Nihilism, Active and Passive

Michael Anton’s Liberty Forum essay rightly invites us to confront “the looming tech-ification of the United States” with two things in mind: resisting what should be resisted and mitigating what cannot be. Strikingly, his essay does not call for the defeat of the technologists transforming America in the image of their science or of the technologies themselves. While resistance can be so successful that it leads to triumph, Anton’s provisional exclusion of a triumph scenario in his challenge to Silicon Valley implies wisely that technology today should at most be subject to limits and controls, and that the same should go for its scientists because a new kind of social order has been put in place—one that, like the new technological environment that gave rise to it, cannot be undone.

Anton’s analysis suggests the new order can be limited and controlled but not reversed because Silicon Valley found a historic way to reap unprecedented wealth and status by exploiting both the market and the psyche. While politics and culture might catch up to the übermenchen of tech, and might impose new limits on their world-making in their image, that correction would take place within the context of deep, irreversible changes to our national character.

He describes our old or original character in terms of a culture of fruitful improvement, where the goal of technological development was to help “Americans to do more cheaply and efficiently the things they were already doing, and were going to keep on doing regardless.” Digital technology has changed that: Its promise is to enable robots to start doing things Americans can’t do, and to enable Americans to stop doing things robots can do better.

Silicon Valley is often thought of interchangeably with digital technology. But in fact, Anton helps us see, the power it wields that needs limits and controls is not, in that sense, properly understood as digital. Digital technology assigns work and rule to robots in greater and greater measure. The tech titans who must be brought to heel, by contrast, use their tools to assign more and more entertainment to us humans. Advancing a culture of fruitless degeneration, they are not just changing our national character, as digital technology is doing; they are corrupting it. And they have done so, massively enriching themselves in the process, by tapping into a uniquely human appetite.

What “Entertain” Really Means

Anton provides some clues to how we might conceptualize that feat. Big tech, he tells us, creates new wants, sells us the means to satisfy them, and then creates even newer wants, a cycle that may not be unbreakable, but that has already taken a profound toll on our capacity to resist it. At the same time as we lunge fatiguingly onward toward the consummation of each new novelty, we grasp in our enervation that these diverse trifles converge ever more fully into a uniform, unchanging condition of entertainment.

The original meaning of the word “entertain” is to cause to hold together—by analogy, apt enough to eventually redefine the word, to hold someone in a particular frame of mind. Anton tells us that the frame of mind in which Silicon Valley holds us is defined by “time-sucking frivolity” and “envy.” The outsized rewards still awaiting those who rule us by entertaining us go well beyond great wealth, but even for the ostensible masters of our psycho-economic universe, they offer nothing greater than the ancient prizes of fame, power, or sex—intoxicating achievements, as the ancients knew, yet hollow and fleeting, and characteristically sown with the seeds of self-betrayal.

If the master morality of the ruling entertainers is, then, a sort of active nihilism, an appetite for decline that goes out with a bang, the slave morality of the ruled and entertained is a kind of passive nihilism, an increasingly all-consuming consumption of images and illusions broadcast against the walls of our eyeballs’ insides by our masters of imagination. The masters are those who play out their nihilism in the real world; the slaves, those held by the masters in a state of nihilistic fantasy.

So, while many today fret about the possibility of robots taking our jobs and ruling our lives, the irreversible advancement of digital technology is not the primary threat to the health and longevity of our old national character. That threat does not come from fruitful automation but fruitless entertainment—not from the invidious rule of machines but of humans. The deeper into the servitude of frivolity we slip, the more plausible our masters’ judgments about their slaves become, however offensive these judgments may be. “The finest spot for human habitation on Planet Earth belongs, by nature,” to the masters, and the slaves ruefully agree. They, “the world’s first and only morally pure oligarchs,” have a “real right to opinions of their own”; the slaves do not. The slaves, and what is left of the old national character they struggle in vain to keep alive, are “but a part” of the world; the masters, in their pathos of distance, are not in the world but hyperboreans hovering far above it.

Psycho-Economic Control by Robots  

But like the gods on Mount Olympus, tech titans too grow bored and scheme. As Anton points out, the ways their ethos “undermines any kind of wider loyalty, any kind of community spirit,” are obvious—not just with regard to any national spirit of community, but with regard to any such spirit within and among their own elect. Thus (to shift to the standpoint of Alexis de Tocqueville) “the elements of which the class of poor is composed are fixed, but the elements of which the class of the rich is composed are not so.” Even as “there are rich men, the class of rich men does not exist; for these rich individuals have no feelings or purposes, no traditions or hopes, in common; there are individuals, therefore, but no definite class.”

Masters without a caste, they are, as any true aspiring übermench would readily observe, no masters at all.

This implies, as Anton says, that politics and culture will eventually “begin to draw blood” from the mortal gods of entertainment, even from the precincts where their claim to purity and their taste for pleasure enjoy the greatest support. For the nihilistic appetites, whatever degree of reality or fantasy provides their context, can never supply the form from within which a human order is founded. Still, Anton strongly suggests, there is no hope in sitting around and waiting for the correctives of politics and culture. These must be induced. Now is the critical time to “fight for what’s ours”: namely, our national character, still defined, however irreversibly altered, by the form in which it, and we, have been shaped since its origins. To wrest our culture back from fruitless degeneration and refocus it on fruitful improvement, political power must be exercised. Slaves to entertainment must become citizens once again. Americans who forfeit their political identity and agency forfeit the only tools they have to limit and control Silicon Valley’s master exploiters of our nihilistic appetite for frivolity.

The thrust of this invitation to rediscover citizen politics should encourage us to confront a central paradox within. If Tocqueville correctly reasoned, as Nietzsche did not, that industry in a democratic age would open a road to extraordinary success for an ambitious and talented few, confining opportunity to a caste of supermen, a foreboding question looms: Who or what rules our seeming masters?

 To answer, we must return to the role of the robots ushered in by digital technology. Not all of our technologists are merely or solely masters of entertainment, and even those who do work to organize our thoughts, speech, and action around fantasy or through imagination are reliant on digital technology. Herein lies the key to recognizing that our true masters are indeed the robots.

The true ruler caste being developed by technology today is that of automated machines. Unlike Silicon Valley’s master entertainers, the algorithms and artificial intelligences of digital tech feel neither pathos of distance within the vertical of rank nor rivalry along the horizontal of their fellow equals. Therefore the robots exert an even more powerful form of psycho-economic control than the Valley’s entertainers, who now face a growing resistance the robots do not. People are deleting their social media apps, not throwing away their smartphones. It’s the non-human character of our robotic master caste that is now the most significant reshaping influence upon our national character.

Even as many of our leading technologists double down on perfecting the science of broadcasting social entertainment, the trajectory of digital tech is leading science and social order away from ruling through controlling what amounts to little more than television democratized. Under the influence of the robots’ rising to rule, the use of imagery and imagination to entertain—to hold in a frame of mind—has begun to dramatically falter. Not only is the established legacy media industry suffering a historic crisis of legitimacy and interest; so too are online platforms banking on their attempt to subjugate that industry. At the same moment Silicon Valley purports to deny that those it rules are entitled to their opinions, digital technology, outstripping their powers of entertainment, is revealing to Americans that the fruitfulness of frenetic opinion-making and make-believe is going off a cliff.

We Just Need to Program Them Well

In the void opening up from the decline of those activities, digital technology’s colossal storehouse of accessible information is profoundly increasing the psycho-economic value of other practices: knowledge-gathering, recollection, and the building of associations and enterprises organized around human memory. In this way is the leading role of imagination being replaced by that of identity, and the influence of reflexive opinion beginning to yield to that of reflective observation. This is bad news for economies of frivolity. It augurs a highly significant shift in rule—away from teched-up entertainers masquerading as masters, and toward authoritative automated machines that leave people with less and less need for arrogant human stage managers. While the rule of the bots may give humans fewer things to do by the frantic light of the dying pre-digital age, the things we will do are likely (if the bots are programmed to rule us well) to be more restoratively human than before.

None of which is to say that forming opinions and using the imagination are obsolete. To the contrary, they are simply moving from the foreground of our common life to the background, in deepening service to identity and memory. What is becoming obsolete are technologies of social and psychological control that depend on activating our faculties of opinion-making and imagining. With that obsolescence, the fever of communicative hostility and fanatical abstraction that has defined so much of social and political life up until now can break. And the artificial pathos of distance flexed by tech titans lording it over broadcast media can collapse.

In other words, Silicon Valley finds itself faced with a relatively populist and nationalist insurgency increasingly prepared to “fight for what’s ours” since the Valley itself is being riven from within by a fundamental conflict. Its bid to become our master by technologically perfecting entertainment is failing as a result of the dawning triumph of digital tech, which shows that it is only in the realm of fantasy that participating in the online mob is anything other than “time-sucking frivolity.”

The Perdurance of Our Foundations 

To be sure, because this conflict is playing out in a maelstrom of confusion and passion, ripped free of nearly all constraints of time and distance, many Americans are still torn between abandoning the war of all broadcasts against all, on the one hand, and redoubling their online efforts to opine and fantasize their way to relevance and meaning, on the other. It is clear, moreover, that the technologists and media elites whose fortunes depend on exercising control through the activation of opining and imagining do not want to go down without a fight. Doubtless, at least some of those who wish to revitalize our old national character of citizenship and fruitful improvement will likely continue to be called on to fight on the “enemy” ground of unmoored ideas, epistemological fantasies, and disembodied wars of words.

But the die has been cast. In the unfolding triumph of machine knowledge and recollection, and the deepening disenchantment of entertainment, digital technology is clarifying the conflict over the future of America as a disagreement between people who desire that we all become slaves to robot masters, and people who aim to program our robots to rule well by serving properly and fully human ends. In this disagreement, there is little place for either masters or slaves of opinion and fantasy. (As Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, as he would not want to be a slave, so he would not want to be a master.) But there is much room for Americans who recognize that, although the rise of the robots will shape our national character, the robots alone cannot transform our foundations—as a particular people with specifically shared ways of reasoning, remembering, and ruling and being ruled in turn.