Technology and the Conflict of Visions

Consider the populations of America’s two high-tech meccas:  Silicon Valley/San Francisco, and Seattle.  Both are filled with ambitious, hard-working and entrepreneurial people.  Normally you might expect folks like this to skew to the right politically, but of course that is not true in either city.  San Francisco and Seattle are two of America’s most progressive metropolitan areas, and this is not only because of their citizens’ libertarian-leaning positions on social issues.  Both places are also intensely and flamboyantly “green,” devoted to “smart growth” schemes that discourage development, and elect politicians at the local, state and federal levels who agitate for higher taxes and more government.


Why would enterprising people who benefit directly from free markets also support policies that are so hostile to economic liberty?  I believe one contributing factor is related to what Thomas Sowell calls the “conflict of visions.” Sowell argues that ideological and political divides result largely from two distinct visions of humanity.  The “constrained vision” believes in a fundamental and unchanging human nature in which self-interest plays a critical role.  The “unconstrained vision” believes human nature is malleable and can be improved through social arrangements.  Sowell emphasizes that few people are purists, and political differences result from differences in the weights that people put on one vision vis-à-vis the other.  Nevertheless, the constrained vision is overwhelmingly associated with the Right, while leftists of various stripes are motivated by the unconstrained vision of perfecting humanity through social reform.

Sowell analyzes the ways in which differences in political philosophy and positions can be traced to these distinct visions.  One important difference concerns the nature of knowledge and how it is used in society.  The constrained view believes knowledge is derived largely from experience, with information and learning developing as a natural byproduct of human action and interaction.  Knowledge is therefore often “tacit” and not explicitly verbalized or captured in words.  Over time tacit knowledge becomes embodied in traditions or routines that work reasonably well but are not perfect.  However, competition between alternative ways of doing things leads over time to social change, as new arrangements that prove to be more effective gradually supplant older ways.  The constrained vision therefore leads to evolutionary (or ‘ecological’) change that takes place through organic, decentralized processes.


In contrast, the unconstrained vision is based on pure reason.  Explicitly articulated ideas become the foundation for new plans.  These plans are designed to sweep away customs and “irrational” social arrangements in order to usher in more reasonable and efficient alternatives.  Social change accordingly takes place through explicit change agents, which in practice typically means government.


Sowell describes the differences between the constrained and unconstrained views in purely philosophical terms, but material factors may also impact the relative attractiveness of the competing visions.  In particular, technological change has arguably made the unconstrained vision more appealing to larger numbers of people.  Greater receptiveness to unconstrained visions will, in turn, make progressive ideas and progressive political policies more popular.


How does technological change erode the appeal of the constrained vision?  The essence of technological change is applying knowledge and expertise to the natural world in order to push back against physical constraints and produce greater material abundance from limited resources.  Technological success in the natural world could easily give rise to the view that “scientific” techniques can also be used to improve the social realm.  Indeed, the idea of using “scientific management” to address social problems was rampant at the end of the 19th century in the original progressive era.  Not coincidentally, this era was also characterized by unprecedented technological breakthroughs.


However, the temptations of the unconstrained vision were probably moderated in those times by the fact that technological change still had strong links to nature.  Scientists and engineers were unlocking the secrets of the natural world into in order to use it more effectively.  Nearly all their innovations involved the transformation of physical resources into usable products, and the production processes necessary to create these products required brawn as well as brains.  Entrepreneurs were also more likely to be those whose technical knowledge came from tinkering in their garage or basement laboratories rather than from universities.  As Sowell emphasizes, people whose knowledge is drawn from experience rather than formal academic training tend to adopt constrained visions of the world.


These factors are all less true for information technology.  IT abstracts from the natural world rather than embrace it.  It involves more purely intellectual activities that primarily extend man’s mental capacities.  Information technologies also increasingly make it viable for users to experience a “virtual” reality that is disconnected from the actual space they inhabit.


I believe the IT revolution is an important reason why America’s IT meccas are relentlessly left-wing, even on economic issues.  Information technologies seduce people into believing that reality is plastic and can be easily manipulated and re-arranged to take more aesthetically pleasing forms.  Cyberspace may be a simulacrum of the real world, but it can also create a more intoxicating and vivid version of reality than the real thing.  Combine this with the risk of intellectual hubris in highly intelligent people, and the result is that IT contributes to an exceptionally unconstrained vision for humanity and concomitant belief in the positive, transformative nature of pure brainpower.


Of course, humanity will never escape material reality completely.  Everyone still needs land to live on, food to eat, and energy to run the machines that heat and cool our homes, transport people from place to place, and power the IT applications.  But adherents of the unconstrained vision often try to wish these messy, material concerns away by extolling chimeras like green energy (which will never displace fossil fuels entirely) or public transportation and “smart” city planning (which will never make the automobile a thing of the past).  Not surprisingly, these views also seem to be popular among IT professionals.


In fact, the relationship between technology and ideological visions becomes more evident when you consider how political inclinations vary across professions.  People involved in manufacturing, energy, real estate, and agriculture tend to be more conservative.  Those employed in IT, academia, journalism, arts and entertainment, and, increasingly, finance tend to be more progressive.  The jobs of the former group deal in one way of the other with hard physical realities, while the latter primarily manipulate symbols.  Even when professions like IT are saturated with entrepreneurs, the essence of information technology still entices large numbers of people to adopt the unconstrained vision.


This attitude is also apparent in younger Americans, who of course grew up with IT and take it for granted.  Young adults seem increasingly willing to outsource responsibility for the physical aspects of their lives to the government (including health care, energy and the environment) as long as they remain in control of their smart phones, IT applications, and virtual worlds.  These are the spheres they recognize as being critical for entrepreneurial initiative, personal expression and identity, and creating value.  There is little apparent concern with growing restrictions on economic liberty that involve land, energy or other resources, in part because so few of them appreciate the efforts that have gone into mastering the physical world.


All of this links back to Whittaker Chambers’ point (posted yesterday) that the Right is only incidentally at war with socialists/progressives and at another level is battling “machines. A conservatism that cannot face the facts of the machine and mass production, and its consequences in government and politics, is foredoomed to futility and petulance. A conservatism that allows for them has an eleventh-hour chance of rallying what is sound in the West.”  This does not, of course, mean that ideas do not matter.  But conservatives and libertarians must come to grips with the fact that we are living in the age of IT and virtual reality, and these technologies impact the way people experience the world.  Technological change has led fewer people to appreciate the importance of material constraints and more of them to expect a certain degree of comfort and success with a minimum of effort.  Over time, these attitudes can give rise to an entitlement mentality and calls for greater statism, particularly when expectations of leading unconstrained lives are frustrated by material realities, as they inevitably will be.


Bemoaning these facts of life is pointless, and it is certainly not conservative.  The Right still has a deeper understanding of the human condition and better ideas for creating a world that promotes human flourishing and happiness.  But unless we want to be “foredoomed to futility and petulance,” these ideas must be expressed and applied in a way that resonates with large numbers of people and takes account of the technological realities shaping our lives.