May 4, 2013


The Singularity of Fools : A special report from the utopian future. (DAVID RIEFF, MAY/JUNE 2013, Foreign Policy)

Almost all contemporary techno-utopians extrapolate from Moore's Law, the hypothesis made by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years; such exponential improvements, they argue, apply to virtually all technology. But Reese's confidence is extreme even by those standards. "[W]ith the Internet and associated technologies flourishing in a Moore's-Law-like manner," he writes, immense amounts of wealth will be created. As a result, "the poor will get richer, and the rich will get vastly richer." In this post-scarcity world, "socialism can't even exist."

Well, that's a relief! This confidence that technological innovation will ensure that liberal free market capitalism continues to reign supreme is a commonplace of techno-utopian writing. Zuckerman, for one, justifies his call for a new digital cosmopolitanism partly because it is a prudent way to cope with unexpected threats like the SARS epidemic (whose seriousness he vastly overstates) or political upheavals like the Arab Spring, but he is also at pains to emphasize how good the transformations he heralds will be for capitalism. For all the praise he lavishes on diversity and multiculturalism, Zuckerman's notions of politics are extraordinarily impoverished and unicultural.  [...]

It is easy, not to mention enjoyable, to make fun of Reese. But at one point toward the end of Infinite Progress, he marshals the ubiquitous, omnipresent claim of techno-utopians past and present: This Time It's Different.

Mr. Rieff has that exactly backwards.  The reason for optimism about human progress -- as regards things like poverty and violence -- is not because of anything new, but because of the long term trends that technology and the Uniculture have produced. 

The Internet need not be "different" than the printing press for those who believe in progress to be right.  But the printing press needs to have made no difference in the human condition for Mr. Rieff to be right.  Likewise, the adoption of capitalism by Africans need not be different than the adoption by Europeans was.  Indeed, if the past repeats itself it will produce massive economic progress for a billion people.

Utopians always look silly, not just because their specific visions fail to come true, but because no human-made future can ever change the fundamentals of human nature.  No matter how fat and happy we become we remain Fallen.  

But someone seeking to deny that the age of technology has produced great progress can't help but look even sillier.

Gulliver's Final Voyages (Matthew Anger, 5/04/13, Imaginative Conservative)

If Gulliver's third journey strikes me as the most entertaining, the fourth and last voyage (Country of the Houyhnhnms) is the most perplexing. This part of Gulliver's Travels earned Swift no end of disapproval in the years following his death. Apparently the violent contrast of degraded humanity (the ape-like Yahoos) with the noble, intelligent horses (the Houyhnhnms--pronounced "whinny-ms") was intolerable. The misanthropic parable was made all the worse, it seems, by the fact that Gulliver returned home and for years shunned the company of other humans, including his own family.

Undoubtedly there is a strong element of cynicism. While Swift sought amelioration of many evils, he intensely distrusted ambitious political schemes. It is an animosity that seems partly warranted as we look back upon the mixed legacy of the Enlightenment. After all, real progress depends on man's moral intentions, and people have not always made the best use of new inventions and developments. Still there is a point at which social criticism becomes excessive. Whether Swift went that far is a point that readers will continue to debate. There are many people who share Gulliver's overweening pessimism. By the last voyage, the English captain espouses an eighteenth century version of the moral equivalency argument which places all human societies on the same miserable level. The problem with such perfectionism is that it is destructive of practical ethics. It fails to make important distinctions, or acknowledge that virtue is something we progress towards by degrees rather than at all once. As such it is not only conceited, it is hypocritical, as we see in Gulliver's increasing hubris. His conceit is even more repulsive than the Yahoos' brutality. But one can argue that that was exactly the point Swift sought to make.

Posted by at May 4, 2013 6:43 PM

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