I’ve had occasion to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing a time or two in previous posts. In his journal, he noted the manner in which the train whistle broke into the natural idyll he was enjoying — “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive” — inaugurating a long-standing literary convention which persists to this day (see Sherry Turkle).
Elsewhere, Hawthorne anticipated de Chardin and McLuhan’s metaphorical rendering of the electric age: “Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?”
Hawthorne and his generation were grappling with the consequences of industrialization. We are grappling with the consequences of digitization. These two are not necessarily analogous, but they share one variable: human nature. Hawthorne in particular had a keen sense of our faults and foibles. While his stories did not always dwell on technology explicitly, they imaginatively explored the darker proclivities that human beings bring to the techno-scientific project.
In the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes,
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
This is a grim observation, but it seems incontrovertible; and it applies with equal force to all techno-utopian projects and hopes. Wherever we go, there we are and our imperfections with us.
Pascal observed that the error of Stoicism lay in believing that what can be done once can be done always. I would offer an analogous framing of the techno-utopian error: Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.
Better, it would seem, to go forward with a hopeful skepticism that avoids the cycloptic vision of either the techno-utopians or the techno-cynics. And reading a little Hawthorne might be a good way of nurturing that disposition.
Over the past couple of years, the folks at The New Atlantis have been publishing a series of reflections on a handful of Hawthorne’s short stories as they bear on Science, Progress, and Human Nature. These are each thoughtful and engaging essays.