No Software Patch for Original Sin

by Crocker on October 18, 2011, 11:58 am

in Culture,History,Philosophy,Technology

So says Walter Russell Mead in his latest essay, Virtual War, in which he describes both the blessings and dangers of a virtual world. His main point – that new technologies tend to undermine the systems that preceded them and the nations that built upon them – is well taken, if a bit overdrawn. While the US civilian and military sectors may be vulnerable to attack, one of the commenters correctly observed that our systems tend to be decentralized and not as susceptible to disruption as more centralized societies. Read it all.

But it was Mead’s observations about the “Whiggish” view of history that hit home: that the basic template of our liberal existence is that there will be some breakthrough that “changes everything” and thereby restore Eden in a new epoch of suspended history. While one commenter takes issue with Mead, asserting that Whigs were realists who could take their lumps with the progress that goes with it, I think the commenter is wrong. The Whigs would recognize the later progressives as blood-brothers in their faith in the triumph of some Utopia to come. Mead is right in his observation that we Westerners have the unfortunate tendency to proclaim periodically a New Heaven and Earth and declare a holiday from history.  This happened in the 1990s, driven by the proclamations of the Internet gurus who announced a “new paradigm” that would change human nature and render the nation-state obsolete.

If the paradox of cyberwar teaches us anything, it should teach us that Whig history is flawed. British Enlightenment thought, still the foundation of American political ideology, is both optimistic and deterministic. It believes that the advance of technology, science and education will create a peaceful and democratic world. Democratic peace theory and virtually all forms of progressive and liberal international thought assume the inevitable triumph of free markets, free government and free science in a peaceful liberal world system.

So mote it be; this Whiggish faith in the imminent dawn of what Tennyson called the “Parliament of Man” has been repeatedly disappointed since the Victorians interpreted the revolutions of 1848 in the light of the impending triumph of liberal order. But Whig hopes aside, the progress that empowers development and growth also creates conditions that favor new and dire conflicts.

Indeed. But the technology that promises so much is undermined by the same inevitable human foibles that have undermined “progress” in every era. Even so great – and Whiggish – a soul as Abraham Lincoln believed (at least as a young man) in the inevitable triumph of reason that would subdue all passions. Witness his 1842 speech to the Temperance Society:

And what a noble ally this, to the cause of political freedom. With such an aid, its march cannot fail to be on and on, till every son of earth shall drink in rich fruition, the sorrow quenching draughts of perfect liberty. Happy day, when, all appetites controlled, all poisons subdued, all matter subjected, mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of the world. Glorious consummation! Hail fall of Fury! Reign of Reason, all hail!

This kind of Whiggish faith dies hard, but die it does – in Civil Wars. And so it is today, when our own “advances” become soiled over time and, as Mead notes, “the newest realm of human creativity has demonstrated the oldest truths about who we are: divinely gifted and fatally flawed” with no “software patch for Original Sin.”

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