Technology and Trust in the 2020s

For some time now, it has been an unquestioned assumption of the American political right that the values of free-market technological innovation are intrinsically ‘conservative’ in nature. At the same time, however, the values of religion, family, cultural heritage, and tradition have been similarly regarded as foundational pillars of conservative thought. Seldom it seems though is there adequate acknowledgement within contemporary conservative discourse as to how it is that these dual sets of values, particularly that of social fabric and technological innovation, might actually be at serious odds with one another.[1] Indeed, if things like religion, family, culture, and tradition provide the metaphysical grounding and necessary pre-conditions for the possibility of deep social trust between and amongst persons, and things like radical technological advancement open up new and often unpredictable patterns of social behavior that can often degrade social trust, even quite severely, then how might the contemporary conservative mind adequately reconcile the two? Or is such a reconciliation even truly possible?

Acknowledgement of the close relationship between technological innovation and social values, seen from a wider philosophical and historical perspective, however, is nothing new. Within the West, thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Ellul, Shelley, and Huxley expressed strong misgivings concerning technological progress and the potential detriment to social values and social flourishing that such new technological schemes could engender. In the East, Confucius strongly advocated for the values of family and tradition and voiced deep skepticism over changes to social custom. And in the Muslim world, a strong valuing of tradition and a strict prohibition on ‘innovation’ can be found in the writings of Muhammed, Tamiyyah, and others.

Within contemporary western philosophy, acknowledgement of this deep tension between technological advancement and social cohesiveness is indeed present, however it is to be found largely at the margins of mainstream discourse. Neo-primitivist, John Zerzan, for instance, notes the radical power stratification created since the agricultural revolution and advocates for a shift back to smaller, more egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribal communities.

In his famous Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann, voices similar misgivings regarding the alienating and agency-robbing effects of 20th century technological advancement. Here he makes the distinction within technologies between a ‘thing’ and a ‘device.’ According to Borgmann, a paradigm ‘thing’ would be a wood burning stove. Its maintenance and successful use requires adult competency, vigilante supervision, intentionality, and agency. Furthermore, the ontological character of what it is and how it works is laid bare to the user. Conversely, a paradigm ‘device’, according to Borgmann, would be something like a central air heating unit. Unlike the wood burning stove, the central heating unit’s interface can be easily operated by just about anyone, even a child. Its ontological character, however, is complex, alien, and hidden behind the simplicity of its interface, and its repair and maintenance requires a large and complicated division of labor involving specialized equipment and teams of technical experts.

The world, according to Borgmann, for the modern, civilized human-being, is becoming more and more device-like, day-by-day, rendering the average person increasingly dependent upon and increasingly alienated from the very technologies he relies upon so regularly, largely to the detriment of his personal character, capacity for self-reliance, volition, and agency as well as his connection with other people, nature, and his local community.  

Acknowledgement of the tension between modern technology and traditional social values can be located even further out at the margins of acceptable discourse. In his now infamous manifesto, the green anarchist terrorist, Ted Kaczynski wrote,

The conservatives are fools: They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.

If we are allowed at all to separate ideas from actions, and can morally condemn Kaczynski’s unjust and heinous over-reaction to a set of problems while acknowledging that such problems might still exist, at least in part, then Kaczynski’s writings are both prescient and alarming. What makes them even more alarming is that Kaczynski was responding to what he saw as the socially corrosive features of industrialized society over some thirty years ago. Indeed, this was well before the mainstream presence of the internet, social media, smartphones, Big Data surveillance, cyber warfare, fake news, free HD streaming pornography, semi-autonomous drones, OnlyFans, and Tinder. Kaczynski’s point regarding the corrosive features of technological innovation and traditional values should therefore be taken seriously by contemporary conservative thinkers ostensibly concerned with the withering of family, culture, and local community, especially when considering the exponentially-increasing speed and rate of development at which technology (particularly automation, robotics, and bio-enhancement) is fast progressing.[2]

Responding in part to the unmooring elements of rapid technological advancement, coupled with growing anti-Christian sentiments within American society, Christian author, Rod Dreher, proposes the radical prescription for present-day Christians to adopt what he calls the ‘Benedict Option’ and to collectively withdraw into fully self-sustaining, isolated, rural communities distanced from the values of the contemporary mainstream. Similarly, R.R. Reno, in his essay, Return of the Strong Gods, advocates for the strong need for the institutions of religion, family, and nation to return to public life as a response to the rapid and overpowering force of technological change, unfettered free markets, and globalization (what he broadly groups under the canopy term of ‘neo-liberalism’). He writes,

The ambition of neoliberalism is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of 19th century liberalism), as well identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them. The disenchantment and weakening that define the postwar era liberate the talented and powerful to move fluidly through an increasing global system. But ordinary people end up unmoored, adrift, and abandoned, so much so that they are fueling an anti-establishment rebellion that demands the return of something solid, trustworthy, and enduring.

Given this general sentiment of a need for a return to traditional values and institutions, the American/Western conservative must therefore ask him or herself; can such values be seriously lived out, realized, and defended with any real conviction or regularity while still embracing, interfacing with, and participating in large-scale elements of 21st century technology and its related institutions?

Returning to Kaczynski’s criticism, we might ask; do conservatives and Christians sympathetic to the views of Dreher and Reno really have much of a leg to stand on in lamenting the breakdown of traditional values and social trust while still largely participating in, relying upon, and metaphysically enmeshing themselves, their habits, and their daily patterns of life in technological artifacts and values-laden technological relationships seemingly at odds with the values and social modes of being that they purport to truly care about? Likewise, can political and cultural conservatives draw, let alone effectively defend, a metaphysical line in the sand against the gale-force winds of LGBT, global capitalism, and a world without borders if their day-to-day phenomenal existence is largely dependent upon and constantly interpenetrated by things like smartphones, credit cards, fuel-powered cars, Amazon same-day delivery, high fructose corn syrup, surveillance drones, and Instagram? Is there, in fact, realistic room for some kind of middle-ground, some sort of syncretic compromise between traditional values of old and technologies of new? Latin masses and antibiotics, letters and email, horses and horse-power? Or must one ‘go full Amish’, so to speak, if one is to stand any real chance at salvaging traditional conservative values in the wake of unrelenting technological progress? These are some of the questions that conservatives will have to answer in the near future.

The synchronous, lockstep march of automated technology, global capital, cosmopolitan ‘human rights’ language, and far left socio-sexual liberation of any and all kinds is not by any accident. Indeed, these seemingly disparate elements of both the political right and political left are, in essence, metaphysically inseparable from the present system of economic and technological relations. Indeed, yoked to this 21st century mode of increased automated technology and dependency upon global commerce is an essential background narrative of ‘perpetual progress’ cashed out largely in terms of the unquestioned goods of global liberalization, increasingly radical individualism, and unending free markets. To quote Reno once more,

In place of the strong gods of traditional culture, the globalized future will be governed by the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. Our high priests will be medical experts, central bankers, and celebrity chefs.

 Since the ‘strong gods’ of faith, family, flag, and culture stand in greatest metaphysical opposition to the free flow of global commerce, facilitated by newly emerging automated technologies, it is unsurprising that the harsh language of ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘homophobia’, and ‘xenophobia’ has come so quickly and aggressively to the fore in response to the national populism of Trump and Brexit. It is similarly unsurprising to witness the recent and near ubiquitous mainstream championing of things like open-borders, ‘global citizenship,’ polyamory, or the rapid proliferation of increasingly niche victim groups (i.e. LGBTQQIIAP+) equating obscure grievances (i.e. ‘micro-aggressions’) to the level of ‘human rights violations’; language originally reserved for exclusive reference to things like slavery, torture, atrocity, and genocide. All of this language, taken together, has the overall effect of weakening the traditional metaphysical ballasts of religion, family, and nation, making way for new, more efficient global markets.   

 The consequence of this dominant narrative, particularly when it comes to current debates concerning technology, is a kind of artificially constrained debate over a pre-given set of acceptable options, whereby each option, though in opposition to one another, nonetheless both function within and in service of the existing global neoliberalist paradigm. Consequently, within debates about the dangers of automation, for instance, techno-optimists like Ray Kurzweil appeal to the coming ‘singularity’ (the anticipated merger of man with benevolent artificial intelligence) to argue for less regulation upon trans-national tech corporations.[3] Conversely, techno-skeptics such as Nick Bostrom, Noel Sharkey, and Elon Musk appeal to the imminent existential dangers of artificial intelligence in order to argue for the need for a trans-national regulative body of experts to manage A.I. development (presumably by means of yet another set of higher-order institutions and more sophisticated computer algorithms). Thus, despite such talk of the unfathomable existential danger of automation’s progress ushering humanity to certain oblivion, no one, it seems, takes seriously the idea that persons within society should take to homesteading, to more rural and local modes of living, or significantly curtail their dependency upon automation and the gig economy in general. The solutions on the table always therefore seem to be presented in the form of a constrained choice between one set of elite micro-manager experts versus another who essentially debate over the rate and speed of technological change but never its fundamental direction.

The consequence of this artificially-constrained debate between global statist elites and global corporate elites ends up being a kind of vice-like squeezing of the local from both sides. Hence, within the contemporary paradigm, on the left, statist technocrats like Al Gore will be praised for their efforts to save the environment while they generate an enormous personal carbon footprint flying to conferences around the world lecturing common people about how they can better minimize their carbon footprint by going vegan or driving hybrids. At the same time, multi-national corporations like Starbucks will be praised for releasing its newest line of fully bio-degradable coffee cups in dozens of countries worldwide while still maintaining the exact same global supply chain. Meanwhile, the local hunter/homesteader who lives off the land and whose carbon footprint is next to nothing will continue to be vilified for owning a gun or collecting his own rainwater.

Hence, the present Overton window of acceptable discourse surrounding the ethics of technology assumes a pre-given paradigm and mode of social existence whereby the paradigm itself is regarded as off-limits for debate. The forward march of technology (and global neoliberalism more generally) is taken as an inevitable, unstoppable force of nature and as an unquestionable good in the name of perpetual progress. The metaphysical direction of travel is therefore a foregone conclusion with only concerns about the speed of travel left up for serious debate. A metaphysical planting of feet is therefore forbidden; a reversing of direction of any kind whatsoever, complete heresy. Consequently, mainstream philosophical debate surrounding automated technology, at present, largely boils down to a debate over details over which scheme of technocratic elites is best equipped for governing 21st century’s automated man. It is a debate over what particular shape the next rung of the Tower of Babel should specifically take. What is not up for debate is whether this newly emerging rung, or the rung which preceded it, or the rung which preceded that one, should really exist at all; and it is that particular debate which must actually be had.

*Written on a cheap laptop in an air-conditioned apartment                                                      Somewhere, USA

[1] This tension within conservative thought is, however, becoming more prominent in contemporary conservative discourse as evidenced by the recent debate between Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson over free-market restrictions on driverless cars.  

[2] Note that Robert Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’ was written in 1995.

[3] Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, who predicts that the 21st century will usher in a new age of ‘human gods’, might also fit somewhere within this spectrum of techno-optimism and techno-pessimism.