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.