lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Nov 28 11:59:25 MST 1999
NY Times op-ed, November 28, 1999
The Next Big Dialectic
By KURT ANDERSEN
I've always been skeptical of people who predict the future professionally,
of the Alvin Tofflers and John Naisbitts as well as the Jeane Dixons and
Pat Robertsons. For one thing, it's pretty much impossible to make
confident predictions without sounding portentous and creepy. And
purporting to describe the warp and woof of life 100 years from now is an
extreme folly. On the other hand, the time frame insures that no one will
be able to tell me I was wrong if, in 2100, it turns out I was wrong.
At this end of this century, as we bask happily and stupidly in the glow of
our absolute capitalist triumph, no long-range historical forecasters are
considered more insanely wrong-headed than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Yet the death of Communism makes this moment a fine one to consider the
emergence of Marxism 150 years ago as a historical phenomenon, economically
determined, rather than as the social and moral debacle it became. In fact,
looking back, Marx and Engels seem prescient about the capitalist
transformation of life and work. Writing about globalization in "Principles
of Communism" in 1847, Engels sounds very 1999.
"A new machine invented in England deprives millions of Chinese workers of
their livelihood within a year's time," he wrote. "In this way, big
industry has brought all the people of the earth into contact with each
other, has merged all local markets into one world market, has spread
civilization and progress everywhere and has thus ensured that whatever
happens in civilized countries will have repercussions in all other
He failed only to mention Euro-denominated McDonald's menus and MTV.
In "Das Kapital," Marx also foretold the present cyber-age, in which
computers design toasters and skyscrapers, and software is designed by
other software: "Modern industry had therefore itself to take in hand the
machine, its characteristic instrument of production, and to construct
machines by machines. . . . Machinery, simultaneously with the increasing
use of it . . . appropriated, by degrees, the fabrication of machines
Marx and Engels were right in the middle of the transformation. Just before
their births, during the final years of the 18th century, a handful of
machinists and tinkerers -- John Wilkinson, Richard Arkwright, Eli Whitney,
a few others -- had ignited the Industrial Revolution with their amazing
devices to cut screws, pump water, spin wool and gin cotton. Those
machines, hitched to James Watt's steam engine, begat factories and
steamships and railroads, which begat industrial capitalism on a frenzied
new global scale, which, just a half century after the first revolutionary
mechanical marvels, begat Marx.
Now, during the final years of the 20th century, a handful of scientists
and tinkerers -- William Shockley, Jack Kilby, Robert Noyce, Jim Clark, Tim
Berners-Lee, a few others -- have ignited the current technological
revolution with their amazing new devices: the transistor, the integrated
circuit, the microcomputer, the World Wide Web. The PC and the Internet
begat a new fluidity of capital and information, which is begetting
postindustrial capitalism on a frenzied new global scale, which will surely
beget some radical and infectious critique of this radically new order.
In other words, the 21st century will have its Marx. This next great
challenger of the governing ideological paradigm, this hypothetical
cyber-Marx, is one of our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren,
and he or she could appear in Shandong Province or Cairo or San Bernardino
County. By 2100, give or take a couple of decades, it's a good bet that
free-market, private-property capitalism will be under siege once again,
shaken as in 1848 and 1917 and the 1930's by the tremors that the
magnificent and ferocious system itself unleashes. History does not always
repeat itself, but as Mark Twain may have said, it rhymes.
What will this next great "ism" look like?
The ascendant revolutionary ideology of 2100 won't be Luddite. Theodore
Kaczynski was the Ned Lud of this cycle, an angry, violent lunatic of no
real historical significance. Marx, for his part, was not opposed to the
new technology of the Industrial Revolution -- it was the steam-powered
weaving machines and railroads and all the rest that were going to allow
his collectivist utopia to emerge.
In "Das Kapital," he wrote that "improved communications" had been the key
to increased productivity and prosperity, that the "last 50 years have
brought about a revolution in this field . . . the entire globe is being
girdled by telegraph wires . . . the time of circulation of a shipment of
commodities to East Asia, at least 12 months in 1847, has now been reduced
to almost as many weeks . . . and the efficacy of the capital involved in
it has been more than doubled or trebled." It seems improbable that the
next great world-historical agitator will demonize technology qua technology.
The poor are always with us. The unequal distribution, among nations and
classes, of digital resources -- hardware, software, communications
bandwidth -- will help shape the early versions of the revolutionary
ideology. Today's self-justifying optimists in Redmond and Silicon Valley
claim that the price of computers and telecommunications will continue to
fall to the point that everyone on earth, rich and poor, will share in the
millennial bounty. Maybe. Eventually. But for the next couple of decades
it's going to be ugly as the computer-rich get much richer and the
computer-poor even poorer.
The present money moment won't last. As the digital age finally has its
first and second (and third and fourth and fifth) financial busts over the
next half-century, the particular magic spell of circa-2000 laissez-faire
hyper-capitalism will be broken. The computer revolution won't be turned
back, but the financial giddiness will subside.
On this classic economic idea, late-20th-century Wall Street bears and
19th-century communist pioneers agree. "Ever since the beginning of this
century," Engels wrote, "the condition of industry has constantly
fluctuated between periods of prosperity and periods of crisis; nearly
every five to seven years, a fresh crisis has intervened, always with the
greatest hardship for workers." After a few periods of serious 21st-century
hardship, with I.R.A.'s and 401(k)'s reduced in value by half overnight,
alternative social and economic arrangements might not seem so preposterous.
The great new philosophical and political schism of the 21st century will
concern computers and their status as creatures rather than machines. In my
lifetime, the sentimental regard for computers' apparent intelligence --
their dignity -- will resemble that now accorded gorillas and chimps. And
it will not stop there. In his book, "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When
Computers Exceed Human Intelligence," Ray Kurzweil, the computer scientist,
quite convincingly predicts that around 2030 computers will begin to seem
sentient -- that they will "claim to be conscious." And by the end of the
century, he writes, there will no longer be "any clear distinction between
humans and computers."
I find his scenario altogether plausible. And as it unfolds, I am certain
that this astonishing new circumstance -- machines that think, machines
that feel -- will provoke political and religious struggles at least as
profound and ferocious as the earlier wars over Christianity, human rights
and abortion. A machine-liberationist movement will arise. And by 2100, the
21st century will have its Gandhi, too.
Kurt Andersen is the author of "Turn of the Century," a novel.
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