The Agenda

Jamais Cascio on Our Polarized Delusions

Jamais Cascio offers a clarifying perspective on technology and human agency:

Western intellectual culture is in the midst of a civil war between two superficially distinct viewpoints: a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization, eliminating our humanity even if they don’t simply destroy us, versus a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization and replace it (and eventually us) with something better. We’re on the verge of disaster or the verge of transcendence, and in both cases, the only way to hang onto a shred of our humanity is to disavow what we have made.

But these two ideas ultimately tell the same story: by positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, they tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.

Such perspectives aren’t just wrong, they’re dangerous.

Cascio offers his alternative in the remainder of the post, and in his growing body of work. This talk from March is an example of Cascio at his best:

I believe that there’s a good case to be made that we’re now in a similar era of unstable instability. Disruptions, when they hit, are intense, but there’s an equally powerful drive to stabilize. Innovations arise across a spectrum of technologies, but quickly become old news. There are major conflicts over social change. Both recoveries and chaos have strong regional and sectoral dimensions, and can flare up and die off seemingly without notice.

It would be dangerous to rely on strategies – reproductive or otherwise – that assume the continuation of either stability or instability. This period of unstable instability has been with us for at least the last decade, and will very likely continue for at least another decade more.

And this suggests that neither relying upon scale and incumbency nor relying upon rapid-fire iteration will succeed as fully and as dependably as we might wish. We can’t depend on either the garage hacker or the global corporation to push us to a new phase of history. It’s going to have to be something that manages to combine elements of both flexible experimentation and long-term strategy. Something that puts r in service of K.

This doesn’t mean that r is less important than K; we could just as easily call it “K enabling r.” Either way, it comes down to strategies that take advantage of scale and diversity, that allow both long-shot experimentation and quick adoption of innovation. Decentralized, but collaborative.

Strategies, in other words, that are resilient.

Though Cascio and I have quite different political views, this is as good a description as any of what I take to be the most appropriate goal for the U.S. right: to cultivate resilience in our institutions and social structures.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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