As the 21st century progresses, the conflict between Left and Right will fade into relative insignificance in comparison with the conflict between man and machine.
You don’t have to envision the emergence of SkyNet or some other form of futuristic A.I. ripped from the pages of a science-fiction novel to see how this is going to work. The technological disassembly of the human spirit is already at an advanced stage in the West, as a cursory glance at our politics makes clear.
A curious symmetry between the most online contingents of the Left and the Right has emerged over recent years. The more time any given conservative or progressive partisan spends immersed in media — whether social or traditional — the more those partisans tend to resemble one another in certain key respects. They become febrile, wounded, and enraged when confronted with facts that challenge their convictions in even minor ways. Their sensitivity to the moral complexity of life is numbed to the point at which Good/Evil and Republican/Democrat (or Democrat/Republican) correspond in a strict 1:1 ratio. The wells of self-pity and grievance from which they draw the conscience-quenching waters of woe-is-me victimhood appear increasingly bottomless.
Some conservatives are in the habit of skewering progressives who engage in this wallowing as “snowflakes,” but the past two months have shown definitively that the blizzard is a bipartisan one. The willingness with which Donald Trump’s most devoted supporters have embraced utter delusion rivals (and in some cases surpasses) anything of a similar sort we’ve seen on the left.
The people who’ve been driven to distraction by their own media engagement are victims, in a sense, though not of dark money or of Dominion voting systems. To understand why this is the case, we really have to understand the technological revolution that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Technology allows human beings to shape reality in such a way that it conforms to their own needs and desires. This is probably the most basic and generally applicable definition of the word that has held true over the centuries. Our primal ancestors were confronted everywhere and at all times by the basic indifference of the world to their own existence. Hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, and disease all taught them that nature doesn’t often conform itself to the needs and desires of Homo sapiens. Starting with the spear and the shelter, technology emerged as a method of taming, cajoling, and coercing nature to bend to the will of mankind, and so our task continued for millennia.
During the agricultural revolution, we discovered techniques that allowed us to make the earth’s yield serve our needs, and something like civilization was born. But from that time until the 18th century, progress was slow and uneven. Every man, woman, and child ran into the brutal indifference of reality to their own appetites and aspirations at almost every moment of the day.
The industrial revolution changed all that. A combination of free markets, cheap energy, and a population boom led to a quantum leap in technological advance. We seemed to accomplish more — shaping the world to suit us — with each passing decade than we had in the previous 10,000 years.
The long-term social effects of the industrial revolution, and the civilization it brought forth, were investigated by one of the most important 20th-century thinkers, Jacques Ellul, in his book The Technological Society (published in French in 1954). Ellul believed that technology (which he included under the broader term technique) was the dominant ideology of the modern age, encompassing both capitalism and communism. The project of this ideology is essentially to replace nature with technology, so that human beings no longer have to bump up against any intractably resistant reality that might hamper the fulfillment of their desires. The ultimate symbol of this phenomenon, for Ellul, is the modern city.
The way in which free markets feed into this phenomenon is obvious. The profit motive is constantly supplying us with more and more efficient machines that are easier and easier to interface with. Communists are after the same thing, even though they favor a very different way of getting there. Ellul observes that “all parties, whether revolutionary or conservative, liberal or socialist, of the Right or the Left, agree to preserve” the supremacy of technology as the engine of civilization.
It’s easy to confirm this evolving relationship between nature and human desire in everyday experience. Whereas once our species had to overcome considerable resistance from the natural world in order to warm ourselves in cold climates, now most of us have only to press a button on the thermostat. As our ability to conform reality to our own wants increases, our need to conform ourselves to intractable realities decreases. Sheer lack of practice has rendered us more and more incapable of reconciling ourselves to things we don’t like. In fact, the very existence of difficult realities with which we have to deal is something of an affront to the technological society.
Tracing the various social consequences of the technological advances made during the 19th and 20th centuries would be a long endeavor; what concerns us at present is the advent of information technology in our own day. The Internet has allowed us to subjugate information to our own desires much in the same way that older technologies allowed us to master the elements. In his day, Ellul saw this coming in the form of state propaganda:
The passions it provokes — which exist in everybody — are amplified. The suppression of the critical faculty — man’s growing incapacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, the individual from the collectivity, action from talk, reality from statistics, and so on — is one of the most evident results of the technical power of propaganda.
Swap out “propaganda” for “the Internet,” and these words fit our own moment like a glove.
If information technology follows the same pattern of development as did previous technologies (and we have no reason to assume otherwise), we are headed toward a very dark place. As noted above, the basic promise of technology lies in its ability to shape reality in order to better suit our desires. But what happens when this promise is made about information? If our technology allows us to filter and control the information that gets to us so that it always conforms to our own desires, what hope have we of sharing a common experience of reality, which is surely a prerequisite of republican government? How do we reconcile the basic project of modernity — the replacement of nature with technology — with liberty? Ellul thought it impossible: “The idea of effecting decentralization while maintaining technical progress is purely utopian.”
The salient feature of the pre-technological world was its indiscriminateness. With our limited ability to shape the world to our individual desires, we were forced to confront the world’s indifference to meet shared needs, such as the need for food and shelter. The ethic of the pre-modern world was defined by conforming oneself to a pre-existent reality. Technology turns this ethic upside down, and information technology reinforces this inversion. A kaleidoscope of viewpoints on any and every conceivable topic is available on the Internet. Having left us collectively estranged from intractable reality, technology has conditioned each of us to select the information that best suits our desires. And so we follow the logic of technology through to its conclusion. Tech-immersed partisans are increasingly reluctant to confront the features of political reality that are resistant to their own desires. As a consequence, reality is less and less likely to penetrate the layers of self-serving, reality-curating technology with which they wrap themselves.
The endpoint of all this, as Bruno Maçaes intimates in his recent book, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America, is virtual reality: a technological end-state in which no individual has to confront anything contrary to his own desires. The emergence of this kind of technology, and religious opposition to it, is likely to be the defining culture war of this century.
Some of Ellul’s early readers saw this coming. John Wilkinson, who first translated The Technological Society into English in 1964, heard of the book through his colleague at the University of California, Aldous Huxley. Huxley thought Ellul’s book an admirable analysis of the themes he himself had previously explored in Brave New World.
None of this should be taken to mean that technology, in and of itself, is something bad. What’s troubling is that technological development has now spiraled out of human control. Each of us marches to the beat of technological advance: We are its servants rather than its masters. The real problem with technology is that “it has become a reality in itself,” as Ellul observed. “It is no longer merely a means and an intermediary. It is an object in itself, an independent reality with which we must reckon.” Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Facebook exec, admitted as much: “The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
Our collective “liberation” from the intractable and indifferent realities of the world is being ceaselessly spun out by our devices and their algorithms. This process is plunging many of us into a kind of political solipsism, whereby we’re increasingly intolerant of any state of affairs that doesn’t express and execute our own desires. The English poet Charles Williams warned that “when the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” How we can pull ourselves out of this tech-driven death spiral isn’t at all clear.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its original publication to reflect the fact Brave New World was published before Ellul’s book, not after, as was originally implied.