Technology, modernity, freedom

About 20 years ago, I spent an afternoon perusing the modern art in the Hirshhorn Museum, at the Mall in Washington.  This was the heyday of “conceptual art,” and it wasn’t at all unusual to see bricks and sticks strewn over the polished granite floor of the Hirshhorn, onto which we were supposed to project our private stick or brick fantasies.  I remember thinking, “Boy, are our grandchildren going to laugh at us, for the stuff we have swallowed as art.”

To clear my head, I walked across the street to the Air and Space Museum.  There, I stumbled into a room exhibiting artificial satellites:  mysterious, glittering objects, silver and gold and crystal blue, built with magnificent ingenuity, no doubt, but also of surpassing beauty.  They invited adventure and achievement.  And I thought, “Maybe my grandchildren won’t laugh after all.”

We stand at the apex of a great technological age.  Our artists, dispirited and confused, seem unable to break out of their sectarian jargon, or inspire greatness in others.  This artistic deficit, strange to say, has been made up by our engineers, whose brilliance spills over far beyond the utilitarian, and partakes, at its best, of the awe-inspiring and the beautiful.  Technology has enhanced human capabilities and, on occasion, our sensibilities, and consistently attracted the most brilliant minds of our time.

What makes technology thrive to such an extent?  How did we get from the painted caves of Lascaux and Altamira, to the satellite room at the Air and Space Museum?

I have just finished reading an annoying little book called Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, by one John Gray.  It has little to say about Al Qaeda, but harps insistently on the down side of modernity, which the author seems to think he is the first to criticize.  Among the nettlesome aspects of modernity he includes, reflexively, the global marketplace; but what truly irritates Gray are any claims to universal validity made by advocates of liberal democracy and free trade.  Who has made such claims, he never tell us, but he’s quick to lead the charge against these ghostly advocates.

“We can imagine a future in which each country would be free to find its own version of modernity,” Gray writes.  “If a country wished to limit its contacts with the rest of the world, it would be left in peace.”  How this differs from the present order of things is, again, left unexplained.  What Gray meant by “a country,” however, poses interesting questions.  Is it a democratic majority?  A totalitarian despot, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Il?  A chaotic jumble of warring tribes, like Sudan or the Congo?

It is an unfortunate fact, for anti-modernity intellectuals, that most ordinary people in every country in the world, when given a choice, have chosen liberal democracy and the free marketplace.  (Whether this contitutes evidence of “universality” is a question for another day.)

Gray is a fatalist about all things, but above all about technology.  It is “the driving force of history.”  The latter is a series of accidents, more or less driven by human invention; while modernity is “only a quickening of this process.”  All political and economic arrangements, including democracy and the global free markets, must bow before technology’s hurricane-like force.

As a technological development, globalisation began with the laying down of underwater transatlantic telegraph cables in the second half of the nineteenth century, and has continued despite the Great Depression, two world wars and the rise and fall of communism.  The global free market is a political construction not much more than a dozen years old.  Technological globalisation is an inexorable process, which no political decision can halt.  When the two collide, it is obvious which will win.

Political and economic decisions, on this account, are conditioned by technology – but technology itself is unconditioned, a kind of prime mover in the clockwork that is human history.

Less learned minds might imagine that technology, in fact, is conditioned by the development of modern science, and that science, a rare event, might itself require some fairly unique conditions to develop.  Not so.  Gray views science no differently than he does technology, as a fatalistic accretion of knowledge without a native land or culture.  If credit belongs to any particular people, it’s to the Chinese, Arabs, and Indians, who laid down the foundations on which modern science rests.  (Jared Diamond argues for essentially the same proposition, when he maintains that human innovation is a “random variable,” liable to appear anywhere at any time.)

Neither technology nor science, in the modern sense of these words, just happened.  They arose in a specific cultural environment.  Science is largely the creation of the ancient Greeks, who detached the observation of nature from religion.  Not coincidentally, the Greeks invented democracy, practiced commerce on an international scale, and were surely the freest people who lived before 1776.

Modern science won the prestige it enjoys today when Bacon detached observation from philosophy, Newton explained the physical universe mathematically, and Darwin suggested a process that accounted for the vicissitudes of organic life.  The English, not coincidentally, were the freest people since the Greeks, and built the first commercial empire in history.

Technology depends on the development of science, and science, historically, has flourished with freedom of thought and action.  The free markets also drive the practical application of knowledge.  The Romans invented the steam engine, but used it to move scenery in the theater.  The Chinese invented powder, and made excellent fireworks with it.  Slave and peasant economies apply human genius to the entertainment of aristocrats.  The free marketplace took over these inventions, and changed the world.

These notions, far from original, are apparent to anyone with an impartial view of history.  Let me end with this article by George Mason University economics professor Donald Boudreaux, on the question whether technology or freedom – in this case, the free market – drive prosperity.

Technology clearly has advanced over the years; happily it continues to do so. And these advances indeed are indispensable to our modern way of life. But the deeper cause of our widespread wealth isn’t technology; rather, it’s the force that unleashes and directs the human energy necessary to produce technological advances and its fruits: free markets.

The clearest evidence that markets are more fundamental than technology to prosperity is the fact that billions of people today remain desperately poor.

People in Niger and North Korea are starving to death now, even though the technical knowledge for growing and distributing basic foodstuffs is readily available across the globe.

Many Latin Americans and east Europeans still carry their goods to and from market on wooden carts, despite the easy availability of automotive technology.

Countless other people still dwell in earthen huts, have no indoor plumbing, die of malaria, and suffer all manner of other indignities and dangers that are easily avoided with commonplace technologies.

It is grossly mistaken to suggest that technology is the reason for our prosperity. Clearly something else must be present – something else that both promotes technological advance and, even more importantly, encourages the use of technological knowledge to produce and make widely available the goods and services that we Americans today take for granted.

Again, that something else is economic freedom.

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