The Next Big Dialectic

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES Op-Ed Page November 28, 1999

The Next Big Dialectic

I’VE ALWAYS been skeptical of people who predict the future professionally, of the Alvin Tofflers and John Naisbitts as well as the Jeane Dixons and Pat Robertsons. For one thing, it’s pretty much impossible to make confident predictions without sounding portentous and creepy. And purporting to describe the warp and woof of life 100 years from now is an extreme folly. On the other hand, the time frame insures that no one will be able to tell me I was wrong if, in 2100, it turns out I was wrong.

At this end of this century, as we bask happily and stupidly in the glow of our absolute capitalist triumph, no long-range historical forecasters are considered more insanely wrong-headed than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Yet the death of Communism makes this moment a fine one to consider the emergence of Marxism 150 years ago as a historical phenomenon, economically determined, rather than as the social and moral debacle it became. In fact, looking back, Marx and Engels seem prescient about the capitalist transformation of life and work. Writing about globalization in ”Principles of Communism” in 1847, Engels sounds very 1999.

”A new machine invented in England deprives millions of Chinese workers of their livelihood within a year’s time,” he wrote. ”In this way, big industry has brought all the people of the earth into contact with each other, has merged all local markets into one world market, has spread civilization and progress everywhere and has thus ensured that whatever happens in civilized countries will have repercussions in all other countries.”

He failed only to mention Euro-denominated McDonald’s menus and MTV.

In ”Das Kapital,” Marx also foretold the present cyber-age, in which computers design toasters and skyscrapers, and software is designed by other software: ”Modern industry had therefore itself to take in hand the machine, its characteristic instrument of production, and to construct machines by machines. . . . Machinery, simultaneously with the increasing use of it . . . appropriated, by degrees, the fabrication of machines proper.”

Marx and Engels were right in the middle of the transformation. Just before their births, during the final years of the 18th century, a handful of machinists and tinkerers — John Wilkinson, Richard Arkwright, Eli Whitney, a few others — had ignited the Industrial Revolution with their amazing devices to cut screws, pump water, spin wool and gin cotton. Those machines, hitched to James Watt’s steam engine, begat factories and steamships and railroads, which begat industrial capitalism on a frenzied new global scale, which, just a half century after the first revolutionary mechanical marvels, begat Marx.

Now, during the final years of the 20th century, a handful of scientists and tinkerers — William Shockley, Jack Kilby, Robert Noyce, Jim Clark, Tim Berners-Lee, a few others — have ignited the current technological revolution with their amazing new devices: the transistor, the integrated circuit, the microcomputer, the World Wide Web. The PC and the Internet begat a new fluidity of capital and information, which is begetting postindustrial capitalism on a frenzied new global scale, which will surely beget some radical and infectious critique of this radically new order.

In other words, the 21st century will have its Marx. This next great challenger of the governing ideological paradigm, this hypothetical cyber-Marx, is one of our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and he or she could appear in Shandong Province or Cairo or San Bernardino County. By 2100, give or take a couple of decades, it’s a good bet that free-market, private-property capitalism will be under siege once again, shaken as in 1848 and 1917 and the 1930′s by the tremors that the magnificent and ferocious system itself unleashes. History does not always repeat itself, but as Mark Twain may have said, it rhymes.

What will this next great ”ism” look like?

The ascendant revolutionary ideology of 2100 won’t be Luddite. Theodore Kaczynski was the Ned Lud of this cycle, an angry, violent lunatic of no real historical significance. Marx, for his part, was not opposed to the new technology of the Industrial Revolution — it was the steam-powered weaving machines and railroads and all the rest that were going to allow his collectivist utopia to emerge.

In ”Das Kapital,” he wrote that ”improved communications” had been the key to increased productivity and prosperity, that the ”last 50 years have brought about a revolution in this field . . . the entire globe is being girdled by telegraph wires . . . the time of circulation of a shipment of commodities to East Asia, at least 12 months in 1847, has now been reduced to almost as many weeks . . . and the efficacy of the capital involved in it has been more than doubled or trebled.” It seems improbable that the next great world-historical agitator will demonize technology qua technology.

The poor are always with us. The unequal distribution, among nations and classes, of digital resources — hardware, software, communications bandwidth — will help shape the early versions of the revolutionary ideology. Today’s self-justifying optimists in Redmond and Silicon Valley claim that the price of computers and telecommunications will continue to fall to the point that everyone on earth, rich and poor, will share in the millennial bounty. Maybe. Eventually. But for the next couple of decades it’s going to be ugly as the computer-rich get much richer and the computer-poor even poorer.

The present money moment won’t last. As the digital age finally has its first and second (and third and fourth and fifth) financial busts over the next half-century, the particular magic spell of circa-2000 laissez-faire hyper-capitalism will be broken. The computer revolution won’t be turned back, but the financial giddiness will subside.

On this classic economic idea, late-20th-century Wall Street bears and 19th-century communist pioneers agree. ”Ever since the beginning of this century,” Engels wrote, ”the condition of industry has constantly fluctuated between periods of prosperity and periods of crisis; nearly every five to seven years, a fresh crisis has intervened, always with the greatest hardship for workers.” After a few periods of serious 21st-century hardship, with I.R.A.’s and 401(k)’s reduced in value by half overnight, alternative social and economic arrangements might not seem so preposterous.

The great new philosophical and political schism of the 21st century will concern computers and their status as creatures rather than machines. In my lifetime, the sentimental regard for computers’ apparent intelligence — their dignity — will resemble that now accorded gorillas and chimps. And it will not stop there. In his book, ”The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence,” Ray Kurzweil, the computer scientist, quite convincingly predicts that around 2030 computers will begin to seem sentient — that they will ”claim to be conscious.” And by the end of the century, he writes, there will no longer be ”any clear distinction between humans and computers.”

I find his scenario altogether plausible. And as it unfolds, I am certain that this astonishing new circumstance — machines that think, machines that feel — will provoke political and religious struggles at least as profound and ferocious as the earlier wars over Christianity, human rights and abortion. A machine-liberationist movement will arise. And by 2100, the 21st century will have its Gandhi, too.