TCS Daily

Politics of Progress

By James R. Harrigan - May 2, 2003 12:00 AM

America has long defined itself not in terms of present conditions, but in terms of future possibilities. Progress has been part and parcel of the American ethos from colonial days forward, and some of our best thinkers and politicians have understood America exclusively through the lens of inherent possibility. From the signatory pledge of Sacred Honor in the Declaration of Independence to Reagan's Shining City on a Hill, our collective vision of the promise of America has been ceaselessly forward-looking.

This progress was almost exclusively political at first, but it blossomed in short order to include virtually every facet of American life. Abundant raw materials and decentralized political authority conspired to create an economic juggernaut the likes of which the world is not likely to see again. A political revolution ultimately begat a technological one, and this unlikely child of American politics has proceeded at its own accelerated pace since inception. Progress has been relentless. Completion of the process is an absurdity.

The story of politics and technology in America, however, is one of countervailing trends. As technological progress continued in exponential terms, American politics became mired in a morass of self-loathing. The ability to control technological advance though political means was, for structural reasons, an impossibility. Technology took on a life of its own, and a healthy fear was born. The result was nothing less than the predicted death of individualism, the homogenization of once vital communities, and the secularization of American life.

Diminished individualism was the primary concern of Richard Weaver in the 1960s, when he detailed "a massive trend toward uniformity and regimentation" in the modern world. This trend, he contended, was a direct result of what he termed "the products of modern technology," products which would in the end create "an order which makes expression or even retention of individuality increasingly difficult." This fear was reinforced by a strand of religious thought most fully developed by Christopher Dawson which holds, ultimately, that the technological revolution itself constructed the altar of secularism. Russell Hittinger presents Dawson's interpretation in dark splendor: "Technology is the basis of secular culture," according to Dawson, and liberalism itself is nothing "but a transitory phrase en route to technocracy."

To lay the blame for lost individualism on technological progress, though, is to misunderstand both American politics and the nature of technology, as it is nothing other than American politics itself which is responsible for the diminished stature of the individual, and this was a process which was completely unaffected by technology in any of its forms.

In Democracy in America, written over 100 years before Weaver and Dawson cast their aspersions on technology in America, Tocqueville offered his own damning observations on American life. He observed that the general equality of conditions present in America manifested not only in American politics, but in social life generally. This social form of equality "creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce." The end result is that American political and social life come to share the same stage, and that stage is a small one. American life is lived within narrow limits, and a herd mentality is the logical culmination of the leveling effects of democracy. This American brand of "groupthink" has precious little to do with technology, and it leads to nothing less than a form of cultural schizophrenia whereby we look to the future with anticipation of great things, while systematically destroying anyone who would dare try to accomplish them.

If the technophobic critics of American life turned a blind eye to political realities, they were similarly myopic when considering technology itself. Technology was, for them, an instrument of pernicious social change, but the causal link between technology and that change was never anything more than an article of faith. The end of days never came; the technocracy has simply failed to materialize.

American politics is, in the final analysis, such a leveling agent that those who aspire to greatness of any kind have little choice but to abandon the process in large part. The libertarian impulse on the part of the technologically adept is a testament to this fact. Government regulation and micromanagent, long the joy of those on the political left, and the fear of novelty and innovation, long the hallmark of the right, are from their perspective indistinguishable.

This desire to be free from interference, both social and political, is the very essence of individualism, not its antithesis. Technology is nothing more than an amplifier of human nature, but in the end, the human elements most amplified by technology are those opposed to the herd mentality which is brought about by the rigidly defined structure of our lives. As such, technology should be celebrated, not feared.

James R. Harrigan is Visiting Professor of Political Science at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

'Uniformity and Regimentation': Is technology putting individualism under lethal pressure?

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