Don’t Romanticize the Present

Steven Pinker and Jason Hickel have recently engaged in a back-and-forth about whether or not global poverty is decreasing. The first salvo was an essay by Hickel in the Guardian targeting claims made by Bill Gates. Pinker responded here, and Hickel posted his rejoinder at his site.

I’ll let you dive in to the debate if you’re so inclined. The exchange is of interest to me, in part, because evaluations of modern technology are often intertwined with this larger debate about the relative merits of what, for brevity’s sake, we may simply call modernity (although, of course, it’s complicated).

I’m especially interested in a rhetorical move that is often employed in these kinds of debates:  it amounts to the charge of romanticizing the past.

So, for example, Pinker claims, “Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence.” I’ll note in passing Hickel’s response, summed up in this line: “All of this violence, and much more, gets elided in your narrative and repackaged as a happy story of progress. And you say I’m the one possessed of romantic fairy tales.” Hickel, in my view, gets the better of Pinker on this point.

In any case, the trope is recurring and, as I see it, tiresome. I wrote about it quite early in the life of this blog when I explained that I did not, in fact, wish to be a medieval peasant.

More recently, Matt Stoller tweeted, “When I criticize big tech monopolies the bad faith response is often a variant of ‘so you want to go back to horses and buggies?!?'” Stoller encountered some variant of this line so often that he was searching for a simple term by which to refer to it. It’s a Borg Complex symptom, as far as I’m concerned.

At a forum about technology and human flourishing I recently attended, the moderator, a fine scholar whose work I admire, explicitly cautioned us in his opening statements against romanticizing the past.

It would take no time at all to find similar examples, especially if you expand “romanticizing the past” to include the equally common charge of reactionary nostalgia. Both betray a palpable anxiousness about upholding the superiority of the present.

I understand the impulse, I really do. I think it was from Alan Jacobs that I first learned about the poet W. H. Auden’s distinction between those whose tendency is to look longingly back at some better age in the past and those who look hopefully toward some ideal future:  Arcadians and Utopians respectively, he called them. Auden took these to be matters of temperament. If so, then I would readily admit to being temperamentally Arcadian. For that reason, I think I well understand the temptation and try to be on guard against it.

That said, stern warnings against romanticizing the past sometimes reveal a susceptibility to another temptation:  romanticizing the present.

This is not altogether surprising. To be modern is to define oneself by one’s location in time, specifically by being on the leading edge of time. Novelty becomes a raison d’être.

As the historian Michael Gillespie has put it,

… to think of oneself as modern is to define one’s being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time …  To be modern means to be “new,” to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, ultimately not even a form of being but a form of becoming.

Within this cultural logic, the possibility that something, anything, was better in the past is not only a matter of error, it may be experienced as a threat to one’s moral compass and identity. Over time, perhaps principally through the nineteenth century, progress displaced providence and, consequently, optimism displaced hope. The older theological categories were simply secularized. Capital-P Progress, then, despite its many critics, still does a lot of work within our intellectual and moral frameworks.

Whatever its sources, the knee-jerk charge of romanticizing the past or of succumbing to reactionary nostalgia often amounts to a refusal to think about technology or take responsibility for it.

As the late Paul Virilio once put it, “I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation.”

We are not obligated to love technology. This is so not only because love, in this instance, ought not to be an obligation but also because there is no such thing as technology. By this I mean simply that technology is a category of dubious utility. If we allow it to stand as an umbrella term for everything from modern dentistry to the apparatus of ubiquitous surveillance, then we are forced to either accept modern technology in toto or reject it in toto. We are thus discouraged from thoughtful discrimination and responsible judgment. It is within this frame that the charge romanticizing the past as a rejoinder to any criticism of technology operates. And it is this frame that we must reject. Modern technology is not good by virtue of its being modern. Past configurations of the techno-social milieu are not bad by virtue of their being past.

We should romanticize neither the past nor the present, nor the future for that matter. We should think critically about how we develop, adopt, and implement technology, so far as it is in our power to do so. Such thinking stands only to benefit from an engagement with the past as, if nothing else, a point of reference. The point, however, is not a retrieval of the past but a better ordering of the present and future.


8 thoughts on “Don’t Romanticize the Present

  1. Thanks for this. Another factor I see in discussing this is that we didn’t have to arrive at where we are at today–on any number of occasions, the path that led to the present could have gone in a different direction. This is particularly true with the corporatization of technology. For example, Ted Nelson has long argued that things could (and ought) to be different:

  2. I like that formulation of what it means to be modern by Gillespie. It makes me think that chronocentricity (a term I first came across in Standage’s Victorian Internet) might itself be a modern sentiment. Interestingly though, Standage doesn’t speak of it specifically that way:

    “Given a new invention, here will always be some people who see only its potential to do good, while others wee new opportunities to commit crime or make money….Such reactions are amplified by what might be termed chronocentricity — the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history.” Tom Standage, Victorian Internet

    And amen to the advice that we need to be careful neither to romanticize the present or the future (not to mention an imagined “Arkadian” past). Reminds me of a line from David Noble in Progress Without People:

    “If we cannot afford to abandon the future in our preoccupation with the immediate, neither can we afford any longer to concentrate upon the future and surrender the present. The two must be joined.” David Noble in Progress Without People

  3. Thank you for this, Michael! Like many technology skeptics, I have been often been accused of a) hating all technologies and b) longing for some non-existent past, when everything was glorious. Neither is true, but the “Luddite” label works marvelously well to discourage, as you put it here, “thoughtful discrimination and responsible judgment.”

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