The Technologist Kingmaker

Institutions don't understand why they're so feeble

A fracture runs through the based constituency in America. In material terms, it divides those who have enough money to secure their affairs independently and those whose lack of such resources means they must rely on the dominant institutions for livelihood. But in spiritual terms the split puts conservatives pessimistic about human nature on one side and technologists optimistic about human nature on the other.

To be sure, there is some congruence between the material and spiritual divides. But many technologists without much capital feel free from the despair of conservatives. They do not feel as much that if America goes down they will go down with it, even if they agree it would be terrible for America to (fully?) fail. Ultimately they are inclined to think that the solution to obsolete political systems is technological creation, of the right kind anyway.

Certain stresses can strain the based coalition along these fault lines. But oddly, few on either side seem to have noticed evidence that their fortunes have already proven to be mutually reinforcing.

For the behavior of Trump’s institutional enemies has so far evinced not terrible strength but astounding weakness. Your mileage may vary, but most people of whatever stripe should agree that the current consolidation of institutional power in public and private life is notable for the declining fortunes and potency of the institutions in question, all of which are hagridden with corruption, bloat, decadence, and above all confusion and fear about why they are so weak despite their ostensible great strength. They did not see their moment of crisis coming, they didn’t understand why it arrived, they don’t know what to do about it, and they’re not confident about what they’re trying. Amid the witch hunting and eating of one’s own, the propagandistic rhetoric of unity overlaying the effort is notably hollow, hard to swallow and harder to believe. 

What accounts for this huge disjunct between the concentration of institutional power and the weakness of the institutions? One answer is technology: digital machines obsolesced the fantasy industrial complex around which all pre-digital institutions coalesced, from entertainment to education to finance, public relations and advertising, media and journalism, and politics itself. Now, the power and authority of machine memory far outstrips that of the human imagination—scary and disorienting for a class that rules on this basis!

But why has the ruling class been so slipshod and blundering in its efforts to reestablish control amid the great tech disruption? Why is the “great reset” pitched so ham-handedly? Why is the Biden administration so transparently warmed over in its reliance on Obamanauts whose failures and inadequacies opened the door in the first place to Trump? Perhaps they are simply that disoriented by their overthrow by their own machines. But another answer is that the ordeal of contending with Trump and his massive support made them too weak to catch up to the accelerating pace of digital technology working over the world, making their reclamation of power ever more of a dream—dreams being the very thing with the fastest diminishing power today. 

It is plausible, in other words, that Trump and his support bought the development of digital technology enough time to escape from the gravity well formed by the concentration of institutional power and even its current great retcon from a fantasy industrial complex to an established (woke) religion. 

If so, several different attitudes toward the current chaotic moment could be harmoniously organized. There would be reason for both an eternal skepticism about the best laid plans of men and a renaissance of justified hopefulness about our progress out of the gravity well. 

One question would remain, however. How much time must be bought for triumphant technologists to learn how not to replicate the failure of the ruling class to understand what their machines were and what they would do? And (okay—two questions) who is capable of buying that time?

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.