Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Techno-utopians and hedonism

posted by Rod Dreher

Evgeny Morozov says that Western geeks who think that Twitter and related information technologies are going to topple authoritarian governments are naive. Excerpt:

But this is an anachronistic view of the world. Modern authoritarian states have eagerly (but selectively) embraced globalisation to provide their citizens with at least a modicum of self-actualisation without ever abandoning their authoritarianism. Their young people travel the world, learn English, use Skype and poke each other on Facebook – all while competing for comfortable jobs with state-owned companies. We are entering the age of “accommodating authoritarianism” – and the internet has played a crucial (though hardly the only) role in providing many of the accommodations. 

The reason why the Chinese can download Weeds or Mad Men from peer-to-peer networks is not because the Chinese government can no longer police the web. It’s because watching Weeds and Mad Men is what young people living under contemporary authoritarians are supposed to do. These societies no longer operate in the world of cultural scarcity; it’s hard to nudge them towards dissent with the promise of blue jeans or prohibited vinyl records. For every Chinese blogger that the techno-utopians expect to fight their government via Twitter, there are a hundred others who feel content with the status quo.

In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology. The recent outburst of techno-utopianism in the West may thus be just another futile attempt to imagine a world where the purest ideal of Athenian democracy, uncorrupted by special interests and popular culture, is not only possible but could actually be facilitated by its more corrupt, frivolous, and somewhat culpable western sibling. This, of course, is an illusion. Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity – the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.

Isn’t this the techie libertarian version of the neocon idea that all people around the world are liberal democrats at heart, just waiting to be liberated from authoritarianism by force? Both are predicated on a view of human nature that is rather romantic. Huxley had it right, alas. I’m not making a pitch for or against any particular political system, understand (I am quite fond of liberal democracy myself, but agree with John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”), but only arguing for skepticism of the Western view that everyone wants to be like us. In the end, I’m not even sure that <i>we</i> want to be like us anymore — a point Patrick Deneen limns here. 



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kevin s.

posted January 4, 2010 at 9:59 pm


“The reason why the Chinese can download Weeds or Mad Men from peer-to-peer networks is not because the Chinese government can no longer police the web.”
It’s part of it. Policing the web requires substantial know-how. Policing fundamental freedoms requires an enormous amount of man power.
“Both are predicated on a view of human nature that is rather romantic.”
How so? At most, the author seems to be indicating that authoritarian societies can use the illusion of freedom to opiate the masses. If we cede this argument, we must recognize that freedom is a valuable illusion.
Oppressed cultures universally emulate free cultures when given the chance. To argue otherwise is ridiculous.



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Japhy Ryder

posted January 4, 2010 at 10:21 pm


While I believe that “technology” is not the panacea that some may make it out to be, I think the author gives short-shrift to it as a force in politics and/or revolution.
With what is happening in Iran, I doubt we would have one tenth of the pictures/video/reports that we have coming out of there to showcase the protesters. That the “free” countries of the west and our current administration failed to capitalize and promote the pictures/videos/news to leverage relatively peaceful revolution was a missed opportunity.
I know this is now an apolitical blog, but the point I’m trying to make is that technology alone will not be responsible for a revolution, but technology is a part of it – and certainly more-so when leveraged correctly.



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John D

posted January 4, 2010 at 10:47 pm


And yet, Twitter seems positively activist compared to the groups on Facebook in which people show their support for a cause by joining it. Not a substitute for social action.



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JohnT

posted January 5, 2010 at 12:52 am


Technology in our country and in China is more likely to make all of us less free. It really depends here on what you mean when you say technology. Do you mean the hardware? Software? networks? Really specialized robots? Twitter’s an application.
What is most likely to reduce our freedoms is how technology is applied to specific problems we have. It will be the application of technology to that problem, and bureaucracy that governs access to the application which will be limiting. Not the technology. The other side of the problem is technology is very limiting period. Machines can only operate on very well defined problems. However in the human world problems don’t fit in neat well defined packages. So the owners of the technology will be invested in making your problem fit into the finite parameters in which the technology operates. That’s where the problems will start to arise.
Freedoms will erode in relationship to the systems in which our society invests in.
(Let’s see how this flies on the new blog.)



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mdavid

posted January 5, 2010 at 9:22 am


John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”
As well as educated and moderately conservative. Those who desire to raid the public purse will bankrupt the state. Do gooders who desire to “help the poor” with OPM will do likewise. I often wonder if a republic can last in a nation without a majority of farmers.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 5, 2010 at 11:02 am


In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology…..Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity – the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.
This is a profoundly conservative view of human nature. We always comport ourselves to comfortable stability, and get up in arms when one or the other finds itself in short supply. America was not created because of an idea that a liberal democracy would be better than monarchy, but because our founders came to see their comfort being threatened by the monarchy.
And so we go from “bread and circuses” to Weeds and Mad Men pretty easily. Technology does not impart a burning love for free markets or liberal democracy, it enables delivery of the circus more efficiently.
Marx would recognize “hedonism” as an opiate for the masses.



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Lord Karth

posted January 5, 2010 at 1:09 pm


Chris @ 11:02 AM, writes:
“Marx would recognize “hedonism” as an opiate for the masses.”
Change “hedonism” to “television”, and you’ve hit it, spot on.
Television and related mass media are as addictive and personality- deforming as crack, I believe, and in more dangerous ways.
Your servant,
Lord Karth



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the stupid Chris

posted January 5, 2010 at 3:09 pm


Change “hedonism” to “television”, and you’ve hit it, spot on.
I know some who would put “the internet” in that class as well!! ;-)



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Geoff G.

posted January 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm


Nothing new here: technology enables people who already are predisposed to a certain political view to act out. But technology by itself won’t make people more libertarian or liberal or authoritarian or whatever.
Compare Iran with China. In Iran, people were predisposed to believe that their votes counted. They had faith in the system of an “Islamic democracy”. They had multiple candidates for President. So they were, to a certain degree at least, predisposed to believe in certain liberal values.
Thus, when those values were violated, technology proved to be the enabler that allowed them to react in the way they have. They organized or twitter, they posted videos to YouTube, etc.
In China, there’s no such predisposition. China has never had a real liberal democracy (except now in Taiwan). And so, even with the technology available to them, Chinese dissidence tends to be either shallow and limited to the intelligentsia or wrapped around traditional outlets of dissatisfaction (Falun Gong is only the latest religion in China to be associated with criticism of the regime; in imperial times religion could be a tool of the state but also could be a means of critique).
So even with all of the tools at their disposal, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a big rising up in China as we have in Iran (unless the “mandate of heaven” appears to be withdrawn from the regime; then all bets are off).



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Jon

posted January 6, 2010 at 6:40 am


I donlt think one can outright dismiss the effects technologu have on political and social reality. Look at what gunpowder and printing did in Renaissance Europe.



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Fake Fan Base

posted January 6, 2010 at 7:45 pm


A very provocative piece.
There are some positive elements to the web and Twitter etc which serve to tell us that there are other people just like us, in Iran, Dallas, or wherever.
There is something quite democrative about the way resources like Wikipaedia develop learning and our understanding of concepts. Their very construction is one of massive coproduction.
We will all be better people through increasing communication with others in far away places. This is a gift.



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