SOC: Some Comments on Anti-Progressives

Date: Wed Feb 14 2001 - 06:52:06 MST

[The following is a note I sent to some friends who comments on one of my
posts to this list that I shared with them:]

In a message dated 2/6/01 7:34:25 PM Central Standard Time, ______ writes:

> On the other hand, I think talk about what you REALLY seem to want is so
> from what most people ever think about that it's counterproductive to come
> too strongly.
> What we need, I think, is a robust vision of a technologically advanced
> society which competes against and supersedes all those dystopian fantasies
> that seem to draw away the audience. Maybe it's because conflict and fear
> the "corporate interests" of "globalization" and "commodification" makes
> an entertaining Weltanschauung, whereas fuel-cell cars and virtual reality
> booths seem kind of trivial and boring.
> But talk candidly about your Artificial Man Program, THEN the shit hits
> fan.
> So you're stuck somewhere in the smack-dab middle of the cultural
> moibus interchange.

You're right about this, Paco, without a doubt. The problem, as you say, is
that one group of people - the fast-developing alliance between traditional
"left" and "right" in opposition to the basic Enlightenment notion of
progress - has managed to craft a set of more or less coherent bogeyman
caricatures (the "evil multinational" and the "mad scientist") that seem to
push some powerful psychological buttons with a lot of people. What I call
the "luddite front" (which stretches from Rifkin to Buchanan) offers these
caricatures up to a media that thrives on the thrill of reporting on
potential catastrophe, and the media becomes an unwitting cohort in the

The bigger problem is that the luddite front is right about one thing: "The
future" is arriving at an ever-accelerating pace. Eschewing discussion of
what you call my "Artificial Man Program" in order to keep from freaking
people out because they HAVEN'T been looking at the ever-nearing horizon
therefore involves some intellectual dishonesty. I've actually addressed a
few groups in Silicon Valley about this problem and have a talk (complete
with Power Point slides) I've presented on the subject, in which I offer ways
to honestly discuss the issues without needlessly scaring people.

In a message dated 2/6/01 11:08:29 PM Central Standard Time, _______ writes:

> (Why do you insist on dividing the world into "two" cultures? Isn't this
> like classifying everyone as Democrats or Republicans - stereotyping with
> inarticulate broad brush?)

As I mentioned in my first quick reply, my use of the term "the two cultures"
was a reference to CP Snow's speech about the divide between the cultural
world of the humanities and that of the sciences which was already a yawning
gulf when he noted it in the 1950s, and has only grown since. Beyond this,
you make a good point: You're right that I grouse about false dichotomies in
politics. But the idea I'm struggling with is the one that Virginia Postrel
points to in the opening passage of her book "The Future and Its Enemies,"
i.e. that extremists on the contemporary "right" and "left" have more in
common than they realize in their similar opposition to scientific and
technological progress and their desire to "control" the future in accord
with some vision of a "One True Way" (although they differ about what that
One True Way is).

> Secondly, while I know it is your "thing", this struggle with the
> but are they not a mere phantom?

As I also mentioned briefly last week, they are not a mere phantom. The
demonstrators that show up at every international forum these days are not
phantoms. The folks who engage in increasingly widespread acts of
technological and scientific sabotage are not phantoms. Their ideological
leaders - exemplified in their more "respectable" form in the Turning Point
Project (to which I supplied a citation) - are definitely not phantoms. I've
actually spent a little time and energy in using the web to make some maps of
the connections among the people who are active in organizing and guiding
this cultural movement and those connections are not random. There is a
group of names that shows up over and over linking a front of organizations,
writers and activists with a coherent anti-progressive agenda. One
significant irony I've noted is that many of the more respectable ideological
leaders of the anti-progress front get their funding from sources like the
Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. But have no doubt that there is a well
organized network of people who coordinate the activities of the Green Party
(especially in Europe), GreenPeace, and various other groups opposed to all
forms of genetic science and technology and the lowering of trade and
cultural barriers throughout the world.

These groups and their leaders share a common disdain for science and
technology and Enlightenment values of individual liberty, property rights
and open and free commerce among people. They take advantage of the deep
subjectivism of post-modernism to use a rhetoric of "victimism" and
irresponsible entitlement. Their ultimate goal is a kind of cultural
Balkanization that - they hope - will cripple humanity's ability to control
its own destiny.

(An interesting side-note. I have subscribed to and lurk in mailing lists
used by various anti-progress groups for organization and discussion. They
DO have their problems, not least of which is a constant low-level mutual
irritation between the "left" and "right" factions of the anti-progress
activists. This is especially amusing in England, where the modern
descendants of the National Front and the radical Greens are constantly
tripping each other up and bickering.)

> I've said this before, but I think your
> movement, which I basically agree with, would be more persuasive if you
> wouldn't promote an "us" against "them" analysis. I know you need the
> side" to make your struggle real and without the "other" the significance
> your movement, or whatever it is, is less dramatic. Still, I've been
> for luddites since I first heard you use the word and haven't been able to
> find any, except for possibly the Unibomber. Even those I'm aware of who
> are fundamentally suspicious of "corporate control" are not anti-technology
> per se, they simply want those promoting technology to show some maturity
> responsibility before inflicting their technologies on the rest of us.
> Basically, what they want, is for our humanity not to be lost. Sometimes
> this requires taking a quiet pause and to get the quiet it is necessary to
> turn off the noise. This is what all of the back to nature crap is about,
> really, just trying to be more human and seeking a less complicated world
> order to hear the acoustic qualities of a human life without amplification
> and acceleration (sound like Jesse, don't I.) Sometimes this calls for
> machine. Then again, I'm a guy who thinks the top of the line synthesizer
> a cheap, crappy substitute for even a mediocre, acoustic chamber orchestra
> for quality of sound. (Of course, violins and cellos are sophisticated
> little machines in themselves, they just don't need a plug in.)

The point of my "movement" is that we seek to promote "humane" values, while
rejecting a conservatism that we conclude is ultimately "inhumane". First,
we don't see "modernism" as all of a piece. We reject a shallow historicism
that takes the entirety of the Industrial Revolution as some kind of
inseparable conglomerate: Science and technology do not inevitably imply
destruction of the non-human, "natural" world. (I've recently written a "FAQ
Answer" about what the term "nature" might more reasonably mean than what it
has come to be defined as - it'll be published soon, and I'll provide a cite
when it is). Increased knowledge and human power don't necessarily result in
a degradation of the quality of life.

The problem with the current neo-luddite movement is that it uncritically
accepts the idea that all increases in technological power result in a
reduction in the quality of life and a "loss of humanity". The Unabomber was
just among the more articulate spokesmen for this point of view, but it is
endemic in our popular culture. When was the last time a scientist or an
entrepreneur was depicted as a hero in a Hollywood movie or a television
show? How often is the brevity and brutality of much of pre-technological
human existence portrayed or discussed in popular culture? Rousseau's "noble
savage" has become an uncritically accepted paradigm of those who most
influence our world-view.

Beyond this, your point about music and musical instruments is actually one
that is quite apropos. There was a time when the violin was an innovation,
when Baroque music and a string quartet were the Latest Thing. As you point
out, in fact, a violin is a VERY sophisticated machine. I wouldn't ever
argue that a modern digital musical synthesizer is "better" than a violin.
However, what's important is to realize that a violin has its limits, as does
a synthesizer (although there's another, much longer discussion there that I
don't have time for this morning . . .) The problem with the neo-luddites is
that they would say that we shouldn't have synthesizers at all because having
them necessarily implies a rejection of violins. They're wrong. They raise
a false dilemma that is, unfortunately, all too appealing to people who feel
threatened by change and lack confidence in making their own choices about
what in their own traditions is worth preserving and what should be rejected.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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