Why I am (Still) a Conservative (For Now)
or, In Favor of Technological Moral Panics
In celebration (?) of my book’s recent Kindle release, today’s post aims to make the connection between my interest in generational conflict and technological progress more explicit.
(In case anyone came here just to get mad about the title, let me emphasize that this is a follow-up to Why I am (Still) a Liberal (For Now). I am less invested in defending a single theoretical or political tradition than in re-evaluating these traditions—indeed, in re-evaluating everything—in light of contemporary technology, and especially media technology.)
The traditional justification for conservatism is based in epistemic humility: there is only so much knowledge that we can accumulate within our lifetimes—especially about life-changing events like marriage or raising a child—so we should defer to the condensed knowledge of the past, condensed in the form of traditions, norms and institutions. The challenge for any reasonable person is to evaluate the tradeoff between tradition and progress, and the conservative is simply someone who puts more weight on the former.
Another perspective on conservatism, located within liberalism, sees its task as securing the conditions necessary for liberal reason to function. Reason is a historically contingent possibility. Enough people need to be able to talk with each other—and specifically to write to and read each other—to enable the deliberation upon which liberal reason is premised. There is only so much social/economic/cultural change that can be accomplished in a short time without denaturing liberal reason, making it unable to contain any of the various flavors of illiberalism always threatening to emerge.
I know that “conservative” is a heavily-laden term in contemporary US politics. So I'll try to destabilize knee-jerk reactions: with apologies to Big D, there are basically zero conservatives in mainstream media or politics today. Even more provocatively, from my perspective, the most conservative president in the past 50 years was Barack Obama. The Republicans weren’t genuine conservatives but a distinctly and contingently American confusion.
The 20th century—in particular, the spectre and then reality of Communism—produced a incoherent political coalition in the United States. The Buckleyian fusion of (white, Christian) social conservatism with free market ideologues was a strategically successful response to the politics of the Cold War and the social revolutions of the 1960-70s, but it has since collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. The dynamism of unfettered capitalism is (obviously! triumphantly!) incompatible with the social conservative desire for stability and cultural continuity.
Patrick Deneen’s revisionism is the politically expedient way forward. Deneen's influential book Why Liberalism Failed (which Obama blurbed, positively!) is remarkably cynical: it reads like a standard socialist critique of the past century, except he’s replaced the word “capitalism” with the word “liberalism.” I’m actually quite sympathetic to his program for reform—except that it’s only like a third of the battle. Without also doing something about capitalism and media technology, the unilateral localism advocated for by Deneen can be nothing more than what Flusser calls “a political consciousness vegetating in an artificially preserved republic.”
With that in mind, I’m going to argue in favor of technological moral panics.
The conservative cranks complaining about younger generations’ moral decay from new communication technology were always right.
The world they knew—what they held sacred—was genuinely threatened by new communication technology. The ways in which they and their peers had developed themselves as people, the virtues of character they prized, might not be possible in new generations developed through the use of different technologies.
This debate is literally as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s Phaedra, Socrates says that writing sucks because it will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.
On the one hand, Socrates was clearly right: the rise of written philosophy destroyed the intellectual world that came before it. On the other hand, we only know about any of this because of writing, it is impossible for us to imagine an alternative reality.
To put this another way: liberals tend to support community autonomy. It seems wrong for a colonizer or imperialist to impose their values, to deny a community the ability to define, organize and conduct itself in the way they want. New technology can have the same destabilizing effect as the destruction of local icons or the disruption of the local environment. The vibe of the Communists coming in and banning centuries-old religious practices is different than the vibe of industrial farm technology crashing the price of wheat and thus destroying small farming communities—but either way, the right of community self-determination has been lost.
So how do we reconcile this confusion?
The standard Western autonarrative is Whig history—in our context, this means liberal capitalist technologist history. The old guard was always wrong, defending their oppressive “culture” against the progress the young strive for. New technology has always been good or at least neutral in the long run, and in the short run has been invaluable in enabling the young to break the musty grip of their elders.
(The darker but distressingly plausible version of this view is that new technology is at this point *inevitable*. In the climate change analogy, the homeostatic function of the environment is able to absorb only so much human-driven change before the equilibrium breaks and a runaway feedback loop produces non-linear global warming. According to theorists like Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, we are already well past that point. Today, technocapital acceleration is a natural law and that we can at best recognize and attempt to reconcile ourselves with this fact.)
This belief in Progress is historically unusual; the more common view has been metaphysical, transcendent, religious. There is a correct way to live. Maybe our society is currently living correctly, maybe we are trying to one day live correctly, maybe we once lived correctly and are aiming to return. Some such communities are isolationist, uninterested in how others live so long as they are not disturbed; others are aggressive, insistent on converting others. Either way, this position is extremely difficult to reconcile with technological progress, a powerful exogenous force that works from within. The Amish offer one response, intentionally adopting or rejecting technologies based on whether they will let them live the way they want to. Other entities like the CCP appeal to long-standing ethnic traditions and justify their rule through the ability to connect them with contemporary technology: ban video games, rehabilitate Confucianism. But for the United States, with no telos or religion other than Progress, this is not an option.
An alternative to Whig history is the relativist view that moral progress is an illusion. Each society has its own moral framework, and we have no transcendent position from which to adjudicate disputes. Indeed when we look cross-sectionally, the attempt by one community to declare its moral framework superior to another and to take actions to bring the other into moral rectitude usually precipitates atrocity. As I wrote in part 1 of the Still…For Now series, technological change threatens the foundation of literate/liberal culture, the bedrock of western society for the past few centuries. I make only the minimal defense of this culture: it’s *my* culture, and the culture of many currently living, and we have the same right of self-determination as any other culture.
So my contingent claim is that the only way to be a liberal in 2023 is to be a conservative. Without a stable media-technological environment, the mechanisms of deliberation, regulation and education cannot function.
But things may be worse still. Liberalism and my cherished literary culture aside, the fundamental reality of human nature is potentially at risk. I’m not going to argue for any particular technosocial sensorium as “natural,” as if there was an Eden from which we fell or a Utopia we could build. Any attempt to draw sharp lines in the development of the rate at which information can be sent is ahistorical and morally contingent. See Justin EH Smith's book on the nature of the internet to disabuse yourself of some notion of a sharp break.
But I am going to argue that *the human lifespan* is a fundamental reality of human nature. Different aspects of human physiological maturation take between 12 and 30 years; our natural ideal lifespan appears to be right around 100.
Yes, we’ve made some progress in increasing these numbers for the median human. Pre-agricultural paradise and Malthusian agricultural hell aside, over the past few centuries we’ve roughly doubled the human lifespan conditional on reaching adulthood, and nearly doubled the length of time in which young people spend as “children.”
But the exponential growth of Moore’s law poses an obvious problem. Any process that can grow or adapt at merely linear speeds will be overwhelmed by any process that can sustain exponential growth.
And this is why generational analysis is so important today. In a large, complex and interconnected society like the modern United States, a huge percentage of our relevant knowledge of the world comes from media. Our experience can only grow in linear time, but new media technology gives us a higher density of information per second. Indeed, I believe that this is the primary parameter that drives the adoption of new media.
Humans are constantly learning about the world, but it’s much harder to learn how to learn. Knowing how to learn makes a parameter out of our responses to the stimuli we receive from the world. It makes sense that this process would slow down as we age.
Think about how you learned about gravity. Not 9.8 whatever, but the intuitive calculations your brain makes when it sees something falling. As a baby, you watched a bunch of things and determined how that process works: things fall. If you saw a balloon floating, you developed a more sophisticated things-fall theory; airplanes, another wrinkle. But if you saw, at age 2, a real-life UFO, one which could accelerate, slow down and then hit hypersonic speeds, this would merely be evidence for the still-developing theory of how things move. As adults, with fully formed theories of how things move, seeing this UFO would force us to either conclude that a) aliens are real or b) there was an error in our perception. From a Bayesian perspective, the latter is dramatically higher likelihood.
The problem is that the internet is aliens. The exponential growth in information production and circulation has overwhelmed the mature information-processing capacities of adults; the fully armed and operational internet is shaping, molding, creating younger generations. I’m searching for the right word. In Romance languages they say “formacion” to mean something like training and education, and this is what I mean to say. Media forms us, most fully when we are young.
In contrast, what many older Americans see and post on Facebook is literally nonsense. There are threads of failed communicative acts; people don’t understand the structure of the platform, why certain words appear in front of them or what happens when they press certain buttons. Anecdotes abound of older users creating a new account whenever they get logged out, or of posting private messages on public pages. Online political campaigning increasingly takes the form of defrauding older people, financially or otherwise.
During my lifetime, the internet has penetrated almost every society in the world and converted younger generations into fundamentally different people than their parents and especially grandparents. Maybe this represents progress, maybe this represents decline. I am again agnostic about which is the ideal technosocial environment. But it definitely represents a breakdown of cultural continuity, of the ability of community self-determination.
And I’ll say that from my perspective, the following exchange evoked nothing but disgust and despair.
When this happened, many “liberals” (here I mean “Democratic party hooligans”) exulted in the humiliation of their partisan opponents at the hands of the Conway’s 15 year-old daughter. This behavior was embarrassing, as was so much of that era, but this tweet exchange struck a deeper chord with me. The relationship between parents and children has been irrevocably changed — and not because we deliberated on the topic and democratically selected this change, no, because we were invaded by aliens.
So regardless of whether you buy my case for the value of liberalism — and then regardless of whether you accept my argument that genuine conservatism is an essential strategy for achieving liberalism in 2023 — I hope that you agree that the current rate of change is incompatible with human dignity.
We’ve gotta start somewhere. As I argued in a recent presentation at Notre Dame, the US should ban TikTok.
And please buy my book — now on Kindle!