Do Americans suffer from Awe Deficit Disorder? Many psychologists fear awe is receding from our lives and that a vital social resource is disappearing. By inducing individuals to marvel at the universe rather than at themselves, awe once served to remind people of their smallness and the connections they shared with others.
A Google ngram indicates we use the word less frequently than our great-grandparents did. When we do use the term, it often refers to a weakened, less transcendent feeling than earlier generations knew. Some pundits blame technology for awe’s decline. Rather than gazing at oceans or mountains, we pose in front of them for selfies. We study how we’re reflected in our phones, and neglect to look at the larger world, forgetting we’re not at its center and that we’re part of something bigger. But while technology may be blunting awe, it also has the potential to revive it in unexpected ways.
Originally, awe implied fearful reverence, and 18th and 19th century Americans used the term to describe encounters with divinity, nature, and even revolutionary technologies. In the early years of the lightning rod and telegraph, ministers sermonized about these inventions, suggesting humans were appropriating forces that had previously been God’s exclusive possession. Some believed the powers these machines offered were divine gifts. This was what Samuel Morse meant when he tapped out “What Hath God Wrought” to inaugurate America’s first telegraph line. Likewise, when the transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858, Massachusetts minister Joseph Copp declared that through the telegraph, God’s “agency unveils itself to a[n] … awe-struck world.”
Others, however, warned that if humans used these new tools they would interfere with the divine order, cause earthquakes, and create droughts. In 1855, Amos Kendall, business manager of Morse’s telegraph company, complained that parishioners in Alabama were chopping down telegraph poles. Their preacher had “proclaimed from his pulpit that God had sent the dry weather to punish the world because man had got to be ‘too smart’ in reducing his lightning to human uses.” Sometimes moralists invoked the myths of Icarus or Prometheus to remind listeners of their limited powers. Their awed reverence reflected a sense of human smallness and the grandness of the world outside themselves.
As America industrialized and secularized in the late 19th century, many came to believe the powers of the universe were the rightful possessions of humanity rather than the exclusive domain of divinity. Impressed with their own powers, Americans began to feel less awed by natural forces. Awe fell out of fashion, and came to be regarded as a primitive, naïve emotion. One psychologist of the era suggested awe was “obsolete,” while philosophers and physicians deemed it abnormal. Dr. David Inglis described a patient who felt “intense awe” whenever she saw rainbows, red sunsets, or the aurora borealis. He called her “aboriginal,” concluding she manifested the “mental state of early man before the intellect had reasoned out the causes and relations of natural phenomena.” Her awe was an anomaly in a world where “the fear of the great and strange forces of Nature is relatively small.”
Over the course of the 20th century, this attitude spread. Americans considered the universe’s energies their own. They seemed to have conquered time, distance, light, sound; they could fly, talk across oceans, tune in to invisible radio waves, watch moving pictures of people long dead. Rather than being awed by such forces, many incorporated them into their definition of what it meant to be human. As historian David Nye noted, what seemed godlike to one generation seemed merely ordinary to the next. Those who still felt awe, therefore, were childlike and unworldly. This belief — that modern, sophisticated people have no need for the deep awe their ancestors felt — persists. Psychologist Robert Leahy noted that today, “There is almost an enjoyment of making things profane, and all the cynicism takes away our propensity to feel awe.”
To recover reverence and stave off hubris, one might be inclined to reject technology and return to nature. A yawning canyon, the Milky Way, or a precipitous mountain offer opportunity to experience awe at natural landscapes. We should consciously work to immerse ourselves in such scenes.
But we can also resurrect the feeling by looking for it in Prometheus’ gift — that is, the very technologies we’ve created. Between 2014 and 2018, we interviewed dozens of Americans about their feelings toward technology, and few were awestruck by the complex networks and instantaneous communication of the 21st century. Instead, they took them for granted.
One woman told us that rather than being awed by technology, many of her acquaintances carried a sense of “technology entitlement.” Even those who felt awe admitted it didn’t last long. A retired librarian confided, “I’ve more than once felt awe when something first comes out … but it fades pretty quickly.” Perhaps the “awe factor” was decreasing because new technology “becomes so commonplace so quickly.” A college student said she and her peers “oftentimes take it all for granted.”
But they shouldn’t, for our large, complex technologies — the social internet and its surveillance mechanisms, the military industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry — have the potential to overwhelm us. We should feel awe at them, for not only do these systems make individuals feel small, they also have unleashed unexpected forces: from wild fires to rising oceans to torrents of misinformation that are eroding democracy. Developments in A.I. and the prospect that machine general intelligence may soon exceed human intelligence should likewise remind us that there is much beyond our control even in our own creations. These inventions should lead us to question our own powers and our ability to shape our destiny and make us recognize that there are forces far larger than us, forces that we can’t wholly master.
Our technologies are not simply springboards to becoming gods or mirrors through which to flatter ourselves. They should also humble us. Prometheus’ story is not a prompt to give up technology altogether. Instead it challenges us to remember that as we take advantage of the universe’s forces, we must do so with awe and humility if we hope to improve our shared humanity.
Editor's Note: Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt are co-authors of Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter (Harvard University Press, 2019).