Communication breakdown

Analyzing Mark Zuckerberg’s optimistic hopes for Facebook, Nicholas Carr notes that the idea that more and more communication will bring people together stretches back more than a century. But the dream has not been realized in history or social science studies.

Carr concludes:

Still, the yearning to see communications technology as a remedy for social ills remains strong, as Zuckerberg’s February missive underscores. Despite Facebook’s well-publicized recent struggle to control hate speech, propaganda, and fake news, Zuckerberg seems more confident than ever that a “global community” can be constructed out of software. The centerpiece of his new project is a computerized “social infrastructure” that will use artificial-intelligence routines to manage information flows in a way that makes everyone happy. The system will promote universal self-expression while at the same time shielding individuals from “objectionable content.”

The problem with such geeky grandiosity goes beyond its denial of human nature. It reinforces the idea, long prevalent in American culture, that technological progress is sufficient to ensure social progress. If we get the engineering right, our better angels will triumph. It’s a pleasant thought, but it’s a fantasy. Progress toward a more amicable world will require not technological magic but concrete, painstaking, and altogether human measures: negotiation and compromise, a renewed emphasis on civics and reasoned debate, a citizenry able to appreciate contrary perspectives. At a personal level, we may need less self-expression and more self-examination.

Technology is an amplifier. It magnifies our best traits, and it magnifies our worst.

What it doesn’t do is make us better people. That’s a job we can’t offload on machines.

Expressive individualism to the left of us, expressive individualism to the right of us

Alan Jacobs writes:

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

Along these lines, it’s interesting that Marx and Engels’ eloquent description of the massive transformation of traditional European society by the bourgeoisie in the first section of The Communist Manifesto does not mean that they want to undo the capitalist phase of history. Instead, capitalism provides the “creative destruction” necessary to get to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the subsequent classless paradise.

I realize that Jacobs’ reference to “international capitalism” and “the Market” lumps a vast collection of actors and decisions into one artificial being, but if we think about the culture of global capitalism it can ring true to a certain extent. Think of the ways that we are encouraged to express our individuality through our purchases. As Yuval Levin points out in The Fractured Republic, both left and right traffic in expressive individualism, where we are encouraged to be ourselves (supposedly) rather than conform to external standards. Levin also points briefly to Francis Fukuyama’s discussion of the post-1960s “renorming” in which some argued successfully that the norms of competition could provide the incentive for disciplined behavior after the moral upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Economic freedom is a very good thing in my book, but when international capitalism becomes a totalizing ideology, that’s very bad.

Jacobs writes, “I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.” You can see how he applies this to education in the post.

Technological predictions as evangelism

Alan Jacobs pointed to a recent talk given by Audrey Watters, which focused on the way that dramatic but (she contends) poorly thought-out predictions about the technological future are meant to shape the future rather than to to predict it in good faith. Her conclusion:

I pay attention to this story, as someone who studies education and education technology, because I think these sorts of predictions, these assessments about the present and the future, frequently serve to define, disrupt, destabilize our institutions. This is particularly pertinent to our schools which are already caught between a boundedness to the past – replicating scholarship, cultural capital, for example – and the demands they bend to the future – preparing students for civic, economic, social relations yet to be determined.

But I also pay attention to these sorts of stories because there’s that part of me that is horrified at the stuff – predictions – that people pass off as true or as inevitable.

“65% of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.” I hear this statistic cited all the time. And it’s important, rhetorically, that it’s a statistic – that gives the appearance of being scientific. Why 65%? Why not 72% or 53%? How could we even know such a thing? Some people cite this as a figure from the Department of Labor. It is not. I can’t find its origin – but it must be true: a futurist said it in a keynote, and the video was posted to the Internet.

The statistic is particularly amusing when quoted alongside one of the many predictions we’ve been inundated with lately about the coming automation of work. In 2014, The Economist asserted that “nearly half of American jobs could be automated in a decade or two.”“Before the end of this century,” Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelly announced earlier this year, “70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation.”

Therefore the task for schools – and I hope you can start to see where these different predictions start to converge – is to prepare students for a highly technological future, a future that has been almost entirely severed from the systems and processes and practices and institutions of the past. And if schools cannot conform to this particular future, then “In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

Now, I don’t believe that there’s anything inevitable about the future. I don’t believe that Moore’s Law – that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years and therefore computers are always exponentially smaller and faster – is actually a law. I don’t believe that robots will take, let alone need take, all our jobs. I don’t believe that YouTube has been rendered school irrevocably out-of-date. I don’t believe that technologies are changing so quickly that we should hand over our institutions to entrepreneurs, privatize our public sphere for techno-plutocrats.

I don’t believe that we should cheer Elon Musk’s plans to abandon this planet and colonize Mars – he’s predicted he’ll do so by 2026. I believe we stay and we fight. I believe we need to recognize this as an ego-driven escapist evangelism.

I believe we need to recognize that predicting the future is a form of evangelism as well. Sure gets couched in terms of science, it is underwritten by global capitalism. But it’s a story – a story that then takes on these mythic proportions, insisting that it is unassailable, unverifiable, but true.

The best way to invent the future is to issue a press release. The best way to resist this future is to recognize that, once you poke at the methodology and the ideology that underpins it, a press release is all that it is.

As many things do these days, Watters’ talk calls to mind the Controllers in C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man who seek to replace established wisdom with propaganda. Not that established wisdom is always right, of course, but propaganda is no substitute. Watters’ criticism seems to come from a somewhat different place from Lewis’, but there is an interesting overlap.

Readers: what do you think of Watters’ talk? Is she onto something?

Procedural rights and historical imagination

In his recent post at The American ConservativeAlan Jacobs notes some anecdotes and research indicating that people often don’t mind seeing people of an enemy political group treated unfairly:

That is, many Americans are happy to treat other people unfairly if those other people belong to the alien Tribe. And — this is perhaps the most telling finding of all — their desire to punish the outgroup is significantly stronger than their desire to support the ingroup. Through a series of games, Iyengar and Westwood discovered that “Outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.”

One of my consistent themes over the years — see, for instance, here and here — has been the importance of acting politically with the awareness that people who agree with you won’t always be in charge. That is, I believe that it is reasonable and wise, in a democratic social order, to make a commitment to proceduralism: to agree with my political adversaries to abide by the same rules. That belief is on its way to being comprehensively rejected by the American people, in favor of a different model: Error has no rights.

What is being forgotten in this rush to punish the outgroup is a wise word put forth long ago by Orestes Brownson: “Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.”

In a post from about a year ago, he pointed to a similar problem of perspective affecting those who want to liberate technology from the constraints of nature:

There is a deeper and more powerful and (I think) more pernicious ideology at work [than “social construction”],which has two components.

Component one: that we are living in a administrative regime built on technocratic rationality whose Prime Directive is, unlike the one in the Star Trek universe, one of empowerment rather than restraint. I call it the Oppenheimer Principle, because when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Social constructionism does not generate this Prime Directive, but it can occasionally be used — in, as I have said, a naïve and simplistic form — to provide ex post facto justifications of following that principle. We change bodies and restructure child-rearing practices not because all such phenomena are socially constructed but because we can — because it’s “technically sweet.”

My use of the word “we” in that last sentence leads to component two of the ideology under scrutiny here: Those who look forward to a future of increasing technological manipulation of human beings, and of other biological organisms, always imagine themselves as the Controllers, not the controlled; they always identify with the position of power. And so they forget evolutionary history, they forget biology, they forget the disasters that can come from following the Oppenheimer Principle — they forget everything that might serve to remind them of constraints on the power they have … or fondly imagine they have.

The reference in that last paragraph is to C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, which really seems like a text for our times (you can see some of my other posts that have referenced it here and here).

In those passages, Jacobs links to some other posts that he has written on this topic. These two are especially worthwhile, in my opinion:

  • The position of power“Key quote: “There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

    “This is the danger for all of us who have some wealth and security and status: to imagine that the punitive shoe will always be on the other’s foot. In these matters it might be a useful moral discipline for philosophers to read the great classics of dystopian fiction, which habitually envision the world of power as seen by the powerless.”

  • Triumphalism and historical imagination

Update (10/20/16): Jacobs returned to the idea of the Controllers in his approving comments on John Gray’s book review of Homo Deus.

Reproductive technology and the abolition of man

Andrew Sandlin’s website recently featured a column by Scott Masson relating reproductive “innovations” like the ones in this column (which he referred to; here’s another recent example) to the reflections of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. A key excerpt:

Although the relation of power and responsibility is a perennial theme in literature, science fiction breaks ranks with the entire humanities tradition precisely because of its object and its understanding of the human. The ethical teaching of the sages of the ancient world had equipped us to relate to our fellow man as individuals. They were not naïve. It was a Roman proverb that warned that homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). There was no nobility to our savagery in their eyes. But they assumed that man, as a creature living in his own world, would continue to propagate himself, his kin and his nation naturally, not turn his power upon himself. Regardless of the blight of war, pestilence and famine, he would never consider eradicating his own existence or the natural world around him as it had been created. The sages of old never considered that we would adopt what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called the view from nowhere, or conceive that, as Hannah Arendt has observed of our scientific contemporaries’ perspective, the human condition was a prison to be escaped. To such a radical perspective, only Divine revelation can speak persuasively.

I believe that is why it is those who have imbibed the wisdom of the Scriptures are so profoundly needed in our day. This is where the third of the men who died on that inauspicious fall day, C.S. Lewis, comes in. Unlike Huxley, he remains unread in most schools. Yet it was he who prophetically warned where unbridled technology and an amoral science bent on reimagining the human might lead.

In his wartime Durham lectures, later collected under the title The Abolition of Man, Lewis observed that a ruling class of technocrats and well-meaning experts had arisen who were seeking to conquer nature and its ills, only to end up conquering man. What they were doing in the name of humanity had a decidedly ironic and inhumane end. In his memorable words, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” He continued, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

Speaking in 1945, Lewis was doubtless reflecting on the eugenics movement of his day and the totalizing power of the state, particularly evident in Nazi Germany; yet he was explicitly ruminating upon the educational and cultural establishment of his own country (and the Western world) that had given rise to it. It is this fact, which also characterizes the third installment of his own science fiction trilogy, which makes his insights as relevant as ever. The “humanitarian” impulse of the scientific and political elite has not left us, in fact, the social “conditioners” in education who have “abolished man” have gathered strength; biotechnology has become a huge element of our economy; and the power of technology has steadily grown and expanded into our very homes.

In the third essay of The Abolition of Man, which shares the title of the whole work, Lewis specifically addresses contraceptives as one of his examples of the things that are trumpeted as examples of Man’s control of Nature (probably more explicitly in his day — I think that the language of rights and liberation has more currency in our day). Here is his reference:

What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. (pp. 66-67 in 1996 Touchstone edition)