How I Became a Techno-Futurist (Kind Of)

A response to Patrick Deneen on the compatibility of traditionalism and dynamism.

Of the conservative or “post-liberal” responses to our decadent society that I discussed in my last post, there’s a division — sometimes plain, some implicit — between those who are primarily interested in acceleration and those who are interested more in regeneration. The first attitude regards the growth-and-technology machine of the modern world as something that’s stalled out and needs to be restarted; the sclerosis of central governments as something that needs to be shaken off for the sake of a new American century; the collapse of birthrates as an economic and national security challenge as well as a signifier of cultural decline; the constant failure of our meritocratic elite as a sign that we need a new and better leadership class; and so on. This is the Californian-Thielian-nationalist school of right-wing anti-decadence, the “industrial policy and flying cars” school, the school that encompasses Silicon Valley libertarians (and ex-libertarians), Claremont Institute re-founders, Israeli political theorists, and a lot of the essays published in American Affairs.

The second attitude is more traditionally conservative, more skeptical of technology’s promise and effects, and more convinced that the West has reached not just a decadent lull in its development, but a grim terminus from which the only useful direction is back. The federal government will not save us, Silicon Valley can only draw us deeper into atomization and anomie, going into space will leave us no less existentially adrift, life extension is a dystopian dead end. Our salvation lies in the local and traditional, in a reconnection to place, a return to the natural world and the human scale of things — the family and the parish and the school, and in politics the polis of the neighborhood or town or city, not the overextended empire or the decaying nation-state.

This is the crunchier and more religious school of anti-decadence — the school of the homeschooling co-op and the classical Christian academy and all manner of traditionalisms, and in the intellectual scene the school of Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen above all.

The division between these schools is not a perfect binary by any means. Many of the accelerationists are also religious, heretical in some cases but traditionalist in others, excited to send missionaries into space and plant oratories on the moon. (One of the editors of American Affairs is a noted Catholic integralist, for instance.) And many regenerative conservatives acknowledge the necessity of national policy to the local renaissances they imagine: Here is Deneen himself doing so, in a speech to the National Conservatism Conference that otherwise reads as a mild rebuke of the nationalist form of anti-decadence.

But where to strike the balance between the two impulses — up or back, dynamist or preservationist, techno-optimist or tech-skeptical — is a crucial question for the right today. And Deneen’s own review of The Decadent Society makes the case that I have struck the balance wrong, that I’m much too hopeful that innovation will somehow save us from a period of corruption that innovation itself has brought upon us, that I need less Peter Thiel and more Henry Adams, less dynamism and more conservatism:

This diagnosis of decadence as the deceleration of technological progress and the corresponding solution to decadence as reacceleration bookends Douthat’s book, but it’s the constant presence of Adamsian doubts that generates tensions between Douthat’s hopes for technology, on the one hand, and skepticism toward progressivism, on the other. Many of his markers of decadence—particularly declining birthrates, institutional sclerosis, cultural repetition, and soft or “kindly” despotism—would be better described through the lens of Adams than Thiel. Douthat’s own analysis of these phenomena often reveals them to be more like forms of decay due to apparent progress than he is often willing to explicitly recognize, leading to a persistent disconnect between claim and conclusion that he seems intent on maintaining.

Thus today’s demographic decline, Deneen suggests, is the bitter fruit of a great technological leap forward: The invention of the birth control pill. Today’s political sclerosis reflects the attempts by would-be scientists of politics to rationalize the party system and the Congress, with polarization and stalemate as their consequences. In these and many other cases, we can see a conservative worldview vindicated: The so-called wisdom of men is often a higher foolishness, what seems like progress is often a speedier path to decay and dissolution, and the preservation of human civilization requires much more preservation and transmission, and less future-oriented techno-optimism, than Western society from the dynamo to the iPhone has tended to assume.

So Deneen writes in gentle disappointment that this theme is not the primary one in The Decadent Society, that I seem to enamored of space flight or some other deus ex machina. He would rather that I joined Adams in championing the Virgin over the dynamo, the cathedral over the Eiffel Tower, the ancient tradition of stewardship over and against the modern faith that capitalist destruction will always somehow be “creative.”

To a mild extent I think he wrongs me. My book begins and end with the moon landing and visions of a human future beyond the pale blue dot, but I tried to be scrupulous in arguing that there is no single cure for decadence, that certain apparent breakthroughs could themselves become agents of stagnation (as the internet has been, and other forms of technological progress might prove to be), and that if we get a true renaissance it will probably involve art and faith and politics as much as tech, sparks blossoming into flame in many different areas at once. To quote the penultimate chapter:

Instead of a single primary cause — life extension! #fullsocialism! a religious awakening! — driving all the secondary ones, a real renaissance would look more like the birth of the modern world, when the Renaissance and the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and the scientific revolutions and the age of discovery were happening on top of one another, influencing each other and driving each other forward in ways that historians have been unpacking and repackaging, explaining and reexplaining all at once.

But this passage also makes clear that I am a dynamist of sorts in The Decadent Society, rooting for technological progress in a way that’s at odds with the traditionalism embodied by many writers, especially Catholic writers, that I generally admire. And this does reflect something of a change in attitude for me. I came to my conservatism through J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, not Julian Simon or Ayn Rand, and if you had asked me about my attitude toward science and technology and the mastery of nature back when I was a young reactionary, I would have probably taken a version of the Ian-Malcolmian view from Jurassic Park, worrying more about the hubris of scientists and the dehumanizing aspects of modern tech than the perils of not having enough progress, enough churn and flux and change.

Today I’m still a traditionalist in my doubts about moral progress, and still a Malcolmian skeptic in my attitudes toward certain specific forms of tech. For instance, I think the battle to master the internet, to rule information technology rather than letting it rule us, is crucial to human flourishing, and it’s not a battle we’re winning at the moment. And I’m definitely a skeptic of a triumphalist scientism, in the new- atheist or Neil DeGrasse Tyson molds.

But even if I don’t f—-ing love science, as the memes have it, I nonetheless regard the age of the dynamo a little differently than Henry Adams did. “Writing against the spirit of the age,” Deneen writes, Adams “sought to redirect our wonder. When asked which figure inspired greater devotion, awe, and sacrifice—the Virgin or the Electric Goddess of Progress—Adams had no doubt. Human civilization had declined.”

Maybe — but in the light of hindsight we can see that at the time of the 1900 World’s Fair, Western Christianity was in many respects more culturally powerful and institutionally resilient, not just than it would be one hundred years later, but than it had been one hundred years earlier, in the time of Adams’ most famous ancestor. That is to say, the 19th century, the age of industrial progress and scientific ferment, the age of the steamship and railroad and so many famous encounters with the technological sublime, was also a period of revival and mobilization for Christian churches on a scale that few people in the much-less pious year of 1800 could have possibly foreseen. The years of England’s industrial revolution was also an era of evangelical and Anglo-Catholic revival; the France that raised the Eiffel Tower also raised the the Sacre-Coeur; the century of the steam engine was also the century of the Immaculate Conception. Given the chance to choose between the Dynamo and the Virgin, 19th century Europe appeared to actually choose both.

(As, in their way, did medieval Christians, since the High Middle Ages would not have been so high without their own rush of scientific progress.)

I was struck by something similar when I was writing about the post-World War II Christian revival in the United States for my now-decade-old book Bad Religion. In defending that revival against critics who deemed it just a superficial or consumerist form of religious faith, I couldn’t help noticing that it coincided with a period of intense technical and scientific optimism, however complicated by atomic-age anxieties. The last major Christian revival in the Western world, in other words, literally happened in the (brief, truncated) Space Age.

Then the subsequent divisions and decline of institutional Christianity, the main subject of Bad Religion, began around the same time, near the same inflection point, as the deceleration of Western economic growth and the stagnation in technological progress that accelerationists now aspire to see reversed. And the capital-S Science that endured, thereafter, in our more secularized era — a Science invoked like a talisman against religious conservatives in moral controversies, even as it increasingly fails to generate the kind of reliable results promised by its cultural mystique — increasingly feels like something out of the stagnant world of Aldous Huxley:

“Yes,” Mustapha Mond was saying, “that’s another item in the cost of stability. It isn’t only art that’s incompatible with happiness; it’s also science. Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.”

“What?” said Helmholtz, in astonishment. “But we’re always saying that science is everything. It’s a hypnopaedic platitude.”

“Three times a week between thirteen and seventeen,” put in Bernard.

“And all the science propaganda we do at the College …”

“Yes; but what sort of science?” asked Mustapha Mond sarcastically. “You’ve had no scientific training, so you can’t judge. I was a pretty good physicist in my time. Too good—good enough to realize that all our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook. I’m the head cook now. But I was an inquisitive young scullion once. I started doing a bit of cooking on my own. Unorthodox cooking, illicit cooking. A bit of real science, in fact.” He was silent.

Which pointed me toward the tentative hypothesis that informs The Decadent Society’s take on science and religion — that for all their vast differences they also have certain important things in common that can cause them to effectively move together, scientific curiosity with theological speculation, technical innovation with communal fervor, the laboratory buzzing while the pews are packed nearby. From the same chapter quoted above:

… scientific and religious experiments proceed from a similar desire for knowing, a similar belief that the universe is patterned and intelligible and that its secrets might somehow be unlocked. Which is why in periods of real intellectual ferment and development, there is often a general surge of experimentation that extends across multiple ways of seeking knowledge, from the scientific and experimental, to the theological and mystical, to the gray zones and disputed territories in between.

Thus, the assumption, common to rationalists today, that religion represents a form of unreason that science has to vanquish on its way to new ages of discovery, is as mistaken as the religious reflex that regards the scientific mind-set as an inevitable threat to the pious simplicities of faith … As much as the relationship between science and religion can be adversarial, there can also be a mysterious alchemy between the two forms of human exploration. And nothing will be a surer sign that decadence has ended in something like a renaissance than if that alchemy suddenly returns.

Again, this does not imply that religious people should be thoughtless Whigs welcoming every new technology as a simple beneficence, or that they should suspend their moral judgment when considerings its application. Nor is there any reason to assume that when religious impulses intertwine with scientific ambitions the religious sentiments will always be benign or kindly ones; it is perfectly possible to imagine some kind of occult transhumanism intertwining with a cruel technological prometheanism, as happened in one of the West’s most powerful countries not so long ago. There might be dark technological scenarios ahead of us where Christians and conservatives will be obliged to be simple Luddites, or even leaders of a Butlerian Jihad.

But by the same token, there are also scenarios for Christian or conservative renewal that would depend on modern scientific breakthroughs, that indeed would be impossible without them. Deneen invokes the birth control pill as an example of how a technological advance yielded a demographic decline; I think the history of the demographic transitions suggests a somewhat stronger role for culture (e.g. the specific ‘60s timing of the pill’s arrival mattered as much as the contraceptive tech itself), but the basic point still holds. And yet: In exactly the same decade, modern science also delivered the Green Revolution, which made a new world where it was suddenly far easier for people (Catholics, Christians, anyone) to have large families without worrying about either a private or national version of the Malthusian trap.

So if John Rock’s pill prevented many millions of human beings from being conceived and born, Norman Borlaug’s crops enabled many other millions to live and thrive and grow. And in a world of eight billion people, there is no way for conservatives to imagine demographic decadence giving way to large families and youthful populations once again without yet more Borlaug-style innovation, agro-science, supercrops, vertical farms, the works. (Or, alternatively, without a lot of transports headed for the off-world colonies.)

This puts a certain limit, I think on conservative pastoralism. Just as there is wisdom in Henry Adams there is wisdom in Wendell Berry, and in the pastoralist tradition writ large. But I don’t see a Wendell Berry option, exactly, for the world of twenty or thirty billions — and that’s the future that traditionalists, by their own premises about faith and family and fertility, are obliged to earnestly desire.

Here I suppose I am a Thielian, in the sense that his observation that the Bible begins with a garden but ends in a city seems like one that any Christian imagining a future for a society of billions upon billions is obliged to take to heart. But with the proviso that some of the most beautiful gardens are found inside cities, and just as the gothic revival and the Arts and Crafts movement and the great works of Frederick Law Olmsted came out of an industrial age, so too some future pastoralist or neo-medievalist movement might be entangled with dynamism in other spheres, reactive against its excesses but also dependent upon its benefits.

Now it’s true that if the world as it exists today goes down with a great crash, then all these questions become moot. But if our civilization endures in something like its present form — and it appears that it will at least survive the Covid era — then anyone who seeks its renewal along traditionalist lines must be a dynamist of some sort, must desire scientific progress of some kind, if only because the basic arithmetic of population growth requires it. Not all acceleration is desirable, but there is no regeneration without acceleration of some kind.

One last point: Since the intellectual is invariably personal, I should note that my own views here have probably been shaped by my family’s recent experience, our own attempted return to a more bucolic, pastoral way of life — and certain disasters that ensued. But that’s a story for a different book.