As our society rushes toward technological ataraxia, it may do us some good to ponder the costs of what has become Silicon Valley’s new religious covenant. For the enlightened technocrat and the venture capitalist, God is long dead and buried, democracy sundered, the American dream lost. These beliefs they keep hush-hushed, out of earshot of their consumer base. Best not to run afoul of the millions of middle-class Americans who have developed slavish devotions to their smartphones and tablets and Echo Dots, pouring billions into the coffers of the ballooning technocracy.
While Silicon Valley types delay giving their own children screens, knowing full well their deleterious effects on cognitive and social development (not to mention their addictive qualities), they hardly bat an eye when handing these gadgets to our middle class. Some of our Silicon oligarchs have gone so far as to call these products “demonic,” yet on they go ushering them into schools, ruthlessly agnostic as to whatever reckoning this might have for future generations.
As they do this, their political views seem to become more radical by the day. They as a class represent the junction of meritocracy and the soft nihilism that has infiltrated almost every major institution in contemporary society. By day they inveigh against guns and walls and inequality; by night they decamp into multimillion-dollar bunkers, safeguarded against the rest of the world, shamelessly indifferent to their blatant hypocrisy. This cognitive dissonance results in a plundering worldview, one whose consequences are not yet fully understood but are certainly catastrophic. Its early casualties already include some of the most fundamental elements of American civil society: privacy, freedom of thought, even truth itself.
Hence a recent New York Times profile of Silicon Valley’s anointed guru, Yuval Harari. Harari is an Israeli futurist-philosopher whose apocalyptic forecasts, made in books like Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have tantalized some of the biggest names on the political and business scenes, including Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. The Times portrays Harari as gloomy about the modern world and especially its embrace of technology:
Part of the reason might be that Silicon Valley, at a certain level, is not optimistic on the future of democracy. The more of a mess Washington becomes, the more interested the tech world is in creating something else, and it might not look like elected representation. Rank-and-file coders have long been wary of regulation and curious about alternative forms of government. A separatist streak runs through the place: Venture capitalists periodically call for California to secede or shatter, or for the creation of corporate nation-states. And this summer, Mark Zuckerberg, who has recommended Mr. Harari to his book club, acknowledged a fixation with the autocrat Caesar Augustus. “Basically,” Mr. Zuckerberg told The New Yorker, “through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.”
Harari understands that liberal democracy is in peril, and he’s taken it upon himself to act as a foil to the anxieties of the elite class. In return, they regale him with lavish dinner parties and treat him like their maharishi. Yet from reading the article, one gets the impression that, at least in Harari’s view, this is but a facade, or what psychologists call “reaction formation.” In other words, by paying lip service to Harari, who is skeptical of their designs, our elites hope to spare themselves from incurring any moral responsibility for the costs of their social engineering. And “social engineering” is not a farfetched term to use. A portion of the Times article interrogates the premise of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel Brave New World, which tells the story of a totalitarian regime that has anesthetized a docile underclass into blind submission:
As we boarded the black gull-wing Tesla Mr. Harari had rented for his visit, he brought up Aldous Huxley. Generations have been horrified by his novel “Brave New World,” which depicts a regime of emotion control and painless consumption. Readers who encounter the book today, Mr. Harari said, often think it sounds great. “Everything is so nice, and in that way it is an intellectually disturbing book because you’re really hard-pressed to explain what’s wrong with it,” he said. “And you do get today a vision coming out of some people in Silicon Valley which goes in that direction.”
Here, Harari divulges with brutal frankness the indisputable link between private atheism and political thought. Lacking an immutable ontology, man is left in the desert, unmoored from anything to keep his insatiable passions in check. His pride entices him into playing the role of God.
At one point in the article, Harari wonders why we should even maintain a low-skilled “useless” class, whose work is doomed to disappear over the next several decades, replaced by artificial intelligence. “You’re totally expendable,” Harari tells his audience. This is why, the Times says, the Silicon elites recommend social engineering solutions like universal income to try and mitigate the more unpleasant effects of that “useless” class. They seem unaware (or at least they’re incapable of admitting) that human nature is imperfect, sinful, and can never be perfected from on high. Since many of the Silicon breed reject the possibility of a timeless, intelligent metaphysics (to say nothing of Christianity), such truisms about our natures go over their heads. Metaphysics aside, the fact that our elites are even thinking this way to begin with—that technology may render an entire underclass “expendable”—is in itself cause for concern. (As Keynes once quipped, “In the long run we are all dead.”)
Harari seems to have a vendetta against traditions—which can be extrapolated to the tradition of Western civilization writ large—for long considering homosexuality aberrant. He is quoted as saying, “If society got this thing wrong, who guarantees it didn’t get everything else wrong as well?” Thus do the Silicon elites have the audacity to shirk their entire Western birthright, handed down to them across generations, in the name of creating a utopia oriented around a modern, hyper-individualistic view of man.
When man abandons God, he begins to channel his religious desire, more devouring than even his sexual instinct, into other worldly outlets. Thus has modern liberalism evolved from a political school of thought into an out-and-out ecclesiology, one that perverts elements of Christian dogma into technocratic channels. (Of course, one can debate whether this was liberalism’s intent in the first place.) Our elites have crafted for themselves a new religion. Humility to them is nothing more than a vice.
The reason the elites are entertaining alternatives to democracy is because they know that so long as we adhere to constitutional government—our American system, even in its severely compromised form—we are bound to the utterly natural constraints hardwired by our framers (who, by the way, revered Aristotle and Jesus). Realizing this, they seek alternative forms in Silicon Valley social engineering projects, hoping to create a regime that will conform to their megalomaniacal fancies.
If there is a silver lining in all this, it’s that in the real word, any such attempt to base a political regime on naked ego is bound to fail. Such things have been tried before, in our lifetimes, no less, and they have never worked because they cannot work. Man should never be made the center of the universe because, per impossible, there is already a natural order that cannot be breached. May he come to realize this sooner rather than later. And may Mr. Harari’s wildest nightmares never come to fruition.
Paul Ingrassia is a co-host of the Right on Point podcast. To listen to his podcast, click here.