PATTISON: How Technology Undermines Our Self-Evident Truths

Eliot Pattison Contributor
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Years ago when asked about the emergence of the internet, the polymath author Michael Crichton replied that “personally I think cyberspace means the end of our species.” Crichton had a way of reducing complex challenges to provocative denominators, but his words should give us pause as technology tightens its grip on our lives and artificial intelligence threatens to put that process on steroids. Worries may abound over the development of non-human intelligence in machines, but we need to recognize a more fundamental reality: cyber programs began replacing human intelligence years ago and have severely eroded our democracy. 

We were taught that technology always advanced the human condition, that man’s search for the secrets of science and translation of those secrets into improvements in our living standards represented the inexorable march of civilization. With blinding speed we saw the frail Kitty Hawk biplane evolve into trans-Atlantic jets then spacecraft, the horseless carriage transform into fleet, powerful vehicles, and candlestick telephones grow into handheld supercomputers. Everything pointed to an even more exciting 21st century, when humanity would leap ahead through ever greater inventions and bold new paradigms.

But something went terribly wrong. Looking back after nearly a quarter of the new century that promise has been unfulfilled. We haven’t harnessed new technology, that technology has harnessed us. Advances have been made, certainly in medicine and aerospace, but much of our emerging knowhow has been developed without weighing social costs or applying human wisdom. We simply surrender to it because it is new, it is cool and everyone else is doing so. But far from upgrading the human condition, much of this new technology has dumbed us down. Albert Einstein, who lived in the vortex of science and its development, glimpsed this decades ago: “our technology,” Einstein warned, “has exceeded our humanity.”

No one was paying attention as ingenious algorithms designed for influencing consumer buying decisions morphed into tools for manipulating opinions more broadly. Stealthy influencers came in through the back door, recognizing the fertile market of impressionable Americans enrolled in institutions that were abandoning traditional teaching in favor of naked indoctrination. This is the only “intersectionality” that should worry us: the algorithm writers overlaid their opinion-shaping technology upon hordes of students who were being taught not how to think but how to identify with a victimhood tribe and disguise leftist slogans as truths. The near instantaneous appearance on campuses across the nation of identical anti-Israel posters, banners, and chants after Oct. 7 was stark proof of the effectiveness of these ethereal influencers. They brook no nuance. They get more clicks — meaning more profits — if they lunge straight to hate. 

This technology not only amplifies the intolerance and illiteracy of the modern campus but has also grossly distorted journalism, creating a generation of reporters and editors who seem to rely only on these shallow algorithm-driven sources. Once-great newspapers have been hollowed out in the process, trapped in shallow ideological cyber-loops as they hemorrhage readers. The same processes and their promoters have claimed a key role in the manipulation of voting by applying progressive algorithms to breed new activists, inserting new polling technologies and channeling shadowy funding to incite voting outside traditional election protections. This isn’t rigging of elections, they insist, but simply savvy postmodern embrace of new technology. The same defense is offered for new financial tracking systems, touted as liberating for bank customers, but converted into a repressive weapon by a liberty-loathing leader north of the border.

The stark truth is that the decline of substantive dialogue and free expression in both educational and political institutions, the loss of objectivity in the media, and movement of voting into the shadows — all spawned by these technologies — has introduced rot into Western democracies. They have deprived us of the honest, well-informed, and transparent dialogue that for generations was at the heart of our democratic process. In terms of impact on society, the work of the invisible software scriveners in Silicon Valley eclipses all other technical advances. Forget surgical robots, starships, and self-driving vehicles — none of these matter if our social fabric unravels.

No less disturbing has been the reaction of many conservative leaders. They stare like deer in the headlights when confronted by these new realities. Too many seem cowed by the seemingly inescapable presence of these technologies and the hubris of their promoters. But as Calvin Coolidge, ever sparse yet eloquent with his words, reminded us, “we need to think the thoughts” our Founders thought. And what would the Founders say if they encountered these challenges? They might be shocked at the way technology is cracking the foundations they so carefully laid, but just as alarmed by the meek reaction from our leaders and many patriots. They would remind us that the American experiment has to be repeated in every generation to remain viable.

Do you not understand, the rational Hamilton might chastise, that all this noise is caused by a tiny percentage of our population who have simply been given a speaking trumpet (the 18th century megaphone) of extraordinary range? We had our own technological miracle, the science-oriented Jefferson might remind us, in the form of Dr. Franklin’s electricity, which at the height of its popularity was described as a “moral force” destined to transform society; it ultimately was just another tool, and it wasn’t tools that shaped the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It was vibrant, carefully shaped ideas arising out of centuries of philosophical inquiry.

The scientist Franklin might add that nothing in nature or society is ever linear, so do not fret over the seeming inertia of these new forces. The wise-cracking Benjamin might also quip that artificial intelligence would be an upgrade for the left, since it otherwise exhibits no intelligence at all.

Solemn George Washington might not be so forgiving of patriots who seem craven when facing up to vastly outnumbered foes whose most common weapon is name-calling.

And sagacious Madison, scoffing at the progressives’ slippery, subjective notion of what is true, would remind them, and us, that not just our government but our entire society was founded on what are still self-evident truths and unalienable rights. 

Eliot Pattison’s nineteen novels include the recently released Freedom’s Ghost, seventh in his series exploring the complex characters and events leading to the American Revolution.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.