Is Technology Bad?

“It was thought…that the supremacy and virtuosity of America’s system of engineering people by activating their imagination would be purified and made universal by the swarm of digital entities and environments we created and unleashed….Instead the digital swarm unleashed a catastrophe…the all-engulfing swarm is making Americans lose their religious faith in America even more than their faith in God….The total loss and faith and conviction of collapse that cursed the Old World in the twentieth century has finally, in the twenty-first, come to stain the new.”

So begins James Poulos’  postmodern Jeremiad about the evil that digital technology has inflicted upon American culture. This brilliant, often dizzying and sometimes infuriating tract variously channels Thomas Pynchon, Marshal McLuhan, and Leo Strauss in an attempt at a grand synthesis of classical political theory and edgy informatics. Poulos asks the tough question: Is progress worth it? He does not believe so but acknowledges that the best we can do is to forswear “any human claim to unify, and so rule, the world.” This “great renunciation” of human hubris, for Poulos, is necessary “so that we may be human forever.”

While Poulos is attuned to the galloping encroachment of digital technology on social behavior, he sees nothing new in the dangers of technology. He cites Leo Strauss’ comment (in Thoughts on Machiavelli) that “the classics were for almost all practical purposes what now are called conservatives,” except that “unlike many present-day conservatives…they knew that one cannot be distrustful of political or social change without being distrustful of technological change.” Strauss’ teacher Martin Heidegger viewed technology as a threat to human authenticity, writing in 1954 that it “threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.”

The requirements of war, as Poulos quotes Strauss, open an exception well noted by Machiavelli—“the difficulty implied in the admission that inventions pertaining to the art of war must be encouraged.” Strauss had written, “[The classics] were forced to make one crucial exception. They had to admit the necessity of encouraging inventions pertaining to the art of war. They had to bow to the necessity of defense or of resistance. “This is “the only one which supplies a basis for Machiavelli’s criticism of classical political philosophy.”

America’s technological elite, Poulos explains, has incubated a cuckoo’s egg in its military-scientific establishment. What he calls “the military-industrial funplex” transformed defense R&D into today’s tech monopolies. Apple’s “enormous value,” as he cites Mariana Mazzucato, “could only be captured from the technologies made available mostly as a result of prior efforts of the state.” These include “Lithium-ion batteries and the microprocessor” as well as “the multi-touch screen and NAVSTAR-GPS, innovations researched and developed by America’s Military-Industrial Complex” that “provided the building-blocks of the iPhone’s success—and the transformation of America into the first cyborg nation, digits, eyes and brain stems fully glued to their smartphone screens.” Apple Computer’s earlier signature innovation, the Graphic User Interface, also began with a DARPA grant to Xerox.

The dire consequence of the digital revolution, Poulos concludes, will be a radical transformation of humanity itself: “The recession of human imagination and the retrieval of human memory by dominant digital entities and environments implies a rebirth of profound plurality and divergent destiny among the peoples of different civilization states. What we are left to consider as we prepare the way for the First generation is whether the digital swarm itself will seize unitary control of humanity’s destiny before any of us have a chance to ensure otherwise.”

Poulos’ Pynchonesque style doesn’t condense easily. Far-ranging literary, philosophical, and religious references contribute much of the book’s charm. But the above citations provide enough background to consider some qualifications of his case.

The problem of technology and in particular the perverse symbiosis of the military and American tech monopolies is more complex than Poulos reports, in my view. All the innovations that constituted the digital age (chips, networks, displays, and software architecture) are now four decades old. Miniaturization and battery technology, to be sure, made it possible to package a powerful computer into a handset, but the basic research and development is much older. Perhaps it is not the technological advances of the Cold War era but the lack of subsequent advances that accounts for the dominance of the tech monopolies.

CMOS chip manufacturing, which made cheap and powerful chips ubiquitous, was discovered by Fairchild and then perfected by RCA Labs in 1976, with DARPA funding. The first practical semiconductor laser which powers optical networks was developed in the late 1970s, also at RCA Labs. The first practical light-emitting diode was built at Eastman Kodak in 1987. The prototype of the Internet was demonstrated at DARPA in 1972.

Perhaps what we require is not less innovation, but more—not the digital bread and circuses peddled by the tech giants, but rather technology that will uplift the incomes and dignity of all of our citizens.

After the Cold War ended, federal support for innovation collapsed. A rough gauge of government support for innovation is federal spending on development as a percentage of GDP, according to the National Science Foundation. This fell from a peak of about 0.8% of GDP in 1984 to a low of 0.26% in 2017. Coincidentally, manufacturing investment fell from about 2.5% of GDP to just 1% of GDP. Research funding remained at the same level throughout, as federal money filtered into universities, but the symbiosis of laboratory and factory that drove so many practical innovations in the past disappeared.

One result of the collapse of federal support for development is that innovation in information technology failed to enhance productivity in the rest of the economy. Painfully absent was the productivity growth that supports higher incomes for wage-earners. In a recent study, economist Raicho Bojilov concluded, “Somewhat surprisingly, we do not witness, even with a lag, a major pickup in the productivity growth in other industries that are directly and indirectly connected to the IT industry. One would expect that if the IT industry were the engine of the US economy that generates the products, technologies, and techniques of the future, then the other industries would even­tually experience a jump in productivity rates to levels comparable to those of the IT industry. Thus, one may wonder why aggregate productivity in the US has not grown much more in accordance with the innovations and major productivity gains that have been achieved in the IT industry.”

Bojilov examined total factor productivity (the combined effect of labor and capital). Labor productivity, which is the long-term driver of income gains, fell steadily during the past two decades to a near standstill as the federal development budget dried up.

This raises an obvious question: To what extent are the problems of the United States the result of technological innovation, or the consequence of oligopolistic control of past technological innovations? In 2020, the US Congressional Subcommittee on Antitrust reported that “companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons. Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price [of] a sharp decline in new business formation as well as early-stage startup funding. The number of new technology firms in the digital economy has declined, while the entrepreneurship rate—the share of startups and young firms in the industry as a whole—has also fallen significantly in this market.”

It surely is true, as Poulos argues, that digital technology poses challenges for the human condition. But it also may be true that our problem is not innovation, but rather the freezing-in-place of past innovations by oligopolies who suppress further innovation. 

Poulos notes only in passing “the primary dynamic of digital geopolitics: the American system versus the Chinese systems.” He might have cited the Chinese challenge as a prime example of his Machiavellian exception: Whatever our qualms about the impact of technology in American life, we must press ahead in so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, or allow China to become the dominant world power. That implies adding over $100 billion per year to the federal development budget and directing it towards quantum computing, Artificial Intelligence, as well as broadband and its myriad applications in logistics, manufacturing, healthcare and so forth.

The qualifier “Faustian” appears often in Poulos’ account. In some ways China could be considered a “Faustian” power rather than a Marxist-Leninist one; Xi Jinping reports that his reading during a teen-age exile to a remote and desolate village during the Cultural Revolution was a Chinese translation of Faust, which he read until he knew it by heart. Goethe’s hero devotes his dying efforts to the reclamation of land from the sea, with Mephistopheles as his ruthless overseer. “By whatever means necessary/Find masses upon masses of workers/Inspire them through reward or severity/Pay them, entice them, conscript them!,” he declares. China has press-ganged its people for 5,000 years to control its great rivers, and it is no surprise that Goethe would find receptive readers there.

Goethe completed Faust a dozen and half years into the great economic transformation chronicled by Prof. Edmund Phelps in his 2013 book Mass Flourishing. Through the first centuries of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Discovery the daily life and living standard of the vast majority of Europeans differed little from Roman times. What modernity brought about, Phelps argues, was innovation at every level of society, turning “all sorts of people into ‘idea-men,’ financiers into thinkers, producers into marketers, and end-users into pioneers.”

The Industrial Revolution turned whole populations into innovators for the first time in history. Dramatic as the changes wrought by digital technology may be, are they more fundamental than the great wave of urbanization that uprooted most of Europe from traditional lives whose origins were lost in the mists of time and whose persistence exceeded human memory? The fact that the peoples of Europe made a shambles of their new-found freedom (and America very nearly did) does not by itself mean that this freedom was a bad thing. The classics viewed technology with suspicion, as Strauss keenly observed, but apart from the demands of war, they did not need it. Their leisure depended on slavery. The Greeks developed most of the technology that later supported the Industrial Revolution. Hero of Alexandria invented the steam engine and linear programming and used them for magic tricks and puppet shows rather than as labor-saving devices. James Watt’s steam engine multiplied the power of labor and produced an unprecedented jump in living standards.

“Goethe’s teaching is this,” writes Poulos: “our only way to avoid succumbing to the fatal temptations of modern desire is to control our free life force by using it to secure the spacetime without which no polis and no politeia can exist, and without which a people has no home.” This seems to me convoluted. Faust says simply that a people that must wrest its land from the sea will not succumb to sloth and complacency: “The flood may rage around it up to the border, and as it tries powerfully to break in, a common effort hastens to close the gaps…Surrounded by danger will children, men and the aged pass their stalwart year. I should like to see such a mass of people, a free people standing on free ground.”

Faust’s final vision of “a free people standing on free ground,” living in the face of constant danger, echoes the drama’s opening dialogue between the Lord and Mephistopheles: “All too easily,” the Lord declares, “can man’s activity drift into sleep: Soon he longs for unconditional rest.” The Devil’s temptation is to conjure a moment so beautiful that Faust will want it to last forever. Faust’s salvation, according to Goethe, lies in his ceaseless striving.

Perhaps the most poisonous thing that the tech oligarchy has offered us is the illusion of security in a digital cocoon. Perhaps what we require is not less innovation, but more—not the digital bread and circuses peddled by the tech giants, but rather technology that will uplift the incomes and dignity of all of our citizens.