Fred Hyatt: Not Enough Technology Pessimism!

Screenshot of the Fred Hyatt's editorial on pessimism about technology and democracy in the Washington Post
I wouldn’t be despairing so much if I thought you were despairing enough!

The Violence of the Phone

These two pessimisms of which Fred Hyatt, an editorial page editor for the Washington Post, write in the above editorial on January 12, 2020—that of the fate of American democracy and that of how technology affects us—are deeply connected because of the violence of the smartphone to the intellectual life of a country.

Any device that can be so transformative and so powerful will need a considerable amount of time to be properly assessed in its effects.

But we should err on the side of excessive regulations (of the mobile web) whereas the opposite is the case.

[210528: Not as sure about this last sentiment, namely, that we should err on the side of excessive regulations. I cannot help fearing that in part my reasoning is inspired by the ill associations that attach to word regulation whatsoever in the United States, the supposed land of laissez-faire capitalism (I don’t really think laissez faire capitalism can be so-called in a country where the petroleum and military-industrial industries are so constantly subsidized, both ideologically and fiscally).

[On that same point, remember that (1) there is no such thing as complete freedom—there are always conditions that limit free action—and that (2) those limits are what make free action possible. Similarly, there are not only technical conditions making consumer technology’s possible, but also, and perhaps more important, intellectual conditions (all of the concepts that we possess and use to think through technology).]

“Public” Infrastructure

As for the Hyatt’s vote for confidence with reference to past triumphs—specifically, the regulation of automobiles—in the long run it’s more likely the automobile will be seen as a horrible wrong turn (ahem) on the path of history. Would that we would have been more pessimistic about it! For one example, see The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), in which one of the title characters at one point mocks a passerby in an early auto by saying, “Get a horse!”

If democracy was effective in the 1950s a genuine infrastructure for public transportation—not a highway system—would have been built.

Instead consumers were encouraged to indulge in desires that set the economy aboom at the price of extreme environmental damage, the effects of which we are only beginning to see.

Still from The Magnificent Ambersons, with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) lacking adequate pessimism.
Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was not adequately in the throes of pessimism, and look at that mustache he suffers!

[210528: This latter point I’m really serious about, even though I was raised as a gearhead and have fond memories of hanging out with my dad while he was working on cars and was proud of him for his automotive knowhow … America’s love affair with the automobile has fostered a certain solipsism in the name of a false independence.

[We think we are free because of our automobiles and the open road, but cars require maintenance and our taxes pay for the infrastructure. Arguably the identifications we make with the automobiles we own (or want to own are the most pernicious part of this love affair. Think of the debt so many incur so as to drive a Chevy Tahoe or the like! So what then happens to us when we are unable to drive (getting old) or simply cannot afford it (low income). I’ll you what: shame and declining self-worth. Ask any teenager.]

Immer Wieder: Sei Radikal (Translation: always be radical!)

Now is time for the same radicality we needed back during the Eisenhower administration—we didn’t get in then, and one would be a fool to expect it now.

Not unrelated: pessimism as … joyful?

Is joyful pessimism possible? “Things are going to hell in a handbasket … mais c’est la vie!”?

[210528: I do not enjoy being around others who are pessimistic and that is why I—even in this article—clothe my pessimism with humor, hyperbole. Nor do I think that a life directed by pessimism would be a healthy life. Quite the contrary. Nor am I a Luddite (I was an early iPhone adopter)! When I was in graduate school and even today, I affirm Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment.

[But here I think (generously) that Nietzsche would find himself in agreement with my position. We need radical critique now! And that this can be a gesture of affirmation, not ressentiment. Boy, that first part sounds like a bumper sticker.]


This article was originally published in Jan. 12, 2020, and then revised on May 28, 2021.