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Liberation or Control?

Conservatives and Technology

by HEATHER GRAY

Oppressive conservative movements anywhere in the world, especially what we’re seeing in America, could partly be a response to challenges of traditional authority resulting from technological changes.

The great anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that in the 20th century we were witnessing for the first time an era in human history in which the youth could not go to their elders for advice on how to survive.

The elders have had much to teach us (and still do, of course) and throughout millennium the youth have sat around them and hungered for their knowledge because it was needed for survival, but also because their stories and information probably made life more interesting.

It’s rather staggering to realize that this has been the primary model of us humans for thousands of years until, roughly, the recent industrial revolution.

The issue Mead referred to was rapid technological changes that altered the way we humans relate with each other–particularly in the West where changes have been occurring in rapid succession (electricity, cars, planes, the industrial age generally, communications, etc.). This is further compounded by the fact that it takes at least 10 to 20 years for us humans to adapt our behavior to a new technology.

We’ve apparently not seen such rapid technological change as has been the case in the 20th century–and there’s simply not been time to adapt to it all. Social relationships have become somewhat chaotic as a result.

There are many examples of change in the 1900’s and how it’s effected they way we relate, but perhaps the most striking in recent history has been the computer and/or digital age. Think about it! In just the past 20 years we have become incredibly reliant on the computer and e-mail as a form of communication. And if something new becomes available in computer technology, whom do we learn about it from? It’s certainly not our parents or grandparents as would have been the case traditionally. We ask our children or grandchildren, our nieces and nephews.

On the flip side of this, it’s been said the technological change is inherently democratizing. It tends to provide opportunities for the masses to have access to technology and information. The printing press and the more recent personal computer are prime examples. They opened up vast opportunities for individual growth and exploration. Change can be liberating! These two examples are perhaps perfect examples of the enlightenment at work. But all of this is seemingly not without a societal cost and threats from the right wing.

On the other hand, some new technologies, like the Green Revolution after WWII and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), are probably not that great for us. The Green Revolution has dumped enormous amounts of chemicals on our soil and into our food system through use of chemicals in production agriculture. The GMO’s are making our family farmers worldwide more vulnerable because they have less control over seed saving as well as their crop production and GMO’s are also, unfortunately, homogenizing agriculture and destroying the diversity of our food chain. The beneficiaries of these technologies are largely the corporations and not the masses. They are not examples of what are "inherently democratizing" or liberating.

Another important factor to consider here is that when something new presents itself–new ideas, new technology, new religion, etc–there is a tendency for large sectors of the society (i.e. religious leaders, scientists, professionals generally) to cling even more to the older methods and values. Change is never easy.

Scientist Thomas Kuhn describes this best in his renowned book "The Structure of Scientific Revolution". He says that when Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier and Einstein, for example, were advancing their new scientific theories, "Each of (the new theories or paradigms) necessitated the (scientific) community’s rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it." But before that, scientists refused to accept the new paradigms and attempted to undermine those advocating the change. Kicking and screaming, science will ultimately accept some of these new theories but only after they’ve been tested and retested.

Perhaps right out of the Kuhn model, conservative Christians and neoconservative movements in America are attempting to entrench and/or expand power. They’re attempting to reverse the threats to traditional role relationships that have been challenged by a century of technological changes and the accompanying liberation. They’ll want to challenge the new technology particularly if it’s liberating for the masses and threatens traditional authority.

The Christian right and neoconservatives are taking advantage of society in transition in any number of ways. For example, once again, amazingly, they are challenging Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection; as always free speech and right of assembly appear on the chopping block; women’s rights are threatened; affirmative action is being diminished; limited executive power is almost a thing of the past.

Change is not necessarily better; it’s simply a change, something new, and usually intriguing. There are times it is definitely an advancement but we need to study it carefully. It might not necessarily improve the quality of our lives, but then it might! But a few things seem certain. Technological changes result in new dynamics in our human relationships and there will be a reaction to new technologies particularly if they are liberating and empowering for the general population.

HEATHER GRAY produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.