Barely a week after, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Ronald Reagan showed up in London to deliver himself of some post-presidential opinions. As the nation’s newest elder statesman, Mr. Reagan received international headlines for his speech, which turned out to be a long variation on his best-known line from Death Valley Days: progress is our most important product. “His main theme,” reported the Washington Post‘s David Broder, “was that the new communications technology is undermining authoritarian governments everywhere, or, as he put it, ‘the Goliath of totalitarian control will rapidly be brought down by the David of the microchip.'”
The biblical source of Mr. Reagan’s metaphor is suggestive, and the former president is not alone in believing that the post-industrial technology of microchips, lasers, satellites, personal computers, and biological engineering is closely connected with the Almighty. The most lyrical exponent of this new creed is probably George Gilder, who two years ago in The American Spectator warbled rhapsodically of the hightech Utopia that now slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.
“The Message of the Microcosm,” according to Mr. Gilder, is that technological progress not only improves the material standards of human life, but also revolutionizes human relationships around the globe.
The worldwide network of satellites and fiber optics, linked to digital computers, television terminals, telephones and databases, sustain worldwide markets for information, currency and capital on line 24 hours a day. Boeing 747’s constantly traversing the oceans foster a global community of commerce. The silicon in sand and glass forms a global ganglion of electronics and photonic media that leaves all history in its wake. . . . In an age when man can inscribe worlds on grains of sand, conventional territory no longer matters.
Mr. Gilder evidently believes that human nature itself is about to play leapfrog. Not only territorial conventions but also most other institutions around which human history has revolved are on the way to obsolescence. “An onslaught of technological progress was reducing much of economic and social theory to gibberish. For example, such concepts as land, labor, and capital, nation and society—solemnly discussed in every academic institution as if nothing had changed—have radically different meanings than before and drastically different values. . . . No one shows any signs of knowing that we no longer live in geographical time and space, that the maps of nations are fully as obsolete as the charts of a flat earth, that geography tells us virtually nothing of interest where things are in the real world.”
This is strange stuff coming from the author of Sexual Suicide, a deeply sceptical view of modern man’s attempt to free himself But there seems to be even more in Mr. Gilder’s vision of the new age than merely secular economic and political miracles. Technology itself, in his view, appears to be a manifestation of something beyond this world. “Listening to the technology,” he prophesies, “opens us to a new sense of the music of the spheres, a new sense of the power of ideas, a new integrated vision of the future of humanity. The microcosm is a new continent and its exploration brings richer rewards than were won by any earlier planners. It is the authentic frontier, invisible and invigorating, and closer to the foundation of reality and the reality of God.”
Many self-proclaimed conservatives share the same, essentially religious vision of a technological millennium emerging as part of a divine blueprint for mankind. Nor is this vision a particularly new one. In the 19th century also, many observers slavered over the gadgets of the Industrial Revolution quite as ecstatically as any yuppie of the 1980’s. The Victorian writer Charles Kingsley, for example, after visiting the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, also was transported by what he saw. “The spinning jenny and the railroad,” he wrote, “Gunard’s liners and the electric telegraph, are to me . . . signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a mighty good spirit working among us . . . the Ordering and Creating God.”
Imagine the surprise of such visionaries had they lived to see the kind of cosmic harmony that the technologies of World Wars I and II brought about. Mustard gas and machine guns, nukes and napalm might have cooled somewhat the incandescent fantasy of 19th-century progressivists that God was on the side of the biggest steam engine. Kingsley, like Mr. Gilder and President Reagan, seems to have missed the elementary point that technology, regardless of how clever or helpful to human labors, doesn’t change the oil that lubricates the human motor, and it doesn’t displace or diminish the apparently bottomless human capacity to think up wicked things to do with machines.
Tiananmen Square is case in point. Not only did the elder statesmen of Beijing discover some rather ungodly applications of tanks and machine guns, but also their secret police have cleverly rigged up television cameras on street poles to keep their eyes on any small knots of lesser comrades who might be inclined to express opinions about any subject other than the local humidity.
Technology of the same principle, of course, is already widespread in American stores for the purpose of detecting shoplifters and purse snatchers, and this summer Maryland and Virginia state police were seeking federal funding for a combination radar-photography system that would take pictures of vehicles exceeding the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit and their license plates. Vehicle owners would then be sent a summons through the mail and held liable for the speeding fine. In deference to the mating habits of the Beltway, the photograph itself would not be mailed to the presumed offender “for fear that it might reveal the embarrassing presence of another party in the car,” according to the Washington Post. “The evidence in photo radar is almost ironclad,” spouts William T. Newman of the Arlington County Board. Think of the cosmic harmony Deng Xiaoping could create if the Red Guards were as technologically advanced as Arlington.
Stripped of its pseudotheological plumage, the faith of the New Age right in a technological salvation for mankind reduces to nothing more than the superstitions of the Enlightenment and its Marxist and behaviorist inheritors: the belief that human beings are the products of their historical environment and that with the amelioration of the environment, men and women will also be improved—”will be as gods,” as someone once said. Historical reality has exploded this myth many times over, from the Reign of Terror to last summer’s bloody picnic in Beijing, but, like any superstition, the myth seems to be impervious.
In the last couple of centuries, the myth has gone through three distinct stages and now seems to be metamorphosing yet again. In the first stage, the hostile environment was political, and the myth promised that if dynasties, aristocracies, and established churches were overthrown, and at least some of the people given the vote, the problems of mankind would be solved. The second stage, after political emancipation proved to be pretty much of a flop, centered on the economy. Politics was only a mask for property, you see, and if only wealth were redistributed and equality established, humanity would really be on the move.
By the mid-20th century, when this stage of the myth began to come a cropper as well, the myth entered its third stage by concentrating on social and cultural institutions as repressive forces. On the left, this stage is still kicking in the form of crusades against the family, “racism,” national and regional identities, and the chief villain of the age, the white heterosexual middle-class male.
But already the myth is beginning to shift its shape again in the form of a revolt against nature itself through technological thaumaturgy. In this guise, the environmentalist myth identifies as its chief enemies the biology of human reproduction and the social institutions based on that biology, as well as such inconvenient facts of nature as the inevitability of death and the confinements of time and space. Once mankind has been photosynthesized through technological globalism, paradise is sure to be just around the corner. This time, however, the revolt against nature is not confined to the left but also envelops the “right.” Indeed, if anything is being transcended in the last years of the century, it’s not nature and its rules, but rather any meaningful distinction between right and left, as both camps regurgitate the same superstitions of the Enlightenment in new and more dangerous forms. And people wonder why it is, in an age that considers the constraints of nature to be as obsolete, repressive, and irrelevant as chastity belts, that bookstores are full of volumes on astrology and occultism, that teenagers practice Satanism, and that cults, pseudoscience, and all kinds of nutty social irrationalisms flourish.