In “Making God: The Millenarianism and Manifest Destiny of AI and Technofuturism,” Emily Gorcenski (2023) demonstrates not only her experience as a “data scientist and engineer,” but also an ability, and indeed, a desire, to grasp the illusions and contradictions of the AI industry within which she works. If the former gives her self-published essay its authenticity, the latter accounts for the approach she takes to grapple with the extra-scientific phenomena pervading her field.
For Gorcenski endeavours to situate the contemporary awe and wonder for AI in the convergent histories and discourses of modern capitalist colonialism and religious imaginaries of the divine and transcendent. Doing so helps her to distinguish between the transfixing hype and the real capabilities of the technology at various moments in its history. Thus, the essay can be described as a critique of contemporary technological fetishism, which identifies narratives that not only cover over the industry’s failed initiatives but also its imbrication in the injustices meted out by the capitalist colonial machine.
What makes the essay compelling is that Gorcenski develops this critique in the interpretive form of a retroactive account of the “making” of today’s Pantheon of techno-idols. The title of the opening subsection, “Θεογονία,” which is Greek for “theogeny,” points at this intent, for the term is generally defined as “an account of the origins and descent [or genealogy] of gods [or deities of pagan mythology].”
Thus, to identify that origin, Gorcenski begins by averring that the medieval monastic way of life aimed to cultivate a sense of the transcendent and thereby “return mankind to divinity,” but it did not involve the deification of technology. Gorcenski holds that the latter is, rather, part of a distinctly modern religious sensibility whose beginnings in European Enlightenment discourse are consolidated in the American colonial narrative of manifest destiny. Ideas about divinity and transcendence are thus bound up with the “application of science and technology” in controlling frontier territories and exploiting vast “natural” resources under the auspices of a fledgling nation state. This is the discursive birthplace of the new “God,” or the site of the “making” of that god, which Gorcenski sees as the ideational basis inspiring developments in AI, and fueling technofuturist imaginaries. But Gorcenski does not stop at this insight.
The interpretive form of the essay involves a narrative arc that proceeds from the birth, through the “resurrection” and “apotheosis” of the “god.” Thus, from those origins in “manifest destiny,” the post-WWII history of AI, commonly seen as a series of innovative spurts followed by “winters” of decline and failure, is interpreted in terms of cycles of death and resurrection at the level of belief in a certain divinity and transcendence implicit in AI. With the prospect of resurrection, the failures accounted for in the history of AI are not really failures, but stages on the path to AI’s ultimate deification. Gorcenski calls the final section of her essay “apotheosis” to capture the sense in which the present is indicative of a certain climax, the convergence of verifiable successes in the technical realization of AI systems with awe and wonder at the manifestation of “god.” But it is precisely the retroactive account that dissolves this illusion by interpreting the history of AI in theogenic terms.
That is, the “god” that is “made” in an “all too human history” of so-called “manifest destiny” is thus an idol, and awe in this sense is a mode of idol worship. While there is more going on in this essay than can be dealt with here, and more to discuss about its structure and claims, it is a well-written, thought-provoking piece.