Can There Be a Conservative Futurism?

The retreat from time is not a winning answer to our tech malaise.
Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version

It’s hard to imagine a corporate motto that has aged more than Facebook’s old Move fast and break things, although Google’s Don’t be evil is a close second. The world did move fast, and many things were broken.

People who did not live through the 1990s mostly don’t feel this sting. They will never know firsthand the optimistic energy that once swirled around anything having to do with “cyberspace.” The very word — now quaintly dated — implied a glorious technological adventure to come, a whole new world to be conquered and explored, as the Moon once was.

But now, in our deeply polarized moment, one of the few issues on which left and right agree is that something has gone wrong with digital tech. Maybe it’s the design psychologists, who made products as addictive as possible. Maybe it’s the algorithms that surface incendiary content for the eyes of millions. Maybe it’s the faceless content moderators, arbitrarily tweaking the rules of public discourse. Maybe it’s all of these and more.

There is also a widespread sense that something must be done. In a May 2022 poll, 44 percent of Americans said they preferred stricter regulation of Big Tech companies. In response, policymakers have generated a steady stream of reform bills — virtually all of which languish in congressional committees. This is because, while couched in superficially similar language, the left’s and right’s critiques proceed from rival premises: the left opposes corporate power and seeks to impose stricter speech norms, while the right points to censorship and political meddling. The philosophical gulf is wide.

Where does the debate go from here? Vast intellectual and political energy has been poured into understanding the effects of digital tech. Thus far, though, the “techlash” has primarily taken the form of a negative proposition: We don’t want this. Much less has been said about what kind of future is worth moving toward.

It is important that we fill that void. Without an affirmative vision, the tech tycoons will remain in the driver’s seat. Without clear redirection, political efforts to rein in tech will prove Sisyphean.

The political right faces a particular challenge — and opportunity — for thinking constructively about the technological future. The challenge is that, to many in the conservative tradition, technological progress is often no progress at all, but merely leaves us more estranged from nature and from each other. Technological progress is in effect a move away from a divinely ordered cosmos. The opportunity is that conservatism has deep intellectual resources that can help to overcome this concern, while offering a constructive vision that may appeal to those outside the tradition.

Conservative critics of Big Tech must offer a vision of technology that goes beyond today’s policy concerns, which disproportionately involve the Internet, and that focuses on material, not merely digital, creativity. This vision must be postliberal but not premodern: It must avoid the liberal association of progress with secularization, and be rooted in abiding principles of human flourishing. In more theological terms, it must be a vision of technological progress rooted in eternity.

The Pastoralist’s Dilemma

Long before concerns about social media and the Internet became politically salient, technological progress had an uneasy valence in right-leaning thought (as it often did on the left too). Agrarian conservatives who valorize the pastoral life cannot help but react with horror to the destructiveness of industrialization, remembering the menace of William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” despoiling England’s “green and pleasant Land.”

It is a familiar theme. When, at the close of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, his valiant hobbits return to their homeland of the Shire, they find that the scenery is not as they left it. In place of rolling green hills and farms, “through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow.” In Tolkien’s imagination, with the advance of industry come unimagined horrors. Better to forgo that path.

This anti-industrial impulse comes out of a deeper critique. For many intellectual traditionalists, the story of modern technology is a story of war against givenness. On this account, the modern technological mindset is born of a dissatisfaction with created reality as it is, manifesting as a perverse desire to bend the stuff of nature to human will. The critique was perhaps most famously formulated by Martin Heidegger, who argued in the 1950s that modern technology amounted to “a challenging [Herausfordern], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.”

Echoes of this point remain common, including among Christian writers. For the theologian Kathryn Tanner, as she writes in her book God and Creation in Christian Theology, a distinctively modern mindset grasps “the world as a realm of constants and rules useful for purposes of control,” and identifies “the real substance of things … with what is of the greatest importance for the purposes of calculation and control.” Carl Trueman, a church historian and cultural critic, strikes a similar note in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, explaining that the modern mentality “sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.”

From this perspective, the struggle for technological mastery is a struggle to usurp the prerogative of the God who creates. When the mania for human creation and manipulation is left unchecked, the world becomes sterile and desacralized, mere stuff to be manipulated with no regard for intrinsic purpose.

No doubt there is some truth to this. But it is a critique that is far more persuasive in the halls of a university than in the public square. It is, after all, a critique that leaves the traditionalist open to the taunts of Enlightenment apologists like Steven Pinker or Yuval Noah Harari: You’d take the world back to the Dark Ages, without medicine and electricity and running water. You’d condemn humanity to ignorance and rule by the strongest. Is this your “common good”?

Some traditionalist critics might bite the bullet and respond that the human race really was better off, existentially and morally, in an age when life spans were short, suffering was normal, and the threat of death was omnipresent. For Heidegger, it is in the anxious awareness of death that we find the meaning of human existence. Maybe, then, the premodern age was a kind of spiritual crucible that modernity rejects at its peril.

But again, this view resonates with very few — and vanishingly few even of those are willing to trade civilization’s comforts for the deep-ecological radicalism of, say, a Paul Kingsnorth, or even the more modest agrarianism of a Wendell Berry. The retreat from time cannot, for most people, pose a serious alternative to today’s technological moment. And so conservatives seemingly find themselves caught in a dilemma: surrender limply to the currents of history, or insist in vain on returning to a past before humanity’s original industrial sin.

But what if the dilemma is a false one?

Before Progress

In his seminal 1965 essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argued that the two accounts of Adam’s creation in the Book of Genesis reflect two fundamental aspects of the human person: one active and one contemplative. The Adam of Genesis 1 is created in God’s image and placed into communion with others like him, tasked with taking dominion. Such a creature “acquires dignity through glory, through his majestic posture vis-à-vis his environment.” And this dignity “cannot be realized as long as he has not gained mastery over his environment. For life in bondage to insensate elemental forces is a non-responsible and hence an undignified affair.” He is a scientist, an explorer, a co-creator.

The Adam of Genesis 2, for his part, cuts a quite different figure: summoned from the dust by God, who breathes into his lungs the breath of life, and called into spiritual covenant with his Creator. He is contemplative, mystical, rooted.

As Soloveitchik stresses, a certain fruitful tension must always exist between these two Adams. And if Soloveitchik is correct, whether in his reading of the text or his view of human life, then our drive for technological mastery is not something perverse. It is no crude defiance of the created order, but rather something woven into the very essence of human beings. To abandon the first Adam’s majestic imperative, to forfeit the hope of transforming chaos into ordered mastery, is to be something less than human.

Conservatives who fear technological progress evidently don’t share this perspective. To better understand why they find the march of industrialization lamentable, we must consider their understanding of history, which is arguably more pagan than Christian.

The Christian transformation of the pagan West introduced a view of history as a linear progression, a conception of time as hurtling from creation to consummation. We now take this view for granted. Among other things, we see it reflected in the modern liberal idea of the arc of the moral universe bending from oppression to liberation.

By contrast, for pagan civilizations that preceded the Christianization of the West, time was fundamentally cyclical. As the historian of religion Mircea Eliade wrote in the 1959 edition of his book The Myth of Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, “the chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History.” In particular, “for Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning — the Redemption.”

Eliade himself was sympathetic to the traditional side of this equation, to the “negative attitude toward history” — that is to say, “archaic man’s refusal to accept himself as a historical being.” And over the years, many philosophical conservatives have shared Eliade’s sensibility. Progressive history, with its promise and warning of an apocalypse, frightens us. This linear view of time means that we are headed toward a destination known only uncertainly, and that we are forgoing the reassuring rootedness of cyclical history that once gave shape and order to existence. The nostalgia of conservative intellectuals is thus less for a lost Christian past, as they often think of it, than for the pagan past that Christianity supplanted.

But Eliade, surrounded as he was by the theologies of liberal Protestantism, may have misjudged the logic of Christian time-consciousness, which is not a rejection of cosmic order. Rather, it apprehends the eternal in and beyond history. Here God is neither fully dissolved into history, with all its tragic vicissitudes, nor removed from it entirely. The Creator is both transcendent of, but also immanent to, all things. In this view, history can only be seen as a progression because the world of transience and change has an unchanging eternal foundation that gives history its direction. Historical events do not conflict with what is eternal. Rather, historical events are images of the eternal, unique disclosures of what has always been and is gradually coming into clearer view.

So critics like Eliade are perhaps too quick to link the Judeo-Christian revolution to a sense of history devoid of eternal grounding. For him, this revolution means that human beings can no longer rest content with givenness, but must strive endlessly toward a “freedom” that revolts against repetition. These critics have viewed history as anchored in specific, unrepeatable events — such as creation, the Mosaic covenant, Christ’s Passion, or final redemption — which ultimately undermine a sense of the world’s intrinsic meaningfulness. But this argument assumes that the course that history took is the one it had to take. Therefore, as a result of its Judeo-Christian roots, modernity must have the particular form it has.

Perhaps, though, that assumption is wrong, because beyond the West there may be an alternative “modernity” to be found, opening onto different horizons.

The Common Task

The name Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov is little known to Westerners today, although he was hardly better known during his own lifetime in nineteenth-century Russia. A strange, shabbily dressed man committed to a fearfully ascetic lifestyle, Fedorov passed his days as a mostly obscure Moscow librarian, despite drifting through intellectual circles that included such luminaries as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He was easy to dismiss as an uncredentialed outsider, far removed from the intellectual mainstream.

But beneath the surface, Fedorov was the architect of a vision of the future unlike any other, a radical alternative to what most in the West are capable of imagining today. His writings, even now, crackle with the fire of strange genius.

Emphasis on strange: many of Fedorov’s ideas sound outrageous, even unthinkable to modern ears. They spill across disciplinary lines, they upset familiar binaries, and they burst the boundaries of traditional Christian thought. But as odd or disquieting as some of his claims are, there is nonetheless something thrilling about his work: a futurism animated by a bold interpretation of Christian theology.

At the heart of Fedorov’s intellectual project was his conception of the “Common Task” confronting all people: human beings were created by God as the agents through whom He would ultimately resurrect the dead. That idea is exactly as astonishing as it sounds: Fedorov imagined the Common Task as a scientific crusade leading to an unfolding process of physical revivification, by which — over time — every human soul who ever lived and died might be materially reassembled and called back to life.

This Common Task, on Fedorov’s account, was a function of filial obligation — what the Latin tradition called pietas. For Fedorov, one owes it to one’s forebears to restore them to the communion of the living, to overcome the death and sickness and decay that tears apart the deepest human bonds. Every man stands as “a son, grandson, great-grandson or descendant, that is, a son of all the deceased fathers and not a vagrant in the crowd, devoid of kith and kin” — and as such, he possesses a “duty to the deceased fathers.”

The war against death would also bring an end to class struggle, “which can be overcome only given a higher purpose — the participation of all in knowledge and in art, both directed towards solving the problem of loss of kinship and its restoration.”

It must be emphasized that Fedorov’s dream was not a secular project with a Christian veneer. His Common Task was nothing so crude and self-serving as the “cryopreservation” technologies favored by today’s Silicon Valley moguls. Rather, for Fedorov, it was a task ordained by God to be accomplished by human hands. “The Creator restores the world through us and brings back to life all that has perished.” And it was this destiny, for Fedorov, that rendered time ultimately meaningful: “the Resurrection of Christ was the beginning and history is the continuation.”

The “Cosmists” inspired by Fedorov’s work would go on to divide into various factions. Some, like the rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, took him to be a scientific visionary with mystical inclinations, with his signal contributions being his dream of physical immortality and mastery over nature. Others, like the theologian Sergei Bulgakov, emphasized his themes of spiritual oneness rather than those of scientific progress. The core of Fedorov’s vision — science and faith being subsumed in the higher unity of God’s hand in time — fell out of view.

To be sure, Fedorov’s Common Task bears the marks of a distinctly Russian self-consciousness, one defined — as Fedorov scholar George M. Young puts it — by “nationalism, Orthodoxy, and autocracy.” And the precise shape of Fedorov’s dream is not just bizarre, but positively ghoulish. The notion that the bits and pieces of shattered lives could be cobbled back together savors more of Frankenstein than the Gospel of John. And even viewed as charitably as possible, the Common Task promises a resurrection not to glory, but to merely unending life. As generations of speculative-fiction authors have shown, that possibility poses a horror all its own.

Far more significant than Fedorov’s specific conclusions, though, is his method: an approach to technological advancement self-consciously anchored in an ancient tradition. His model is a dramatic counterexample to the notion that science as such must push traditional faith to the margins — the notion that Charles Taylor describes as the “subtraction story” of modernization. Rather, his work dissolves that harsh dualism: the active and contemplative Adams stand reconciled. The real question is how to repurpose that methodological insight.

We don’t need to adopt Fedorov’s particular resurrection project to acknowledge the more important point: his Common Task is a proof-of-concept for a distinctly traditionalist kind of futurism. Fedorov’s dream is more “conservative,” in the explicitness of its theological commitments and its driving concern for pietas, than much of what passes for conservative thought today. But at the same time, it is a stark refusal to take as a given the world as it is, as if transformation were a dirty word. Its intellectual motive-spring is the possibility of human creativity bringing into being a very different modernity than the one prevailing today.

Building for the Future

What might a vision of technology “after” Big Tech look like? It is a future that draws this much from Fedorov: to speak of the presence of God in time is to glimpse an eternal light behind the shifting, tragic clouds of temporality. A conservative futurism must root itself in the principle of eternity, mirroring that divine timelessness where possible. Let’s sketch out some practical implications of this new emphasis.

To begin with, the Internet and its derivative products need not be ignored, if that were possible, but rather should be brought into a social framework built in accordance with higher principles. To that end, Internet infrastructure — server and cloud hosting systems, payment transfer networks, and so forth — should be classified as public utilities, no more authorized to discriminate between users than are water or electric companies. The rationale for such a move, though, must go beyond “prevention of censorship” or “limitation of corporate power.” Too often, efforts to impose such neutrality requirements on tech systems are conceived as rearguard actions, desperate steps to counter a near-omnipotent sociopolitical “regime.” That is the wrong mindset.

Rather, the accent here lies on the public in “public utility.” There is an implication of permanence: a public utility is a kind of technology intended to perdure, one that multiple generations will have a stake in stewarding responsibly. Furthermore, by making these services into public utilities, we can subordinate them to regulation by existing political communities, rather than leaving them to be forces of disruption. The public-utility approach will be an acknowledgment that Internet technologies have wrought dramatic change, but that it is a change that can be disciplined.

This approach could inaugurate a new kind of responsibility. For instance, elected representatives of a local area might choose not to invest in server-system upgrades intended to power ever-more-immersive simulated realities, if they decide that such changes would be harmful to the flourishing of the community and its children. Conversely, another region might choose to direct such upgrades to software companies’ improvement of virtual meeting technologies, with the goal of producing better alternatives to what Mark Zuckerberg seems to imagine offering in the metaverse — as Jon Stokes puts it, “lame gatherings in soulless, quasi-sci-fi spaces that essentially reimplement the modern office in digital form.” Local approaches might differ, but the common thread will be that communities, informed by their beliefs and traditions, must hold the reins where possible.

More broadly, though, digital tech should play a decidedly smaller role in today’s technological imagination. A renewal of interest in the “meatspace” of the physical world is long overdue. For example, in the past half-century there have been no serious breakthroughs in building materials. Most structures are assembled using cheap and familiar techniques and resources, and are demolished when the time comes for redeveloping the space. This should change.

Where possible, policymakers should promote massive reinvestment in research and development in materials science, oriented to the goal of building things that last. Similarly, they should pour resources into reviving and updating building styles that respect the human scale, and that feature the ornamentation that modern architects widely eschew. Many temples and public structures bearing the eternalizing stamp of ancient civilizations survive to this day. There is no reason that today’s houses of worship, public buildings, and infrastructure should be built with any less care — and why not improve those techniques and materials in the process?

Similarly, the discipline of computer science should reorient itself toward preservation over transformation and displacement. Enough things have been broken in the rush to move fast that it is now time for a different course. One pressing task is the development of data preservation technologies that resist disc rot and physical damage. As library scientist Marc Kosciejew observes in his call for “Digital Vellum” to help ensure the long-term preservation of data, “books that are created on high-quality and acid-free paper can last for centuries,” whereas today’s electronic files easily just disappear.

This concern has become particularly urgent in light of recent efforts to selectively edit artistic and literary works in order to remove content deemed offensive to contemporary sensibilities. While this problem is not new — as Fedorov put it, “progress makes fathers and ancestors into the accused and the sons and descendants into judges” — widespread shifts away from physical media ownership have made it particularly ominous. Physical storage technologies resistant to deletion and destruction can serve as repositories of truth.

These and similar technological projects would be modest beginnings. But as Fedorov saw, a conservative futurism must go further.

Our Cosmic Destiny

Soloveitchik’s first Adam is called to exercise dominion over creation, but his duty extends beyond that. He is also commanded by God to be fruitful and multiply. And reading those directives together — the mandate to discipline natural forces through skilled human creativity, and the mandate to bring new eternal souls into being — implies a radical conclusion. The earth’s ability to sustain a growing population may have some ultimate limits, but the answer must neither be a surrender to naturally high mortality rates nor a Malthusian antinatalism.

Rather, Fedorov’s cosmic vision may have been right: Human beings were created to take to the stars, to fill not merely the earth but the cosmos. For him, “the prejudice that the celestial expanse is unattainable to man has grown gradually over the centuries, but cannot have existed ab initio. Only the loss of tradition and the separation of men of thought from men of action gave birth to this prejudice.”

In his recent book The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat remarks that “the end of the space age has coincided with a turning inward in the developed world, a crisis of confidence and an ebb of optimism,… an abandonment of both ideological ambition and religious hope.” He also laments the loss of confidence in raising families, marked by widespread demographic decline. He is right, and these are related. A species capable of spacefaring — of exploring strange new worlds, breaking new ground, and raising churches and synagogues and mosques atop Olympus Mons — would be one that is capable of sustaining families greater and more lasting than ever before.

Walter Miller’s celebrated 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz concludes with a migration of the Church to the stars — a reunion with “colonists who were sons of the Church, cut off from the flock by interstellar distances.” But it is a flight from a planet beleaguered by nuclear war, a bittersweet coda at best. Yet, in our world, migrating to the stars doesn’t need to be a tragic vision, but can be a glorious one. Instead of a future dominated by the specter of human extinction, we can pursue an ecumenical Great Commission, an extension of our traditions into new civilizations, on a galactic scale.

Conservatives have, in a sense, won the argument about Big Tech. The poisonous effects of Internet-centric culture and a screen-mediated world are now well known across partisan lines, and sooner or later a reckoning will come. What form it will take is unclear, but the writing is on the wall.

Conservatives must now offer something different: meaningful answers to the question of why we need innovation, and better answers than “because we can.” But those answers need to not be short-circuited by the story of a war on givenness. They can draw on an understanding that human creativity is a participation in an infinite creative act, reorienting technological investment into the service of a higher good.

John Ehrett, “Can There Be a Conservative Futurism?,” The New Atlantis, Number 71, Winter 2023, pp. 46–55.

Delivered to your inbox:

Humane dissent from technocracy

Exhausted by science and tech debates that go nowhere?