More than 20 years ago, the Icelandic singer Björk released the single “All is Full of Love” from her album Homogenic.
The video for that single depicted two humanoid robots being manufactured by a series of robotic arms in a space age factory. As assembly by these arms begins, the first robot sings the first line of the song which goes
You’ll be given love. You’ll be taken care of. You’ll be given love. You’ll have to trust it.
When the two robots meet each other, the pair begin the process of erotic congress on the assembly table, all whilst still being prodded and probed from by the robotic arms.
The convergence of robots, sex, and the overarching logic of technology and industry is the perfect visual accompaniment for a lecture given by Michael Hanby of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute of the Catholic University of America, which the Mars Hill Audio Journal has provided free in its recently launched app.
In that lecture – part of a larger conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae – Hanby spoke of what the journal called the “biotechnocratic redefinition of the human”. Hanby defended the basic thesis of Humanae Vitae concerning the Church’s prohibition on the use of artificial contraception as a gravely disordered act. However, his thesis was that trying to defend Humane Vitae, or any traditional defence of the integrity of the human person made in the image of God, in an age where technology determines the ordering of things would come up against an audience that is tonedef. Tonedef not only to God, but to the human as well.
According to Hanby, technology is not merely a series of instruments but presumes a set of presumptions of how the world is ordered. With the increasing technologisation of more fields of human activity, those presumptions also seep into the governing ethos of those activities. Hanby makes a number of points about what these presumptions are, but two stand out in that lecture.
The first is that technology deliberately excludes the prudential and the metaphysical. Put another way, technology focuses on the “how” of things without concern for the “why” or “is this a good idea”. This is because technology only recognises one good, its own use. All considerations of “good” as such or why things are the way they are are deliberately excised from the equation.Tied to this is the second point, which is that on its own, technology’s telos lies in the breaking of boundaries previously uncrossed by its user. Combined with the first reason of locking out considerations of prudence, goodness and metaphysics, the technological default means that not only must the technological solution be used all the time. It is also compulsory for any boundary or limit that can be breached by technology to be so breached.
Little wonder then, said Hanby, that in a culture dominated by the technological default, we are also finding our bodies similarly subordinated to a technological paradigm, which Hanby calls “biotechnocracy”. It is not simply that, in the style of The Matrix, that “the machines have taken over” in just a physical sense. Under the conditions of biotechnocracy, the machines also govern the very logic by which we see these bodies.
Where “biotechnocracy” is at its most acute for Hanby is the way in which all limitations placed on bodies, including the limitation of its own integrity, is now rendered as a problem to be solved with the aid of technology. Little wonder then that fertility, excised from the sexual act via contraception, is now rendered an enemy to be defeated by technological means. We should not be surprised by gender, excised from biological sex, must be rendered liquid since we have the technology for it.
Whether these limits actually protect what it means to be human are questions that are deliberately taken out of the realm of thought in a biotechnocratic paradigm, which means that recourse to such questions and insisting on their rationality will struggle to find currency with the rationality of the biotechnocratic.
The lecture is excellent and warrants re-listening for proper unpacking. You can listen to that lecture by downloading the app on either the Apple Store or Google Play. Another lecture on technocracy by Hanby more generally can be found here.
Postscript: As an addendum, it can be argued that the biotechnocratic paradigm can extend to patterns of consumption, which is almost always set against a benefit of cost and benefit (which we can now quantify thanks to the aid of a slew of apps and devices). This calculus in turn feeds into the question of abortion as technology of surveillance and management of risk. I have written about this in an article entitled “Abortion in/as a Consumer Structure“, which was published in the journal Solidarity.