tension between our original intimations of immortality and our fallen state, between oneness and separation.”

A new culture—a postindustrial culture, if you like, has to be based on a recognition of these contradictions in human experience, not on a technology that tries to restore the illusion of self-sufficiency or, on the other hand, on a radical denial of selfhood that tries to restore the illusion of absolute unity with nature.

“Neither Prometheus nor Narcissus will lead us out of our present predicament,” predicts Lasch, calling the two mythic figures of godlike power and self-consumption “brothers under the skin.”

At first, Lasch’s analysis suggests, the electric age held out to the ego the promise of a world imperium—think of Edward Linley Sambourne’s infamous 1892 Punch cartoon of “The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo.” Cecil Rhodes is shown planting a foot at each end of the Dark Continent, stringing his planned telegraph line from one end of British Africa to the other. But by the time electric-age technology had progressed from The Importance of Being Earnest to J. G. Ballard’s Love and Napalm, writes Lasch, the erstwhile “imperial self” had collapsed to a minimum, a final redoubt of psychic survivalism. In today’s world, Ballard shows, “human beings have shrunk to the point of invisibility, while the images they have made of themselves, grotesquely enlarged to gigantic dimensions and no longer recognizable as human images at all, take on a life of their own.”

Ballard’s view, as Lasch puts it, is that in our time “words have become images in their own right and have come to serve, like visual images, as instruments of psychological manipulation and control.” In the electric age, ostensibly neutral or “dispassionate” science actually pursues a manic project of complete predictive mastery over human life through the manipulation of materials that merely present an illusion of life. Indeed, the “imperial self” which the electric age seemed to usher in was itself a grand deception. Once democratized and told only to “be itself,” the primal ego shrank and broke down, under the constant strain of a competition of all against all. To the winner, the revolutionary image-making elite, went the spoils.

In the electric age, the applied social sciences rule over a minimized human life by “giving people a choice of fantasies and thus making it possible for them to participate in the manufacture of the images best adapted to the regulation of their own emotional needs.” Trivialization becomes a new tyranny. In comparing electric-age social science to “background noise, as meaningless as Muzak,” Lasch might have recalled the shopping mall music company’s technical origins in a patent for transmitting signals over electrical wires instead of radio—and the fleeting controversy surrounding its role in the 1950s as a pioneer in the field of psychological conditioning through the play of barely audible recordings. Reminiscent of “hypnopaedia,” the social science of sleep-teaching employed in Brave New World, the electric age is consummated in the controlling saturation of everyday life with illusions of life.

The logic of electric-age political science tends to make modern individuals not just minimal but fragmented. This is because of the effect of the electric age on the experience of time. Patrick Deneen observes in Why Liberalism Failed that the “linear conception of time” first imposed in the modern age “is still premised on a fundamental continuity between past, present, and future,” while liberalism “in fact advances a conception of fractured time, of time fundamentally disconnected, and shapes humans to experience different times as if they were radically different”—indeed, often threatening and forbidden—“countries.” Yet while the resultant “tendency toward presentism” at first suggests a paradoxically ata­vistic retrieval of our basic human urge to “think only within the context of one’s own lifespan” and “focus on satisfaction of immediate and baser pleasures,” the electric-age fracturing of the present itself into an infinite and contradictory stream of posthuman illusions of life compels the minimal self to adopt its fractured form.

Viewed again through Lasch’s lens, the electric age’s applied social science “no longer has the character of a man-made environment at all. It simply confronts us, at once exciting, seductive, and terrifying.” At the same time as it “stands as something completely separate from the self”; the psycho-technic environment at the culmination of the electric age simultaneously takes on the appearance of a mirror of the self, a dazzling array of images in which we can see anything we wish to see. Instead of bridging the gap between the self and its surroundings, it obliterates the difference between them.

In this way, a regime proffering the illusion of mastery degenerates into a regime imposing mastery through illusion. Yet, crucially, as Lasch, Deneen, and Ballard would agree, by ratcheting up the innate human tension between unity and individuality to the point of psychic unmanageability, the electric age’s rule through illusion is ultimately unsustainable. Pushed to limits that, in their actions, the elite managers of the illusion-industrial complex deny exist, their system’s human subjects are driven toward a final, psychotic “breakthrough,” reaching to retrieve a reassembled experience of a primal self in a primal present.

The Revolt of the Repressed

That, at least, is the warning at the center of Ballard’s most well-known novels. While digital technology makes almost no appearance even in later books like Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003), and is obviously absent in a middle-period work like High-Rise (1972), Ballard’s depiction of the science of social order in the electric age strikingly illustrates how so much of ostensibly “digital” life online in fact reverses the trajectory of technological development back into the same “electric” forms.

In High-Rise, for example, the residents of a brand-new luxury apartment building wired for every convenience swiftly turn against its ostensible amenities—and one another—in a violent spiral of obsession that uncannily mirrors social media’s decline into con­sumerist tribalism and generalized enmity. Within just a few chapters, one main character’s attention is “fixed on the events taking place within the high-rise, as if this huge building existed solely in his mind and would vanish if he stopped thinking about it.” Another, who quickly abandons his initial desire to reveal the degeneration of the high-rise by producing a documentary film, ponders the future that awaits the building’s anti-community. They are a tower of people with “no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything they welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turn­over of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”

“Alternatively,” the would-be documentarian muses, “their real needs might emerge later.” The terminal character of the building’s social order, “arid and affectless,” would in fact give way to vast “possibilities” of a “deviant and wayward” kind. “In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that [electric] technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”

Acts of decay, which today stand as frightening metaphors of the collapse of civility and public decency online, quickly accumulate. Early on, the elevator lobbies fill with scrawled messages. “Fittingly enough, these graffiti reflected the intelligence and education of the tenants. Despite their wit and imagination, these complex acrostics, palindromes and civilized obscenities” quickly “turned into a colorful but indecipherable mess”—of the sort “the residents of the high-rise most affected to despise.” Efforts from the elite in the upper floors of the building to “keep the middle ranks in line” by “constantly dangling” the “carrot of friendship and approval” are swiftly exhausted. Manipulative false friendship fell victim to the dawning reality of “a need to shut away, most of all from oneself, any realization of what was actually happening in the high-rise, so that events there could follow their own logic and get even more out of hand.”

After all, the tenants’ “real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.” In a world of protean commandments to obey and embody an infinitude of imagery, even whole buildings, vertical cities unto themselves, become tyrannizing abstractions, the only possible escape a breakthrough into the comforts of deepest bar­barism. The use of the building and its parking lot as an immense garbage dump strangely reinforces the ex-documentarian’s “convic­tion that the only real events in his life were those taking place in the high-rise.” He realizes “the residents enjoyed this breakdown of its services, and the growing confrontation between themselves. All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation” that the building’s planners had taken to be the essence of its virtue. Even his wife, reluctant to descend to the level of her neighbors, becomes “detached and uneasy at the same time, like a spectator forced to watch someone about to be involved in an accident.” Once imagined as a blissful leap beyond the dark flaws of human history and human memory, with its seemingly ingrained patterns of mimetic violence, social media, much like the high-rise, revealed itself to summon forth the very patterns it had purported to obsolesce.

Furthering the analogy, Ballard has the high-rise’s resident architect bear witness to how the building, like the technology it embodies, encouraged a collective breakthrough into psychosis that its progressive genius fatally failed to predict. What was once a com­fort­ably ironic “‘game’ situation where one could risk everything and lose nothing” had become a “new social and psychological order” defined by “the way in which the residents had become exaggeratedly crude in their response to the apartment building”—a “carelessness about their own convenience reflecting a shuffling of mental priorities.” By the end, appliances have become garbage bins, the surviving residents content to rut and to root for cat food. Now, “the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond [electric] technology where everything was derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways.”

Here, in the vision of a wiped-out post-electric landscape, it is all too easy to recall the psychological and technological environment in, for example, Tokyo, where suicide, low birth rates, and even declining rates of sexual intercourse seem increasingly to define diminishing human life in a terminally urbanized sea of electronics and imagery. But in the high-rise, the catastrophic end of the electric age is achieved by a terrifying retrieval of the violent as the lone repository of meaning and agency.

On the rooftop of the re-primitivized high-rise, the architect reflects on the flocks of gulls that have begun to descend on the building: “They fed on the refuse thrown into the car-park, but [he] liked to think that their real motives for taking over the roof were closer to his own, and that they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come.”

Using language evocative of René Girard, Ballard—like Lasch, a canny reader of Freud—warns that electric-age systems science, in its effort to control human life through materialist technology, cannot comprehend how its rule by imagination destroys itself. Its minimization of fractured selves not only summons forth psychosis, as Freud might say; it retrieves the repressed with a vengeance, spurring its subjects to take “thinking different” and “being your­self” to primal, all-too-“historical” extremes. In Freud, a patient’s resistance to treatment reproduces the repressed “not as a memory but as an action,” with “repetition” replacing remembering “the greater the resistance.” Ballard, in a starker and more pessimistic vein than Lasch or Deneen, invites us to consider that, without a new post-electric, psycho-technological environment, and social sci­ences to match, the collapse of the rule of imagination will return us to an age of ritual violence, groping toward a recovery of the nearly forgotten rule of memory.

The Soul of Man under Digital Technology

Because social media is so widely mistaken for a fundamentally post-electric, digital technology, it is important to discern carefully how a genuinely digital world will pose an alternative to Ballard’s dystopian future.

It is easy to imagine that even a world in which memory returns to dominate human life and machines deliver the goods might be a savage and atavistic one, with most humans taking on the character of beasts as the bots and select few scientists toil on. Even leading critics tend to assume that, no matter how powerful non-nostalgic memory may become under digital conditions, the desire to retrieve our full humanity from scientific and materialistic degradation is no match for technological progress. Sapiens and Homo Deus author Yuval Noah Harari, for instance, has announced that his next book considers how to respond to a world seized by “nostalgic fantasies about going back to the past” where politicians are “no longer capa­ble of producing meaningful visions for the future.” The bigger threat is that all fantasies will drop away, leaving bots to proliferate and humans to reaccess the atavistic violence of Ballard’s stories.

At least Harari is admirably prepared to accept that progressive liberal institutionalists cannot guarantee a monopoly on technological control. “If you are an engineer in Silicon Valley and you think you’re shaping the future of humankind, then you are right to some extent,” he recently remarked. “Your inventions are changing the agenda of everybody. But you’re wrong if you think you’re going to be the person who will decide what to do with your invention. It could very well be some ayatollah or some pope or some ideologue who would decide what to do.” The pejorative “some,” however, underscores how Harari and his ilk have a vested interest in treating religions as highly developed fantasies—ideologies with strengths and weaknesses like any other. Even if today’s faltering progressive imagination will be replaced by a new culture of memory, secular futurists are likely to insist that technologically adept religious movements are more akin to barbarizers than civilizers. Because religions are based on faith, which secular analysts tend to see as unverifiable choices, they are dangerous; they are ideologies that think they are realities. In a world where imagination is collapsing, the secular temptation is to think religion will become more violent, trying to go out with a bang, not a whisper.

Contemporary science, however, has its own troubles with fantasy. In recent years, it has moved dramatically from a modern cause-and-effect model of producing and predicting results to an emergence model. In the new kind of emergence or complexity theory, digital technology rescues intelligent planning from the failure of traditional causality by allowing science to throw infinite instantiations of experiments against the wall, see what sticks, and automate the superhuman processes of drawing out implications from the results in real time. AI engineers can no longer describe or account for what their models are doing or how they produce the results that they do. According to MIT Technology Review senior editor Will Knight, and like-minded skeptics, this kind of secular yet magical enterprise is a “dark secret at the heart of AI.” Perhaps now the only alternative model of science—and social science—may well be a fundamentally religious one, retrieving the memory of ancient and medieval theories that take forms of causation as seriously as they do the soul.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 3 (Fall 2018): 227–40.

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