“Modernizers” vs. “Preservationists”: Another Cut at the Optimist vs. Pessimist Divide

by on October 8, 2010 · 60 comments

As I continue to do research for what will become a chapter-length version of my old essay, “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society,” I am reading or re-reading some old books that have touched upon these debates through the years.  Earlier this week, after an event over at ITIF, my friend Rob Atkinson reminded me that he had discussed some of these issues in his 2004 book, The Past and Future of America’s Economy.  Specifically, in Chapter 6, “The New Economy and Its Discontents,” Rob showed how “American history is rife with resistance to change,” as he recounts some of the heated battles over previous industrial / technological revolutions. I really loved this bit on page 201:

This conflict between stability and progress, security and prosperity, dynamism and stasis, has led to the creation of a major political fault line in American politics. On one side are those who welcome the future and look at the New Economy as largely positive. On the other are those who resist change and see only the risks of new technologies and the New Economy.  As a result, a political divide is emerging between preservationists who want to hold onto the past and modernizers who recognize that new times require new means.

I like those “Preservationists” vs. “Modernizers” descriptors, and I like the fact that Rob also uses the “dynamism and stasis” paradigm, which he borrowed from Virginia Postrel, who contrasted those conflicting worldviews in her 1998 book, The Future and Its Enemies.  As I noted in my essay about “Two Schools of Internet Pessimism,” I think that “dynamist vs. stasis” model — more than anything else I’ve read before or since — best explains the chasm that separates competing schools of thinking about the Internet’s impact on culture, economy, and society.

But Rob’s “preservationists” label is also apt. It correctly identifies the fundamental conservatism that lies at the heart of the pessimistic attitude and the “stasis” mentality.  Many Net skeptics just can’t seem to let go of the past. They are too invested in it or wedded to something about it.  They want to imagine that some earlier time was more unique and valuable than the unfolding present or unpredictable future.  From their perspective, evolutionary dynamism is undesirable precisely because we can’t preserve some of the things which they feel made that previous era great. That something could be a specific form of culture, a particular set of institutions, or any number of other things.  The key point is: The don’t like the fact the technology is fundamentally disruptive and that is dislodges old norms and institutions. What is familiar is more comforting than that which is unknown or uncertain.  That’s the security blanket that the stasis / preservationist mentality provides.

Dynamism, by contrast, requires ongoing leaps of faith since we must continuously embrace, or at least accept, the fundamental uncertainty of social / technological change.  I love the scene at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” [clip below] where Indy has to make the “leap of faith” and step out onto a walkway that doesn’t appear to be there at first. It’s a useful way of thinking about how we must sometimes approach life in the Digital Age.  Who knows what lies around the cyber-corner?  Answer: nobody.  As I’ve pointed out before, what pessimists of all varieties seem to fail to appreciate is that markets are evolutionary and dynamic, and when those markets are built upon code, the pace and nature of change becomes unrelenting and utterly unpredictable. We humans have never seen an industrial or technological revolution that has unfolded at the breakneck pace of the Digital Revolution.  And as I noted in this debate with Zittrain, nothing—absolutely nothing—that was sitting on our desks in 1995 is still there today (in terms of digital hardware / software, I mean) and I doubt that much of what was on our desk in 2005 is still there either.  And our online communities have seen similar revolutions during that time. It’s easy to forget that most of us had never read or used a blog 10 years ago. Or that even just five years ago, few of us had ever heard of Facebook or other social networking sites. And Twitter, Android, and the iPhone were still a ways off.

It’s just amazing how fast disruptive innovation unfolds on the digital frontier.  Again, no one knows what lies around the corner next.  But if we were to adopt the “preservationist” mentality, we might never find out. We have to continue to be willing to take little leaps of faith each day.  It’s vital that we embrace evolutionary dynamism and leave a broad sphere for continued experimentation by individuals and organizations alike because freedom broadly construed is valuable in its own right—even if not all of the outcomes are optimal.  As Clay Shirky rightly noted in his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody:

This does not mean there will be no difficulties associated with our new capabilities—the defenders of freedom have long noted that free societies have problems peculiar to them. Instead, it assumes that the value of freedom outweighs the problems, not based on calculation of net value but because freedom is the right thing to want for society.

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