The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or James Poulos. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is James Poulos. James creates and advises brands and enterprises at the intersection of technology, media and design. He’s the co-founder and executive editor of The American Mind at the Claremont Institute and the co-founder and publisher of Return at New Founding. He is the author of the book Art of Being Free. And his work has appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, Le Figaro, National Affairs, the New York Times and the Washington Post and more.
Jim: He holds a PhD in government from Georgetown University, though we will not hold that against him. He says, at least his blurbs say, he lives on the edge of LA. Why somebody would brag about that I’m not sure. My wife and I joke occasionally that we really should endow a statue of Virgil to put there in that little park right where the exit of LAX is. But anyway, welcome James
James: Abandon all hope ye who exit here.
Jim: Exactly. Let Virgil be your guide. Obviously, a man who’s read his classics somewhere along the line
James: That airport’s given us all a bad name.
Jim: Anyway, today we’re going to be talking about James’s new book. It’s called Human forever, the Digital Politics of Spiritual War. Kind of the history of how it came into my hands, and for me then to reach out to James is a little unusual. Usually I hear about it on Kindle or Amazon, take a look at it. If I like it, I reach out to the author.
Jim: In this case, my longtime friend and collaborator, Jordan Hall, I believe signed up to get one of the first hundred copies as an NFT. He got all excited about it, sent me emails, “Oh, you got to read this, got to read this.” And I said, well. You know, Jordan’s recommendations are usually good, but I said, “Let me look at it.” So he sent me a copy and I looked at it and I go, “Hmm, this is kind of a strange ass book, but it sure looks interesting.” Based on that, I reached out to James and said, “Hey James, you willing to chat if I read this sucker.” He said, “Yes,” and so that’s how we got to where we are.
Jim: The next thing I want to talk about a little bit is where you can get it, you the readers if you find this conversation motivating and you want to reach out and get your copy. It’s not available on Amazon. I checked this morning. So James, if people who listen to this episode decide they want to know more, how do they get a copy of the book?
James: Well, it’s on a site called canonic. That’s canonic.xyz. I’ll spell out the whole word for you. C A N O N I C.xyz. I can spell. This is a platform where you, yes you, can publish your own work onto the Bitcoin blockchain and sell it for Bitcoin. So it’s not just a publicity stunt. I wanted to show and not just tell with this book, that technology has advanced to a point where Americans can create valuable culture on their own initiative, and share it, and market it, and create even algorithmic markets around the artifacts that they have to introduce into the world. If you have something to say, you don’t need to be a blue check. You don’t need to be an expert. You don’t need to know how to code. You don’t need to live in Silicon Valley or anywhere in particular. You just need to be able to learn a little bit, get your hands dirty in technology, which Americans used to love doing and some still do.
James: All of the gatekeepers are gone. I mean, I’ve been around the publishing circuit a couple times and did the big New York publishing route back with the first book. In some ways it’s very exciting. You see yourself in every, Barnes & Noble, and it’s this appearance of ubiquity. But the reality is a lot of the publishing houses don’t really market or promote your book. What they do is they tell you that you need to email everyone in your Rolodex and sort of grovel before them and beg for that star on Amazon and tell them how important those first-week sales are.
James: Really rather demoralizing in my opinion. We just live in a time now where the gatekeepers are especially harsh in what they deem worthy of publication. So I wanted to sort of sit back and do a book that was under 300 pages, pretty tight but covered a lot of ground, and was something that I could turn around fast, not have to wait for New York to sort of slurp it up slowly and chew it and then ooze it back out into the world.
James: And Canonic was very good at that. It’s true. We did a first-run limited edition, 100 NFT books. These aren’t just cartoon monkeys that you can trade with your friends. Although, I’m definitely not here to tell people not to get their friends rich. Definitely favor that. But there’s a lot more that you can use with this technology, and one of those things is put out a book.
James: So we did 100 leather-bound, foil-stamped, hard cover handmade volumes for the NFTs, 600 bucks a pop. Sold out in about 25 hours. Some people, their eyes popped a little bit. $600! Well, what do you think this is important? Why, yes. Yes I do. And I think another thing that Americans need to remember and can take advantage of right now is that the value of the dollars flying around, nobody really knows who’s who’s at the wheel economically sociopolitically.
James: This is an opportunity for you to step into the marketplace and hang a price tag on yourself. Make a wager. Bet on what you’re worth. If you do that with confidence and you really do have something to say, people take notice. They rally around that. So it’s been gratifying to see the response to the book and in that regard with you and some others who will be remain nameless.
Jim: Very cool, very cool. And as always, of course, for our listeners, the link to the Bitcoin store will be on the episode page @jimruttshow.com. So check it out there. Next thing, before we really jump in. Somewhere I read that you wrote the book in three weeks. Is that true?
James: It is. It is mostly true. I had three weeks to do the book. The footnotes really became end notes because I wanted nice clean pages. The end notes took a little bit longer than that. They took about an additional week. But this is the kind of thing where after the 2016 election, my first book on Alexis de Tocqueville, came out. Right on inauguration weekend, so it was up there sandwiched between all the Hillary books and all the Trump books.
James: The basic theme of the book was, look, American life is constitutively crazy in a certain sense. We are an unsettled people. This goes back all the way. If you want to trace it all the way back to Augustine, you can see a sort of analysis of the human spirit or the human soul as this oscillating thing that’s forever swinging back and forth between a sort of brooding inwardness and a frantic outwardness.
James: And that’s a tempo that has characterized American life, really from the beginning. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it. He talked about it, and that’s why it was important for him that Americans remain in circulation publicly, that they continuously encounter one another, warts and all, face to face. Mediated by institutions, mediated by religion, but nevertheless, required to sort of build and rebuild the world, the lived world, each day, which is an unceasing labor, an unceasing labor that isn’t necessarily going to be fun.
James: It can be. It can be productive. Sometimes it’s just hard work. It feels more like a trial. But in order for us to face the day every day, we need to get good at the art of being free. That entails a certain kind of friendship. And so my call to America, such as it was, was to take these lessons to heart, to realize that we had what we needed right now to attend to them fruitfully.
James: Then of course, we all got to watch America sort of go crazy over the next several years. And so I found myself sitting here, as you mentioned, a doctor of political theory and thinking, gosh, if I cannot really account for why my message is being rejected wholesale by so many people, then probably my academic discipline deserves to die as much as all these other academic disciplines struggling to account for the reality in which we live.
James: That led me fairly directly and fairly quickly toward the recognition that, well, digital technology has mastered the world, mastered the world in a way that no single human being, or even group of human beings can do. And so I’ve got to go beginner’s mind on media theory, on communications theory, understanding what digital is.
James: And that was a years-long process. In the early couple of years, I had to learn on the job. I was writing essays and so forth actively. There is really no time to disappear into your castle and pontificate about things. You got to kind of write as you go. So for that first few years there, I got a lot of people saying like, “Well, this sounds really interesting, but I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” And nowadays what I hear is, “Wow, this sounds really interesting, but I don’t understand Bitcoin.” So progress.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. Moving in the right direction. All right. We’ll talk about Bitcoin at the very end, but mostly we’ll talk about the book. Last thing before we actually jump in is sometimes I do some definitions up front. I will do some definition-like questions along the way, but there’s one word which you use 22 times, which people use in somewhat differing ways. It’s actually a quite important word. And that’s gnostic. How do you want us to take gnostic when you use it?
James: Gnostic, one of the longest lasting heresies in the biblical tradition. It seems to want to crop up everywhere. The Jews have their own sort of strains of gnosticism. Eastern Orthodox are no strangers to gnostic heresy, the [inaudible 00:09:33] and others. Of course, it appeared in Catholic form with the Cathars and others. Protestantism, of course, in some ways fertile grounds for all kinds of gnosticism, being the place where new denominations of Christianity seem most ready to appear.
James: But in terms of what it actually is, it comes from the ancient Greek for knowledge, gnosis, as in secret knowledge. The idea being that we may not be able to interact with God, but we can understand the secrets of the created world, and that the secret knowledge therein is really that it’s bad news that we’re human beings.
James: We’re kind of in this prison that’s been formed for us. The limits of our physical bodies are things which we must learn how to shatter and exceed. The goal is to basically let loose, break free, the spirit from the confines of the created or physical world, with the idea that our destiny, once our spirit is freed in this way, is to become God, or to become as God. To leave our humanity behind, shuffle off the coil of our mere humanity, and enter into a kind paradisiac state where we have elevated or ascended into a new plane of existence. So that’s the nutshell of it for me. That’s how I used it in the book.
Jim: All right. Yeah. It’s kind of the tradition of Plato and even Buddhism, right? They’re all wanting us to transcend the here and now and move on to something else. Right? But of course, specifically in the West, typically gnosticism is often talked about in the forms of Christian heresy that started in the Middle East and then kept on spreading as you point out. Keeps popping up. In fact, it’s hiding the hills today, probably somewhere in former Yugoslavia.
Jim: So let’s now get to the book itself. You start out first sentence in the book, or two sentences is, “We are running out of time to preserve the space of our progeny needs to live lives worth living. Confronting this reality, a consequence of our sanctification of technological advancement beyond the reach of human responsibility, is ability is the purpose of this book.” So say just a little bit more about that, and then we’ll move on.
James: Well, let’s start with the word responsibility. If you go back to the etymology of the word, it’s something I always find at least somewhat enlightening and sometimes very much so. What you discover is the ancient root of that word is the word for repeatedly pouring out libations in sacrifice. Really a religious act, a liturgical act of a sort. And so when we think about responsibility in those terms, in terms of to whom are you responsible in your worship or in your sacrifice, the idea animating this book was a lot of people today, at all levels of society, increasingly feel that as a result of this total domination of the world by our digital devices and other entities, there’s really no hope left for us other than to pivot, to shift our worship to those entities themselves.
James: That really technology has exceeded our human capability, has sort of taken away our pride in that we, instead of trying to figure out, we’re human beings, we had better get good at it, instead to figure out how to build machines that so outstrip us in our capabilities, that we can just hand them our responsibilities, hand them control, give them the wheel of the ship, make them the kybernetes, to go back to the Greek for the steersmen.
James: This is where Norbert Wiener got the word cybernetics from. Really this longing to just kind of give up the burdens of being human. Transfer those responsibilities over to the machines, visible and invisible, and hope and trust and pray in a way that that’s what’s going to save us. That that’s what’s going to deliver us from our predicaments and our challenges. That we won’t have to worry about all the horrible things about being human anymore.
Jim: All right. Now then you raise the ante further. “Neither mortal nor divine, digital technology now claims the once solely human prerogative to give order to the universe. Human organization is no longer supreme. The modern politically scientific state pales in efficiency and reliability before the always-on algorithms that invisibly permeate the body politic.” Pretty strong words. Now, is that hyperbole or is that actually what you think?
James: Well, I mean, it’s not just what I think. You go around and ask everyone who’s running a major international organization. Ask Eric Schmidt. Ask the NSA. Ask Five Eyes. Ask of Vladimir Putin. I mean, you track the discourse at that level, and it’s clear. There is a global war going on right now as major powers, major interests, scramble to assert what kind of sovereignty or control they can over the swarm of digital entities in their slice of spacetime.
James: The Chinese are doing it. They’re moving very fast, programming the bots to be Daoists basically, and using those bots as a social credit system to keep everyone in line. The Russians are also turning inward in that respect. The role of using religion as a kind of foundation for establishing digital sovereignty seems to me to be plainly unfolding there.
James: But it’s not just, you know, it’s not just the, quote unquote, autocracies. I mean, I think India is moving in a similar direction with the way that it’s establishing a more nationalist kind of approach to internet regulation. Israel is a civilization state in its own right, and is definitely pursuing technology on that basis. The EU is distinguishing itself from the US, and I guess the UK in some ways, and taking a much harsher and more continental view of internet regulation. The Vatican wants to be a big player in this space. They’ve already made some moves and overtures and held some conferences. Based on my kind of semi inside knowledge of what goes on in the church bureaucracy, there’s a strong interest in establishing a proper Catholic theology of media. Marshall McLuhan was a Catholic convert. His son, Eric McLuhan has written on these teams.
James: And then in the US and UK, in Five Eyes world, there’s an active conflict right now over which faction in the Anglosphere is going to decide how the digital swarm is governed, and on what basis. There’s open talk of social credit here in the Anglosphere in the US, severe disagreements over whose hands should be on the wheel.
James: It’s a little tricky in the US. This is a place where the easy option is closed us. We can’t just establish an official religion and program all of our bots with that religion and use that to keep people in line. In my opinion, it’s not surprising to see some folks attempt to do that. I think that some are surprised that this has more come out of the left than out of the right over the past 10 years. Whatever you want to say about the wokeys, they do seem to understand that the shortcut to reestablishing sovereignty in a digital age is to catechize the bots into your comprehensive doctrine, into your religion, into your spiritual understanding of the essence of man. And to use the swarm to impose that understanding on people, to educate them, or reeducate them, into that worldview.
James: I don’t think that graft is going to take in America. I don’t think that American civilization, the American people can really choke that down. I think that’s why we’re seeing what’s unfolding with Twitter right now unfolding in the way that it is. But what it means is Americans have this sort of special burden. They got to sort of bear this special kind of cross, which is we can’t just all disappear into the monasteries. We can’t become a theocracy. But we also can’t just pretend that it’s 1983 forever, and continue to act as if we haven’t unleashed these incredibly powerful machines on the world.
James: We have to return to ingenuity. We have to return to tinkering, and we’ve got to return to an understanding that not everyone in this country is going to share the same set of absolute beliefs about the ultimate questions. And that’s going to have an impact on how we govern. It’s going to be messier. It’s going to take more work. But I do think that relative to how other folks are doing in the world, it might still be the case that Americans have some special advantages, a special kind of willingness to swim in choppy waves, and to set out on an uncharted course.
James: So in conclusion, I don’t think there’s really that much controversy about the fact that we’ve unleashed these machines in a way where everyone who can is trying to get a grip on the steering wheel. The main question for us Americans is how we’re going to deepen our souls so that we understand that it’s worth remaining human, without sort of turning against ourselves, without falling so deeply into a penitent mood that we allow the created world of culture around us to fall apart.
Jim: Well, it’s funny, I’m one of those people who put this damn thing into motion. I started building consumer online systems in 1981. So really, really early on. And did the same in for business world, internet infrastructure, et cetera, been involved either as a founder, director, or investor, in 17 startups. You know, I’ve been through the drill. I’m a believer, not a Luddite.
Jim: Nonetheless, I do like to remind people that at least for now, it’s not clear how long that will be, kinetics still trumps virtual. Right? I think Putin has been a little surprised at that, that the real world still exists and can transcend the power of the virtual. I point out to people that if he really wanted to, the governor of California on his own initiative could shut down Facebook and arrest their management team. Right? Could do it. Unlikely to actually do it, but he could.
Jim: Men with guns still at the end of the day are the basis, are the final arbiters. It’s useful to keep that in mind, even though you’re absolutely right, of course, that the virtual is growing more powerful by the day. And in terms of memetic warfare, what some of us call 5Gen warfare, it is now probably the most important battlefield. But it’s useful to remind ourselves, look at Ukraine and Russia, artillery, rifles, hand-to-hand combat even. Still a real thing. So we should all keep just a little bit of perspective there.
James: Well, yeah, I mean, I think this is very interesting because we’ve moved rather quickly from a world in which it seemed like Russia was being presented as the source of all of the crazy propaganda flowing across the internet. And now, which regime is not in on that game? It seems like every regime that has the ability to grab a megaphone is just trying to pump into the airspace, into the head space. They’re their official doctrines. I mean, say what you will about the COVID virus over these past two plus years, we have seen the official story, just turn on a dime repeatedly.
James: There’s something in that speaks to more than just the particularities of the virus or the vaccines, but speaks to the fact that, yes, there is just, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, a global information war playing out where the distinction between combatant and civilian is wiped away. I understand why it is that the US has decided on waging war more at a virtual level than a physical level. I understand why it is that the NSA and Five Eyes has gained so much power, relatively speaking, at the expense of the Department of Defense.
James: Even something like the nuclear bomb, the nuclear missiles. This was supposed to be the weapon that would allow the US to dominate the world forever. It turned out you couldn’t really use it that much, if at all. So there was a lot of pressure to create weaponry that was super powerful in the way that not even nukes were. I think, if you look at kind of the military intelligence origins of the internet infrastructure, it’s easy to understand how a bunch of guys would say, “Hey, this is great. We got a weapon. We can use it anytime, anywhere in the world. We can even just leave the damn thing on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We don’t have to blow anyone up. We don’t have to leave any bodies on the battlefield. We can just wage this war sort of in people’s consciousnesses, in the psyche, using controls of information flows, understanding how to poke the swarm and make the swarm do the things that we want to do.”
James: That’s all understandable. But these tools are powerful, and these weapons are oftentimes indifferent to the agendas or the dreams of their creators. And now we find ourselves in a position where these weapons are being used against citizens or subjects in their own countries. They’re being used by some groups of citizens against others. It’s really a mess, and it’s reminiscent of the dangerous and violent effect that the printing press had on European politics.
James: Americans did pretty well under print. We did really well under electricity. Digital came along. I think a lot of folks thought, gosh, well, we created these things and we dreamed the best dreams, and we got the best ethics and so whatever we make is going to be good. And so this is going to be great. This is going to basically turn the world into America, or turn America into the world.
James: This is going to basically turn the world into America or turn America into the world. And of course, that’s not exactly what happened. A much more complicated, but in some ways painfully simple that these tools that we created did not particularly care to do what it is that we wanted. And we now need to look at what’s already happened and recognize that this is a totally different medium.
James: TV was all about the human imagination. If you can dream it, you can do it. Willy Wonka singing about pure imagination. John Lennon singing about imagine. This is a different thing, here machine memory is more powerful than human imagination, and that’s a big shock to Americans. It makes a lot of them feel demoralized and confused. I think that’s understandable too, but we do need to recognize, we got to remember who we are, remember what we’re capable of.
James: We can return authority to flesh and blood human beings. It’s going to be a little bit uncomfortable. We got to share space with these infinite invisible entities flying around being incredibly interoperable and communicating instantaneously, but this is a situation we’ve put ourselves into and so it’s time to start thinking about how to deal.
Jim: Indeed. A couple points there. We should always keep in mind, we can say no right? I did an experiment back in 2019 and I documented it in the Media Mese titled, Reclaiming Our Cognitive Sovereignty: Why I Went Back to a Flip Phone, and How You Can Too. Again, as somebody who helped start one of the cell phone companies, been dealing with these technologies from beginning, it was really a weird thing to do, was to analyze all the services I got from my smartphone and deciding how I would do it without a smartphone. And then taking those actions and then getting rid of the smartphone and going to a flip phone. And it was really amazing and empowering. And I documented it in a rather long essay and a bunch of other people did too.
Jim: And I’m now seeing more and more people, especially young people, who are signing off from Facebook and Instagram and probably the worst of the bunch, TikTok. Of course, is not yet a mass trend but it’s always important for people to keep in mind, we don’t have to play this game if we don’t want to. You won’t starve if you don’t look at TikTok. Nothing bad will happen if you delete your Facebook account, I know hundreds of people that don’t have Facebook accounts. So yes, this beast is trying to suck us in, but we still have sovereignty and autonomy if we want to use it. And I think that’s always worth keeping in mind.
Jim: Next, this is a little further down on my notes, but let’s do it here. I mean, it’s very clear when I was reading your book that you were strongly influenced by the McLuhanist perspective. And might not hurt just to lay out a little bit of mainline McLuhan theory, the acoustic, the literary print electronic, et cetera, and now digital. Just take a quick run through that and give a little bit of how McLuhan sees those things becoming embedded in one another and evolving through time.
James: Sure. So, McLuhan comes along as a media theorist. And a lot of people think of media, they think of TV and radio, maybe newspapers. And that’s not inaccurate, but there’s a deeper panorama here, so I’ll just try to lay that out. Media basically communications technology for McLuhan, he referred to them as extensions of man. So these are tools that we use to extend our capabilities, our functionalities, beyond what we can do with our given incarnate and ensouled beings. McLuhan, Catholic guy, but for him, Aristotle was an important figure. Aristotle’s fundamental distinction between things that are alive and things that are not alive, and Aristotle the biologists saying, “If you really want to understand the nature of living things, you can’t just reduce them analogically or mathematically to buckets of things that are not alive.”
James: There’s a fundamental distinction there. There is anima that is within the living things. And so McLuhan’s desire to introduce back into social science and social theory, a proper respect for an understanding of aliveness is, I think, a big part of his media theory. So, if you’re looking at the development of human life in terms of the impact of communications tools on the people who create them over time, you go back to, well, you got spoken language, you have the oral medium, and that went on for some time before the alphabet came along. You mentioned Plato, Plato lamented in one of his dialogues, through Socrates, that reading was like trying to talk to a statue. Basically this motionless figure with the sign around their neck and you could read it and ask it questions but it wouldn’t answer.
James: That’s probably one reason why Plato opted for the dialogue form in his dialogues. But the transformation from oral to alphabetic culture was massive, it took you from Homer to Plato. And for someone like Nietzsche, that was the ultimate rivalry or duality. And alphabetic culture, of course, continued on to this very day, but other things started to happen too. So you got the written word and you got the scribal era, as [McLuhanites 00:28:25] will oftentimes refer to it, where it’s the middle ages, you have not an infinite number of Monks in front of an infinite number of Scriptoria, but a large number, nevertheless. Hold up, systematically recording, recalling and recording, the inherited knowledge and wisdom of the world. That was the last time when memory was as important to the structure of communications and culture as it is today. Which is one reason why McLuhanites such as Mark Stallman, from whom I learned a lot, he runs the Center for the Study of Digital Life, Mark is fond of saying, “Digital retrieves the medieval.” Something that sometimes spooks people.
James: I know Americans are like, “Wait a minute, we didn’t even exist back then. So what does that mean for America?” And we can talk about that a little bit down the road if you want. And the scribble era is suddenly replaced by what McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy, the world of print. Suddenly you go from Monk’s safeguarding knowledge in their monasteries, to anyone who can get their hands on one of these machines can print up as many copies of the Bible as they want. They can do it in their own translation, put it in the hands of anyone walking around in the street, and then suddenly anyone with one of these things in their hands can start having their own interpretations of holy scripture. Oh my goodness.
James: And we saw how that turned out, some good news and some bad news. And Martin Luther, I’m just trying to reform the church. And then suddenly there’s another church, and then suddenly congregations in Germany are starting to throw all moralities to the winds and basically just launching directly into raping, pillaging. And Luther has to scramble to write letters to these guys saying, “Hey, that’s not what I meant.” Well, the technology begs to differ, and that’s kind of one of the themes of McLuhan, is that these tools that we create, these different mediums, they have effects on us which we do not intend, which we do not choose, and which oftentimes we do not understand. And for McLuhan that goes back to Aristotle once again, where Aristotle’s theory of causation plays a big role. For McLuhan, the way to understand media theory and the impact of media on us, the way in which we shape our tools and they shape us in turn, is through Aristotle’s formal cause.
James: This is not like a billiard ball hit hits another one, and that’s the form of causation. It’s not like, well, people are born capable of sexually maturing and then they do, and they have more kids, and then on and on we go, it’s not that kind of causation. This is the kind of causation that’s much more environmental. Aristotle suggests the soul is the form of the body. And so these are things that are not quite as easy to understand as the way they’re oftentimes portrayed. Even today, you can sort of look up formal cause on the internet and you get all these crazily wrong presentations of formal cause. “It’s like an architect makes a blueprint and the blueprint is the formal cause of the pyramid.”
James: It’s like, “No, this is almost exactly the opposite of that. This is something that is not anyone’s idea, it isn’t a plan, it isn’t something that anyone has formulated. This is the environment, the form of these technologies having an independent, if reciprocal, effect on our sensibilities.” Which of our faculties are enhanced or sharpened? Which of them are backgrounded or weakened or dulled? There’s a little bit of Gestalt Theory in here for people who care about that, sort of figure and ground. Different technological environments pull certain things about us forward, make them more important, stress them, put emphasis on them, make them stronger and other things weaker. And so McLuhan and his son, after McLuhan’s guru period, which is ultimately very dissatisfying to him, the McLuhan sat down and tried to figure out a taxonomy of media effects, four effects that they came up with that were sort of complimentary to Aristotle’s four causes.
James: And in good Catholic faction, these were analogical. They were not things that were intended to happen in sequence. They were all going on all at the same time and the task of the media theorist was to sharpen their awareness of it and sort of look for clues. For McLuhan, it was a big deal that the figure of the detective became so prominent in Western culture. He and his son were fond of saying that effects precede causes. They show up as these sort of clues which we can figure out how to read. It was big for McLuhan that artists were sort of early warning systems who are good at picking up on these clues in an intuitive or heuristic kind of way. One of the reasons why I think art is suffering today is because so many artists have been whipsawed by these technological developments and don’t really know how to perform that function anymore.
James: And to the extent that we can get that going again, that’ll be good for everyone. And so, let’s see, after printing press you have Waves of War and everything, and the Western way of war is religious. So expect more of this stuff as time goes on I think. Then you get radio. Radio, electricity, you get lights on at night in Paris, and everyone thinks it’s a Wonderland. And shortly thereafter, Europe just starts trying to destroy itself, root and branch. So electricity, not so good for Europe. Radio, literally the form of dictatorship, just people standing in front of the radio device and speaking into it. And suddenly you can communicate instantaneously with whoever is on the other end on the set. And around this time you start getting cadres of scientists in Europe and the U.S., and basically wealthy donors who want to try to figure out what’s going on with these new media. Gosh, radio that seemed like it didn’t really work out the way that we had hoped, turned into world war I, turned into world war II.
James: And they start doing research into these media with mixed results. And then TV comes along and people think, well, TV… Even McLuhan, this is kind of like hypnosis, everyone will just sit down in front of the boob tube, kind of tune out, go on the inner trip, what could go wrong? And, well, the technology had other ideas, the age of TV. I think Bob Dylan was right, this was an atomic age of explosive imagination in music and in television because of electricity, the use of color. I joke that all Americans became people of color when the wonder world of Disney first switch from black and white to color. You had Tinker Bells fly out in front of your dreary drab TV set and wave a magic wand.
James: And suddenly you were going on a technical trip in the comfort of your own home. So yes, there was some inwardness going on there, but the way that it manifested around the world was really a deep conviction that whoever dreamed the best in purest dreams really deserved to rule the world. And in many cases they did. You look at Hollywood, you look at the way that film and television in the U.S. became really the main export, both to shape and reshape people’s minds and attitudes abroad, but also as a representative of America, of what America represented and what it could be. And it was out of that culture, a culture that really took this worshipful, venerating attitude toward the imagination from which we got digital technology. You got guys who really enjoyed taking acid and thinking about saving the world, they built some machines and they think, “Well, probably these machines are going to help do what we built them to do.”
James: And once again, the technology had other ideas. So for McLuhan, the advent of the computer, what did it do? It retrieved what he called, and I’m paraphrasing here, perfect memory, total and complete, which is something that definitely been absent from the sort of psycho cultural landscape all throughout the electric age. And what gets obsolesce, that’s another one of McLuhan’s media effects, there’s enhanced, there’s a sort of flip where something gets so intense that it just kind of flips into what it’s opposite is. And then there’s retrieve and then there’s obsolesce. And so we’re sitting here having to think about, what does digital technology obsolesce in our cultural, in our shared space time. And what it obsolesces is exactly what it is that we’d come to think was the most powerful and virtuous force in the world, which is the human imagination.
James: Now, I don’t think the imagination is going to collapse or die or any stuff like that, and I know a lot of people are scrambling to prove that it’s still just as important as it was on the internet, but it’s not what it used to be. A memory of machines is more powerful. And I think in order for us to be good McLuhanites and to understand what’s already happened rather than trying to speculate about what’s coming, the best thing that we can do is reactivate our human memories. Remember who we are, remember how we got here, and remember that we have faculties and capabilities that are very much good news, that we need to rely on in order to fill up the world so that we have a real presence, so that we can share it with the virtual world.
Jim: Very good. That was like you could make a nice book out of that. You should publish that, short introduction into McLuhanism. Now let’s go into I think the first original coinage that I ran across in the book. Very key concept in the book, maybe the key concept, the idea of the first generation, tell us about that.
James: Sure. So, cards on the table, I’m a father, I have a 12 year old son who’s going to be turning 13 in a very short period of time, I’m embracing myself for that. And so as I recount in the book, this is a kid who is a digital native, I, of course, exercise some controls over what he consumes and what he doesn’t. But it was important to me, and increasingly so, as I was sorting through these issues to satisfy myself that he was going to have a complete immature understanding of this media environment as he entered into adulthood, as he passed from boy to man. Especially at a time when, for so many people, I mean, you look at all these kind of sad social indicators. Childbirth is going down, and marriage is going down, and lifelong partnerships are going down and testosterone is going down and the sperm counts going down.
James: And it’s all just like… And there are reasons for that, but amid that kind of all these indicators, that people really don’t know what the hell’s coming, and they don’t understand their place in the world anymore, and they feel like being human is maybe bad news. We are losing the kinds of rights of passage that used to be, and I think always must be critical, foundational for new human beings being brought onto this earth. They need to understand, they need structure. They need purpose, they need an identity formation as they pass from boys and girls to men and women. And so one of those certainly today has to be a proper intuitive and really freely developed grasp on exactly what this digital world is, and an understanding of the fact that you can and should remain fruitfully human in that world.
James: And so as I was writing this book, I really started thinking about generations, the world of electric media, the world of television and film and Hollywood, was one in which I think we were encouraged to think of each generation as being sort of a revolutionary update on the previous. Whether it’s Pepsi always trying to sell a product with the taste of a new generation, or just the way that MTV sort of presented in a position itself. You had Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 really trafficking on, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, yesterday is gone.” All that kind of language, it was very much focused around this idea that the thing that distinguished different groups of people in our time was the generation. It wouldn’t be ancient hatreds, wouldn’t be nationalism, wouldn’t even necessarily be our location on the planet, it would be generations.
James: And what I’ve discovered, and I think anecdotally, this is becoming an increasing topic of conversation, is that ever since, let’s just say ever since the iPhone appeared, the generational analysis has started getting a little tricky. You start polling people and what you see is, yeah there are broad trends going this way or that,. But increasingly, the age that you are is not a very good proxy for things like political beliefs, but I think more importantly, attitudes about technology and attitudes about the value of being human in a digital world. And that would make sense in so far as is a world of imagination that is receding away, and it is a world of memory that is coming into play, and that people are reorienting themselves.
James: I can see it in the way that people are trying to move closer to their families in the way of COVID. You can see it in the way that people who were born even a couple generations apart, as long as they consider themselves to belong to this sort of digitally native world, they’re much more similar than people who are born closer together, who are on the other side of the divide. So here I am, I got a kid who’s about to become a teenager. He’s going to be a member of the first cohort of human beings who really come of age into adults with no memory themselves, no personal memory of life before the digital world. And so they’re a very important generation. They’re the first generation that’s going to be like that. And what that means is their parents have a special responsibility and a special duty to do everything that they can, to ensure that first generation to hit adulthood with no memory of life before digital technology really has their head and their heart and their soul screwed on straight.
James: We’re going to need them to be in good physical and mental shape. And if they’re not, then we’re really going to be flying into unchartered waters. So I didn’t exactly write the book for him, I wrote it more kind of about him and his cohort. And I think as just because of the serendipities of history, being someone in that generation who’s the parents of that founding generation, I wanted to model the kind of special responsibility that we have and how we can go about talking about it.
Jim: Yeah. It’s interesting. I’ve got a new granddaughter a couple years old. My daughter’s already thinking about, “What do I do when her best friend shows up with an iPhone, right?” And our daughter is quite adamant that seven year olds should not have iPhones. And so begs all kinds of questions about how do you enculturate your children to deal with these miraculous technologies in a way that they don’t take over their lives?
James: Well, and in a way that doesn’t make them feel before they even have a chance to become mature human beings, to feel like these are basically just alien gods, that there’s not much for them to do in life other than just use them and be used by them. That’s definitely a danger of unsupervised use of these technologies, is the kid will just very early on understand in the lack of any kind of proper human cultural upbringing, that the focus is not on them anymore. They’re really just a cog in this larger thing.
Jim: And I also wonder about some of the programming of human reality for… I talked about this on the show several times, what’s it like to be a 12 year old boy today and have the most unbelievable five X Ukrainian pornography on tap 24 hours a day? I remember as about an 11 year old, me and my buddy walking five miles round trip to get his uncle, who was in the merchant Marines, collection of titty magazines. Women with their tits hanging out, we thought it was the greatest thing in the world, we walked five miles in a hot summer day to get them. And we buried them in the woods, and they were one of our valuable possessions. So that shows you how motivated young boys are, but type in whatever vile thing you can imagine in your phone and have full motion video and audio of the most depraved sex imaginable. How do you deal with that? Or how do you even think about that as a reasonable thing for human beings to be exposed to at that age?
James: Well, I think to a degree, it is the toxicity level is becoming so blatant that I think, from what I can gather, there is a sort of reactionary impulse growing on the side of younger Americans. These tweens are not looking at millennials and saying, “I wish I could be just like them.” They see the damage that has been wrought in these younger generations. And some of which are not so young anymore, millennials are hitting 40. And I’m not here to sort of ridicule or just bag on anyone for the sake of scoring points, but there’s just no question that the mental health situation in the under 40 crowd is extremely bad. The physical health situation is very bad.
James: It’s extremely bad. The physical health situation is very bad. Many millions addicted to SSRIs. They’re never going to come off them. Many millions of people who consider themselves basically too broken to engage in core human activities. Loneliness, friendlessess, hating your family, being isolated and alienated. I mean, this is stuff that the Japanese have written a lot about this. They’re going through an even more bizarre and painful version of it. Michel Houellebecq has written about this in about as dramatic form as he can. He seems at this point like he’s saying, “What else do I have to tell you people in order to convince you that this is a serious problem?” And so for younger kids who have not been utterly corrupted by the internet, one of the things that they see online and off, especially over the past two years, is really just a complete break from even the world that they knew in 2016, 2017. They see a lot of their peers basically just getting online and presenting themselves in increasingly bizarre ways and having what appear to be complete mental breakdowns on the daily. This is a constant stream of content.
James: And if you’re just a fairly normy American kid, you look at this stuff and you go like, “Why is this happening now?” This wasn’t really happening five years ago. And it’s been interesting to see for a 12-year-old kid to have nostalgia about life three years ago. Really palpable. And to get questions like, “Dad, why is everyone so weird now? Dad, why does it seem like people are dumber now than they were two years ago? What’s going on?” And then I’ve been able to show him things over the past however many years that stopped him cold too.
James: The New York Times ran an op-ed a number of years ago from who I’m sure is a very loving and well-meaning soccer mom who wrote this op-ed about how her two boys were sitting in the back of the SUV coming home from soccer practice. And they’re laughing and giggling and making fun of some stuff that they see on their smartphones or whatever. And she’s like, “What are you watching?” And they’re like, “Oh, YouTube, mom.” And she’s like, “Oh no,” because she feels like her kids are being radicalized toward extreme right-wing ideologies because they’re telling jokes and laughing about being triggered on YouTube. And this was years ago.
James: And I show this to my son and I’m like, “I just want you to know that this is what’s being published at the New York Times today.” And he reads it and it’s basically about kids like him. And he couldn’t understand how it could be that the paper of record, something that even a nine-year-old knows about would be basically publishing these fear-mongering articles about how kids like him are going to be turning into Nazis because they’re telling each other jokes on YouTube and in Call of Duty chats and in the Discord.
James: So yeah, obviously there’s this huge danger that kids are going to get sucked into the internet and turned into depraved monstrosities. But what I’m seeing is there’s already a push back, a push where they know their way around TikTok. They’d rather be watching absurd, shit-post videos on TikTok than crying girls with blue hair screaming that they don’t… There’s a cultural gap that’s dividing within the generations. I think that the technological impact of that cultural gap is one that’s going to give parents greater challenges, yes, but in some ways it’s going to, I think, bring parents and their kids closer together culturally,
Jim: I’m going to bet the opposite. I’m going to bet that’s going to actually make our society more bimodal than it is so already. There’ll be some parents who are capable of dealing with this, but the vast preponderance will just punt because they haven’t a clue how to deal with it, but we shall see.
James: Yeah. I think a lot of people have already punted and we’re dealing with the consequences of that. It’ll be interesting. As kids, young kids see what happens if you spend too much time on the internet and see it around them, I think it will give parents a little bit more to hold onto, and they’ll feel a little bit… I think a lot of parents felt like there was something wrong with them if they tried to stop their kids from using these things that have swept over the world. And I understand that, but there is a middle path and there is a way to ensure that your kids get good at using this technology and they’re not afraid of this technology and don’t take a passive attitude to it or a too late attitude to it without getting them in over their head and getting them into dark waters.
Jim: Yeah. It’s a great balance. Hope you can carry it out. Let’s move on to another one of your interesting ideas. You described the two ruling factions today in our society as the expert engineers and the ethereal ethicists. You don’t mention investment bankers and politicians or Hollywood celebrities or any of the usual people we think of as ruling factions. The ethereal and the engineers. Who the hell are they and why are they the ruling factions?
James: I think if you want to understand this stuff, think about why is it Barack Obama finished his two terms, he could do anything that he wanted to do, and what he did was he inked deal with Netflix? Why did he do that? The engineers are who they sound like. They’re the folks who think that the best thing that we can do is keep building new things, and the best way to keep building new things is to successfully conduct what Umberto Eco refers to as the search of the quest for the perfect language, these guys who think that our destiny, much like Faust, is to find the courage to exceed our bounds, and that the way to do this will be through the perfect language of mathematics.
James: They have this vision of perfect determinacy. They didn’t like it when Norbert Wiener said, “Hey, actually, speaking of fast, all the stuff that you’re building is actually more similar to the sorcerer’s apprentice situation than to just creating these robot slaves that will carry out your wishes.” Wiener warned very pointedly that determinacy in programming was going to let people down, give them a false sense of security. He was worried about it specifically with regard to nuclear weapons. He used the analogy of the monkey’s paw, where careful what you wish for. You just might get it. Machines are not human and they’re not going to understand human instructions and carry out human orders in the way that we would want human beings to.
James: And that goes all the more when you’re not just talking about programming one device or one machine or even one network of machines. But when you’re talking about, as you know, Schmidt and some of these other guys are clearly envisioning, programming all of the devices, programming the entire swarm so as to finally get the world into a perfect working order. That’s not every engineer walking on the face of this earth, but if you just look at the trajectory of the development of these technologies, especially since World War II, you see the fruit of a deep civilization-level wager that probably began with guys like Pythagoras, that we could use tools to leverage our will and to leverage our will so that we could ultimately lift the earth off its axis or out of its orbit, a will with no limit.
James: And the way in which engineering has moved away from the natural science of philosophy and evermore toward the science of creating ever more powerful weapons, ever more powerful forms of control, that’s a big part of the book. And the reason why the ethereal are in there, the ethicists, is because-
Jim: I want you to define the ethereal. That’s a word I’d never heard used that way. Probably my audience is the same way.
James: There are a couple of fun reasons for that. I mean, you think about it wasn’t that long ago when the ether was something that the scientists seriously theorized about and thought it was an actual substance out there in the ether, so to speak. I mean, really, I think it was Michelson and Morley who conducted the experiments that proved that ether did not exist. And Einstein gave them a lot of credit for making all of the theoretical physics that resulted. Such an important part of scientific development.
James: So what’s out there in the ether is this is the world of the imagination. This is the world of ethics. This is the world of dreaming as a moral code, the methods of dreaming best, dreaming the biggest and best dreams. And the way that technology developed in the US was conducive to and reinforcing of the hope that many people had, that the way that we would remain in control of technology was by having the best ethics, having the best dreams, that a guy like Walt Disney could say, “I’m going to build this community of the future.” I mean, Epcot Center is what’s left of that, whether it was Disney or L. Ron Hubbard. I mean, there are lots of these guys, Jack Parsons, people who were really very optimistic about technology but were optimistic about it because they thought, “Well, technology might never be perfect. Math might never be perfect. But gosh darn it, we can have these pure dreams. We can purify our ethics. And through that kind of a spiritual purity, we can purify the machines.”
James: And I think that dialectic between people who thought that we could use ethics to purify technology and people who thought we could use technology to purify ethics, that’s resulted in this tug-of-war and this merging together of these two sides into a single regime, a regime that thinks that we’ve gotten to a point where basically Americans and others just need to shut up and turn the keys over to the people with most expert ethics and the most expert engineering.
James: And we’re seeing that struggle playing out right now. Anyone at this point can recognize that the balance of power in tech is right now tilting toward people who are willing to accept any amount of wokeness as long as they still get to build the technology. And then the balance of power in politics, there’s a lot of momentum now with the wokees who would be willing to accept any amount of technological development so long as they were able to exercise a religious veto over the use and deployment of these technologies. So in some ways these two sides are working as a unit or presenting a future to people where we’ll perfect technology and we’ll perfect ethics, and you won’t need to own anything. You won’t need to be a citizen anymore. You can just live in this virtual world that we’ve created for you.
James: But the reality is there are real tensions even there. And I think part of the chaos and the scrambling that you see in Twitter and Netflix subscriptions going down and people questioning what Jeff Bezos’s next move, all of this is of a piece. And I think a lot of Americans feel like they’re being totally left out and sidelined by these struggles. And so hopefully that’s an invitation for people to get more involved and consider themselves to be good enough right now to participate seriously in public life again.
Jim: Yeah, actually I think there is some good news here. Another part of my life, one of the co-founders and president of the MIT Free Speech Alliance, which spun up in response to one of the more horrific cancel culture events. And I’ve been watching this now carefully for a while, and I have made the prediction that 2021 was actually peak woke and that the curve is now on the other side and it’s going to gather momentum very rapidly because a lot of people who mouth the woke words don’t actually believe them, but they’ve been intimidated by a small number of ultra-vicious trolls into going along. So once people start getting the sense that peak woke has been reached, the downside of that curve is going to be way faster than we would’ve thought, which is really good news.
James: Well it could very well be. I mean, I always try to keep them in the back of my head and tell people who are occasionally very black-pilled, as the kids say, is you have to remember that this might be as bad as it gets for a while.
Jim: Yeah. And I think it is, and it’s improving already.
James: So I mean, I think the wokees are learning the hard way that you really just can’t establish a religion in America. In some ways the First Amendment is vulnerable to, let’s say people in government who you can’t really vote out all agreeing on one ideology that becomes more and more of a spiritual, ethical commitment, and deciding that they’re going to use their power to just try to establish it. I think we’ve seen a lot of that over the past several years. And then I think the blowback and the backlash is inevitable and growing.
Jim: And building. Yeah. Another one, Jordan Hall, we talked about earlier. He likes to say, “Reality is the checksum on our ideas.” And eventually when shit is just ridiculous, I mean, like this gender crapola. I mean, eventually, common sense revolts and says, “No, women are the ones that have children, people with two X chromosomes. And this pussyfooting around with all this bizarre stuff, it’s just not right.” Now, moving on another topic, there’s a fair amount of God talk in this book. You mentioned various religions, various imaginings of God. You talk about different religious traditions both within the Abrahamic faith and elsewhere. And you even describe one of my favorite characters, good old Freeman Dyson who people have described as an agnostic Christian polytheist, if there could ever be such a thing, but I think Freeman sincerely was.
Jim: When you use the God talk, the God word, to you, is that a metaphor? Is it a hole in the human psyche that has to be filled with something, some culturally appropriate material? Or are you a person who takes the God word and the God idea as something that points to something that’s actual? I’d love to get your thoughts on what you mean when you talk the God talk.
James: Yeah, sure. A couple of layers. I think that Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he said religion is the only permanent state of mankind. And what that means is it is inherent to us and inescapably so that we are worshipers. We are prone and apt to worship something, someone, to hold something or someone up as the highest, as our point of contact with the ultimate, with the all, with the source. You can go to someone like John Calvin to see a pessimistic account of human beings as really idle factories. This goes a step beyond saying that we are the worshipful creature to saying that we are still worse. We produce things that we know are not gods and we treat them as if they were gods. And we get out of feeling bad about that by saying like, “Oh, don’t worry. We’re not worshiping our own gods. We’re just pretending to worship these things that we’ve created.” And I think psychologically, that’s definitely something that goes on too.
James: So human beings are worshipful. And on top of that, we are apt to play tricks on ourselves where we treat things that we know are not Gods worshipfully or with undue devotion. And then we rationalize to ourselves by saying like, “Oh, well, we know that we’re not really worshipful [inaudible 01:02:05] actually worshiping these things. We know that they’re just idols that we’ve fashioned.” And yet we go on in that way anyway. Sociologically speaking, that’s my standpoint.
James: I myself am a Christian, proudly so. And so I feel that it is important for people in general to hear a current Christian assessment of the technological situation. I think a lot of Christians out there right now are just as spun out and turned around as everyone else, and if anything, feel tempted to do another thing that we humans are very apt to do, which is call down the apocalypse, which is to judge ourselves harshly and to say, “My life is bad right now. So the world is ending.” We have a temptation to see the end of the world wherever we turn in good times as well as bad.
James: And for me as a Christian, it’s very important that the counsel of Christ himself is… No. Actually, only God the Father knows when the end times will be, that it is not for us to presume, to create the day of judgment, to separate the wheat and the tares. Jesus says, “No, you have to let those things grow together and wait for the harvest,” even if it is very painful and awkward and leaves you feeling doubt and leaves you feeling like things just keep getting worse and worse. Yeah. There are many actions that you can take, but you should not mistake a bad time for the end time.
James: And so just as I think that the broader audiences should receive a current Christian assessment of our technological situation, I also think that Christians need to receive a technological assessment that helps them remember that just because they feel out of control and feel like they’re being dwarfed by these technologies, it does not at all mean that the end times are here and that they need to start acting the way Christians did during the black plague. Yes, penitence is always good. Now is always a good time for penitence and repentance. But we need to make sure that we don’t take those things to an anti-human degree.
Jim: That’s interesting. As a high enlightenment nonbeliever, I think I nonetheless agree with you from a complexity perspective that when complex systems are unfolding, we can’t predict with any certainty at all what will happen. We can make some guesses and we can probe and we can nudge. So we come from two different perspectives and come up with a similar view that maybe shit’s going to fall apart, but maybe it’s not. Right?
James: Well, that’s right. And I think there are too many smart people who have become too convinced that unless they are given all of the power and control to poke the blob, to poke the swarm, and try to understand the swarm, and to build machines that can understand the swarm faster than the humans can understand it, unless they are given full control to push toward that singularity, the whole world is going to fall apart. I just think that that’s not so, and I think if you convince yourself that you’re the guy, you’re the Messiah, you’re the one who needs to organize the world’s information or else it’s all going to collapse, you’re going to start making the kinds of fatal mistakes that human beings have characteristically made through all of human history.
Jim: Yeah. Greg’s had a word for it, hubris, right?
James: That’s right.
Jim: One of my favorite terms in our little Game B movement. We like to talk about epistemic humility. Our ability to know is less than we sometimes think. And I think both of our lenses come up with a similar perspective on that.
James: Well, yeah, that’s right. And we could use some ontological humility too.
Jim: Actually add a third one, which is a metaphysical parsimony. But people really resist that. Humans want to elaborate these unbelievably complex metaphysical systems. And I always warn you, is it necessary? Develop no more metaphysics than you need for your epistemology.
James: Yeah. Well, in a world of surplus elites, people feel like they need to overcomplicate things and overexplain things. Otherwise, they might have to sit in silence for a minute and start thinking, start remembering who they really are.
Jim: Yeah. Over production of elites, my friend, Peter Turchin. That’s a key idea. We’re burning our time faster than I would like. So let me hop ahead to some other things. You introduced an idea I’d never heard of, break British Protestant theology. You used the term eight times, at least, break British Protestant. Never heard that. I don’t much believe I’ve ever encountered those three words together. What is it and why is it important?
James: Yeah. So you go back to the Reformation. You got religious war in England. You got Presbyterians in Scotland. You got Catholics in England. You got Protestants in England who are anti-Catholic. Some of those leave. Puritans bail out. They’re like, “We give up. We’re out.” But ultimately the upper hand goes to the Anglicans. And so once again, with all due respect to any Anglicans who may be listening into the show, what’s that? What’s an Anglican? Well, it’s just like Catholicism, except the king is also the Pope. So spiritual and temporal authority unified in a single person, just like Thomas Hobbs says we need to do.
Jim: The Leviathan, right?
James: The Leviathan. But Hobbes was not just this rank scientific materialist that he’s often made out to be. There’s a whole third book of… I think it was book three… third book of Leviathan is all about the Christian Commonwealth. And he was actually quite serious about thinking through the political theological implications of the advancement of science and technology and communications media in his time, as he well should have been. And so where does Hobbes look theologically to give shape and justification to the structure of the Leviathan, of the one overarching, over-awing unary sovereign who combines spiritual and temporal authority into that of a “mortal” God?
James: Well, he looks to the Old Testament. He does not look to the New Testament. He looks to Moses. And basically he says, “Yes, Moses was right. You come down from the mountaintop with the tablets and you realize that you are gone for one second, and suddenly the many are sacrificing children to Baal again.” And you go, “Ay, caramba. There’s no intermediary between me and the many. I am getting it direct from God and I’m presenting it to the many and I have to be the sovereign. Otherwise-
James: And I have to be the sovereign, otherwise everything falls apart. An interesting claim, there seemed to be evidence for that during the English civil war, seemed to be evidence for that throughout the rest of Europe during the wars, after the rise of print. But a potent political theological claim. And one that was quite Hebraic, this was not tapping the New Testament for an understanding of how to create a good Christian Commonwealth in the modern age. You look at another guy, John Locke. Locke, considered to be very different from Hobbes. And of course, in many ways he was. Here’s one place where they’re similar. John Locke was also trying to understand how to generate the correct political theology in the early modern age. And so where did he look in the Bible? Not the New Testament. He went back to the Old Testament. He went back to Adam instead of Moses.
James: And he said, okay, basically we’re all Adam. We all inherit the warrant that God granted to Adam, to basically go forth into nature and to flourish. To use the world that has been given to us, to mix it with our labor. And this is the basis of social organization from which we can begin to understand justice. So once again, you have a seminal British Protestant political theorist taking a firmly Hebraic approach to a biblical understanding of how to architect justice in the print age. And so you start getting some color in Anglicanism, which over time becomes less and less Catholic and more and more Protestant. But as you move forward into the 19th and the 20th century, you start asking yourself, what does this religion actually entail? I mean, when Prince Charles says that he wants to be the defender of the faithful, not the defender of the faith, exactly what is going on here?
James: And I think what you see is the influence, over centuries, of not just the Old Testament as such, but the influence of Jewish theological frameworks in understanding man’s place in the cosmos begin to fill in, to animate Anglican political theology, and increasingly to animate the way that the British empire saw itself. I mean, you can look for it in obvious places like with Benjamin Disraeli and Disraeli’s circle, which overlapped as it did for so many of those guys at the Victorian age, with the circles of Charles Darwin and the circles of Bulwer-Lytton, the famous author of, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Jim: Yes. The Bulwer-Lytton competition, right?
James: Yes. People don’t know that Lytton was tied in with Parliament. He served in Parliament for a while. And he liked to write science fiction. He wrote a book called Vril, about the coming race of folks who lived underground and had mastered this primal energy, that was basically electricity. And had achieved utopia, this time under the Earth’s surface instead of on it. And so the currents of thought coming out of the early modern era and going all the way through to … basically, Turing. To Babbage and Turing and the invention of computation in England. Was really a much more Hebraic than the New Testament understanding of man’s place in the cosmos. And of how if God is occluded, or if God is no longer directly accessible to us, then, well, what we can do is we can get really good at reading God’s book, which God has left to us, which is the natural world. And we can become closer to God by becoming more godlike in our understanding of the material world and how we can use it to pursue our dreams, our visions, our grand objectives.
James: That is a political theology that I think looks mighty strange to a lot of American Christians who are much more apt to say, the Old Testament, yeah, that’s the Bible. But it’s really the New Testament that counts. And so tracing the way that … We’re apt to think of the Anglosphere as one unit or to think of the West as one unit. When really, I think what we’ve seen over the course of the past several centuries, is many nominally Christian nations, including ones with established churches, like England actually move in a more Hebraic direction, theologically. And Dan Gelernter, another one of these guys who thought a lot about these topics … I’m sorry. Dan is his son. David Gelernter. His book Americanism, a very slim volume, but incredibly evocative in the way that he says, look, Christianity basically ran its course in America with the Puritans. These Unitarians come along and they … just really loosey goosey.
James: And the moral and religious and political fiber of America, for him does not really return until Lincoln comes along and becomes kind of the Old Testament president in the United States. Lincoln says very sparing remarks on Jesus, very abstract language about the divine. And the big touchstones for him are out of the Old Testament. This is a big deal for Gelernter. He’s a guy who says, the upshot of Jewish theology with regard to technology is that the best we can do to get closer to God is to just get better at understanding the secrets of the universe and exercising some control over them as we advance technologically.
James: So that’s the long and short of Hebraic British Protestantism. Something that some people have gotten a lot of juice out of, but ultimately I think is not quite as congruent with American civilization as someone like Gelernter has argued that it is.
Jim: All right. Well, we’re rolling through here. Not covered as much ground as I’d like in my topics, so I’m going to have to skip over some of this stuff. Would’ve had a nice little chat about Pynchon, formally, one of my very favorite authors. Gelernter, we talked on, fortunately. And I even wanted to hit on the start of the Gospel of John, but I think we’re going to have to jump all over that and move on to another, I think very strong statement you made. And it has me scratch my head just a little bit.
Jim: And that is you had quite a good section late in the book on what you called, queering and queerness. And a very interesting, and I would say strong statement. And I’m going to read here. “Because electric age ruling factions and mass people disenchanted by the digital catastrophe are now desperate for just such an ultimate, all meaningful and all transcending principle, queerness is now the supreme candidate to fulfill that need. Therefore, it is everywhere seemingly capable of springing forth from any apparatus of thought or cultural tradition.”
Jim: Now I got to say, you hear about this stuff … And I live in a very rural part of Virginia, deep in Appalachia. And this kind of stuff isn’t too current where we are, to say the least. But maybe you could start at the beginning. And what is queerness and queering, and how do you see it fitting into our current state of things?
James: Sure. Well, we talked a little bit about busy work for overproduced elites, and there’s no question that that has had some of the effect in the way that queer theory has gone from a cubby hole tucked away in the bowels of every university, to something that is just at the very forefront of the public debate. And in everyone’s mind. I mean, you can’t go five minutes on the internet without being asked to engage in some way or another with some flavor or another of queerness. And so the question is, why is this happening? And what about technology’s effects on us can we understand to piece this together? Another point of insight here is, why is it that transgender or transsexual identity rocketed up to the very, very top of the prestige stack of the queer meming, so much so that they got these triangle stripes invading the rainbow flag very aggressively and very suddenly? And leaving more than a few gay Americans scratching their heads, as you suggested. Why is this happening so fast? Where is it going?
James: And I think that you can see some answers to those questions in some of the technological literature. You go back to something like the Cyborg Manifesto, which was written in the 1980s, and you can see it in Shulamith Firestone, and some other feminist writers who said, yes, we need to embrace technology because at last it will allow women to break the grip of our given natural bodies on our identities. And so you can see even from the 70s and 80s, this current of thought start to kick in, where technology had this salvific power, because it gave human beings a kind of godlike control over the body, and over eroticism. Over what someone like Wilhelm Reich would’ve described as orgone energy, this mystical sexual force.
James: And in that respect, it became the foundation for a new theological understanding of what it meant to be a human being. And maybe, what opportunities existed for liberating oneself, or using technology to liberate oneself from one’s humanity. What is sex in a world where our are given incarnate bodies are not sacred, where they’re just a substrate? One that might in some ways, hold us back from justice, from becoming who it is that we really are, as some like to say.
James: And so for me, this is very powerful in understanding why it is that what is now referred to with the floating prefix of trans has become so powerful in American life. And so disproportionate in the way that it is being really forced on Americans and Americans who are basically being told that it’s not enough to tolerate. It’s not enough to accept. It’s not even enough to celebrate. You need to hold these people out. We need to recognize them as founders of a new order, as heroes in a Vanguard. Which, we need to follow these people toward our destiny, our transhuman destiny, as beings who have fundamentally reorganized our relationship to sex and pleasure and identity through the power that technology grants us. What’s going on with trans is not magically and retroactively becoming a member of the opposite sex. It’s becoming a cyborg in a new and powerful way, that until just a few years ago, was really not possible.
James: So if you go back to the 17th century and you encounter someone walking down the street saying, I woke up this morning and I’ve come to realize that I am actually a member of the opposite sex. This person would seem eccentric and not particularly significant to the main trends of social and economic life at that time. But because of where we are technologically, suddenly those kinds of claims, those kinds of desires, those kinds of projects become much more central to the spiritual war that is being fought out over the terms of what kind of political life we’re going to have in a digital age.
Jim: It’s an interesting point that prior to this very recent epoch, just seven or eight years ago, classic gender body dysphoria was very rare, about one in 10,000 people. It was typically diagnosed at the age two to five. It seemed to be damn close to immutable, and it was dominantly male to female oriented. And then suddenly, very suddenly, in fact, I now call it mimetic trans, merged on the scene maybe eight to 10 years ago. And it has very different statistical attributes. It tends to be discovered age 12 or above. It is less immutable, and it is overwhelmingly female to male rather than where the traditional dysphoria syndromes came in.
Jim: And I must say, this is probably considered politically correct, but this pattern reminds me of mimetically propagated, psychological problems, like suicide and cutting and anorexia, et cetera, much more than it reminds me of innate characteristics like gayness, right? Just in a simple sense, think that the early onset body gender dysphoria of the classical form, one in 10,000, very similar to gayness, it seems to be innate. This new thing that we’re seeing blooming everywhere is mimetic and psycho contagious in its attributes. Does that make any sense to you?
James: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question, but that that’s more or less what’s going on. And so in the before times, the whole question of how a person in that predicament ought to be regarded was very different from what it is that we have now. We have long ago left the territory of, why can’t people just do what they want? And we are in a territory where … Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called Our Posthuman Future. And everyone was always talking about the end of history, but not even Frank wants to talk about our posthuman future anymore. And it’s a damn shame, because he put his finger on some important things. And if you understand those important things, you will recognize, why is it that liberalism is struggling so hard right now?
James: And the answer is because technological conditions changed in a way that is inspiring large numbers of liberals to abandon liberalism, and to attempt to create and embrace and establish a new posthuman religion. That’s just what’s going on. And I know that this is uncharted waters for Americans to deal with, but I also think that this backlash that we’re talking about, this is not coming from personal animosity. This is not coming from a desire to oppress people with alternative lifestyles. This is coming from a resistance to the establishment of a posthuman religion in America. And that backlash is deeply natural and deeply practical.
James: And so I mean, I think regardless of where you want to situate yourself on the spectrum of sexual identity, you’ve got to confront the reality of the situation. And there’s got to be a workable modus vivendi for us to land on, because the current trajectory just is at odds with our way of life, with our form of government, and ultimately, with our humanity.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah, let’s move on now to what comes next on this road. If we talk about transhumanism, I’ve actually appeared on the transhumanist stage one time and argued with them, basically. And it was kind of fun. But you think about the radical transhumanists who are looking forward to merging with the machine, right? They want Elon Musk’s Neuralink in their head on the first available date. That’s one track.
Jim: And then the other track, that’s often the same people, are also working towards artificial general intelligence, where the machine finally does become as intelligent, or perhaps much more so than we are. How do those two next steps, which haven’t yet truly fully occurred, but seem to be within the foreseeable future, how does that impact your vision of what’s happening with our society and this idea of yours that it might be better to remain human forever?
James: Yeah. Well, I mean, some of what’s going on here is just figuring out how to use the right words to mean the right things. I think that human enhancement in technological form is just going to continue. Some of it’s going to be disfiguring, and that’s going to be unfortunate. But I do think science is going to get better at giving people the ability to extend their lifespans. My best understanding of things is that you’re really not going to be able to take advantage of those opportunities unless you are already in close to peak physical condition, the natural way. I think that’s a point that oftentimes gets overlooked in the fever dreams of some of the more wide eyed transhumanists. If you’re not in great shape, you’re probably not going to be able to take advantage of the technologies that get you to that next level. And I think that there’s some poetic justice in that.
James: But look, even Christians, I mean, you talk about the Old Testament. You got people walking around who are 400, 500, 600, 700 years old. And it’s funny to me that a lot of rationalists will say, oh, well, those are just myths, but we should do it for real. And it’s like, well, okay. But any way you slice it, it’s not really posthuman to try to push out the human lifespan, even 100 additional years. So the argument there for me is, practically speaking, we might want to get a little bit better at living as human beings who die around 110 years old, before we start unlocking these higher levels. We won’t be ready. You can be really soft on technological progress, or even welcoming of it, while still having a pretty hard-nosed, pragmatic and practical attitude toward … Look, you got to do this at a rate that allows people to wrap their minds around it. To master it. To understand the pitfalls.
James: And permissionless innovation can be great, soulless innovation, not so much. And if you start throwing innovations at people who are alienated from their soul and do not have a firm anthropological understanding of who we are and how we got here, then you’re just going to get bad results. I don’t think there’s any debating that. And so I know that there’s some transhumanists out there. I mean, Balaji Srinivasan, I’m friends with him, we’ve gone around the bush on this a couple times. And he’s like, well, don’t get me wrong, James. I don’t want to use technology to make people into dysfunctional cat people. I want to use it to make us bigger and better and stronger and live longer. And to me, that’s something more like human maxing than it is really a spiritual project to liberate ourselves from our given human form. And to substitute in for God, either our ascended selves or the technology that takes us there.
James: And ultimately, you got people who are insistent. We’re going to upload our consciousness to the cloud, James. Okay, well what’s consciousness? Oh, well … The word consciousness as we use, it has only been around since maybe the mid 1600s. I mean, these are very, very fresh baby concepts, and there’s not a lot of meat on those bones. And for people who are so insistent that, no, the soul is just a figment of the imagination, and we must ignore all these religious texts. But I’m going to believe in something called consciousness and I’m going to believe we can suck it out of people and spit it into a machine. I find that to be farfetched. And ultimately, I think that an AGI that has achieved some godlike level of intelligence is also farfetched.
James: You need a lot of energy to power that kind of thing. Even just to power the kind of machine that will maybe one day produce an AGI on that level. That’s the kind of energy that by some estimates would require the entire output of planet earth. I know that we might get a little more efficient generating energy, but even so, why? Why put the energy into that? Why do we want to build such a thing like that? That’s really the level that the conversation needs to unfold at. And I think we just got a lot of bored people who are alienated from their souls. Can’t really accept or understand that we’ve been given the resources that we need to live well already. And so they start applying their great intelligence and their great resources to these insane projects. To these projects that are ultimately going to undermine and defeat our purpose here on this planet.
James: That doesn’t mean luddism is good. That doesn’t mean that anytime someone innovates something, we should be afraid. But it does mean that those of us who are the most accepting and welcoming of our human being, need to assert themselves and take some responsibility for this world that we live in. Because it’s too important to leave it to the wild-eyed dreamers on the one hand, or people who think that they can become gods through math on the other.
Jim: I love it. Well, let’s wrap it up right there. This has been a very interesting conversation. There’s a lot in this book and we skipped over a tremendous amount from my show notes. So if you’re interested in learning more, go to … What was the name of the website, again? At least speak it out.
James: Canonic.xyz for the book. If you want to be on the human forever mailing list, that’s humanforever.us.
Jim: And as always, those links will be on our episode page. I’d like to thank you, James Poulos, for coming on and talking about your book, Human Forever.
James: Thanks a lot, Jim.