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.

Happy Holidays.

© 2013 – 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Brilliant, David. Thanks. You are an exceptional American pilgrim of our time. 🙂

  • Good toast!

    The thing about ‘technology will save us’ is that it ends further thought about .. well .. anything (to the ‘techno-faithful’).
    “They” have the ‘answer’, so i need not ask any further questions- sort of thing.

    ALWAYS question people selling you ultimate answers. Especially when there’s profit motive involved.

  • It’s refreshing, and all too rare, when anyone articulately questions the techno-utopian visions uttered by people with a financial stake in the cultural adjustments they’re endorsing. When Mark Zuckerberg announces that our definition of privacy is “evolving,” only the naive should fail to note the “evolving” corporate fortunes fueling his strikingly self-serving analysis of modern culture, yet few commentators with the opposing viewpoint seem to garner as much attention as a Zuckerberg. Bill Gates before him expounded endlessly on the incredible gains for human flourishing that would follow the placement of computers on every school desk. This was never questioned (so it seemed). He was so rich, so he must be right, right?

    Where this blind belief in the transformative power of technology is most sadly applied is in the world of international development. Desperate always for sweeping solutions to the worlds very real and terrible problem, loud, arrogant Silicon Valley types riding in with plans to end all privation–which always seem to include the widespread adoption of products or services from which they will probably profit from financially–is more appealing than continuing to slog along the slower, more analytic road. Andy they’re rich too.

    The problem in front of us is simply this: the disruption of cultural and economic norms that have transpired in the last 20 or so years are profound. They are also so astonishing, and have occurred so rapidly and with so much complexity that most of our trusted institutions–academics, journalists and various cultural critics–haven’t reached any sort of consensus to help us understand the upsides and downsides for the rest of us. Add to the the bully pulpits erected by the techno-utopians–TED Talks, social media sites, viral YouTube missives–which have given those with mastery of the technology an advantage in using it to communicate more effectively than those who would rely more on the rapidly disappearing media landscapes of old. In other words, the tech giants of information and communications technology are using that technology to communicate a self-serving, best-case-scenario worldview in an environment that doesn’t provide anything resembling equal time to critics of that view.

    It’s going to take a while yet (if it’s even possible) to rebalance the debate on the place of technology in our lives and societies. David is doing a great job of adding to that effort. Great. post.

  • Mike wrote : “…They are also so astonishing, and have occurred so rapidly and with so much complexity that most of our trusted institutions–academics, journalists and various cultural critics–haven’t reached any sort of consensus to help us understand the upsides and downsides for the rest of us…

    It’s even worse than that..
    The people who would traditionally cover/uncover this sort of thing are being put out of business by the very folk of whom we speak.

    Investigative Journalism has always been the balancing force that kept people & companies on their toes and on the up-and-up. Sadly, now that the tech companies have all but destroyed journalism, who will look out for the masses? Government? they’ve infiltrated that too…

    We are experiencing a power-shift / land-grab on such scale that the world has never in its’ history born witness to… hold on tight, we’re all being taken for a ride —whether you like it or not!

    • The situation with journalism is way more complex than that. (I make at least some of my income through freelancing).

      Traditional investigative journalism does still exist, even if it’s been hit by financial cutbacks. But both the NSA revelations and the phone-hacking scandal were made possible by good old fashioned journalistic practice.

      You’re overstating the impact of the tech companies somewhat. There has been a real issue with aggregators, like Huffington Post. They’re the ones taking content and hits without any benefit to the hacks or the publication that put in the work.

      The other major issue is a more general cultural one. Because it got established early on that journalism was free, it’s really hard to get people to pay for it. I agree with Levine on this, that’s a real problem. It also is going to have to resolve itself, one way or another. The current situation simply is not sustainable. For various reasons, online advertising will never be able to replace the income from print advertising and that would apply even if Google weren’t in the picture.

      Sooner or later, subscription models are going to be brought in. It’s a matter of when, not if. That’s not going to be expensive, necessarily. For a reasonably sized niche journalism website, if every regular reader paid a dollar a month, that would be enough to pay all the journalists and editors, although possibly not subeditors, factcheckers etc.

      The rise of blogging has been a good thing overall. At its best, it keeps us sharp. (I’m not someone who whines about how the fall of traditional gatekeepers has led to more competition. That’s healthy). It also has led to a potential recruitment pool and it’s a good way of getting a lead on a story. Especially foreign bloggers, who may well be somewhere that a media organisation can’t afford to station people regularly. The Internet has also led to the possibility of more niche fields getting a wider audience- whether that’s hard science, jazz or historical reenactment.

      But really, the main issue has been the rise of the grocers and that was the case before the Internet took off. We have an increasing number of owners who are only interested in profit, not journalism, so they want to cut costs as much as possible. It’s that which has led to less time in the field, heavy staffing cuts, the decimation of the local newspaper industry, taking stories directly from the PA without checking them, rewriting of corporate press releases etc. All of these things overlap, obviously. The fact they were already happening before the recession just aggravates them in the current economic climate.

      But the grocers are the real enemy here. The tech industry, frankly, is a bit of a sideshow.

      Note that this only applies to journalism in the west and more specifically in the US and the UK, both of which I know a fair bit about. India and Brazil are the places to watch; they both have a growing middle class and the associated growing media to go with that. China as well, though that’s obviously complicated by the restrictions on the freedom of the press there.

  • Great article! I wrote a song about these same things. I hope you enjoy it:

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