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Technology and conservative progress

February 26, 2012

Probably it’s the fact that I spend my undergraduate years at a university most of its students would describe as a “conservative Catholic liberal-arts school,” but I had never fully understood the use of the word “conservative” as a pejorative. Of course I knew people who disliked conservatives but I hadn’t been in too many conversations where “conservative” was itself a form of criticism rather than something whose merits were up for debate.

Using it as a pejorative, of course, leads one to characterize a variety of positions under the same heading when they have next to nothing in common. The way ancient Greeks would call all other peoples “barbarians.” And the way conservatives use the word “liberal” for Lockeans, libertarians, progressives, socialists, etc… all’s fair in politics.

For example, this article on Steve Jobs, which I think makes a rather strong critique of the “philosophy” of Apple, concludes with the following:

[…] But Apple, alas, remains stuck in the most conservative, outdated, and bizarre interpretation of the Bauhaus, which was, ironically, a movement that flaunted its commitment to social reform and utopian socialism. Would a job applicant who spends weeks pondering the morality of washing machines get a job at Apple now?

Unfortunately, most of us are too addicted to Apple’s products to demand or to expect anything more of the company. As long as Apple can ship new devices every quarter, much like a dealer would ship new drugs, few questions are asked. How little has changed since Lewis Mumford complained that

    “For most Americans, progress means accepting what is new because it is new, and discarding what is old because it is old. This may be good for a rapid turnover in business, but it is bad for continuity and stability in life. Progress, in an organic sense, should be cumulative, and though a certain amount of rubbish-clearing is always necessary, we lose part of the gain offered by a new invention if we automatically discard all the still valuable inventions that preceded it.

I find this for the most part quite compelling, but calling the view under consideration conservative just because it’s outdated is, well, “ironically” is one way to describe what happens when doing so leads to describing something as both conservative and utopian… What Mumford says about proper progress being organic and cumulative–that’s conservative.

Technological progress feels like a force of nature, but it also radically changes the community to which it “happens”, that is, the community that brings it about. So when conservatives want to question the assumed goodness of technological progress, they call supporters of it liberal: they’re supporting change without thinking through the consequences and perhaps yelling “stop!” And when liberals want to do so, they call its supporters conservative: they’re supporting letting things take their natural course without thinking through the consequences and taking an active role in controlling its development.

Really both positions, optimistic and pessimistic, are “modernist,” which is why that word too is almost useless. But “modernist” does seem appropriate here insofar as the Bauhaus was “modernist,” Lewis Mumford was a “modernist,” and debate about technology is itself central to “modernism”.

And of course all of this is true of history in general, not just technological history. But the concept of history is basically coincident with the concept of technological progress. I’m not sure how valuable it is to separate them.

Turning words on their heads like this almost makes me feel like a deconstructionist.

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