The modern era was born from what might seem like a paradox: the uniformity of mass production creating the technological underpinnings of fragmentation. Martin Luther was in the right place at the right time, portending an epoch that was actually produced by the printing press. A divinely guaranteed text became widely accessible, but its unifying nature was dampened with the retreat of a divinely guaranteed interpreter.The spread of firearms in the early 1500s changed power dynamics, enabling the masses to become military threats to the the aristocratic warrior class. Whereas the armaments that preceded this period relied upon training and physical fitness, justifying certain hierarchies, muskets made peasants into effective killers. Mass mobilization, in all its forms, took its baby steps with the increased speed and fidelity of information transfer, and the democratization of the battlefield.
The political order, which was once based on throne and altar, was now able to be replaced with one that looked to the masses for guidance. The revolution enabled by the printing press continued as networks of communication opened up, leading to changes in the intelligentsia. The scientific revolution that resulted from greater flows of information led also created an upper class that prided itself on being scientifically literate and less bounded by ancient dogmas.
The First Industrial Revolution introduced technologies, such as the flying shuttle, which allowed unskilled workers to massively increase their productivity, and reduced the need for skilled artisans. Amidst this economic reorganization occurred both the American and French Revolutions. At the turn of the 20th Century, during the Technological Revolution, which introduced electricity into the marketplace, the demand for greater skilled labor emboldened arguments for universal education, which in turn restricted the availability of child labor. Automation of certain tasks reduced the privileges of the elite in work, and rising productivity increased the ability to generate wealth from income. Greater interconnectedness was afforded through the train, the car, and the airplane, breaking down the barriers placed by geography.
It is difficult to imagine these political shifts occurring without the technological capacity, and economic reorganization, that preceded their development. The 20th century accelerated technological development, and as a result put civilization in a near constant state of political revolution, though political commentary is often written in a way that views Industrial Revolutions in a purely historical context. In the lead up to the Brexit referendum, it was argued that the European Union as a political project had been responsible for peace in Europe, and not the advent of nuclear weapons, which greatly changed the incentives for war.
The liberal political post-war consensus has been one in which both left and right accepted a Whiggish reading of history, with simply the means of progress being attached to different sources.
The left-progressive reading sees a story of societal moral progress, one in which continued emancipation has resulted from concentrated political activism, and the spread of progressive values. Whereas our ancestors oppressed as a result of ignorance, the growth of scientific knowledge has freed us from the evils enabled by patriarchal myths and nationalistic fairy tales. Using politics to shape societies allows the remaking of individuals into a better, more egalitarian, and morally upright species. The right-progressive consensus, adopted by libertarians and neoconservatives, reads history through the lens of economic and political progress, in which markets and republicanism have led to an increase in the quality of life around the world. Markets and the rule of law incentivize competition, which leads to innovation, which leads to greater prosperity. Technology factors into both of these readings, but is never treated too closely. The left sees the benefits of new technologies in the moral character of those who wield it, while the right views innovation as an input in economic growth.
But the post-modern condition, marked by migration to cyberspace and the rise of quasi-sovereign entities like Google and Facebook, invites a return to illiberal explanations about the impersonal forces of history.
Marxists have typically held a hard deterministic view of society, with Marx himself arguing that “the Handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist”. This view, that societies are the result of technologies, and that the same technologies contain within them the societies they create, has rarely gained traction outside of communist circles, though its influence can be felt in the work of Jacques Ellul and Theodore Kaczynski.
The Catholic Church has often been a fierce critic of modernity pointing out that the social impacts of technology stretch far beyond the individualized relationship between a piece of technology and its users. Technological change in the Church’s reading resembles the role niche construction plays in certain evolutionary theories. As humans create a technological society, the technology creates a new type of human as specific tools mediate our interactions with the natural and social environment.
The most comprehensive treatment of of the Church’s view of society and technology appears in Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical treating the topic of artificial contraception. It rejects as sinful the use of contraceptives with the intention of wilfully preventing the conception of child, though accepts them in the cases of medical need if the contraceptive effects were unintended. The argument follows that the intention behind the production and use of a technology shapes the social ramifications that it carries. Technology such as the birth control pill is neither inherently good nor evil, but its use is not independent of the social environment in which it was produced. The purpose of its production was to separate sexual activity from its natural consequence, reproduction, and this intention carried with it significant social ramifications that were accurately predicted in the encyclical. The separation of sex from reproduction led to greater atomization between partners by eliminating a natural need for commitment. As a result, marital instability became more common, negatively affecting the children born to broken homes. At the same time, sex became a good in and of itself, independent of the natural consequences by which its pleasure derived, resulting in a sexual marketplace characterized by inequality, empowering the fit and frustrating the weak.
That these predictions could be made with such clarity from the moment that a new innovation was birthed provides lessons today to those seeking political victory in an increasingly digitized age. The combination of the smartphone and ubiquitous internet access has led to the world of the individual becoming increasingly based on interconnection without the need for physical proximity. Such was the direct intention of the producers of these technologies. The platforms built atop smartphone infrastructures encourage constant interaction, information generation, and collaboration without barriers. They encourage a mimesis through which people see reflections of themselves in others, and seek to become more themselves through others.
Such a digitally intermediated world, perhaps counter-intuitively, carries with it the possibility of a less atomized future, one marked by communities of interests replacing the communities of geography. The lack of territory that characterize these online social groups make them less subject to the regulation of nation-states directly, unless one takes the Chinese approach and regulates the physical world’s ability to interact with the digital, rather than regulating the digital itself. This lessening of state political influence, however, does not lessen the political nature of these communities, which are subject to policing, exclusion, and internal laws set up by those who govern them.
There exists those that reject the values created by the current platforms that mediate online interaction, and have sought to create alternative technological bases for cyberspace. This is not the same as replicating existing platforms with different rules of content moderation, but developing new methods of interaction. Urbit, a crypto-decentralization project, is one of these cases: it intends to build a “new internet on top of the old internet.” Its goal is to create a consistent digital identity rather than fracturing one’s online persona, allowing for the creation of authentic communities of individuals online in opposition to the rootless cyberspace of the present. In such technologies, with their retreat into immutability and trust, we can see the arc of anthropological truth.
What a political understanding of these technologies teaches us then about the modern technological paradigm is that the locus of the political resides in the digital. It resides less on the concerns of the physical world, but on concerns that can exist in cyberspace, concerns of voice and thought. Political influence then is gained through an influence in this domain, and those conservatives who naively believe that they can be both pro-innovation without respect to the political ramifications of those innovations will disappear into history. The politics of cyberspace will increasingly prevail over the deliberative theater of the nation-state.
Ryan Khurana is the executive director of the Institute for Advancing Prosperity. Follow him on Twitter.