Remember David Bentley Hart’s 2003 essay, “Christ and Nothing”?
Like most first year theology graduate students, the article was a breath of fresh air – something to actually rival the long undergraduate trend of “postmodern a/theology.” After reading Hart, my Caputo and Taylor books were quickly tossed to the wayside and tagged for the return pile.
Like most things in life, the initial allure of Hart’s work began to wane. Years have passed since my graduate school days and it’s now Hart’s books that are collecting dust on the bookshelf, looming as relics of a bygone age.
But a recent article from The Baffler prompted me to return to Hart’s ruminations on the modern worship of the nothing. In “Silicon Valley’s Cult of Nothing,” Dale Lately traces the rise of the Valley’s cult of immaterialism and the obsessive drive for pure nothingness. The Valley heralds a new world order no more waste, no more tangible money transactions, and of course, no more paper. All that is solid melts into pure cloud computing.
Lately right labels this order of things as the “cult of immaterialism,” made up of an unholy mixture of bloated marketing departments and adulterated Platonism. “Whereas the Industrial Revolution turned ideas into things,” writes Lately, “the Information Revolution turns things into ideas—from coins to Bitcoins, from songs to strings of ones and zeroes.”
Lately’s prognosis mirrors Hart’s thesis from over ten years ago. At the heart of modernity, Hart says, is the worship of nothingness, a god “more elusive, protean, and indomitable than Apollo or Dionysus” (4). As Hart explains,
As modern men and women – to the degree that we are modern – we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I should add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives.
Appearing to pull a page directly out of Hart, Lately opens his essay with the following observation: “If Silicon Valley worships anything, it worships nothing.” Let that sink in for a bit, as you’re likely reading this on Google’s web browser.
It’s doubtful whether Lately would agree with Hart’s end game, and surely the notoriously verbose theologian’s genealogy of voluntarism and postmodern nihilism can be called into question. The cult of immaterialism or the worship of nothing may not be ensconced in the will to power, as Hart sees it. But with Lately’s essay in mind, maybe it’s simply the case that the worship of nothing has a more objective abode than the vacuous human will. Maybe the shrine of the nothing is located among the prime real estate holdings of San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Los Gatos, and Menlo Park.
Whatever the case may be, Lately and Hart both agree that the marketing or worship of nothingness has severe material consequences. States Lately,
Like so much Silicon Valley newspeak, the myth of the immaterial is actually a cult of the very, very material… a single Google search (among the billions executed every day) releases half the carbon of a boiling kettle; the company as a whole produces as much CO2 as Laos. Beware the calming ease of the click…
The digital economy uses 10 percent of the world’s total electricity generation, while data centers alone have overtaken aviation as a source of global CO2 emissions (a single data center is thought to guzzle as much electricityas a medium sized American town). Just as Silicon Valley isn’t really in the business of silicon, there’s nothing white-and-fluffy about the Cloud, which is mostly powered by coal.