What hath Edmund Burke to do with Mark Zuckerberg? Quite a lot, actually.
Like many people, I have been intermittently following the media coverage of the Cambridge Analytics debacle. Getting into a data job for one of the tech giants (or one of their many smaller-scale but equally ambitious imitators) was one of my aspirations in my first year or so after graduating from college with a bachelor’s in statistics. Over time, that interest started to decline as my perception of the tech-sphere soured, and I have become increasingly skeptical of the enormous power and socio-technological capital centered into a relatively few hands in Silicon Valley. Something about the messiah-archetype that Mark Zuckerberg et al. seem to fill in many people’s minds (including his own) puts me off, and I must confess I’ve found a certain level of satisfaction in seeing Facebook finally being exposed to the level of scrutiny to which it ought to have been subject from the beginning.
At the same time that all of this has been going on, I’ve been rereading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), for unrelated reasons. It’s no secret to anyone whose reading has gone beyond the comments section at Breitbart and Salon that principles of liberal democracy have been under increased discussion in the past few years, with Trump’s ascension to the White House and the populist right-wing movements in Europe. I’ve found that a growingly influential segment of conservative or right-leaning commentators (Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Bari Weiss, etc.) have been adopting the label of “classical liberal,” with an appeal to what the liberal political tradition arising from the Enlightenment allegedly was before devolving into the self-congratulatory leftism of private colleges and the New Yorker. All of this goes hand-in-hand with the immediate pervasiveness, as sudden as Athena from the head of Zeus, of the term “illiberal” as a political put-down equally favored by the left and the right. I cannot recall having seen the term used once prior to 2016, but I’m sure none of the readers of this blog need to be told how common it’s become in political discourse in the last year.
My suspicions are always aroused whenever seemingly vague terms like “classical liberal” and its antinomy become widely used in a very short period of time. The manipulation of language is quite an easy path towards the manipulation of public opinion. To avoid thoughtlessly using terms whose origins I don’t know well, I’ve begun immersing myself in some of the foundational political works of the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with Burke, and with the intention of moving on to John Locke, David Hume, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, etc.
One of the things that’s struck me in reading Reflections is how much time Burke devotes to talking about human nature and psychology, as distinct from merely practical political questions. Hardly a page goes by in which he doesn’t relate his argument about the role of the state and our duties to it back to his conception of human nature. Much of the argument up to the point I’ve read so far (a little over halfway through) could be summed up in the statement that because tradition so powerfully shapes human nature and society in its own image, swift changes from old systems of government and religion can endanger the public stability.
Burke’s primary application of this principle is to the political comparison of England’s traditional monarchy with the French Revolution, of course, but it has struck me while reading him that his argument is applicable the modern controversy over social media and new technology generally. All of us are familiar with the dueling thinkpieces over the goodness or badness of this or that technological advance: social media, virtual reality, the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to consumer data, increased surveillance, and so on. One of the objections most commonly made to criticisms of new technology is that these suspicions are only a case of rehashed fears from the past. There has been a transmigration of hysteria, we are told, from fears of the social effects of trains and cars, to fears of radio and telephones, to fears of television and video games, to present-day fears about Twitter, Tinder, and mass unemployment from AI automation. But in every case in the past, the world didn’t come to an end – in fact, it got better. Therefore, the anti-Luddites conclude, suspicion of novelty is little more than clickbait alarmism.
I find much of this argument strikingly naive, not the least because it’s simply untrue that the world didn’t change for the worse in response to any of the above-mentioned technologies – the global environmental threat from mass pollution and destruction of Earth’s natural resources necessary to fuel our car habits and consumerism is perhaps the most obvious, although many others could be named. But the thing that stands out to me about this argument in the context of reading Burke is the implicit assumption that new technology comes to us with a presumption in favor of its social good, or at least neutrality. If someone thinks that having children growing up with their earliest moments documented on Facebook is a bad thing, for instance, the burden of proof is on him to show why it is – and until this is done, we ought to assume that such concerns are alarmism.
The assumption that there should be a presumption in favor of new technology is dangerously naive. It underestimates both the extent to which technology changes us, in ways that can be very difficult to alter in the future, and the extent to which we simply have no idea what the long-run effects of things like smartphones and social media will actually be. In short, it ignores the insight Edmund Burke articulated over two hundred years ago: overturning the way society works can produce completely unforeseen consequences that may not appear for decades or more, and the greater the revolution, the greater the potential for evil change. Scholarly studies on these things have already begun, of course, and not infrequently are unfavorable in their evaluations. But even academic studies can only do so much – how can we possibly extrapolate with high confidence to the effects over the next century of technology that is in many cases less than ten years old and changing at a faster rate than anything in human history?
It may in fact be the case that concerns about social media and such are overblown, though I think they are not. That isn’t the point. The point is that we would never adopt the same presumption of goodness towards novelties in other segments of life that the anti-Luddites apply to technology. Everyone recognizes why it would be absurd and even criminally reckless for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new psychiatric drug after only a couple of months of testing on a relatively small sample size of people, and even more outrageous to do so if it was expected that the drug would be of very wide use in the population. Similarly, while many may not possess the in-depth knowledge of foreign politics to be able to articulate well why a given policy change with, say, Russia or North Korea might be good or bad, everyone understands that adopting a completely new set of policy platforms and international relations over something that has worked in the past without thought or deliberation would be reckless in the extreme.
In cases like these, people naturally understand that novelty as such is suspect. It is the new proposal that must make its case for its superiority over the existing paradigm, not the other way around. To embrace a new path without examining it as thoroughly as we reasonably can is foolish, and we need not have any particular reason to think the new proposal is dangerous to still believe that adopting it thoughtlessly is wrong. Why don’t people apply the same reasoning to technology?
I suspect no small part of the reason is because we seldom think of just how great of a capacity technology possesses to change us in ways that are impossible to predict in advance, and very difficult to reverse or control after the fact. But it is indisputable that it does. And the odd thing is that the same people who push the most for the rush into the technological utopia of Silicon Valley tend to be political liberals – the very group of people who are the most attuned to the largest case of technology changing society in a dangerous way that is difficult to reverse, namely, climate change. Why they often fail to make the application to how we think about new technology is, I must confess, a puzzle to me.
In considering what grounds we might have for skepticism about the uncritical market acceptance (the only acceptance that really matters in a society driven by consumption, as it virtually guarantees a de facto ideological acceptance in the long-run by sheer force of attrition) of whatever new technology comes down the pipeline in light of the sharper scrutiny put on Facebook and company after the 2016 elections, we would do well to keep Burke’s principles in mind. The swift overturn of old ways of life can create widespread changes that are, for practical purposes, irreversible. The more closely these changes affect the day-to-day inner life of the average person, the more capacity they have to drastically change the soul of a society. And the longer-term the effects of the changes may be, the less certain we can be whether the changes are in fact going to be good or bad.
As an addendum, lest anyone be tempted to think that my argument here is solely the possession of the right, I encourage my readers to follow the commentary of the politically liberal Georgetown professor Cal Newport on social media and smartphones. Newport is himself a professor of computer science and an MIT graduate who has commented with increasingly regularity over the past few years about his worries over the more or less automatic acceptance of whatever happens to come down the silicon pipeline. He is one of a considerable number of people writing from outside the traditional right-wing sphere who have been publicly critical of the modern technological religion, and I hope to write in the future in more detail on some of their criticisms.