I came late to conservatism, so there are a number of things I spend time puzzling out, which perhaps do not seem odd to those who grew up in it (or embraced it earlier). The narrative of technology and progress is one of these. I read, and enjoy, Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, but they buy in rather unreservedly to a critique of modern American capitalism, and take, as a point of contrast, an earlier agrarian time period, frequently making an appeal to the world of their parents or grandparents.

The historical narrative has always struck me as a little curious. This fantastic New Yorker review of a book on American technological progress in the 19th century does a good job of reminding the reader how early many of the changes we might lament set in.

In particular, I recommend the section that begins "Historical narratives in which machines drive history look like this: x machine produces y kind of society." It intrigued me because it makes a connection back to at least some of the technology-driven critique of contemporary life. Phrased in the way quoted, the sentiment is clearly Marxist (the means of production determine the stage of economic development)--and, indeed, Lapore goes on to quote Marx. But surely conservatism doesn't require technological determinism of this kind?

Lapore gives a number of examples of this kind of reasoning, and then goes on to ask the questions I have in mind:

These statements have a ring of truth; they’re useful, insightful, and worth considering. And, at first glance, they’re pleasing: you can picture the steam engine, the clock, the light bulb, the printing press, the cotton gin, the Pill, the automobile. You find yourself silently nodding in agreement. Technology changes our lives all the time, in little ways and big ways, sometimes profoundly, very often for good, and sometimes for very great good. Really, it’s not such a big leap to believe that technology drives change, and drives history. Asked to guess which is the more powerful force in history—gadgets you can tinker with or wispy, diaphanous ideas—most people would put their money on gadgets. And why not? The printing press versus, say, predestination isn’t really a fair fight, unless you’ve got a lot of time to think about it, and to read books—printed on a printing press. In some parts of these United States, daily life is like living in a museum dedicated to the proposition that technology is destiny.

But what if x isn’t all that triggers y, or even what mostly does; what if it just looks that way, because we are living y? It’s easy to forget that some of these y’s started long before the x’s, suburbs before automobiles. And none of the x’s tell the whole story; the Pill, while not a small thing, wasn’t everything. Statements like “The light bulb ushered in the age of abundance” employ a grammar suspiciously like that of advertising copy. Viagra will save your marriage. Electronic voting will restore faith in American democracy. The iPod will make you groovy.

This is not to be critical of any particular rejection of technology (many things one can and should do without), nor even the conscious choice to find meaning in something other than the usual sites; but when I start to think about how it's supposed to work across culture or society more generally, I'm not entirely sure how the critique is supposed to function, how we verify that it's correct, and whether the remedy suggested might actually solve the problem.

(And this is always, it seems to me, swamped by the demand-side problem. I have a friend working on architecture and politics in the context of radical democratic theory; his prospectus was very hostile to the residential patterns that emerged in the US after World War II. He did an excellent job of showing that, because of the architectural theory, what was being offered had a characteristic form, but did not even address why people wanted to live in those houses and neighborhoods--false consciousness and poor decision-making can only account for so much. That is to say, it's not just conservatism that has this problem in our contemporary context, but it does rule out certain options--like the coercive force of the state--in pursuing a solution.)

No comments: