Poverty: An Antidote To Technological Dystopia

If technological utopianism is a manifestation of self-worship, one can better appreciate the positive role played by poverty.

One now finds it difficult to live without a smartphone. During a recent visit to a doctor’s office to procure a physical, the only way to complete my intake process was via my iPhone. Not long before that, I found myself incapable of purchasing food on a transcontinental flight because to do so required downloading the airline’s app onto one’s smartphone before takeoff. 

Despite those limitations, so the narrative goes, technology is freeing us. We need never visit a shopping mall or box store again, since we can order groceries and appliances to our front doorstep. Surrogacy and IVF provide us the freedom to delay or even dispense with pregnancy and still have children at the “optimal” time. Social media and the metaverse offer us community that never requires us to leave the security of our home. And yet we’ve never been more unhappy.

As much as we might think this is a recent phenomenon thrust upon us by trends peculiar to the twenty-first century, a few prophetic voices were warning the world of the false promises of technological freedom and self-possession in times that seem to us simpler, if not naively quaint. One such voice is that of Pie-Raymond Régamey, O.P., a Protestant convert to Catholicism and author of Poverty: An Essential Element in the Christian Life. This Lent, we would do well to heed Fr. Régamey’s reflections on the technological revolution and how the antidote to its most dehumanizing tendencies might come from a most unexpected source.

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“Never has man had greater longing to be master of himself,” writes Régamey. “At bottom, he thinks the way to possess himself is to possess everything else, and so he has invented the very things that get him out of his own control.” This is the role played by our industrial and digital revolutions: an attempt to use technology to better control ourselves and our destiny. And yet these advances seem to have the opposite effect. “We have developed skills to enable us to possess the world for our pleasure, but they are instead dispossessing man of the goods of this world and even of himself.” 

It’s a wonder to think that Régamey published this book in 1941, the year after Nazi Germany invaded France. What exactly is he even speaking of? Tanks, bombs, submarines? Mass production or radio? Whatever his intended meaning, it seems far truer now than anything the French Dominican priest encountered in the Second World War: television, smartphones, “the pill,” and internet pornography are post-war technological advancements that seem far more “dispossessing” than anything Régamey encountered in Nazi-occupied France. 

“Man is getting more and more to feel that he is being acted upon by inevitable forces,” warns Régamey. 

Since he has not used machines to free his mind for contemplation and to increase tenfold his works of charity, but only to have greater power and pleasure, he has to that extent destroyed the image of God in him, remade instead into the likeness of the machine. 

It’s hard to contemplate a better description for what we are increasingly becoming, so attached to our “smart” devices that there seems no world apart from them. Smartphones, for better or worse (well, really just worse), now appear as an extension of our bodies.

When critics of the digital age finish with their indictments of “smart” technology, they often finish with suggestions to limit, if not eliminate, its hold on our lives. To a degree, Régamey exists within that tradition: “It would be no good to break all the machines,” he writes. “You cannot escape like that. All you can do is try your hardest to save yourself, and each must work out for himself the sort of renunciations best fitted to his psychology, his condition and his possibilities.” But what kind of renunciation? This is where the Frenchman offers us something different.

Poverty, says Régamey, is the antidote to our dehumanizing technological age. That might seem a curious response to the threat of modern technology’s dehumanization. Yet if technological utopianism is a manifestation of self-worship, one can better appreciate the positive role played by poverty. “Self-love closes around his possessions, grasping and sterilizing,” writes Régamey, unaware of how truly sterile the modern world would become.

A cursory reading of the Gospels makes obvious that poverty, at least from a spiritual perspective, is preferable to wealth. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” declares Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20). “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” He warns in Matthew 19:24. And if we understand man’s redemption as a vivifying of the soul restored to full communion with God, then our detachment from material possessions is, in a sense, the means by which we more perfectly realize our humanity.

The more detached we are from our possessions, the freer we become—free to be fully human as those subject to God rather than to what we claim to own. As St. Augustine writes, “non sunt divitiae nec verae, nec vestrae”: “riches are not real, nor do they belong to you.” Not that giving away our wealth is easy—St. Augustine elsewhere compares it to losing a limb. Yet the stark truth is all around us: the more we are beholden to technological advancements, the more we feel their magnetic power, like the ring calling to Gollum from across Middle Earth. The more detached we are from our possessions, the freer we become—free to be fully human as those subject to God rather than to what we claim to own.Tweet This

As a remedy to this feeling of enslavement and disempowerment, Christ offers what Régamey describes as a “short cut by renunciation.” Rather than the difficult, circuitous battle of emotional and psychological detachment from our possessions, our Lord proposes we simply get rid of them. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). 

This is a very different method than Marie Kondo’s minimalist “tidying.” As Christians, we are called not just to dispense with what does not “spark joy” but even relinquish what delivers some degree of happiness. “Getting rid of material goods, we gain a supreme enjoyment of this world, and even a power over it,” writes Régamey. “Giving up leisures as such, we find everything clothed with a sort of enchantment and, above all, we gain possession of our self.”

Perhaps the least practiced (or understood) of Lenten observances is almsgiving. We fast, we pray, and perhaps we contribute to the bishop’s Lenten appeal. But do we really combat the consuming power of materialism around us? Or are we only temporarily, even half-heartedly muting its voice? This Lent, maybe an act of true personal impoverishment, however small, is the best means of turning back the tide of the technological golems that are enslaving us.


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