The Neo-Luddite Hour
The Buchanan-Hitchens interview that Dan posted brings back such a welter of memories and nostalgia. To see the then youngish Hitchens make a cutting “lying us into war” barb about John F. Kennedy! The very Hitchens who, a short decade later, would take pride of place among “liberal hawks” arguing for the invasion of Iraq, a project spurred far more by lies than Vietnam, which was based on crude application of the quite reasonable and successful doctrine of containment. Yet I don’t want to be hard on Hitchens—for generally in the interview he is lucid and pleasant.
And boy, those were good times. We had just won the Cold War, the economy was gearing up into its first early internet boom, the crime rate topped out and was beginning to decline. Global warming was no more than a theory, and we still seemed to have plenty of time prevent it. You were unlikely to hear (as one does hear nowadays) young adults talking about looming environmental collapse as a reason not to have children.
Of course 1993 was more or less the last historical moment before the internet. Salon has just posted an provocative interview with author and tech guru Jaron Lanier, who sets down some guideposts for sociological analysis of what changes the internet has wrought. This is a critical subject, because in most ways the internet has changed life for the worse. (Of course you are reading and I am writing on a website, but readers and writers could find one another a generation ago, and the experience was no less rewarding—for the writer, probably far more so.) Lanier argues that the digital revolution is a principal cause of the collapse of the middle class, the drying up of jobs which provided the backbone for most American family life. He points out that while we once had Kodak (and its 140,000 jobs), now we have Instagram, which employs something like a dozen. Gone with Kodak are 140,000 corporate health plans, and no doubt countless Little League teams and brownie troops. This argument feels correct to me, and it deserves to be thoroughly explored in the months ahead.
I occasionally bore my grown children by pointing out that the level of technology we had even a generation further back, in the 1960s, was completely fine. You could travel by jet. Antibiotics existed (and were probably more effective than now), no one died tragically of scarlet fever or something. (On second reading, I would note that AIDS, apparently non-existent in the 1960s, was still a death sentence in 1993 and would be for another couple of years.) People could make make a living writing books or working for newspapers, or working in a factory. Email didn’t exist of course, much less twitter, but somehow people were able to communicate. And I don’t want to go overboard and overpraise the quality of political leadership then, but I think the Congress run by Jim Wright and Bob Michel was probably a great improvement over the current one. Is it just me, or is the general tone of the Buchanan-Hitchens exchange far more elevated than political talk you see on TV today?