In the January 24, 2014 issue of Science (vol. 343, P. 372), Albert-László Barabási reviews Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. The novel concerns a large technology company that “relentlessly innovates to reduce crime, to organize and store all information, and to leave no one behind.” Employees live by the “Orwellian” NewSpeak dicta, “Privacy is theft” and “Secrets are lies.”
Where the novel would depict what Barabási calls “the 21st Century’s version of Orwell’s 1984,” both the novelist and the reviewer seem too eager to latch onto the technological aspects of 1984, as well as today’s growing surveillance state. The review concludes with an observation about the National Security Agency and George Orwell’s novel 1984, by way of likening the NSA’s use of private contractors to the themes in Eggers’ new novel, which “reboots 1984 for the digital age.”
The main problem with this techno-centric approach to looking at Orwell’s novel — or today’s surveillance state, for that matter — is that 1984 doesn’t need to be “rebooted for the digital age.” The key principle in the novel is a psychological one — that of the Panopticon — that applies as well today as it did at the very start of the industrial revolution, when the principle was first formulated.
Although 1984 depicts a pervasive system of surveillance, is not about surveillance technology per se, but about the psychology of living under a political system that makes use of such technology. Modern readers tend to focus on the technological aspects of 1984, but this is a modern bias that probably derives from the post-war emphasis on technological growth, and a shift in the science fiction genre away from what Robert Heinlein called “speculative fiction” to what is perhaps might more properly be called “technology fiction.”
In 1984, however, the technology is largely incidental: the protagonist Winston Smith suffers his downfall not because the surveillance proves to be an effective tool for law enforcement, but, rather, because of his own personal indiscretions. Winston Smith — petty bureaucrat and Party member — frequents a resale shop in the forbidden “proletarian quarters.” Winston buys trinkets left over from a world he spends his professional life erasing; he buys a notebook in which he writes his personal heresies; and, when he eventually rents out the spare bedroom above the shop — for the purposes of an illicit love affair — he is entrapped by the shopkeeper, who turns out to be an undercover officer with the “thought police.”
The society in 1984 is modeled on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a prison design that Bentham proposed in 1787, which he felt had applicability to a broad range of social contexts. The full title of Bentham’s work reads:
“PANOPTICON; Or, The Inspection-House: Containing The Idea Of A New Principle Of Construction Applicable To Any Sort Of Establishment, In Which Persons Of Any Description Are To Be Kept Under Inspection; And In Particular To Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses Of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-Houses, And Schools: With A Plan Of Management.”
The key effect of the pan-optic (“all-seeing”) surveillance system in 1984 is psychological: a constant pressure exerted by the mere possibility of being observed, which coerces individuals into behaving as though there are in actual fact being monitored at all times. Orwell describes the psychology of the surveillance system in 1984 as follows:
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
“To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”
It is, indeed, “Orwellian” that, as we become more aware of this type of surveillance, we come more under its influence — even while lacking a basic understanding of the real effects of the system. It is, to say the least, disconcerting that our modern biases — which we fancy to be so sophisticated — blind us so systematically to those ideas we need now more than ever to properly grasp.
While one may be tempted so suppose that our modern surveillance state represents something new — because of how technologically advanced it is — there is ample evidence that such a system of total surveillance cannot be effective, in terms of detecting all criminal behavior.
In his essay, “Your Face is Not a Barcode,” computer scientist Philip E. Agre reiterates an argument made by noted cryptologist Bruce Schneier. Using face recognition technology as an example, Agre writes:
“Face recognition is nearly useless for the application that has been most widely discussed since the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington: identifying terrorists in a crowd. As Bruce Schneier points out, the reasons why are statistical. Let us assume, with extreme generosity, that a face recognition system is 99.99 percent accurate. In other words, if a high-quality photograph of your face is not in the ‘terrorist watch list’ database, then it is 99.99 percent likely that the software will not produce a match when it scans your face in real life. Then let us say that one airline passenger in ten million has their face in the database. Now, 99.99 percent probably sounds good. It means one failure in 10,000. In scanning ten million passengers, however, one failure in 10,000 means 1000 failures — and only one correct match of a real terrorist.
“In other words, 999 matches out of 1000 will be false, and each of those false matches will cost time and effort that could have been spent protecting security in other ways. Perhaps one would argue that 1000 false alarms are worth the benefits of one hijacking prevented. Once the initial shock of the recent attacks wears off, however, the enormous percentage of false matches will condition security workers to assume that all positive matches are mistaken. The great cost of implementing and maintaining the face recognition systems will have gone to waste. The fact is, spotting terrorists in a crowd is a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and automatic face recognition is not a needle-in-a-haystack-quality technology. Hijackings can be prevented in many ways, and resources should be invested in the measures that are likely to work.”
Similar arguments can be made for other forms of automatic target detection. Consider, too, that the NSA doesn’t even attempt to process all the data it gathers — since it’s unnecessary. In an “Orwellian” twist, it appears that NSA chief General Keith Alexander can tell Congress that the NSA doesn’t “intercept” domestic communications by tapping into the fiber optic lines of telecommunications carriers, making copies of the data, and storing it in a warehouse. According to how the NSA defines what it does, data is only “intercepted” when it is “put into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.” Which is to say, in Foucault’s words, “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”
The more fundamental problem with the fixation on the technological aspects of the surveillance state is that it draws attention away from the real issues at play. Towards the end of 1984, the goal of the totalitarian state depicted in the novel is described as follows:
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
Like the characters in 1984 who, due to NewSpeak whittling down the dictionary, were in the process of losing the ability to express basic facts about their lives and circumstances, we — due to our cultural fixations on growth, and technology, and novelty — effectively live under the same circumstance, and cannot see it.
In discussing Kaczynski’s essay “Industrial Society and Its Future” — also called the “Unabomber Manifesto” — Klosterman observes that the document is “not nearly as insane as it should be, at least relative to how we view its author.” This is an unusually perceptive observation. Klosterman’s basic thesis is that the Unabomber “was a bad person, but sometimes he was right.”
From this starting point, Klosterman proceeds with what appears to be a clear and rational discussion of the Unabomber’s writing. Klosterman grants that the Unabomber was largely correct insofar as “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” Klosterman adds to this the sympathetic observation that:
“We are living in a manner that is unnatural. We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world. The benefits of technology are easy to point out… but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence. As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.”
And from these premises, Klosterman nevertheless concludes that, for his own love of technology, he gives up “nothing that’s particularly important to me.” Klosterman’s conclusion is profoundly nihilistic: in essence, the Unabomber was right to say we are living in a disaster, but who cares?
Klosterman even understands the implications of his nihilistic conclusion:
“I could change… But I choose the opposite. Instead of confronting reality and embracing the Experience of Being Alive, I will sit here and read about Animal Collective over the Internet… not because the content is important or amusing or well written, but because the content exists.”
So the New York Times ethicist is a nihilist. In this he is hardly unique, though a more profound attitudinal problem derives from some of his unexamined biases. He remarks repeatedly that the Unabomber was a “bad man.” In a sense, Klosterman has no choice but to say so. Yet one could just as plausibly suggest that the Unabomber was acting out of the deepest human sympathies. His goal was not sadistic, to revel in making others suffer; he was not indifferent to the suffering of others. Rather, Kaczynski’s goal was to prevent future generations from suffering the indignities of the industrial system — on which point Klosterman largely agrees with Kaczynski.
The most Klosterman can honestly say on this point is that the Unabomber was misguided, and chose bad tactics. Kaczynski’s fault wasn’t sociopathy, as Klosterman claims — those people we reward with high office (evolutionary psychologist Linda Mealey has a lot to say about sociopathy as an adaptation to competitive society in her 1997 essay, “The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Evolutionary Model”). Klosterman calls the Unabomber a sociopath, but that word has a specific meaning. By misusing that word, Klosterman overclouds the already-probelmatic discourse surrounding violence in our culture.
Similarly, Klosterman misapplies the term “fascist” to the Unabomber. Fascism is state-centric authoritarianism — but the Unabomber is opposed to the state. He is a self-described anarchist, and his beliefs and lifestyle choices place him square within an anarcho-primitivist milieu. In his Manifesto, the Unabomber complains:
“Modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work, people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos. Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion.”
The Unabomber is upset about authoritarianism — and, specifically, the authoritarian measures that states maintain for the benefit of industry. Like libertarian guru Friedrich Hayek, the Unabomber is opposed to coercion, whether it comes from a state or a commercial interest.
Perhaps Klosterman thinks the Unabomber is a fascist because he rails against leftism — but leftism is not the opposite of fascism. The left wing and the right wing are both state-centric positions. The Unabomber viewed the state and industry as intertwined, and therefore both in need of being abolished.
Where the Unabomber’s complaints about “regulation” might sound like the modern American right wing, there is one important difference: modern libertarians want to abolish regulation while preserving both the industrial system and the concentration of wealth it creates. The modern right wing wants to institute an aristocracy of wealth where a hereditary aristocracy has been abolished. The Unabomber sees through this contradiction, and wants to do away with both the state and industry.
These observations about the Unabomber’s attitude towards the state and industry bring up another important error in Klosterman’s essay: it is not at all the case that the Unabomber doesn’t explain what a “rational” society should look like. In railing against technological society, he advocates for a society without industrial technology. We know very well what that type of society looks like: its how humans have lived for most of human history.
Klosterman’s essay also contains important omissions. Yes, the Unabomber was the victim of an unwitting stress test, but Klosterman apparently doesn’t find it worth mentioning that the stress test was administered under the CIA mind control program MKULTRA. And Klosterman doesn’t think it is worth mentioning anything about how the Unabomber chose his targets — specifically, people he perceived as promoting or intensifying the advance of industrial civilization.
And of those three people the Unabomber killed — far fewer in number than our celebrated mass murders in high office whom we reward generously with paid speaking engagements — we find equal selectivity on the part of our supposed madman. One prominent victim was Thomas J. Mosser, an upper-level executive at the Burson-Marstellar PR firm. This PR firm — among other notable clients — represented the Argentine dictatorship, Blackwater after some of their mercenaries murdered several Iraqi civilians in cold blood, Union Carbide after the Bhopal chemical disaster poisoned thousands of innocent people, Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, the company that manufactured the Three Mile Island nuclear plant… bad man!
In his eminently reasonable — if not glib — tone, Klosterman engages in a bit of self-rationalization for his attention-seeking experiment in generating controversy:
“The fact that a document’s creator is an ego-centric murderer does not preclude the work from being worthwhile (Phil Spector shot a woman in the face, but that doesn’t make the harmonies on ‘Be My Baby’ any less beautiful). The fact that Kaczynski has a deeply damaged psyche doesn’t mitigate its value at all…”
The notion that — like Phil Spector — the Unabomber was a bad man with brilliant ideas is almost as dangerous as endorsing his tactics. Consider this analogous argument: sure the Nazi’s conducted medical experiments on living Jews, but their scientific innovations were brilliant, and need to be appreciated. Perhaps Klosterman knows a thing or two about the history of our ballistic missile program…
The stakes are also higher than Klosterman lead his readers to believe: he ignores the environmental degradation industrialization has brought with it. Industrialization also makes us work harder than we ever have before: the typical hunter-gatherer works a 15 hour week for a life expectancy on par with Renaissance Europe, and the typical European Medieval peasant worked only 1/3 of the year. Today we work less than the 60 or 80 hour weeks common during the 19th Century, but that’s really not saying much.
Unemployment due to the increased use of automation — which we call increases in productivity — could just as easily shorten the workweek, or increase worker pay, or ensure that the many humans who today live on planet Earth without the benefits of industry might enjoy something closer to our standard of living. Instead, the trend we see is this: adjusted for inflation, median wages have increased 4% since 1965. During this same time, worker productivity has doubled, reducing the number of manufacturing jobs to pre-World War II levels while still increasing the value of the output.
Advanced technology really only benefits a very few humans, though plenty of people are addicted to it all the same. Klosterman’s sloppy intellectualism and cavalier use of loaded terminology is dangerous: it perverts the language which we need in order to address serious social problems. Incidentally, the perversion of language is a central characteristic of fascist regimes. And Klosterman’s glib, superficial style elides nicely with his penchant for lying to interviewers, which he brags about in the first essay of his book. He wrote: “I feel no compulsion to do right by the people who interview me. In fact, I sometimes want to do wrong, even if the only person who suffers is myself.”
Klosterman seems to find immense ego-gratification from the attention of the many people eager to read his each and every word, who will shape their attitudes in response to his influence. His glib, superficial, manipulative, egocentric personality traits make him closer to a true sociopath than the Unabomber. And what makes Klosterman dangerous like the Unabomber is his perpetuation and normalization of these socially destructive character traits wrought by industrial ideology.
The August, 2013 issue of Scientific American features a grossly irresponsible column by David Pogue. The column, titled “The Last Thing You’ll Memorize,” suggests that perhaps mobile internet appliances have made memorization obsolete, arguing by analogy to the electronic calculator’s effect on upper-level math classes. Arguments by analogy are a rather tenuous way to make a point, and Mr. Pogue’s argument is no exception.
Mr. Pogue writes: “As society marches ever forward, we leave obsolete skills in our wake. That’s just part of progress. Why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?” The sentiment doesn’t appear to be intended as an intellectual provocation. Mr. Pogue even appeals to the wisdom and technological foresight of his child, who — because of “smart phones” — couldn’t imagine “why on earth should he memorize the presidents” from his own country’s history. Students are allowed to use calculators on school exams, Mr. Pogue reasons, so why shouldn’t students be allowed to use “smart phones” to save them the trouble of having to remember things?
To extend Mr. Pogue’s argument slightly: does word processing make spelling obsolete? Do students no longer need to memorize all the idiosyncratic spellings found in the English language? Should we conclude that literacy is an obsolete skill? Should we simply forgo novels in favor of movies, since cinema is a newer technology?
The flaws in Mr. Pogue’s reasoning begin with his choice of metaphor, though the reasoning behind his choice to argue by analogy fails on closer inspection as well. While we may not exactly “pine for hot type technology,” there are a wide range of positive social values attached to the preservation of historical skills. Laser toner hasn’t replaced printing and engraving in all cases: artists still make etchings, photographers are still interested in the craft, quality, physicality, and historical relevance of chemical photography, artisan printing presses still set type, and most global currencies involve an active social role for the older, traditional skills, required for coining currency and printing bills.
New technology doesn’t always replace old technology; this is a biased view of recent history, promulgated to justify commercial planned obsolescence in the face of diminishing returns. Often enough, new technology simply gives old technology a new value. The tourist economy of Williamsburg, Virginia, depends on maintaining skills, architecture, and other cultural practices from the Colonial Era, as a sort of living museum. Artists still practice ancient pottery skills, often producing original artifacts of greater economic value than comparable mass-produced items. Cubic zirconium hasn’t replaced diamonds in engagement rings. Just because “Morse code abilities” are no longer a marketable skill, there are historical documents and records containing Morse code and references to Morse code, and preserving knowledge of these valuable artifacts for future researchers is part of what Universities do. And, while one may have trouble today landing employment with “a knack for operating elevators” — since automation and computerization now take care of these jobs in places like classy hotels, or high-rise office buildings — it may well be worth mourning how many paying jobs automation has replaced and continues to replace, especially given the current state of the labor market, and the bleak prospects for millions upon millions of indebted college graduates. Even the grocery store cashier appears to be an endangered species these days.
So, to consider Mr. Pogue’s central analogy — that of the calculator — we should begin by pointing out that while we may say that a calculator is good at math, we don’t conclude from that fact that it is smart. Branding aside, “smart phones” aren’t smart because they can substitute for human memory in some cases. The reference capabilities of “smart phones” may create opportunities for new skills — such as, an ability to formulate queries that will identify a factual needle in a haystack — this is quite different from saying that such a new skill can occupy and replace the role of memory. The value of a “smart phone” as a source for reference material is also highly contingent upon the quality of the source a user chooses to rely on: absent some sort of peer review process for Google listings, this would seem to be at the very least a precarious substitute for the sort of intellectual cannon with which students are typically acquainted through education. It is worth noting, on this last point, that books didn’t replace memory, even after the printing press made it cheap enough to fill libraries: the recording and storage of facts in books and libraries serve to make knowledge more accessible — not to replace memory — and Mr. Pogue provides no real evidence that Internet search engines are qualitatively different in this regard.
To further address the issue of online source material, Mr Pogue’s argument also assumes that the future of the Internet will look like it does today, with vast quantities of relatively high-quality material available at no cost. This may not be a safe conjecture at all: more and more corporations are looking for more ways to make money by offering proprietary services online. Bloggers may want to start getting paid for what they write. Commercial media outlets are erecting “pay walls,” FaceBook keeps its user-contributed content walled-off from Google and the public Internet, peer-to-peer networks are being challenged by legal action coordinated with competing commercial services backed by large corporations, and electronic surveillance may exert a chilling effect on what independent platforms are willing to publish, or what individuals are willing to read. The laws surrounding intellectual property rights are highly contentious at this point in time, affecting what types of reference material may be shared or quoted from, and in what manner.
Mr. Pogue concludes his argument by analogy by asserting: “Calculators will always be with us. So why not let them do the grunt work and free up more time for students to learn more complex concepts or master more difficult problems? In the same way, maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary…” Beyond the aforementioned problems with Mr. Pogue’s assumptions about the character and quality of the information that will be available on “smart phones” in the future, there is an internal contradiction here in his position: if “progress” tends to continually replace technologies that once seemed current, on what grounds does Mr. Pogue suppose that the capabilities of today’s “smart phones” will remain stable enough to re-organize educational curricula around them? Every five-function calculator performs subtraction and multiplication in an identical fashion, but Google is not “objective” in the same way, and customizes search results based on a user’s past search history. What if one “smart phone” manufacturer blocks out Google access due to the terms of some other licensing agreement? Will it really “free up more time” if students need to use trial-and-error techniques to formulate queries on search engines, rather than simply recall the fact they’re looking for? If “memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task,” by what standard then will students be able to recognize whether a piece of information they retrieve from a search engine is reliable or not, or whether an argument they come across is historically well-grounded? Students could simply defer to the authority of certain trusted sources, but doing so would undermine Mr. Pogue’s advocacy that students “focus on developing analytical skills.”
But to look past the analogy, and to get to the point: many people consider loss of memory function one of the most terrifying prospects imaginable. Amnesia may be a staple in soap operas, but Alzheimer’s disease is a reality for many Americans. Loss of memory function is clearly a mental handicap. Any chess player will tell you that the ability to remember the past few moves is at least as important as the ability to project a few moves into the future: if you don’t keep track of what your opponent is doing, you can’t identify your opponent’s strategy. If you can’t remember a series of articulated statements, you can’t follow an argument. Memory is the basis of learning, and therefore of knowledge, and, by extension, wisdom. Deprecating memory skills is a recipe for a population of morons and zombies. If we don’t teach students how to remember things, we not only deny them the promise of education itself, but we deny them the basic skills needed to think strategically.
In the June, 2013 volume of Scientific American, Michael Shermer’s reply to a reader’s published letter makes a number of remarkable statements. Shermer was attempting to clarify or otherwise augment the meaning of his February, 2013 column, “The Left’s War on Science.” In discussing how “the ‘anti’ bias can creep in from the far left,” Mr. Shermer suggests that “Perhaps instead of ‘anti-science’ it is ‘anti-progress’” that is the real issue with the political left. I would like to address the implicit normative biases inherent in Mr. Shermer’s equating of “anti-science” with “anti-progress,” to which he seems to give ascent un-skeptically. Granted, he is not identifying the one with the other, but he does equate them, and this reveals a bias.
First, there is the more superficial bias contained in Mr. Shermer’s choice of phraseology, specifically, the use of an oppositional definition employing the prefix “anti” to specify his referent, the sense of which implies a normative value judgement given the popular discourse around such diverse spheres as “technology” or “freedom.” Who in their right mind is against “progress?” If automation is replacing our workforce, maybe “anti-progress” is also “pro-labor.” If cheap integrated circuits are the product of dubiously sourced coltan, maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-human rights.” If more automobiles make more pollution (because increased fuel economy doesn’t fully offset the increasing carbon costs of extracting energy from less accessible reserves), and if more fuel-efficient automobiles furthermore compound other state-centric financial problems (such as the market consequences of ethanol mandates on subsidized industrial agriculture in the US, or on third-world grain prices for what are otherwise staple food crops on the global market), maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-ecology.”
Or, to phrase the same difficulty in slightly different terms: do we really need more “progress” in the breeding of more productive grains, or is it maybe better to use culture to encourage a more comprehensive ecological view of the individual in the world, and to simply stop throwing out half the food we produce each year, or only eat meat three times a week instead of three times a day? Is it possible that these “ecological” solutions are not only less complex than new networks of industrial processes, but can also be more resilient and cheaper and more pleasurable to partake in? Would it be anti-progress, for example, to advocate for reducing unemployment by increasing labor-intensive organic food production for a less meat-centric diet, that is also less wasteful, more full of substantive choices and alternatives, and healthier?
Second, there is the bias conveyed by Progress itself, which Progress invokes in favor of itself, and for its own perpetuation, wherever Progress is invoked. Progress is a relatively new ideology in Western culture, dating for our purposes to the European Enlightenment. It says, basically, that things always improve through the mass accumulation of specialized, systematic knowledge and the mass dissemination of its applications. In a commercial sense, it means newer technology is always better and must also replace older technology. This ideology is relatively new. The European Renaissance, by contrast, venerated the wisdom of Antiquity; in Medieval Christendom things were better back in Eden; and in Rome, the mythic Golden Age of the remote past offered the ideal model for future aspirations. Even Francis Bacon, famous advocate of the “advancement of learning,” conjured up the long-lost Atlantis in his utopian manifesto on the future of the mathematical arts.
Looking more closely at such normative terms in their popular usage (to wit, “anti-progress”), certain flaws in the ideology’s positive formulation become apparent. A case study in terminology: if we look at bees, we can see they are a much older species than modern homo sapiens. They outnumber us, have been more successful at propagating their genes than us, and, in a sense are therefore “more evolved” than us. Are bees “better” than humans because they are “more evolved” or otherwise “more successful?” Consider this: if “progress” drives our species to destroy our own habitat, maybe our big brains aren’t really all that great of a survival advantage after all — or maybe, at least, it’s a little lunatic to talk about human intelligence in such superlative terms, as if our absolute superiority were a settled matter. I think the jury is very much still out on this: the average mammal lasts about a million years, so it’s really not like modern humans are a model of Malthusian-Darwinian longevity. Maybe Neanderthals really were better, and we out-competed them because we’re a genetic fluke, a virus, that will eventually consume itself by consuming its host — and though we would declare ourselves victors over Neanderthals, perhaps the cosmic hammer of natural selection just hasn’t landed quite yet, for our stupidity in destroying our living past. Which is not to suggest I am arguing against rationality or engineering, or Enlightenment values: to start building a metaphor from our case study in terminology: bees conduct their affairs with a lot of remarkable, organized, rule-governed social behaviors — and they do so with very little brain. With just a little more than what a basal ganglia can do, they might make a suitable metaphor for those same Enlightenment social values that produced that grand edifice of civil law our nation so highly esteems.
Third, there is the teleological component to Mr. Shermer’s particular choice of the term “progress” that can easily lead to false inferences about the ideology and its historical consequences. Specifically, “progress” implies progress towards something: you progress from A to B. “Progress” broadly understood, however, is more properly analogous to the way a scientist might talk about a body part being “designed” to accomplish a particular purpose, or an electron “liking” to do different things under different circumstances. Scientists in such cases aren’t really making teleological claims, though they are making a case for a structured set of circumstances. Perhaps, in empirical terms, human civilization is making progress towards catastrophe — be in environmental ruin or thermonuclear war.
What qualifies as “progress” in one context may be more usefully described as a type of normative bias, when the term’s usage is considered more broadly. Although it is easy to see that computers have replaced typewriters and wireless phones have replaced landlines in many cases, and we all agree these developments are more convenient in certain ways (though they also facilitate undesirable behaviors, such eavesdropping or distracted driving), these media-centric cultural touchstones are really of limited historical validity where “progress” is concerned. Computers have not replaced paper, or pens, or books, or the written word, or the value of “movable” or otherwise dynamic type: older technologies aren’t always replaced, though their role changes.
Many electric guitarists today seek out amplifiers driven by vacuum tubes, which are still sold for this purpose, and some musicians prefer to record onto analog tape, or to release new recordings on vinyl. This is normal. As of the year 6013 A.L., some 30% of computers are running Windows XP, a 10-year-old operating system. Outdated technology is the norm: there are six times as many users of the outdated Windows XP as there are Mac users, Apple’s stock price notwithstanding. Which is to say, equating (or, perhaps more properly, conflating) “technology” with “the newest technology” under the rubric of “progress” reflects a bias.
Lastly, there is the wisdom of the ages, which Progress would amputate from our intellectual heritage: Futurist architect and Italian Fascist Tomasso Marinetti apparently wrote persuasively in 1914 about this devastation of living history, embodied in historical buildings and common urban forms, how it represents “a victory for which we fight without pause against the cowardly worship of the past.” His vision was realized in many mid-sized American cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when historic downtown areas across the country were razed to make way for Interstates and parking lots and parking garages for suburban commuters. This same razing provided the match to ignite many of the the urban riots during the late 1960’s, and initiated a decades-long program of planned neglect in inner cities nationwide, while suburbs parasitized both cities and rural areas in the guise of an aggressive modernity.
Proverbs 6:6-8 reads: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: which, having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.” The organization of ant society is profoundly decentralized, but also profoundly social and cooperative. The US Constitution is similar: it speaks of the “common defense,” the “general welfare” and “our posterity” but also of “the blessings of liberty” and of “Justice.” The ant is properly feminized in King James to accord with the Greek Sophia — Wisdom — in the same manner as other Biblical sayings, such as Proverbs 8:1 (“Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?”) or Matthew 11:19 (“The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children”). The teachings of Freemasonry take this basic appeal and apply it to secular society, in a Neoplatonist fashion, modeled after Plato’s utopian discourse on the ideal State.
Freemason Albert Pike — the only Confederate officer to be honored with an outdoor statue in DC — fashioned a highly inter-textual dialog called The Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. A compendium of Renaissance wisdom synthesized with the tools of Enlightenment systematic inquiry, the text represents a sort of Machiavelli of morals. Chapter VIII reads in part: “A Masonic Lodge should resemble a bee-hive, in which all the members work together with ardor for the common good… To comfort misfortunes, to popularize knowledge, to teach whatever is true and pure in religion and philosophy, to accustom men to respect order and the proprieties of life, to point out the way to genuine happiness, to prepare for that fortunate period, when all the factions of the Human Family, united by the bonds of Toleration and Fraternity, shall be but one household,–these are labours that may well excite zeal and even enthusiasm.”
Which is to pick up the Solomonic wisdom from the Proverbs, by adopting an animal that is industrious and well-organized like the ant, though less inclined to warfare, and also an ardent lover of beauty. Plato had Socrates say it similarly, in urging us to craft the works of a “fine and graceful” social order “so that our young people will live in a healthy place and be benefited on all sides, and so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason.”
So I went and revisited Mr. Shermer’s February 2013 column, as I had that month’s magazine still on the table in my study. The column’s hook promises to explore “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum.” I would rather have read someone argue from that starting point something more to the effect that “both ends of the spectrum” accept ideological “progress” so unquestioningly, that alternatives with their repercussions are almost inconceivable, and that this is a far greater problem, because it induces systemic blindness that is threatening the civilization whose values Mr. Shermer purports to defend.