Who Is The New Atlantis For?

Why 20 years of throwing cold water on utopianism found an audience
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This year The New Atlantis marks a major milestone: twenty years of publishing since our launch in 2003.

The New Atlantis at 20
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The New Atlantis at 20

That is a remarkable run for any magazine. Huge outlets said to define entire new media paradigms have risen and fallen since 2003. Their paradigms have come and gone too.

It is the more remarkable for a publication that is not about politics or culture broadly but a specific subject, and even more so for one that pushes back against the spirit of its age. Our duration is also notable because the journal was in no small part founded in response to a period of national ferment: the biotech controversies of the 2000s. The New Atlantis offered badly needed intellectual clarity and moral leadership during this uneasy moment, and it would have been entirely fitting for it to close when that work was done, forever comfortable in its legacy.

Yet here we still are, having long since outlasted that moment. By any quantifiable metric — readers, subscribers, donors — we are stronger and more influential now than we have ever been. When I speak to readers today, I still hear admiring recollections of our role during the biotech wars. But usually that is after I hear about “Do Elephants Have Souls?” or “No Other Options,” our Covid work or the special issue on sexuality and gender, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” or “Reality: A Post-Mortem.” That is a sign of longevity measured in much more than years.

Publications are not like objects in space: unless someone keeps pushing them, they will stop. The reason we are still here is that we enjoy an embarrassment of talent and dedication from the people who put their time and money, sweat and tears into this remarkable project. Year after year, for twenty now, our writers, funders, staff, friends, and readers have chosen to keep pushing us forward.

Our twentieth year seems a worthy moment to ask why. What distinctive thing does The New Atlantis offer that has led so many people to put so much into it? And how does such an unusual project wind up reaching such a broad, durable audience?

Back when the journal first launched, we received a letter of congratulation from William Safire, the late presidential speechwriter and New York Times columnist. He offered glowing praise of the first issue, particularly Leon Kass’s “mind-unboggling” essay, as Safire put it, against the biotech conquest of death. But he also finished with a friendly warning: “Be controversial and don’t let your anti-Promethean mindset lock you into presenting only one point of view.”

Raoul Hausmann,
Self-portrait of the Dadasopher (1920)
colaimages / Alamy

Human cloning, artificial wombs, DNA databases, embryonic stem cell research: as powers that were once the stuff of sci-fi dreams and nightmares loomed near, mainstream public thinking on them ranged more or less from Whiggish history (“only religious cranks would question progress”) to technological messianism (“elect our party and the lame shall walk”). Amid this climate, there was a real need for a dedicated space where a broad public audience could encounter serious qualms about what lay ahead. The New Atlantis answered that need.

But Safire’s was good advice. The journal certainly did offer an anti-Promethean view, and that was because that moment in American history really was a Promethean one — as many before were, as many yet will be. But any contrarian project carries temptations of its own. Fixed on revealing an era’s warts, it can wind up reflecting them back. Or it can commit the cardinal sin of the ideas world: become tiresome.

So it was for very good reason that our editors then so often spoke not only of the “peril” of emerging technology but also the “promise.” Prometheus needed binding, yes. But that was never the whole story the journal was telling. For example, as our writers warned about the moral hazard of destroying human life for use in medical therapies, they did not rest content to simply say no, but also played a crucial role in proposing “less morally problematic alternatives” — the policy approach that encouraged the breakthrough of induced pluripotent stem cells. As our writers warned of the impulse for technological mastery of nature, they also argued again and again for breathing new life into the moribund American manned space program by setting a new ambitious goal of sending men and women to Mars.

Each of these perspectives cut against the grain. But seeing them all together in one place was especially unusual. It has never been self-evident that there would be a constituency for it. When the common question is put to me — “So, who’s your audience?” — sometimes I will offer a pithy one-liner, like: “Everyone who finds something deadening about our culture’s relationship to science and technology.” But even after all this time, there is no simple answer.

So more often I will offer studies in contrast. For example, one core of our readership is professors and students in liberal arts programs, Great Books and classical education schools, political philosophy shops, and so on. When our work shows up on a course syllabus in one of these programs, we know we have reached our audience. But we also know that we have reached our audience when we get a crush of web traffic from Hacker News, a forum for coders and techies. Both of these things happen many times each year.

Another example: an important segment of our readership is a group roughly labeled “front porchers” — socially conservative agrarian environmentalists who warn that advanced industrialization has broken links between people and place, family and land, work and tradition. And yet just as important a segment of readers knows us because of works like our book Merchants of Despair, in which aerospace pioneer Robert Zubrin depicts industrialization and technological breakthroughs as net boons, not only for human wellbeing but for our efforts to protect nature.

It is no single one of these perspectives but their joining together that, in my view, has made The New Atlantis so distinctive in public writing about science and technology.

Technology writers sometimes talk about the contrast between “builders” and “conservers” — roughly speaking, between those who are most animated by what we stand to gain from technology and those animated by what we stand to lose. This is a helpful framework, in many ways, for understanding the disparate audiences of The New Atlantis. Later in this section of the issue (“Missing the Manhattan Project”), I offer an essay that serves as a call to each, by way of a historical moment when both spoke more plainly than they do today about what it means for technology to conquer and to sin.

The builder–conserver framework also helps to explain why science and tech debates can be so frustrating. Think about the arguments that inevitably accompany a town meeting over a proposed new nuclear power plant, or an FDA public comment period for approving a new vaccine. Try not to pull your hair out. We are all tempted to insist that one or the other side in a debate like this is just correct. And of course crucial aspects of the debate around vaccines or nuclear power really do boil down to true and false, right and wrong. But other differences of opinion come down to contrasting personality types, with differing toleration for risk and hunger for novelty rather than unequal helpings of reason or morality. So one important answer to the question “Who is The New Atlantis for?” is that it is for both builders and conservers, and that it is distinctive in speaking to both of these types in a single magazine.

And that kind of exchange is sorely needed, because in our moment the builder and conserver types are proving quite mercurial. On issues ranging from Big Tech to medicine, human enhancement to technologies of governance, the politics of technology are in upheaval. Dispositions are supposed to be basically fixed. So who would have thought that deep blue cities that yesterday were hotbeds of vaccine skepticism would today become pioneers of vaccine passports? Or that outlets that yesterday reported on science and tech developments in reverent tones would today make it their mission to unmask “tech bros”?

One way to understand this churn is that the builder and the conserver types each speak to real, contrasting features within human nature. Another way is that these types each pick out real, contrasting features of technology. Focusing strictly on one set of features or the other eventually becomes unstable, forcing the other back into view.

The gleeful hostility of the “Tech Backlash,” which in a sense is a reversal of the digital Pollyannaism of the 1990s, in another sense has followed naturally from it. When dreams that the Internet would usher the end of history were inevitably frustrated, we got nightmares that it would bring the end of democracy. Meanwhile, we are at a perplexing moment where powerful strains of technological doomism and messianism are both found on the Right — communitarian dreams of mass return to the fishing village, alongside dazzling visions of hypertech supercities; calls for dethroning our technocratic overlords, alongside schemes to use the blockchain to do it. Perhaps this is because the Right has so often treated technology as subordinate to economics, failing to see it as a sovereign enterprise where distinctive human powers of creation and destruction are realized. This gap is now being filled, sometimes in strange ways.

The New Atlantis was founded to examine the scientific-and-technological enterprise as a pillar of the modern world. And when we do we find a crack, present since the cement was poured. In the aspiration to unleash technology for the “relief of man’s estate,” in Francis Bacon’s words, or to become “like masters and possessors of nature,” in Descartes’s, we might gain new power only to lose our humanity.

This critique, which has been so central to our work, has become far more common since our founding — in inchoate and scattered ways on the Left, explicit and forceful ways on the Right. That is because the experience of the last two decades has so powerfully borne it out. For some, “surveillance capitalism” brought home the danger, along with Silicon Valley’s unleashing of would-be great men onto the political stage. For others, it was Canada, where technology is deployed to relieve man of his life, ushering 10,000 people to medically assisted death in 2021 alone. Or it was the realization that the digital world, which was supposed to connect us, is making us lonelier, angrier, and less legible to one another. Or it was that, as diagnoses of minors with gender dysphoria roughly tripled between 2017 and 2021, we began conducting a mass experiment on children and teens using poorly understood drug regimes, and surgeries that can never be reversed. Or it has been the rise of digital censorship, authorized by whatever the “science says.” These are just bits and pieces of a broader story — parts that add up to a whole sense, shared by ever more Americans, that science and technology are being put to badly warped purposes.

Later in this section of the issue (“If Scientists Were Angels”), my colleague Louise Liebeskind offers a novel interpretation of one of the main source texts for this critique of technology: Francis Bacon’s 1627 novella New Atlantis, from which this journal takes its name. Her essay puts a wrinkle in the standard version of the critique, where Bacon appears as a primary antagonist, heralding the new technological age and heedless to its dangers. Considering how influential that critique has been on our own New Atlantis, the essay might be read as cutting against our project. But instead I believe it reveals something about why the spirit of our journal has remained so steady even as the spirit of the age has lurched about.

In Liebeskind’s telling, Bacon’s New Atlantis is in fact already savvy to the trouble with technology. Actually, it offers an even deeper warning than the modern critics do.

Think about it this way. In New Atlantis we see a fantastical lost world in which people have godlike technological powers yet live in perfect harmony. Sound too good to be true? That was just how Bacon meant it, Liebeskind argues. It is a fantasy, to be read as such: a world that is not ours and never could be, not because the relation between humanity and technology has somehow become crooked but because it was never straight. (In her reading, Bacon even hints that the island’s inhabitants may not be human at all.)

I do not see this interpretation as ending the worry about technology, or as relieving the Enlightenment of its central role in the story. Yes, it is true that tech anxiety did not just begin five hundred years ago. But neither is the move from the astrolabe to the satellite just a matter of degree, and there are attendant pains to modern life that we genuinely cannot imagine in the medieval village. It is plain that there really was a dramatic shift inaugurated with the modern project, even if pinning down precisely what it was or when it happened is not straightforward.

What I see here is not a rebuttal, exactly, but a warning about what can happen when we trace the sin of Prometheus too directly to the pages of Descartes. In doing so, we may wind up seeing our tech woes as just a comic historical misunderstanding. To caricature for a moment: The ancients properly understood science as natural philosophy, and technology as an art, a wholesome practice. Then several authors made mistakes in several important books. Since then, things just haven’t been the same.

Set aside for a moment whether that story actually explains what happened (caricature aside, I think it explains quite a lot). The trouble to notice here is how this story can mislead us today: by describing a poison pill that, well, now that you point it out, doesn’t really sound all that complicated to expel from the patient.

Stories of just so easily turn into stories of if only. If only we could defend innocent science against corrupting technology. If only we could recall that knowledge is neutral, facts strictly separate from values. If only we could bring telos back to techne. If only we could reunite the humanities and STEM. If only we could make science and technology once again the work of virtuous men and women.

The trouble is not that these are bad aims — I would gladly take the problems they bring over the ones we have now. The trouble is that these ideas present themselves not just as better directions but final destinations. It is easy to see the standard critique of modern technology as too cynical, but in a way it is not cynical enough: it still imagines an innocent form of science and technology waiting for us to rescue it from various villains.

Perhaps it is this that explains the churn I described above, the various examples of surprising shifts and tensions in the builder and conserver affinities. Beneath these roiling surfaces are shared currents. The lost island can never finally be reached, and eventually one has to face the waves and set some new course.

But there are other ways to state the problem with technology. Perhaps, however acute the problem for moderns, there was never some prelapsarian state to return to.

The New Atlantis has, fruitfully, not offered any final verdict on the guilt of Francis Bacon. Instead, beneath our anti-Promethean critique, we have offered a consistent suspicion of utopianism — a temptation not only for utopians but sometimes anti-utopians too. I believe it is this that has kept the journal steady while so many others have been tossed about.

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Much more could be said about what this means at a moment when, unlike in 2003, so many are already persuaded that technological dystopia looms near.

But for our purposes on this occasion, I would like to note again just how improbable it once seemed that a magazine founded with our specific sensibility would endure and thrive as long as it has. There are enormous advantages to offering only the builders’ side of the story, or only the conservers’ — a clear road map to finding readers and funders if your angle is that technology is always the answer, or always the problem, or that science’s findings happily always rubber-stamp what some group already believes. I once saw it as, although an intellectual asset, also an institutional liability that this map is not available to us, that we have had to chart our own path.

And yet at twenty years going, surely it is time to revise my old view. We have persisted because we offer a real answer to an urgent question, and in turn, fill a vacuum in the marketplace of ideas. I am reminded of this point regularly when I hear from new readers something along the lines of “I didn’t know that this is what I was looking for until I found it.”

We have sought to negotiate the conflict between the builders and the conservers, not out of some abstract commitment to balance but because that is just how the human animal already encounters the technological beast. To see the contest otherwise is to lurch perilously about. We are grateful to the many readers, writers, donors, and friends who have instead stood steady with us these past twenty years.

Ari Schulman, “Who Is The New Atlantis For?,” The New Atlantis, Number 74, Fall 2023, pp. 63–71.
Header image: Raoul Hausmann, Self-portrait of the Dadasopher (1920) / colaimages, Alamy

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