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Agrarianism: The Inevitable End of Technocracy? (Updated/Bumped)

February 27th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

At The New Ledger, Francis Cianfrocca analyzes the shifts currently happening in information technology and their potential ramifications on the rest of our lives.  He writes:

What happens in the traditional economy? It’s still going to be just as capital-constrained as ever. Information is going to start moving faster, more fluidly, and less expensively than ordinary physical transport. As much as Americans have a car-loving culture, we’re going to start driving less and being less mobile overall. Nothing, but nothing, could be more wasteful and useless than the massive infrastructure investments that Democrats push as the salvation of the economy.

Ironically, food production and distribution will start getting more difficult as everything else gets easier. Artisan farming, particularly in proximity to large cities, will make a comeback.

Cianfrocca doesn't go all the way toward predicting the return of agrarianism, of course.  Decreased mobility doesn't mean agrarianism per se, nor does the rise of artisan foods as a response to higher food prices.  And I suspect such steps won't eliminate the need for corporate farming altogether.

But the reduced mobility of this new economy strikes me as a middle way between the Front Porchers and the PoMoCons.

Technological advances like telecommuting allow members of society to return their homes to economic centers.  Those who enjoy that luxury--and their tribe is increasing rapidly--happily enjoy the fruits of modernity, contribute to global companies, and do it from their living rooms.

There's more to the debate than that, of course.  There are questions about the nature of work and about the sustainability of the contemporary economy.

But in this case, the consumer economy (with respect to technology) has stepped in to push new solutions to the problems created by corporations forward.  Cianfrocca's point about how much consumers know about IP addresses, etc. is an interesting one:  the movement toward connectivity hasn't been lead by corporate America.

And it turns out that our consumption of technology favors localist ties, not the sort of international connections that we all presumed they would bring about.  The largest social network in the world is the one that depends upon, and deepens, the ties we have to our local communities.  As the technology improves, people realize they can spend more time at home with their families, a good that would have been impossible before.

A technocracy creates enormous problems, then perpetuates itself by setting about solving them.  And there is always a middle ground, where the problems are so numerous and weighty that they endanger the health of the system.  But if Cianfrocca is right, the troubles that have driven the Front Porchers to look for new solutions may be mitigated by the source of those troubles themselves.

Such is the inescapable double-edged sword of technology, and of living in a technocracy.

Update:  Francis sends over this brief response.

Wendell Berry comes up often enough that I ought to learn something about him.

I'm totally torn on one point. Does the information economy mean that everyone will migrate to large cities (a movement that does seem to be in effect in many parts of the world)? Or does it make it possible for so many people to work at home that they'll spread out more than ever?

But the rise of the information economy may be an effect rather than a cause. The cause could be the capital starvation that now has the world firmly in its grip almost everywhere but China. That's why mobility will decrease: because we don't produce enough value and we don't generate enough energy to make transport as efficient as it has been in the past. The information economy grows up as a substitute for a goods-based economy.

This interpretation would be confirmed if the movement to cities continues.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.