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Staying Human in the Fourth Republic

March 7th, 2024 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

These are my notes from a recent talk I gave at a Faith and Law gathering in Washington.

Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

~Wendell Berry

In his work on American history, the political theorist Michael Lind has argued that the story of America is really a story of four sequential republics, all of which transitioned one into the other, but often only after great pain and difficulty.

Lind’s first republic is the America that existed from the ratification of the Constitution through to the Civil War. It was defined largely by this fledgling nation’s attempt to secure its place in the world and, above all, by its reckoning with the time bomb embedded in our founding: what was to be done about slavery?

The second republic ran from the end of Reconstruction, which foreclosed certain things that might otherwise have been possible, through the disruptions of the Great Depression and World War II. It was an era marked by the question of westward expansion, the status of Native peoples, the mass immigration of European peoples who came from outside traditional British culture—my own ancestors all arrived at this time, coming from Sweden and Norway and Germany and Greece. It also was preoccupied with the status of workers. As the nation industrialized and factory work was normalized, the rights of workers needed to be defined. Something like UPton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a vintage second republic novel that tried (and mostly failed) to address this issue.

The third republic ran from the post-war settlement under Truman and Eisenhower through to the early 21st century. As you may have noticed, these eras tend to blur together at the edges. There are often gray zones that define the space between one republic and the next. So one might argue that the third republic’s end began in 2008 with the financial crash, or perhaps even that it began on 9/11, with the loudest sign to date for Americans that the globalization project of the late 20th century was not universally welcomed. Probably you can say more definitively that the third republic closed in the years between 2015 and 2020 with the ascent of Donald Trump (and, to a far lesser degree, Bernie Sanders) and the sweeping transformations wrought by the COVID 19 pandemic. We are now, then, in the founding era of the fourth republic.

What will mark the fourth republic? What will be our chief problems and questions? In his two most recent books Lind suggests a couple answers: First, there is a class war in America, he argues, that is defined less by states against states, as in the antebellum era, and more by what Lind calls “hubs” and “heartlands.” Hubs are urban centers and their close suburbs, both of which tend to be bastions of the creative class and the managerial bureaucracy that undergirds the knowledge economy. Heartlands are the exurbs and rural regions that tend to still be more trades-based, working-class, and more sparsely populated, which also correlates with other cultural differences that are partly a function of geography and population density. Second, in his more recent book Lind has argued that there is a wage crisis in America. He treats most of America’s other social ills as being downstream of low wages.

While I have strong sympathies with both concerns, I also suspect that there is a larger problem upstream from both of the above problems, the former of which is effectively a problem of human community and the latter of which is a problem of human work as well as a problem of human community. That problem is the problem of technology, which is perhaps not the proper term for what I am describing.

The more correct term, I think, is “technopoly,” which is a word I have taken from the Canadian media critic Neil Postman. In Postman's schema, there is a difference between "tool-using cultures," "technocracies," and "technopolies." The first simply refers to the overwhelming majority of human societies which have built and developed tools to help them work more effectively. "Technocracy," meanwhile refers to a society in which tools become more central in the thought of the culture, often constraining and shaping that thought simply by virtue of their existence. Tools "become culture" in a technocracy. Technopoly, finally, is what occurs when all habits of thought are re-framed and re-defined by the tools which have become culture. It's "totalitarian technocracy."

So how does such a thing develop? I think the concept of "density" as developed by the folks over at Ribbon Farm may help us answer that question. We begin by considering the concept of "density."

Paleolithic people were obliged to carry everything they owned with them. The material culture package of nomadic people was severely constrained. Each item was absolutely necessary, and often served multiple purposes.

As we go back in time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed. Each person must wear many hats and perform many functions. Each tool must serve many purposes. In this highly condensed order, a minor innovation in some specific technological function would not be worth much, as it would likely come at the expense of some other function.

In our prehistory, Nick Szabo explains,

institutions usually condensed the functions of religion with business, business with politics and war, law with lore, tort law with criminal law, ceremony with accounting, and gang warfare with a substantial body of customary rules. Objects could condense the functions of jewelry with coinage, and concrete utility with media of obligation satisfaction and store of value.

Settled people, on the other hand, can collect more stuff. Going forward in time, artifacts with specialized purposes proliferate, and people specialize. New institutions appear. The cultural package de-condenses. It can look like a mess.

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.

I hope you'll forgive the long quote, but I found the whole explanation quite helpful. In short, Sarah Perry is arguing that developments in technology often erode our felt sense of connection and meaning because technological development often means greater specialization and greater specialization weakens the degree of connection we feel to the physical world around us. This is a kind of cousin to Jon Askonas's old argument at Compact which we interacted with at some length when it was published.

That said, Perry makes an interesting observation. De-condensation is now being worked backwards by, of all things, more technological innovation:

The general trend in human culture is toward de-condensation. Yet I write this from the most highly condensed artifacts that ever existed: a mobile tablet. This small object (like the ubiquitous smartphone) condenses innumerable functions: a detailed map of the world, a telephone, a newspaper (sending and receiving), an encyclopedia, an alarm clock, a musical instrument, a research library, a neighborhood pub, a stereo, a video camera, a game console, an art studio, and new functions still to be thought of.

Many of the technological advances of the past few years condense functions within an artifact. Airbnb adds a function to a house: where previously it was a consumption good, now it is also something to rent on the market. Uber and Lyft do the same for automobiles. Self-driving cars de-condense driving from human effort and attention; in doing so, the automobile is re-condensed into a space where new functions are possible.

Perry ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that these technologies are healing the things that were ruptured by former technologies. I am not so confident, if only because Perry's conclusion reminds me so much of one of Berry's more acidic texts, his brief "Joy of Sales Resistence," which served as the introduction to one of his essays. In particular, Perry's conclusion reminds me of Berry's observation that,

The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have.

Indeed, when I consider the specific possibilities that our era of recondensation invites, it seems to me that what is happening is not a return to density so much as a relocation of density. Two points follow, I think.

First, it is an error to regard "density" as a general good. To be sure, some forms of density are necessary, I think. It is good that we perceive food as being something more than mere caloric intake or body fuel. It is good that sex be perceived as an act binding a man and woman in covenant rather than a pleasurable form of fluid exchange, if you'll forgive such crass language. Yet it is not necessary that all things should be dense in this way, I don't think.

Second, the location of the density is enormously important. A digitally facilitated recondensation will, it seems to me, inherently involve the demeaning of the natural world. It will make us deaf to the silences in creation that Berry wrote of so beautifully in the poem excerpted at the top of this essay. It inherently involves obscuring places and, it would seem, obscuring people. Consider one plausible sort of recondensation around sexuality, which we have already discussed earlier this week: Tablets and phones can abet the recondensation of sex in concert with AI and augmented and virtual reality devices. Your program, your device, will become the locus of your sexuality, a place where deep desires are met, a kind of vulnerability is experienced, and so on.

But far from being a good thing, this relocation seems to inherently involve taking something human and relocating it to the digital domain. And particularly at a time when birth rates are falling, loneliness and anxiety are rampant, and marriage is a seemingly dying institution, the idea of relocating sexual intimacy to the digital domain and away from the domain of human encounter between persons seems quite disastrous to me.

So one way of thinking about the tech challenges of our moment is the challenge not only of de-condensation, which is an old challenge, but also of what to do about relocating density. The lack of density really does create a crisis of meaning when it reaches a certain point, I think. If everything in your life feels ephemeral and thin, if you have no permanent relationships, few heirlooms, no permanent place, and so on, a crisis of meaning is virtually inevitable. But the optimistic take on tech put forward by Perry comes at the cost, I think, of our humanity.

Where this leaves us is in a place far more complex: Navigating the tolerable and admissible forms of de-condensation, accurately appraising promises of a return to density from technology, and all the while seeking denser fellowships and belongings with our neighbors, churches, and friends.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).