Glenn Reynolds (aka “Instapundit”) is the blogosphere's resident libertarian transhumanist. We owe him a debt for leading the charge in making the blogosphere an important counterweight to the Usual Stuff from the mainstream media. And he has lived that belief personally by becoming the single most influential member of the New Media, simply by setting up a blog a few years ago.
But Catholics should also proceed with caution as they engage Reynolds’ thinking. He has the naive faith of an 18th Century Enlightenment philosophe that science is a straight line onward and upward. That thinking is eloquently laid out in his new book An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that he can't wait to become the first Borg from Star Trek (as a libertarian he doesn't like any of that “collective” stuff), but the fact is he does have a faith in the healing and redeeming power of technology.
Naturally that faith is widely shared—and for good reason. Technology has utterly transformed the circumstances of our existence. Thanks to it, my wife is not dead with our second child, I still have my hearing, I am writing this article and you are reading it. And literally countless other benefits, from the clothes on your back to the comfortable air temperature you are enjoying, to the very fact that your hair is combed, come to us from our ingenious ability to manipulate technology. The ancients were so enthralled with our power to create that they could not resist the impulse to worship the statues they made. But such ancient works of creativity are microscopic in comparison with the mighty edifice of modernity’s web of technological achievement. Of all the works of man’s hands, none is a better reason to fall down in worship than this. That is why faith in the healing and redeeming power of technology is very understandable—and profoundly dangerous.
Reynolds’ thinking is dangerous for the same reason as most dangerous Western ideas: because he is borrowing a riff from the Christian tradition but not keeping it anchored in that Tradition. Few things are more deadly than Christian virtues that are left to wander alone in the world. In Reynolds’ case, it is the ancient faith in the triumph of the Little Guy (“He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance, and lifted up the lowly”), along with a deeply secular belief that liberation will come, not through the gospel, but through technology.
He is certainly right that the immense fertility of the human imagination—a fertility rooted in the fact that man is made in the image and likeness of a Maker—has birthed a technology which makes it possible for the little guy to exert more power than ever before. The blogosphere is Exhibit A, Anybody with a computer can now, if he likes, be a one-man publishing house, radio station, and TV cable company. They can even use that technology, like David, to bring down the Goliath-like frauds of Old Media, as Dan Rather will tell you. As somebody who likes free speech and who spent years throwing my shoe at the evening news because the media were the playthings of a few rich men, I can certainly appreciate that liberating power.
However, there is another side of the equation Reynolds tends to overlook: original sin. The human capacity for creativity and cleverness gives birth to great works of art—and to idols. It bears fruit in a scientific revolution that make it possible to feed—and abort—more people than ever. And so we find ourselves in a horse race with our own capacity for evil. It's the parable of Forbidden Planet: technology which liberates the Little Guy from big media, big government, and other Goliaths also liberates him to follow his Inner Beast and allow Everything to be expressed. It would be nice if the human race were all Jeffersonian Yeoman Farmers who simply wanted to brew beer, play rock and roll, and talk about liberty through technology. However, if even a small percentage of us are, say, inclined to use technology to destroy the World Trade Center, technology makes it easier and easier and easier for small numbers of us to do just that. What Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini could not have done with all the marshaled power of three mighty nation-states, a small handful of men were able to do on 9/11 because a vast technological endowment had empowered these evil "Davids" to slay "Goliath".
Indeed, it is probably not a very hard thing to imagine that virtually every terrorist and nutjob will, in his own self-description, regard himself as a brave David standing up to the Goliath of [Animal Rights/American imperialism/the Zionist Menace/Rain Forest Destruction, English Cooking [insert pet radical cause here.] In every case, technology will allow a smaller and smaller group that perceives itself as outnumbered and outgunned to inflict greater and greater violence on more and more vast numbers of innocent people--and pat itself on the back for its courage and cunning in outwitting the Giant.
If this path is followed by fallen man (and we have loads of historical precedent for betting it will be), the principal option the Giant of Western Civilization has in order to avoid Death by Beirutification is to stop being Goliath and start being Leviathan: a process we in the West give ominous signs of having already begun. That process will also involve heavy investment in technology, as well as the sacrifice of rights for safety. We seem to be very ready to make those sacrifices. And if we do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?
So I think Reynolds' dreams of Salvation Through Technology will, like all such false hopes, fall on hard times that will shock and surprise anybody who has forgotten the doctrine of the Fall. Fallen man is always the Gen. George McClellan of the Cosmic Battle. The devil can reliably say of him what Porter Alexander, an artillerist in Robert E. Lee’s army said of General McClellan after the devastating Union slaughter at Antietam's pyrrhic victory: namely, that though he brought his greatly superior forces to the fight, “he brought himself also.”
This is not to say we will be ultimately defeated. It is to say that only through death to that fallen Man and resurrection in Christ can we win that Battle. With fallen man, even our triumphs are defeats. With Christ, even our defeats are triumphs.
Copyright 2008 - Mark P. Shea