War with the Newts

by Henry on March 27, 2006

I’ve already reviewed Chris’s book at length, and talked there about why I liked it. What I want to do in this contribution is to develop on what I argued back then was missing from the book. Short version: Chris presents latterday Republican science policy as the product of an unholy alliance between big business and the religious right. He laments the powerlessness of traditional moderate Republicans who believed that science and scientific truth was good and important. This allows him to get at an awful lot of what is wrong about the Republican party’s current approach to science. But it misses out on something important. There’s a strand of Republican thinking – represented most prominently by Newt Gingrich and by various Republican-affiliated techno-libertarians – that has a much more complicated attitude to science. Chris more or less admits in the book that he doesn’t get Newt, who on the one hand helped gut OTA (or at the very least stood passively to one side as it was gutted) but on the other hand has been a proponent of more funding for many areas of the sciences. I want to argue that getting Newt is important.

What drives Newt and people like him? Why are they so vigorously in favour of some kinds of science, and so opposed to others? The answer lies, I think, in an almost blindly optimistic set of beliefs about technology and its likely consequences when combined with individual freedom. Technology doesn’t equal science of course; this viewpoint is sometimes pro-science, sometimes anti- and sometimes orthogonal to science as it’s usually practiced. Combining some half-baked sociology with some half arsed intellectual history, I want to argue that there is a pervasive strain of libertarian thought (strongly influenced by a certain kind of science fiction) that sees future technological development as likely to empower individuals, and thus as being highly attractive. When science suggests a future of limitless possibilities for individuals, people with this orientation tend to be vigorously in its favour. When, instead, science suggests that there are limits to how technology can be developed, or problems that aren’t readily solved by technological means, people with this orientation tend either to discount it or to be actively hostile to it.

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind at large, science fiction authors are the legislators of modern libertarianism. Not an original point I know – it’s commonly acknowledged that there’s an elective affinity between a certain strain of SF and modern US style libertarianism. The two emerged in conversation with each other – the SF of A.E. van Vogt, mid to late period Heinlein and others took basic libertarian tropes, and sent them back with topspin. The individual against the state. The individual as superhuman. Space as the high frontier. An implicit faith that there’s no problem out there that can’t be solved by some guy with ingenuity and an engineering degree. More recently, there’s Neal Stephenson, and the even more influential novels, short stories and occasional essays of Vernor Vinge, who’s one of the most (one could even make a plausible claim for the most) influential libertarian intellectuals today (and in my opinion, not undeservedly so). Vinge’s idea of the Singularity – a point in the near future at which technology accelerates out of control and the future goes non-linear – has been taken up with gusto by SF authors. The predicted future in which we all upload to computers, go posthuman or whatever, has been unkindly described as the Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross. But it provides some powerfully attractive ideas and metaphors for libertarians of how technology can crush bureaucracies and liberate the individual. It also represents a kind of pure distillation of a particular set of libertarian myths, in which new technology serves as a kind of magical pixie dust that dissolves complicated political, social and environmental problems into nothingness.

Take as Exhibit One, Glenn Reynolds’ recent book, An Army of Davids, in which home brewing merges into DIY teddybear construction into blogging into nanotechnology into individual powered spaceflight and it all gloms together with the Singularity. If there’s a connecting thread in the book (and it’s a pretty weak thread at times), it’s an argument that technology is leading to a radical widening of individual choices. What’s interesting to me about this is the underlying vision of technology and politics that this book (and other books and articles like it) represent. On the one hand, it’s not anti-science. Glenn can’t wait for this brave new world to come into being; he’s quite convinced that both he and home-recording ballista-building machine-gun toting wargamers everywhere are going to do pretty well in it. Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the earth. He’s vigorously in favour of stem cells, nanotechnology, and a laissez-faire attitude to scientific research in general. But there’s also something a little weird about his enthusiasm. It’s less an excitement about science as such than about technology, or for that subset of scientific speculation and facts which suggest that there aren’t any fundamental limits to human ingenuity. Scientific results which suggest that there are such limits don’t seem to make it through his filter.

Take as Exhibit Two, Tech Central Station. As Chris and others have documented, it’s a shill website, run by a crowd of corporate lobbyists to push articles that favour their interests. Less Tech Central than Flack Central. But there’s still, if not an ethos there, at least a carefully burnished PR image that runs through its pieces, an idea of technology, libertarian economics and free markets combining to free the individual, all provided that evil government bureaucrats aren’t allowed to interfere. The site has a certain appeal because of this image – without a spuriously independent organizing myth of this sort, it probably wouldn’t be worth its funders’ money and time. It suggests a certain vision of the future, which may in practice be anti-science much of the time (at least when science comes into conflict with corporate interests), but which doesn’t sound anti-scientific.

Take, finally, Newt GIngrich himself. On the one hand, enthusiastic for technological development, and indeed for more funding for the sciences. On the other, a keen proponent of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which got written into the Contract with America under his watch, despite the consensus among a large number of serious scientists that the program was simply unworkable ( I suspect that the Star Wars program serves as a kind of litmus test for the subset of techno libertarians that I’m writing about; if you’re one of them, you were and probably are still for it). Newt is almost a paradigmatic example of the technology geek unleashed on politics, with fascinating albeit frequently awful results (Newt may be quite crazed, but one gets the sense that he’d be interesting to talk to, in a way that, say, Tom DeLay would not).

I reckon that there are important lessons to be learned here which don’t emerge from Chris’s book. First, that there is a segment of the Republican party, which isn’t moderate in the traditional sense of the term, but which pro-science lefties can strike alliances with on a specific subset of scientific issues. To take one example, Glenn Reynolds, in fairness to him, has made visible his disdain for Republican posturing on stem cell issues. To the extent that the Christian right wants to impede this or that aspect of scientific research, which it sees as interfering with God’s plan, there’s probably a natural commonality of interests that can be appealed to. Many techno-libertarians may not be especially reliable allies, but to the extent that many of them do take their beliefs seriously, they’re likely to resist restrictions on contraception and reproductive technologies, on genetic research and related issue areas. By the same token, they’re obviously likely to be on the other side when the issues involved are government regulation on environmental or health issues that arguably impinge on individual freedom.

Second, if you want to take seriously the threat posed by organizations such as Tech Central Station (which doesn’t seem to me to be sincerely committed to techno-libertarianism, but which is certainly willing to use techno-libertarian language to mask corporate interests), you have to recognize that part of their power to persuade is that they seem as though they’re committed to the development of exciting new technologies. When one wants to take on politicians like Newt who want to revive massively expensive programs for missile defense that don’t make sense in terms of basic science, one has to recognize that a large part of these programs’ appeal is that they sound scientific. Indeed, they appeal to a set of myths that American scientists themselves helped to build and propagate during the Cold War in order to win resources. They haven’t been successful only because they’ve taught the controversy but because they’ve also stolen some of the clothes of those they want to displace. Which makes the task of separating them out from genuine voices in the debate that much more complicated.

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03.29.06 at 9:46 pm



dsquared 03.27.06 at 3:27 pm

When science suggests a future of limitless possibilities for individuals, people with this orientation tend to be vigorously in its favour. When, instead, science suggests that there are limits to how technology can be developed, or problems that aren’t readily solved by technological means, people with this orientation tend either to discount it or to be actively hostile to it.

As you can see from my piece below, I think this is dead right and has its roots in the inability to process ambiguity which has its psychological roots in status anxiety.


Mr. Bill 03.27.06 at 3:27 pm

Great Piece. And thanks for the Karel Capek reference…


Brett Bellmore 03.27.06 at 4:51 pm

I think to a certain extent there’s a clash of cultures between engineers and scientists, a clash of “what is already there?” vs “how do we make this happen?”.

“Problems that aren’t readily solved by technological means”… Name one, and stand back while technologists attack it. Science, beyond a few basic laws like thermodynamics, doesn’t actually have a lot to say about what goals are and aren’t susceptable to technology. Certainly, science never established (For instance.) that strategic missle defense was impossible, because, of course, it isn’t, in any scientific sense, not requiring perpetual motion, or speeds greater than that of light, or the violation of any conservation law.


Matt Austern 03.27.06 at 5:23 pm

Minor correction: I believe that “the rapture of the nerds” doesn’t come from either Cory Doctorow or Charlie Stross, but from Ken Macleod’s The Star Fraction.


Henry 03.27.06 at 5:34 pm

matt – thanks for the correction which is very likely true. I haven’t read _The Star Fraction_ for a few years, but I have quoted it in my academic work (a piece on trust, distrust and power, published in Russell Hardin’s _Distrust_ book). I know that Charlie Stross reads this blog – able to clarify???


Seth Finkelstein 03.27.06 at 8:03 pm

Right, Cory D. wouldn’t use such a derisive term.

From the tech side, I think you’re completely right. I’ve talked about these things, as Libertarianism and the Super-Science Plot.

I rarely get a chance to use the following line: Too many geeks seemed to believe that they were going to live in a Heinlein novel, when in fact they were going to live in a Pohl and Kornbluth novel.

By the way, the problem with “pro-science lefties can strike alliances with on a specific subset of scientific issues.”, that when you try to do that, the Liberbabblers want to use that alliance to campaign for Libertarianism, which tends to drive out everyone else. So it’s complicated to do in practice.


Nicholas Weininger 03.27.06 at 11:50 pm

henry: It’s funny that you should use missile defense as a litmus test for techno-libertarianism, because it seems to me an excellent separator between the “techno” and the truly libertarian points of view.

Missile defense is after all a giant government program. One that is subject to no market discipline and can be kept going for purely political reasons whether it works or not, to appease congressmen whose districts are enriched or who just want to be seen as “strong on defense”. Its checkered history thus ought to be quite unsurprising to any libertarian. (The International Space Station is another good example of the same phenomenon).


Bruce Baugh 03.28.06 at 2:53 am

American fundamentalist Christianity has a strong technophilic streak in it that comes, at least in part, from roots in the culture of Scottish revival a couple-three centuries back. It’s anchored in a basically common-sense pragmatism that’s very conducive to and supportive of experimentation on human scales – engineering, agronomy, communications tech, vehicular design, medicine (up until it starts crowding definitions of human-ness), and so on. As matters get further from human experience, skepticism rises. But there’s room in this for real brilliance of concept and execution in a lot of fields.

But what Henry says about the conceptual constraints applies in a big way.


soru 03.28.06 at 5:53 am

You left out Arthur C. Clarke:

Clarke’s First Law:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Seems to sum up the attitude under discussion.


abb1 03.28.06 at 6:40 am

You’re assuming that strategic defense initiative (star wars) is all about missile defense, but perhaps the missile defense stuff is nothing but a cover for militarization of space. Taking the arms race to space is, of course, insane, but not in the sense of scientific or technological impossibility.


Brett Bellmore 03.28.06 at 7:15 am

That pretty much was my point: “Scientific” criticism of of many technological goals, such as Star Wars, is actually criticism of the aims, wrapped in a thin coat of science for added credibility. Technologists, even of the “rapture of the nerds” type, (And I’m a cryonicist, BTW.) generally know enough science that we don’t go after things that are actually “impossible” in any strict scientific sense, and we get tired of people claiming that’s what we’ve done, when they simply disapprove of using technology to achieve certain ends.


abb1 03.28.06 at 7:43 am

sure, although my comment was in response to Henry’s post, as he seems to be citing Newts support for the SDI as a proof of his craziness. All I am saying is that there is a method to Newt’s madness there.


Henry 03.28.06 at 1:43 pm

Brett – your interpretation of “impossible” as “violating the fundamental laws of physics” is rather silly. If you want to find out more about this debate, you can start by reading Ashton Carter’s critique of the bogus and implausible scientific assumptions made about how lasers could zap missiles inside the atmosphere. And then go on to read the US Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment report on the workability of the technology. I’ve no particular ethical objection to star wars type programs – if they worked. They don’t. Nor given forseeable trajectories of technological development are they likely to anytime in the future. In Bob Jervis’s terms, nuclear weapons create a strategic scenario in which offensive weapons predominate. Doubtless, you can claim that there may be some fundamental and unpredictable advance in our technology which provides some sort of magical fairy dust that will make evil missiles disappear. You may even be right. But it’s not a prediction that I personally would care to stake my reputation on.


Walt 03.28.06 at 2:12 pm

Henry, did you post this theory before? I know I read something like this before, because when I read it, it was so obviously true that it completely made me forget my previous opinion on the subject.


Tyrone Slothrop 03.28.06 at 4:55 pm

Apropos of the comments above about Glenn Reynolds, he is in a dialogue (trialogue?) on Slate this week with Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith discussing their recent books. In response to Reynolds’ opening post, Wu posted this (on this page, below Reynolds):

The Internet equivalent of the zipless fuck is the “garage-door opener” theory of high tech. It’s the idea that all you need to do is invent the right tech, push a button, and the whole world opens up. Closed governments open, the narrow-minded become open-minded, and so on. This was the promise of the telegraph, radio, and television; and in the 1990s, this was the promise of the Internet. And it’s still the premise of books like Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat.

Not to mention Reynolds’ book, if I understand correctly.


soubzriquet 03.28.06 at 6:47 pm

Brett: sorry to pile on here, but I think you have badly mischaracterized scientific criticism of missile defense initiatives. What I’ve seen boils down to two types: First, some of the `scientific’ support being offered by the SDI people etc. was at best weak. Sure, authors may have gone on to claim that this was evidence that contrators etc. were using bogus science to bolster claims for an already decided-on policy, but that doesn’t affect the essential weakness of the claims.

The second type boils down to this. Technologists are very good at polishing known technologies and approaches, but not at solving fundamentally new problems. Scientists, on the other hand, have a good idea of where the really difficult unsolved stuff is. Some (rare, unfortunately) people wear both hats comfortably, of course. Based on the best current understanding (or lack of understanding) of the issues involved, some people have argued that it is a collossal waste of money that could be much better used elsewhere.

Does this mean it isn’t possible? Of course not. It just means, that in the judgement of many people who understand the issues quite well, it isn’t likely.


Marion Delgado 03.29.06 at 4:08 am

That’s the theme of my weblog the Fascist Oar (above) albeit lately I have been just sort of general posting. In the future I will post an excerpt in each posting and then have some commentary.

But the above is my thesis more or less and also that of Brian Zepp Jamieson of Zepp’s News Service.

If you go there, you should read my very first post (january archive) and also my quoted Zepp post (early this month).


Marion Delgado 03.29.06 at 4:09 am

Oh, and I have Chris’ book. It’s wonderful. Of course, in our debased debate culture, his objective and evenhanded and scrupulously fair book has to be balanced with something like Dixie Lee Ray or Lyndon LaRouche and the truth found somewhere in the middle.


ajay 03.29.06 at 10:54 am

“The Cassini Division”, not “The Star Fraction”, I believe. Though Doctorow and Stross nicked it for a book title.

The argument that “we can do anything with technology” has a good deal to recommend it: primarily that it’s generally been true, historically speaking. Don’t be too hard on Newt and others for taking it a bit too far.


rvman 03.29.06 at 1:38 pm

>It’s the idea that all you need to do is invent the right tech, push a button, and the whole world
>opens up. Closed governments open, the narrow-minded become open-minded, and so on.
>This was the promise of the telegraph, radio, and television; and in the 1990s, this was the >promise of the Internet.

A promise, fulfilled in full, and in ways never dreamed of before their invention. Scientists who, at most, might have met once a year at a conference in 1950 or a few times in a lifetime in 1850 are now cowriting papers from different continents. “Closed” governments have opened – the immediateness of the images of suffering was what caused the response to Vietnam to be different from Korea only 20 years before, and the Spanish-American war 60 years earlier, and forced the government to respond. People, with this tech, aren’t just getting one view of world events, or if they do, it is by their choice, not by necessity. Minds which would have known but one way now know many.

We wouldn’t have heard about, or cared about, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean a century ago. Now we donate billions to the Red Cross to help. (Leave alone the difference between what happened to New Orleans in 2005 vs. Galveston in 1900, mostly driven by the ability to communicate the danger, quickly and effectively, to a population.) We are far more open as societies than we used to be, to a great extent because of all of these technologies and their promises.

The issues Wu cited – China and Google, Napster, EBay fraud – back up the idea of technological transformation. Why? Google, for example. Ok, they modified their site to fit the Chinese rulers. That is one website. Millions more to go. China blocks the net? Someone uses radio, or fax, to go around them. Or they mirror the blocked information on an as-yet unblocked site, which is then blocked, and then is mirrored again, etc. Each time someone is able to access that which isn’t ‘allowed’, a promise fulfilled.

Today’s Havanan, living in absolute despotism, has more access to the outside world than the most free citizens in London 150 years ago. That Christian in Afghanistan, who was on trial for his life for apostacy? He wouldn’t have had a trial in a previous era, he just would have been strung up and forgotten. Instead, he is able to leave, and at least some Afghanis who would never have given his death a second thought are thinking about what they are doing. Even if it is a very few, it is a start toward those minds being opened. Let us not forget that the WEST was doing these same things not so long ago. Now we don’t – a promise fulfilled.

The automobile opened up the world, literally, to people who would have never gotten more than 10 miles from home a generation before. It ‘opened’ society in a way we can’t even understand in our society where many of us commute on a daily basis distances which would have taken more than a day to cover in 1800, and take weekend trips at distances which would have taken a week to cross. Tech did that, fulfilling promises its inventors didn’t even imagine. Not sociology, or political activism, or government..

Tech hasn’t brought, and never will bring, a perfect world. It can be used to snoop into private lives (though how much worse was it when we all lived in small towns with a few hundred people, and any small transgression was sure to be known by everyone, simply because there was no place to hide). It can be used to kill (though swords and arrows did that quite nicely, too – the battles in Ancient Greece killed more than now, proportional to population change). It can be used to oppress. (Though is the worst oppressor today as bad as the Pharaohs were, what can a conqueror today do that Rome didn’t do to Carthage?) It pollutes. (How many millions died due to unclean water, before modern treatment methods?) It doesn’t solve every human problem, right now. (What does?) All it does is solve more than it creates.

No single ‘button’ is ever going to solve all of the world’s problems, Utopia is an impossibility with humans, but a multitude of little buttons will make solutions, one by one. What will those solutions be? I don’t know, they haven’t been invented yet. What promises will they fulfill? Who knows?

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