Writing in NR, Mr. Charles Cooke has served up an especially cringeworthy version of the much-repeated and now decades-old “technology surely can’t be stagnating, because iphones” pseudoargument.
Where, oh where to begin?
Through roughly 1500 words that walk the line between Pangloss and Orwell, the one thing Mr. Cooke manages to say that’s even symbolically true is: “the smartphone has annihilated geography altogether”. Except that he actually thinks that the total destruction of all local culture, diversity and sense of place that this entails is a wonderful thing, the very crown-jewel of technological accomplishment hitherto. Indeed, to him, this condition of absolute digital anomie alone amounts to nothing less than a “renaissance”.
Undifferentiated Human Matter and total interchangeability, here we come! Now that’s real Progress™!
Reading Cooke’s panegyric, one certainly can’t help but wonder how much the masters of the actual Renaissance would envy our ability to get by with knowing and doing almost nothing (since all the accumulated wisdom of the ages, rather than being “learned”, can now be Googled as needed and then, thankfully, instantly forgotten).
Just imagine–da Vinci, the vegetarian and habitual releaser of birds, engrossed in Twitter wars over the unethical caging of poultry! Michelangelo, offering real-time painterly updates on Instagram, trawling anxiously for likes for his newest fresco! Monteverdi, hooked on Spotify 24/7, finally abandoning the drudgery of four-part harmony to compose his very own playlists instead! Really, who knows what sublime masterpieces humanity was denied because of the barbaric deprivations under which such men lived?
About halfway in, as if suddenly unsure of having firmly established his complete addle-mindedness, Mr. Cooke goes the extra mile by the rhetorical masterstroke of admitting to the very point his whole piece is supposed to deny. Wondering to himself what could possibly surpass the technology of today (as represented in that infallible bellwether of Progress, Disney’s “Spaceship Earth” theme park attraction), he intones: “…I have come to conclude that the answer is almost certainly nothing. One cannot improve on instant worldwide communication that is accessible to every person.”
Of course, “Cannot improve upon” is just another term for… stagnation. That which cannot be improved, even if by dint of being perfect, obviously does not progress. But as this conclusion does not fit Mr. Cooke’s limited mental script, he effortlessly blinks it away, and continues on his course. For him, stagnation equals perfection equals progress equals renaissance.
Things get even worse from there, with Mr. Cooke plunging into a bizarrely detailed, Elon-Muskish comparison of the Digital Age with old-time comic book & sci-fi visions of the future–visions of daring planetary travel, alien life forms, faster-than-light communication, and miraculous cures. (Journeys to “Planet Zog”, for some reason, figure heavily here.)
The failure of such to actually materialize, once again, actually strengthens the point he is claiming to refute. But such trifles as involuntary self-refutation need hardly embarrass a true optimist.
In personages such as Mr. Cooke, we seem to have living proof that too much time spent worshipping the supposed blessings of the “information age” is actually toxic to independent or even minimally consistent thought. The result is an unwitting surrender to Doublethink, leading to such choice cultivars of contradiction as “Stagnation is Renaissance”.
On a closer examination, Mr. Cooke’s basic view seems to be this: why care about real-life adventures, explorations, relationships and discoveries when you can sit in a comfy chair, glue your face to a screen and just simulate having these things? Rejoice in the tidal-wave of electronic drugs that generations of geniuses suffered and struggled to provide for you, ye woke and hyperconnected pinnacles of all history! Eat, drink, and be passive!
It isn’t really a stretch to say that by publishing such blithely defective arguments as Mr. Cooke’s, National Review, once a staid and tradition-minded journal, has basically gone over to rah-rahing for Brave New World and a kind of universal mental onanism. It’s certainly hard to imagine anything more perniciously alienating, postmodern and absolutely typical of the Last-Man mentality than said arguments—and this is on a supposedly conservative site!
We might, in fact, take Mr. Cooke’s painfully contorted triumphalism as both an affirmation and an example of a phenomenon lamented in another, more sensible NR article that appeared not so very long ago, on a seemingly unrelated topic. That author, Victor Davis Hanson, wrote:
“We of the 21st century are beginning to look back at our own lost epic times and wonder about these now-nameless giants who left behind monuments that we cannot replicate, but instead merely use or even mock.”
“[…] True, social media is impressive. The internet gives us instant access to global knowledge. We are a more tolerant society, at least in theory. But Facebook is not the Hoover Dam, and Twitter is not the Panama Canal.”
In this light, Mr. Cooke’s article demonstrates that the cultural pygmies that rule our time have at least one other way, besides replication or mockery, of reconciling themselves with the rebuking greatness of past creations and the ongoing crisis of Progress: that of mindless, preening self-distraction.