A friend writes:
You have this vision of liberalism or modernity as the attempt to create a self-sufficient manmade system which becomes a substitute for the given world, I wonder if you have any thoughts about how computers fit into that scheme. For many people the computer becomes a substitute for the real world. It offers an alternative reality in which ordinary people can experience themselves as the creators and controllers of their own cosmos.
It’s an interesting point that deserves thought. Here are some suggestions (additions are welcome):
- The virtual online world isn’t the self-contained rationalized world modernity aims at. The problem is that the latter can’t exist. Liberal modernity is destructive because it aims at fantasy and not reality, and it destroys things trying to get there. To the extent the VOW exists it takes on the necessary attributes of reality.
- To be more specific, the VOW is too complicated to predict or train. It does what it wants. Besides extremely complex electronic circuitry it contains natural elements—human beings—that are notoriously unpredictable and uncontrollable. Those natural elements in fact undertake all the initiatives and make all the decisions. It’s been known for a long time that you can’t denature nature: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret (“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll always come back in anyway”—Horace). Why think you can do it by adding electronics?
- I wrote a review some time ago of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control that touches on some of the issues. The review concluded that the fancy theorizing you find today about the “emergent behaviour” of complex systems involving human beings is trying to cover ground already covered by classic discussions of man and society. So—on the whole—why not read the classics instead?
- A sign that people who actually work with computers have noticed that the world of computers can’t be subjected to liberal modernity is the interest among software and systems designers in writers like Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros, whose work on architecture (and oriental rugs) makes clear the superiority of traditional solutions over modernist hyperrationality.
- Nonetheless, the VOW is not the real world, even though it has real elements, and computers can become a distraction, drug or addiction. Still, how much does the VOW differ in that regard from other artificial worlds—the world of sports, financial markets, the court of Louis XIV, the Republic of Learning? Those are all artificial worlds with natural elements that serve certain functions but also swallow people up. The Republic of Learning has a better rep than the others, but book learning has always been suspect in America, Plato thought (Letter VII, 344c) that no serious man would ever put his most serious concerns in writing, and the Persians say
aql-e-madrasa chiz-e-digar ast (“school knowledge is something else”). If all those people agree on something, how can they be wrong?
Conclusion: the VOW is an important development, and it changes things, but I think there’s too much of a tendency to treat it as a complete novelty and it’s probably best understood from the standpoint of the long-pondered question of how complicated systems involving human beings work generally.