Culture

Bacon’s Bastards: The Folly of the Technocratic Elite

(Dreamstime image: Rawpixelimages)
They think their algorithms will save the world. They’re wrong.

Never since the decline of the old blood aristocracies of Europe have Western elites been more narrowly concentrated in aspiration and endeavor, or more smugly complacent. 

The technicians of capital and cyberspace dominate the elite policy playgrounds of Davos and Bilderberg, and in America the chief talent of the nation is drawn to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The result is a class of modern magnificoes united by money and a messianic belief that their technocratic virtues will save the world from the benighted rubes whom they have risen above.

Call them Bacon’s bastards. At the height of the Renaissance, Francis Bacon predicted that an inductive revolution — experiment over scholastic logic — would change the world. By disclosing what “is most hidden and secret” in nature, the Baconian method would “endow the life of man with infinite commodities.” 

Bacon’s revolution transformed man’s lot, and mostly for the better. But today’s Baconian grand seigneurs, dreaming of cyber immortality while furtively building super-bunkers to shield themselves from the fury of obstreperous proles, carry confidence in techné (as the Greeks called practical knowledge) to the point of hubris — the very quality the Greeks associated with tragedy.

Like Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby, who in her solicitude for the children of Africa neglected her own offspring in London, today’s moguls preach benevolence for those struggling abroad even as they evince little sympathy for those who are living the downside of their high-tech utopia at home. But the sentimental globalism of the elites is feckless: Resettlement and foreign aid will hardly repair the broken cultures that bedevil much of the Islamic world and Central America, regions that are now exporting their troubles to the more prosperous parts of the West. At the same time, the metropolitan hauteur and condescension of our technical titans blinds them to the devastation beneath their own noses.

Everyone knows the blessings of the Baconian revolution. Mechanical reproduction and industrial automation enriched man’s material life. The spread of printed books and newspapers extended his intellectual reach. But progress came at a price: The cultural unit that for more than two millennia served as the focal point of Western community broke down. Agora man, originally Greek, throve in the agoras, the market squares of the West, long after the old Greek cities died, making the common life of Europe vital through the union of arts (theatrical, architectural, festival, liturgical) that have since been severed from their bright agora communion. 

By bringing a highly developed civic art into places where people actually lived — where they ate and drank, shopped and prayed, gossiped and quarreled — Old Western man promoted belonging and social cohesion in a way that eludes his modern descendants. The soft compulsion of tradition and manners, of ritual and customary usage, was as essential to the infrastructure of this older way of life as the laws and regulations upon which we over-rely today. With it came the power, in Peter Laslett’s words, of “reconciling the frustrated and discontented by emotional means.”

Or as Victor Hugo’s Bishop of Digne put it, in a swipe at the overvaluation of technical ingenuity: “The beautiful is as useful as the useful. More so, perhaps.” 

Today’s moguls preach benevolence for those struggling abroad even as they evince little sympathy for those who are living the downside of their high-tech utopia at home.

Solipsistic technologies, beginning with the printed book itself, replaced the civic hearth. The West, in thrall to Baconian utility, entered a post-agora age. Provincial centers, once citadels of culture, became, Honoré de Balzac said, as “stale as stagnant water.” Their inhabitants were looked upon as contemptuously, by the metropolitan elites of the day, as today’s denizens of flyover country. Modern technocratic society was formed in this migration of talent from the provinces to the metropolis; in the new vision, the backcountry would be centrally directed by the elect in the luminous center.

Still there remained, in the bereft provinces, that most important socially connective activity: work. Yet advances in automation, together with outsourcing and global competition, are eroding this ultimate social bond, and anxiety about the future is keen, not least in the Brexit shires of the United Kingdom and the Trump counties of the United States.

The elites are quick to shout “guaranteed minimum income,” as though a dole can be a substitute for the belonging and mattering that come with work and community. Pessimistic eschatology has, it is true, become a form of popular entertainment, and hardly a day passes without some charlatan setting up for a sage to preach an apocalypse, but there is reason to think that, should the technocratic vision prevail, the doom mongers may well be proved right. We may yet see a class of self-conceived Darwinian super-animals lording it over a mass of dependent wards of the state, with ever more psychic withdrawal and human shrinkage as the canaille seek refuge from despair in drink and opium. 

At least they will be able to post their suicide notes on Facebook.

In a dark moment Alexis de Tocqueville prophesied such an outcome, an agora-less modernity that throws man “back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” 

#related#Tocqueville’s prophesy is being realized in today’s proliferation of synthetic forms of art and experience, our solitude of screens. It is a problem that our elites, with their fealty to the algorithms of Google and Amazon, are particularly ill-equipped to solve. Ignorant or contemptuous of the old humane arts of Western order, besotted with the virtues of technical solipsism, they play with rocket ships and space travel rather as Marie Antoinette played the milkmaid at Versailles. In their fatal combination of blindness, arrogance, and frivolity, they are as out of their depth as so many Russian grand dukes on the eve of the revolution of 1917.

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