Accelerating to Where?

The anti-politics of the new jet pack lament
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The future ain’t what it used to be. From John Maynard Keynes’s prediction of a fifteen-hour workweek to Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s interplanetary waltzing, many futurists and crystal-ball seers of the twentieth century assured us that, thanks to the wonders of technology, things were looking up for the human race. And remarkably, they were often justified in their buoyancy: President Kennedy explained in 1962 why we chose to go to the Moon, and seven years later there we were. Surely the 2000s would be a whole century of roaring twenties.

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Center Street ~ 2023 ~ 336 pp.
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Instead, we got … this. A damaged earth, a pandemic, a housing crisis, and a deep sense that we all got played. “There’s no U.S. economy running on clean nuclear fusion or superdeep geothermal energy,” James Pethokoukis bemoans, “no universal antivirus vaccine, no driverless flying electric taxis, no suborbital hypersonic flights from New York to Paris, no booming space economy.” What gives?

In The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised, Pethokoukis, a policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, sets out to explain what happened, and how we can return to the future as it used to be. His is an optimistic vision of a dynamic, productive America, in which we once again “enjoy the material and societal benefits of fast technological progress and rapid, innovation-driven growth.” Pethokoukis emphasizes the close relationship between dreaming big and doing big: if we were imagining ourselves accomplishing great things, as we once did and again should, we would happily put in the effort to make them happen.

Unfortunately, the book succeeds all too well in dreaming big. Despite the “conservative” label, Pethokoukis’s vision is one in which politics no longer really matters, where old divisions are overcome by the shared goal of making the world anew. Much of this dream is compelling, and the book offers many genuinely good ideas about the future we should build. But a futurism that leaves behind politics is that of a science-fiction world, not of the one we can hope to live in.

To make his case, Pethokoukis introduces a distinction between “Up Wing” and “Down Wing” attitudes. He borrows the terms from transhumanist writer F. M. Esfandiary, better known as FM-2030, who wrote the 1973 book Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto. This is not obviously a promising font of conservative wisdom, but it provides a useful dichotomy nonetheless. To be Up Wing, Pethokoukis writes, is to adopt a “solution-oriented future optimism,” based on the “notion that rapid economic growth driven by technological progress can solve big problems.”

The Down Wing mentality, in contrast, prefers things as they are, fearing that any change will be for the worse. Outcomes for Down Wingers are zero-sum at best: perhaps the elites will use artificial intelligence to subjugate everyone else, but it’s just as likely that the robots will kill all of us indiscriminately — assuming that climate change doesn’t destroy the world first. Both mentalities have the power to be self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect the future to be terrible and think any attempt to make it otherwise will be futile, it probably will be. If we expect the future to be great, there’s at least a chance that, with effort, we’ll make it so.

The Conservative Futurist uses this distinction to trace America’s relationship with technology from the optimism of the 1950s to what Pethokoukis calls the “Great Downshift” — an “unexpected deceleration in technological progress and economic growth” that began in the early 1970s and is ongoing, with a few false glimmers of hope since then. Pethokoukis wants to reignite that mid-century sense of wonder and ambition. It is unabashedly your grandpa’s futurism, and this time Pethokoukis wants to make it stick.

Post-war America enjoyed rising productivity and a corresponding rise in the standard of living, as we can see in the proliferation of cars, air conditioning, television, and refrigerators. By 1958, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith could explain that an “affluent society” like America’s had reached such a level of abundance that some of the old dismal problems of scarcity could be considered solved. The same year, transatlantic jet travel took off, as did plans for even more audacious flights with the creation of NASA. Capturing the spirit of the age, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland opened in 1955, and The Jetsons aired in 1962, assuring Americans that there would be more where that came from.

And then things changed. The beginning of the end, Pethokoukis writes, was somewhere around 1972, the year of the Apollo program’s last manned lunar landing, or 1973, the start of a long recession. Productivity growth stalled, good ideas became harder to find, and sci-fi flicks got gloomier. In Pethokoukis’s telling, many of the factors were beyond our control: American inventors had picked all the low-hanging techno-fruit, and even in good circumstances, there’s always a chance that “an unexpected event — war, energy shock, pandemic — happens and disrupts our best-laid plans.”

But Pethokoukis shows that the wound was at least partly self-inflicted. The anti-nuclear turn, aided by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, was part of a broad spread of “precautionary principle”–style thinking, in which safety from potential harms trumps the boon of potential benefits. In a corresponding regulatory frenzy, Pethokoukis writes, “we made it hard to build everything from nuclear reactors to high-speed rail to supersonic aircraft to more housing in high-productivity cities.” The year after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, President Nixon took down the world-famous Earthrise picture from the wall of the Oval Office and proposed a budget cut for space operations, signaling Washington’s fading interest in the future. Eco- and techno-pessimist prophets such as Paul Ehrlich warned that either population bombs or atomic bombs would usher in the end times.

Up through the present day, Down Wingers on left and right, together with apolitical types fearing robot-induced unemployment, have recycled a bad script by insisting that techno-capitalism has made a mess of everything, and that tomorrow will be even worse. Now, after decades of stifled innovation, those who remember the old promises must console themselves with, in FM-2030’s words, “a deep nostalgia for the future.”

A strength of The Conservative Futurist, as it tells this story, is the attention it gives to the culture behind technology and to the myths that drive our imagination, for good or ill. Science fiction, for Pethokoukis, is our way of presenting to ourselves what we think we are capable of, and of judging whether we think our abilities and creations deserve celebration or horror. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and the works of H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov are therefore valuable both for reflecting our perceptions of what will be, and for expanding our horizons of what could be.

For that reason, the book suggests, to get out of our funk and make Star Trek a reality, it’s not enough just to “build an Up Wing economy” with the right policies, which enflame the hearts of no one but wonks and economists. We also need to “nurture an Up Wing culture,” in which we all sense that we have it in ourselves to take on great challenges — challenges which, as President Kennedy said, “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” We need not just good white papers and laws, but also good stories that will supply “an image of the future that nudges society toward action rather than mere fantasizing and speculation,” Pethokoukis writes. Science fiction, in this view, is not about escapism; it’s about grasping toward a potential reality and showing what technologies we need in order to realize it — or, in the doomer sci-fi that Pethokoukis laments, what technologies we need to avert disaster.

Of course, getting the policies right matters too, and Pethokoukis offers plenty of recommendations for getting to the future faster. For example: While national spending on scientific and technological R&D is now about the same share of GDP as it was during the space race (3 percent), the government’s share has fallen considerably, suggesting ample space for greater public investment. Also, our infrastructure in transportation, broadband, and utilities is badly in need of upgrades and repairs, which are likely to cost more than $1 trillion. “A lot of infrastructure will be done by the private sector, such as vertiports for air taxis or satellite internet such as the Starlink system,” but government funding will be crucial. And although cities have been hubs of intellectual, cultural, and commercial achievement for millennia, “zoning rules and other land-use regulations” have formed a web that has “impeded homebuilding for decades.” Making it easier to build in cities, and to build new cities, would lower housing costs, increase wages, raise productivity, boost the economy, and allow families to have the number of children they desire, or have them earlier in life than they do now. These are not new ideas, but Pethokoukis skillfully shows their practical significance and unites them in a single vision.

And, of course, a techno-optimist society needs the actual technology behind it all. To that end, Pethokoukis advocates a pedal-to-the-metal approach to AI, biotechnology, energy, robotics, and, his personal favorite, space. He also offers details about what Washington can do, and what it must avoid doing, to help turn promising ideas and recent discoveries in these fields into widely beneficial products and industries. Much of this is quite sensible, and America would be stronger for adopting many of Pethokoukis’s proposals. It is a welcome challenge to move beyond grumbling about the lack of flying cars to thinking seriously about how to get them.

But “futurism” is only part of what the book promises. What about the “conservative” bit?

It’s not clear exactly what conservatism has to do with any of this. Some goods don’t have any political valence, conservative or otherwise, and Pethokoukis’s goals are largely of this type. Preventing disease, building more homes, and improving infrastructure are good aspirations, but they don’t seem confined to any school of political thought. So what sort of futurism is it that, by virtue of having such goals as these, can also bill itself as a sort of conservatism?

Pethokoukis tells us. Conservative futurism is about “empowering human creativity and innovation within a liberal democratic, market capitalist system that limits government to what it should morally do and can effectively do…. American conservatism embraces social dynamism, or the ability to change one’s economic standing.” Fine things all, but conservative? The description fits voters for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, but also for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — voters that Pethokoukis imagines coalescing into a “Progress and Prosperity Party.” His dream bench suggests that he wants it both ways: to present his agenda as somehow of the right, but also to appeal to Americans on the left. To be sure, it’s to the book’s credit that it puts forth its agenda in a manner that should have wide appeal. Putting aside contentious first principles, The Conservative Futurist instead appeals to that all-American drive to achieve, and to the undeniable truth that outer space is cool. But then the insistence that this vision is a conservative one remains a puzzle.

More puzzling still, Pethokoukis’s outlook at times seems distinctly un-conservative, most of all when he considers a civilization’s relationship to its past. The bad Down Wing mentality, he writes, “is about accepting limits, even yearning for them.” In the old days, “it was only by remembering what had come before and understanding the wisdom of those that lived through those ages that one could make sense of one’s life and live it well.” This attitude, apparently, must be done away with: “Humanity’s realization,” during the Industrial Revolution, “that it could contemplate a better future and employ its God-given agency to work toward that future led us to stop looking backward and start facing tomorrow with new optimism and confidence.” Pethokoukis’s muse FM-2030 had a similar distaste for our ancestors, insisting that “no civilization of the past was great.”

Borrowing a phrase from the writer Brink Lindsey, Pethokoukis laments the “anti-Promethean backlash” of the last many decades that he sees in the predominant aversion to risk. Prometheus, the Greek Titan, does indeed serve as a fitting mascot of futurism. There are multiple versions of the myth, but the gist is that Prometheus, the creator of man, defies the gods by giving him fire, lifting him out of savagery and setting him on the path to civilization. In his account of Prometheus in the Metamorphoses, Ovid even intimates our innate desire for space: unlike the beasts that look downward, “man was made to hold his head / Erect in majesty and see the sky, / And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.” Prometheus’ very name means “forethought,” indicating a focus on the future. A Promethean futurism, then, accomplishes great things through a spirited act of will that scorns boundaries and precedent.

But conservatives have typically thought about this differently, recognizing that it is precisely by looking backward that we prepare to move forward, by “remembering what had come before” that we become capable of imagining what may come next, and by understanding yesterday’s necessary continuities and discontinuities alike that we come to see what should now change and what should not. A healthier conservative futurism would appeal instead to the Roman god Janus, who with his two faces looks to the past and future in equal measure. Janus is the god of beginnings, which requires seeing both what has gone and what will come. He is the god of entrances, gates, passageways, and time, the “origin,” Ovid tells us in the Fasti, “of the quietly gliding year.” By Janus’ own account in Ovid’s book, he is far more powerful than Prometheus:

Whatever you see all round, sky, sea, clouds, lands, everything is closed up and opened by my hand. The guardianship of the vast universe rests with me alone, and the right to turn the hinge is entirely mine.

A Janusian futurism, rather than disdaining the past, would cherish it for providing the wisdom we need for creating new works. It would carry out the French saying, reculer pour mieux sauter: stepping back, the better to leap ahead. It would recognize that a genuinely conservative futurism must also be a pastism, as it were.

The choice between Prometheus and Janus isn’t just a matter of taste or sensibility. The technologist who sees himself as carrying on the mission of his ancestors will have a greater sense of duty to the future than the one who seeks “to begin the world over again,” in Thomas Paine’s phrase. Pethokoukis applauds President Reagan for enjoying this line from Paine “that many conservatives hate,” and for embracing a “techno-solutionist ethos.” But, even on the futurist’s own terms, there is good reason for rejecting the idea of beginning the world over again. The laborers of medieval cathedrals inherited the grandeur, and the burden, of their ancestors’ ambitions, and were by their inheritance driven to pursue audacious projects that they would not see completed. By in turn passing that grandeur and burden on to their descendants, they ensured that their vision of the future had a future. The same can be said of the projects Pethokoukis endorses, like building new cities: Why bother striving for great deeds if the next generation will scoff at them and start from scratch? Only a futurism that builds on the past instead of dismissing it will have the endurance to get us the gizmos. Pethokoukis accuses Down Wingers of living in a “never-ending present,” but a futurism that sees the past as a wasteland to be escaped is itself always in the present.

It is no surprise that the conservatism of The Conservative Futurist largely amounts to the thin gruel of celebrating free markets and whatever outcomes they generate. He may well be right in his assessment of capitalism’s virtues, but there must be more to conservatism, and to conservative futurism, than economics. Pethokoukis offers the banal claim that “government’s role mostly is doing its proper part: investing in its citizens and regulating wisely.” What is most conspicuously absent from this is actual politics.

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Pethokoukis seems aware of the non-role that politics plays in his philosophy. “The most crucial divide for the future of America isn’t left wing versus right wing” he writes. “It’s Up Wing versus Down Wing.” This new scheme suggests that the notion of conservatism is as dated as the typewriter. Pethokoukis appears to wish to transcend politics, including the politics of conservatism, altogether. The agonistic disputes over conflicting ends that constitute politics begin with the fundamental conviction that not all goods are reconcilable, and not all objectives attainable. For Pethokoukis, this conviction, which entails the possibility — in fact, the inevitability — of loss and defeat when one objective loses to another is the very stuff of Down Wingedness and the “zero-sum society.”

Better to replace those disputes over ends, the futurist reasons, with technical calculations about means — a less messy affair, admitting of less ambiguity. What is yesterday’s moralism before a well-thought-out risk matrix? True, Pethokoukis writes, “advances in biotechnology, including a working-draft sequencing of the human genome in 2000, created a semi-plausible Brave New World future that would be repellent to many religious conservatives.” But we can’t let that “innate aversion to risk and uncertainty,” which is all that repellence amounts to, stand in the way of Progress.

In the book’s closing pages, which imagine a rosy scenario for America’s tricentennial in 2076, Pethokoukis concedes that hoping for an end to war is probably too much, but it seems that he finds it hard to see what there would even be left to fight over in a world of abundance: the sources of conflict have faded away along with disease and excess carbon. With any luck, it seems, by then we will have told the statesman, to borrow from a classic Twilight Zone episode, “You are obsolete.”

The hope of minimizing politics, and perhaps of finally evolving beyond it completely, is a familiar one among futurists. “Governments of the Industrial World,” proclaims John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” “on behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone…. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” It’s the same in much of the science fiction Pethokoukis praises, in which government becomes administration, run by program managers and engineers. Politics? Where we’re going, we don’t need politics.

It’s an enticing vision. Wouldn’t it be better if we put aside interminable disagreements, those “differing views of the political implications of sex, gender, class, and religion” that Pethokoukis mentions as defining current political divisions, and instead focused on “curing Alzheimer’s and cancer, advancing nuclear fusion and deep geothermal, boosting productivity and economic growth to raise incomes at the bottom, and promoting greater urban density and affordability”? Bickering over Trump benefits no one; boosting productivity benefits everyone. Perhaps all those fiery disputes could even be turned to the imagineers’ advantage: Let the populists and ideologues argue about Critical Race Theory and immigration; those in favor of genuine progress and prosperity can just ignore them and get busy building rockets to Mars.

Despite its futuristic sheen, this vision is an old one. It is, in fact, one of the oldest and most compelling visions of liberalism — sure enough, Pethokoukis calls himself a “custodian of the classical liberal tradition,” borrowing the phrase from George F. Will. In this philosophy’s older iteration, going back to the Enlightenment idea of doux commerce (gentle commerce), trade “softens” the body politic, dissolving old divisions.

The potential for material gains through trade, even trade with those we loathe, incentivizes us to put aside our passions, ignore our disagreements, and instead focus on the productive commercial avenues from which we can all gain. Voltaire perfectly captured this dynamic in his observations of the Royal Exchange in London: “There the Jew, Mahometan and Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.”

Today, the post-political futurist makes a similar argument — call it doux technologie. We might not have the same views on abortion or the war in Ukraine, but those types of disagreements will never go away, so let’s instead focus on the things that everyone of good will can get behind, like intergalactic space travel and raising income levels. And if we must call other people infidels, surely we’d all rather do so while enjoying the luxury of a non-pollutive high-speed railway trip on the way to our metropolitan high rise, newly cleaned by our robo-maid. It seems so sensible. To quote another sci-fi classic: “I want to believe.”

But that is not our world. Here on planet Earth, there are ineluctable political contestations that no amount of technological innovation or market exchange can neutralize. Political wrangling is certain to be part of the process by which any of Pethokoukis’s proposals would be enacted. Look, for instance, at the Commerce Department’s stipulation that only companies that provide child care will be eligible for semiconductor manufacturing subsidies under the CHIPS and Science Act — a requirement that will benefit some workers and please upper-class voters, but that will also make it harder for companies to restore America’s industrial capacity. This kind of obstacle — the desire to achieve two competing goods — is a hurdle for any policy proposal, not just ones regarding technology, and is indeed unrelated to the agenda itself.

But there is a deeper problem: there are political challenges inherent in our engagement with technology itself. Technological innovations, by virtue of the transformative potential that Pethokoukis rightly seeks to harness, necessarily also transform the regimes in which they operate, and therefore will always raise new political challenges. Or, to put it another way, the “question concerning technology,” in Heidegger’s phrase, is always partly a political question.

Here are a few of the contemporary technological questions to which it is essential that conservatives find answers: How can we counteract the rise of an all-encompassing surveillance state, whether administered by the government or corporations? What should we do about online pornography, human and AI-generated alike? Should we tamper with our natures through extreme life-extension, artificial wombs, or uploading our minds into computers? Most of all, how can we use technology to fortify the traditions we value, rather than dissolve them? These questions, however one answers them, are surely the sorts that a distinctly conservative futurist must grapple with. Pethokoukis doesn’t. The book would have been stronger for engaging with them head-on, rather than sweeping them under the rug.

But these political challenges are created by new technology, and so can hardly be adequately addressed by an account of technology that assumes it neutralizes politics. And that means that Pethokoukis perhaps couldn’t have engaged with them head-on. For to do so would have been to concede the existence of weighty questions about our relationship with technology, of serious disagreement within the body politic about those questions, and of the ineluctably political nature of technology — and therefore to consider the possibility that doux technologie will fail.

The futurist’s spaceship of state founders upon the hard rocks of politics, out of the false hope that they can be dodged if only we reach a high enough speed. Pethokoukis runs a newsletter called Faster, Please!, but one can’t hurry to one’s destination until one knows what it is, and, more fundamentally, until one accepts that there must be a destination. Travel without a goal, no matter how fast, is mere drift. And choosing one destination for our technological future rather than another means making a political decision, involving inevitable political conflict.

Envisioning a world in which political disputes about human nature and human ends have faded away is the futurist’s greatest act of imagination. To borrow from Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel: perhaps The Conservative Futurist will find “at last its true readers” among the “inhabitants of the moon.” Pethokoukis would surely be delighted by the notion. But for us Earthlings, a hope for a world without politics will remain science fiction.

Robert Bellafiore, “Accelerating to Where?,” The New Atlantis, Number 75, Winter 2024, pp. 75–85.
Header image: Joe Penniston via Flickr (CC)

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