“Sometimes the only way forward is back.” Like all the best paradoxical statements, this can be interpreted in more ways than one. It might mean that a wrong turn has been made — and that we have to retrace our steps to get back on track. Or there may be a much deeper problem, which is that what think of as “forward” isn’t, in fact, “better”.
The modern world is defined by “progress”, be it social, economic or technological. We demand change, strive for growth and promote development. To a great extent we’ve succeeded. Most of us live lives which are wealthier and healthier than our ancestors could have imagined.
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And yet progress means abandonment. While we can do without the dirt and drudgery of pre-modern life, that’s not all we’ve left behind. Our ancestors were poor, but increasingly we feel the absence of the things that enriched their lives: A connection to nature; the satisfaction of craftsmanship; the support of a strong community; time and space for family; a world still enchanted with spiritual significance. These are things we associate with the past much more than the present, which is why some of us want to get back there.
The question, though, is how. Time travel is obviously not an option. And even it were, few people would take it. Only the most dedicated traditionalists would take the past as a package deal. Baking your own bread is fun; extracting your own teeth, not so much.
Most “trads” are selective. They don’t want to recreate the past, but learn from it to build a better future. However, there’s no getting away from their technological scepticism. Consider the case of Katharine Birbalsingh — “Britain’s strictest headteacher”. She argues that parents should take away their children’s smartphones and replace them with cheap “brick phones” that have basic voice and messaging functions, but allow very little else — and certainly not immersion in social media.
I think she’s absolutely right, but what she proposes is no small thing. It’s not just counter-cultural, but counter-historical — a deliberate decision to turn back the clock on one of the most important technological developments of the 21st century.
For an even more significant example, read this essay for UnHerd by Aris Roussinos — who wants us to go “back to the land”. To be clear, this is not a Year Zero manifesto. It’s not even “knit your own lentils”. His modest proposal is that Britain needs a million more farmers. This would take an agriculture policy that supported smallholders not barley barons, but if the opportunity were available, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like a million Britons took it up. I’d expect rather less than that number to succeed, but overall I think we’d be better for it.
But while what Aris proposes is doable, it’s also deeply subversive. The move from the countryside and farming to the cities and non-agricultural occupations isn’t just an economic trend, it is the economic trend. More than anything it describes our transition as a species from the long millennia of pre-industrial stasis, to the breakneck developments of the last two hundred years. In this sense, going back to the land is to go back in time.
Previously, I’ve argued against accepting technological progress as a fait accompli. We should never incorporate new technology into our lives just because it’s new. Rather, like the Amish, we should only accept what genuinely serves our personal and collective goals. In fact, in some cases — like eugenics for instance — we should actively and unapologetically suppress the application of scientific discoveries.
And yet a discriminating approach to technological progress doesn’t have to be a subtractive one. It’s true that removing technologies from your life will probably bring you closer to a traditional way of living, but there’s a limit to the number of people who are likely to follow you.
I’m a traditionalist too, but an optimistic and ambitious one. For me it’s not good enough to be part of a mere sub-culture, living off-grid, somewhere up the Dark Mountain. I want a wholesale healing of the damage that modernity has done to my country and to the world. New technology got us into the mess we’re in, but it is also has the potential to get us out again.
In imaging the future we compare the present to the past and extrapolate. Therefore we assume the future will be like the present only more so. It will be faster, stronger, bigger, smarter. And, if the good things get better, then, by the same logic, the bad things will get worse: climate change, inequality, anomie and the loss of privacy.
But history, while always moving forward, doesn’t do so in straight lines. What we think of as modernity is not an ever-increasing intensity of the same thing, it is subject to phase changes in which it can transform into something else altogether.
Just look at where our energy comes from. Our ancestors relied on their immediate environment — gathering firewood, cutting peat, building windmills. But with industrialisation, motorisation and electrification, energy became evermore centralised and remorselessly polluting — the price we’ve paid for abundance. That was supposed to be our future too: a Bladerunner world of resource wars and environmental catastrophe.
So what’s this then? It’s the latest UK government cost estimates for different energy sources. The cheapest (and hence fastest growing) technologies are now wind and solar power. They’re cheaper than gas, cheaper than coal and much, much cheaper than nukes. Suddenly, our energy future looks decentralised and unpolluted.
Of course, this future isn’t quite like the past either. Today’s windmills are nothing like their medieval predecessors. For a start they’re the size of the London Eye and you’re more likely to find them out to sea, not by the village pond. Still, it’s better than Bladerunner, isn’t it?
This isn’t the only example of the future changing for the better.
For all the bad news we’ve had this year, lockdown has opened our eyes to a different way of working and living. It turns out that millions of us can work from home without the economy collapsing. Obviously, we’ve discovered this the hard way, and the cost will be enormous, but in rebuilding we don’t have to go back to the way things were. A lot of us will decide that subjecting ourselves to stupidly-long commutes and stupidly-high rents is, well, stupid.
A piece of modern folk wisdom is that the internet makes physical proximity all the more important, but this isn’t as true as it used to be. We’ve spend the last decade having endless debates about social media, not noticing that the underlying architecture of the internet is becoming more capable as a platform for useful communication. Zoom-style online meetings are still far from seamless, as I’m sure you’ve noticed; but in 2010 they’d have been impractical and, in 2000, unthinkable. So just imagine what might be possible by 2030.
The cliché that there’s no substitute for face-to-face contact just isn’t the case anymore. There literally is a substitute. It’s glitchy, but improving all the time and great swathes of the workforce are getting used to it.
And in case you think that doesn’t sound very traditional, just think what’s getting disrupted here. There’s nothing trad about the concentration of opportunity in a few global megacities. As a trend it was ripping apart our economic geography, dividing entire nations between the overheated metropolis and the left-behind hinterland. If technology unbundles the megacity, allowing people to prosper within their own towns and villages, then we can begin the process of rebuilding economic and social capital within all our communities.
Then there’s the potential for an even more important development: the re-bundling of the household. Our homes used to be places where everything happened: not just sleep and a bit of quality time with the kids, but also work, education, entertainment, worship and the self-provision of all sorts of goods and services we now outsource to others elsewhere. It was occupied throughout the day, not just at overnight and at the weekends. And it was multigenerational: children didn’t spend all day in school, young adults weren’t sent away to distant cities and the elderly weren’t isolated.
As I argue here, the old way of living wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. A new study has found that teenagers have become less anxious during the lockdown period — contradicting expectations of a mental health crisis. Perhaps the reason why is that they’ve had the opportunity to spend more time with family members who actually love them instead of the bully bear-pit that we call “school”.
Perhaps the most anti-traditional thing about modern life is its anonymity. It’s astonishing just how much of our time we spend with people we barely know or don’t know at all. We pass them on the street, commute sat next to them, have arguments with them online. We might live next door to strangers, work with strangers, even have sex with strangers. It’s an odd thought — and certainly would be to our ancestors — that we don’t know the names of most of the people we share our lives with.
All of which suits the sociopath. Why treat others with respect if you don’t know them and they don’t know you? In the absence of a moral code or a calculated fear of being caught, why not treat other people and their property as if they’re entirely yours to do with as you will?
We’re told that the fear of crime is exaggerated. In fact, we greatly under-appreciate just how hemmed-in our lives are by the constant need to guard against the predators among us. Those tales about an earlier time when people left their front doors unlocked or money for the milkman out on the porch aren’t fantasy — that’s how things really were (and still are, in a few places).
When who you are — and what you do — is common knowledge, you behave differently. That’s not an unalloyed blessing, but on the whole I think it’s a better way to live. Which is why I’m in partial disagreement with Elizabeth Oldfield’s condemnation of facial recognition technology. Yes, there is something sinister about machines looking at us. But what about our anonymous cities, the crowds through which one can pass unrecognised — isn’t that creepy too?
A future in which people won’t be able to thieve or harass or vandalise without being seen and held accountable isn’t some unprecedented dystopia, it’s just going back to the way things used to be.
Okay, enough with the law and order — how about some tech that might enhance our ancient liberties? Self-driving cars, for instance. If we ever get them, they’d be great news for country pubs. No need for a designated driver — just let a computer take the wheel instead, while you sleep off the evening’s enjoyment.
Meanwhile automated delivery drones could be a boon to all those extra smallholders that Aris Roussinos wants to see. A distribution network that’s open to all would allow farmers and artisan producers to sell direct to consumers, bypassing the greedy supermarkets. Whereas modern logistical know-how has allowed a small number of large companies to exert growing control over the food chain, all that could change once the ability to coordinate distribution becomes a dispersed commodity.
And that’s not the only new technology that could transform rural economics. For all the advantages of traditional farming methods, the fact is that it relied upon the back-breaking labour of of a now non-existent peasantry. Even our supposedly modern agriculture is dependent on poorly-paid, and sometimes exploited, migrants.
Advances in agricultural robotics and AI could open up a new set of possibilities — for instance controlling weeds without chemicals or tending to livestock without factory farming. It’s another paradox, but we need automation to de-industrialise the countryside.
The same applies to the built environment. As much as much we might appreciate traditional architecture, many of its features — such as richly carved masonry — relied upon the availability and affordability of an army of craftsmen. With the modern age came new materials and methods of construction that favoured the crude and repetitive forms of 20th century architecture. But, again, we now have the possibility of a phase change — through automation that doesn’t replace the true craftsman, but greatly enhances his or her productivity. If we can transform the economics of construction, then what gets built might just follow suit.
I’ll admit I’ve presented a series of best-case scenarios. It is just as possible that we could be dragged further away from truth and beauty than ever before — and all in the name of progress. Far from a traditionalist restoration, we could be headed for a future of tech-enabled abominations.
But that makes it all the more important that we stay engaged, that we don’t give up on science and technology, but fight to push it in the right direction.
We must harness the power of innovation to restore the natural world and to defend human dignity. Traditional values will not prevail if we carry them off onto some low-tech reservation.
The only way back is forward.
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