You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Back in July, I wrote the following:

To the conservative, traditions arise naturally from the workings of human nature, as part of the ontogeny and organic development of societies. They are not the result of scientific planning or sociological theorizing — and like biological species themselves, they only come into view in retrospect. They are, in a sense, part of the “extended phenotype” of our species and its various subgroups, as languages are; and just as languages do, they naturally adapt to, and come to represent, those things that actually matter to the various human groups from which they arise. (Many have been, at least up till now, more or less universal.) In this way they contain a great deal of deeply-buried knowledge about the optimal functioning of the human social organism, often for reasons, and in ways, that themselves need not be explicitly represented in the organism’s consciousness. Because of this, disrupting them will always have unknowable consequences — and so, at least, tradition justifies respect for its embodied wisdom, and caution as regards casual tampering.

To those on the Left, traditions are artifacts. Rather than being organic outgrowths and aspects of human nature itself, they are human creations; they are social technology, whose only purpose is to control and manipulate human behavior. In this view, human “nature” hardly exists at all, and traditions are wholly external things; indeed almost everything about human behavior and human life is external to the individual. This means that to mold human beings, or human societies, into any desirable configuration is simply a matter of discarding traditions, and inventing new ones, until we obtain the correct result. Because of this, tradition justifies very little indeed.

This is hardly an original idea; it has been prominent in Western discourse at least since Edmund Burke.

In his latest newsletter, Jonah Goldberg addresses this theme, in the context of a review he is preparing for Commentary of Yuval Levin’s new book about Burke and Thomas Paine.

Goldberg writes (my emphasis):

The challenge for each new generation is figuring out what’s worth keeping and what worth tinkering with. The progressive attitude is that everything is eligible not just for tinkering, but wholesale replacement. The people who lived yesterday were idiots, but we are geniuses! The conservative attitude is to assume that our parents and grandparents weren’t fools and that they did some things for good reasons. But — and here is the Hayekian part — it’s also possible that some things our forebears bequeathed us are good for no “reason” at all. Friedrich Hayek argued that many of our institutions and customs emerged from “spontaneous order” — that is they weren’t designed on a piece of paper, they emerged, authorless, to fulfill human needs through lived experience, just as our genetic “wisdom” is acquired through trial and error. Paths in the forest aren’t necessarily carved out on purpose. Rather they emerge over years of foot traffic.

This reminds me of a story Kevin Williamson tells in his book.

There is a lovely apocryphal story, generally told about Dwight D. Eisenhower during his time as president of Columbia University: The school was growing, necessitating an expansion of the campus, which produced a very hot dispute between two groups of planners and architects about where the sidewalks should go. One camp insisted that it was obvious — self-evident! — that the sidewalks had to be arranged thus, as any rational person could see, while the other camp argued for something very different, with the same appeals to obviously, self-evident, rational evidence. Legend has it that Eisenhower solved the problem by ordering that the sidewalks not be laid down at all for a year: The students would trample paths in the grass, and the builders would then pave over where the students were actually walking. Neither of the plans that had been advocated matched what the students actually did when left to their own devices. There are two radically different ways of looking at the world embedded in that story: Are our institutions here to tell us where to go, or are they here to help smooth the way for us as we pursue our own ends, going our own ways?

The paths were formally recognized by the planners only after the paths were created through human experience. In the parable of the fence, Chesterton says you must know why the fence was built before you can tear it down. But Burke and Hayek get at something even deeper: What if no one built the fence? Okay, that would be weird. But metaphorically, what if no one built it. Or what if everyone built the fence without realizing it. What if we are surrounded by fences that were never consciously built or planned but were instead the natural consequence of lived experience like the footpath at Columbia?

My inner Hayek and Burke believes this to be the case. So much of what makes civilization civilized is intangible, spontaneous, and mysterious. An unknowable number of our greatest laws are hidden, our greatest wisdom is authorless, and our most valuable treasures are in our hearts. This should foster enormous humility about how to out-think humanity.

Indeed it should, and when I began to write this post I thought I’d leave it there.

But another organic outgrowth of human nature, another feature of our extended phenotype, is relentless technological advancement, which can be as disruptive as any social engineering. Even simple ideas, like the stirrup, can have world-changing consequences — and the pace of technological change is now accelerating exponentially. The coming decades of technological innovation hold the genuine promise of revolutionary liberation — from disease, from hunger, from poverty, from toil, and even from the confines of Earth, and of our own bodies — but will also make possible terrifying new forms of tyranny, wielding powers whose breadth knows no Earthly limit, and whose depth extends into our very cells. Even the most oppressive despot of a century ago could do little to affect the day-to-day, and moment-to-moment, lives of his far-flung subjects; in recent years we have made possible, and blithely accepted, a level of surveillance and control that has never existed before in the history of the world.

While I was at Singularity University last year, I heard someone say “If you can see the road ahead, you aren’t going fast enough.” The speaker made his remark, to a room full of like-minded Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in a spirit of can-do enthusiasm, but it made my blood run cold.

In both this newsletter and a recent column, Mr. Goldberg discusses the disruptive power of technology, and touches on one of its impending effects: that minimum wage increases are a boon to robots.

From the newsletter:

If you make human labor more expensive, non-human labor becomes more attractive. If you tell car-wash owners that they have to pay their employees $100 an hour, the owner will most likely search his desk for that business card from that salesman from Acme Robots.

Robots have lots of things going for them. They don’t steal from the cash register. They don’t show up late with some sob story about how their dog ate their car keys. They don’t spit in the customer’s food or lick the tacos and post pictures of it on the Internet. Robots don’t file sexual-harassment suits just because you got over-served at the Christmas party and thought it would be funny to hand out photocopies of your butt.

…My main point is that conservatism — full-spectrum, traditional conservatism and not just a checklist of timeless principles, or a political agenda in Washington — requires an appreciation, even love, for the way things are. And technology forces change more than ideas do (indeed, many of our ideas are simply the sparks that fly from the friction of technological change). Sure, Richard Weaver was right when he said, “Ideas have consequences.” But you know what are really consequential? Thingamabobs, geegaws, doohickeys, and whoziwhatsits.

We’ve heard before that industrial machines, and then computers, were going to cause disruptive change — and so they have. They have brought many, many blessings, but Mr. Goldberg is right to point out that robots and other intelligent systems are now about to displace a lot of working people as minimum wages rise.

This is, however, about a lot more than industrial machines and robots. I don’t think most people yet realize just how fast the arc of technological innovation is bending skyward right now, and what that’s really going to mean. I hang around with the people who are making this stuff happen, and they don’t know what it’s going to mean. Nobody does. It seems, though, that it takes a conservative temperament to find this worrisome.

We’re going so fast that we can’t see the road ahead. That may seem just about right to my friend at SU, but in my darker moments it scares the bejesus out of me.

10 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    I think that your linkage of technology with “terrifying new forms of tyranny” has it exactly backwards.

    The worst examples of tyranny – which actually did wield “powers whose breadth knows no Earthly limit” – have existed long before there was an Industrial Revolution or an Information Revolution. Absolute monarchs, Spanish inquisitors, slave-owning colonialists, England in India, France in Algeria, Japan in Korea, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao – among many others – all exercised complete and brutal control over every aspect of their subjects’ lives, exogenous to technology.

    Over the arc of history, technological power has grown commensurately with human liberty. More people live in democratic societies, and fewer people live in totalitarian ones, than ever before. Whether this is causation or correlation, this would not be the case if technology and tyranny were handmaidens.

    Within the last decade or two, the availability of information on the Internet and the ability of social media to galvanize masses has accelerated the overthrow of dictatorships in the Middle East, the relaxation of state control in China, and (thanks to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden) the disclosure of American government surveillance and other state secrets.

    That is why the few remaining totalitarian regimes in existence – such as North Korea and Cuba – strive mightily to block their subjects from acquiring technology, as the free flow of information which the Internet provides is antithetical to tyranny.

    This could be attributable to the different ways in which progressives and conservatives view the same thing. (Liberal: it’s partly sunny! Conservative: it’s mostly cloudy!) Or, to quote Jethro Tull, it could be the conservative’s desire: let’s go living in the past (that would be both the rock band and its eponymous agronomist, who did live three hundred years in the past.) But I think not. Both past and present show us that technology is accretive, and not dilutive, to human liberty.

    Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Peter,

    I’m not at all surprised that you, the eternal (and, in my view, inexplicably naive) optimist, see this in this way. You raise an important point.

    Technology empowers both sides. It empowers the people, as you say, with communication, and information — but it also empowers the sovereign with surveillance, weaponry, and new methods of pre-emptive control. (Surveillance ‘disclosed’ is not surveillance disposed.)

    It also empowers other parties, who are neither the people nor the sovereign.

    We are entering a new era of technology. The granularity and pervasiveness of surveillance available to sovereign powers today has no historical precedent, and new technology is on the horizon that will confer upon its human masters powers that have never existed before.

    All will depend on the distribution and concentration of power, the character of the sovereign, and the vigilance of the people.

    I’ll come back to all of this in a separate post.

    Posted December 8, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    The original Jethro Tull, by the way, made a significant contribution to agricultural technology.

    Posted December 8, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    One last thing: even at the height of British power in India, there were only a thousand or so British administrators to govern three hundred million Indians, occupying a teeming subcontinent eighteen times the size of Great Britain — with no Internet, and with a rudimentary communications and transportation infrastructure that was essentially nonexistent outside of the larger cities.

    Leaving your charge of ‘brutality’ aside, the idea that such an arrangement could have allowed the sovereign to exert ‘complete control’ over its subjects’ lives — or, for that matter, to have the slightest possibility of learning who any but a few of them even were, let alone what they were doing at any given moment — is obviously absurd.

    Posted December 8, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Aesop Jones says

    @ the one eyed man:

    “Over the arc of history, technological power has grown commensurately with human liberty.”

    Utter tosh. “Democratic” governments today are the largest and most intrusive beasts that have ever existed. The monarchies you erroneously conflate with tyrannies were nothing compared to the leviathan states that exist today, and tyrants like Hitler and Stalin were the result of demotist ideologies that tore down monarchies and ushered in the most violent and repressive era in human history.

    Monarchs generally did not meddle in the daily affairs of their subjects, they had no need to. Only in democracies where the elite aims its resources at controlling the opinions of the people does this happen.

    I do not disagree that technology is not inherently harmful to human liberty, but your text-book (more like coloring-book) historical perspective is way off. Do not conflate monarchy with tyranny or democracy/demotism with liberty. It is often the precise opposite.

    Posted December 12, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Abelard Lindsey says

    Technology can and does empower individuals and small groups. However, it can also empower large institutions such as governments with increased surveillance capabilities as we’ve seen with the NSA, FBI, and IRS. The key, as Peter Theil has pointed out, is to ensure that individuals and small groups are always empowered to stay ahead of the large groups.

    I think that continual technological innovation is inherently decentralizing, meaning that it is inherently good, not bad. The reason is because it is dynamic, and dynamism favors the small and decentralized over the large and unwieldy. Technological dynamism favors David over Goliath.

    I think one of the keys is to embrace a philosophy that is consistent and promulgates decentralization, individual empowerment over large institutions, and the relentless technological innovation that makes it all possible. That philosophy is called libertarianism, and there is nothing “conservative” about it.

    Indeed, there is no such thing as conservative in the U.S. Viewed within the proper context of world history, the U.S. is a product of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and is fundamentally revolutionary. Viewed within this same context, individualism and self-empowerment are very revolutionary concepts. These are the proper intellectual tools to understanding and creating a future of unlimited possibilities.

    Even though I am “right-wing” on the political spectrum, I have always despised the label of “conservative”. I have never considered myself a “conservative”. I am a radical for individualism, free market capitalism, and self-empowerment.

    It is time to toss the label of “conservative” into the junk heap of history where it belongs.

    Posted December 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  7. “Even though I am “right-wing” on the political spectrum, I have always despised the label of “conservative”. I have never considered myself a “conservative”. I am a radical for individualism, free market capitalism, and self-empowerment.”

    I am also for “individualism, free market capitalism, and self-empowerment”, albeit not necessarily to a “radical” extent. I also detect a tone of extremism in your exhortations, as evidenced by your use of words like “radical” and “detest”, which explains why you favor libertarianism over mere conservatism.

    You have clarified for me why I prefer coservatism over libertarianism, both of which are mere labels for their respective worldviews. I do, however, understand the value of labeling or, more generally, branding in our showmanship-fixated society.

    Be that as it may, I believe that there is an important distinction between these two worldviews — the manner in which they seek to evolve with respect to societal changes. As you stated, libertarians favor radical evolution (revolutionary change); conservatives favor incremental changes. The latter approach, of course, tends to avoid tossing the baby out with the bathwater (to coin a phrase).

    Posted December 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  8. “despise” not “detest”, though their meaning is similar …

    Posted December 15, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Abelard, I think it is an oversimplification to say that technology is inherently decentralizing; modern communication and transportation technology, for example, make possible a granularity and depth of central control that would have been unimaginable just a hundred years ago.

    I do, however, think that these technologies have made the world “smaller” and “hotter” — and in an essay I’ve just reposted here, I speculated that there may be a technological “sweet spot” for large-scale social structures, and that henceforward the accelerating pace of change, and increasingly frequent impingement of unforseeable events, may indeed begin to batter them to pieces. (I likened this to a rise in “temperature” and “pressure”.)

    It is one thing to reject conservatism in favor of a radical, libertarian technophilia (which is of course a perfectly legitimate and defensible stance), and quite another to deny the very existence of conservatism itself, and the existence of conservatives in America.

    You wrote:

    These are the proper intellectual tools to understanding and creating a future of unlimited possibilities.

    I, for one (and I think I speak for much of the reactionary blogosphere when I say this), don’t want a future of “unlimited possibilities”. Many of the possibilities I can imagine are downright horrifying.

    Posted December 15, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  10. Phillipa says

    The sector that has given us the terms “webinar” and “granularity” is not in my view capable of using technology to do anything other than clutter the elegant simplicity of organic existence with rococo self importance.

    On the other hand, all those people dashing about, tending the machines, earnestly pursuing their visions of technotopia, can create wealth and wealthy societies. In these, any reasonably high IQ person can find a quiet little niche to grow vegetables, perfect cocktails, and hang out with the hummingbirds, between reading the greats (in paper form) and taking pot-shots at government drones with the 12-gauge.

    Posted December 16, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

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