Thanksgiving and Techno-Exceptionalism
As Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, thoughts turn to the subject of American exceptionalism, seeded by those zealous pilgrims who set out from England to establish their New Jerusalem on the American continent. I don’t mean the supposedly freedom-seeking, mythological caricatures with the dumb hats the kids are told about in school, but the flesh-and-blood puritans whose presumptively divine chosen-ness still reverberates in American political rhetoric to this day. If you are unfamiliar with historian Sarah Vowell, I recommend her book The Wordy Shipmates in either text or audio form on this subject. Vowell is dry to the point of coarse, and with a childlike reading voice reminiscent of Linus from the Peanuts cartoons, she recounts a tale that seeks to balance the nobility and brutality of the puritan adventure as embodied in John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, who set out for the American continent in 1630 on the flagship Arbella.
“The only thing more dangerous than an idea, is a belief…” begins Vowell, as she proceeds in Chapter One to connect John Cotton’s Old Testament-inspired send off of the puritans to the recurring theme of divine permission which is an oft-implied justification for America’s semi-imperial role in the world. “The New Testament is to the puritans what the blues was to the Rolling Stones,” writes Vowell, referring in particular to Matthew 5:14 whence comes the many references to the United States as a “city on a hill.” Or as Ronald Reagan said, “A shining city on a hill.”
I agree with Vowell that belief can be very dangerous because it’s hard for large populations to subscribe to any orthodoxy without someone getting hurt. Consider then that the orthodox view of the digital age is that technology will set us free, particularly social media, if we simply enter into a covenant with its commandments (see Terms of Service). Consider futher the evangelism of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who preaches the open flow of information as though, like the word of God, it can only bring about universal enlightenment and tear down the tyranny of nation-states (and also make Google wealthier and more powerful, but let’s not worry about that now). In an older post, I criticized an excerpt from Schmidt’s book, co-authored with Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, which warns against balkanization of the internet. While it is right from our perspective to hope for repressive societies like China or Iran to become less so, I think it is over simplistic to believe that information technology alone must inevitably breed democratic reform like John Winthrop believed his flock of New Israelites would fruitfully multiply out of Boston Harbor. Turns out human history is more complex than that — that “information” isn’t even information because one man’s truth is another’s heterodoxy.
As reported recently here by Bloomberg, Schmidt proclaimed, “We can end government censorship in a decade. The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everything.” On one hand, Schmidt is referring again to societies like China where real suppression of information and speech exists, and he offers what again sounds like an oversimplified proposal that encrypted communications will magically seed democratic reform in China, as though the long, complex history of the Chinese people simply didn’t exist. It’s a form of techno-exceptionalism reminiscent of crusaders or pilgrims or missionaries, who presume to bring “the word” to cultures whose frames of reference are misunderstood or ignored. Take for instance the political power of Vladimir Putin and the hideous trend toward mistreatment of homosexuals in Russia. These crimes don’t persist due to a lack of information, but because Putin enjoys massive support from a base within the Russian Orthodox Church. Tyranny is most often not the result of populations who live in ignorance, but rather the result of populations who freely choose to follow tyrants.
In his prediction about encryption, Schmidt is of course playing to the sentiments of Americans and other westerners who feel our intelligence community has run amok, and that we’re all now under the government microscope slipping toward a police state. In either case, Schmidt implies that if we simply put our faith in technology companies to provide technological panaceas like encryption, we will not only become a freer America, but a freer world. It’s a message that might play well among a generation of nascent technophiles who have good reason to be frustrated by existing systems of governance, but it’s also big business SOP — a populist-sounding idea that serves a corporate bottom line. In much the same way the English puritans felt Christianity had been bastardized by the Church of England, and worse by Rome, it is not unreasonable I think to say that many Americans believe democracy could be made “more pure” through technology. It’s a tempting notion, but it is a transfer of power that may be more insidious than it sounds.
Schmidt, of course, makes no mention of what tech companies themselves might be allowed to do in ten years with our encrypted communications, although it is certainly true that at this moment, the content of your Gmail is scanned in order to deliver “relevant” ads to your online experience. But this is merely an annoying hypocrisy compared to the potentially regressive world view Schmidt is projecting. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s just talking about eradicating “government surveillance,” but about eradicating the concept of government as we know it and starting over as techno-Isrealites destined to cross the event horizon of the singularity, as unsure of our fate as the puritans sailing across the Atlantic. Why? Because his prediction cannot come true without shifting our faith from human oversight to computer oversight; and human oversight is the foundation of our republic.
You might counter that, sure, orthodoxy can be dangerous, but those 17th century puritans seeded a whole nation; but I’d point out that the America you probably love — the America that produces rock-n-roll and pluralism and Hunter Thompson and even Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin — owes more to the free-trading, tolerant Dutch of New Amsterdam than the devout and utopian New Englanders. The point is that our functioning, democratic republic is an exceptional and very rare thing predicated on no single belief or mechanism; and we should be truly thankful every year that it continues to exist for all its imperfections. Yes, it feels dysfunctional much of the time, and I will argue that’s because it’s still human. And just as we get together at this time of year with friends and relatives with whom we may find fault or argue, we maintain the ritual because, for better or worse, we’re family. By the same token, I prefer to put my faith in other humans to address a problem like surveillance overreach than I would subscribe to the blind hope that some corporation’s algorithm will flawlessly look out for our best interests.
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