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Losing My Religion?


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Glenn Harlan Reynolds Substack

Mar. 14 2023

So I’ve installed an all-new sound system in my study and the other day I was calibrating my subwoofer, as one does.  The way I like to fine tune things is by listening to music I know intimately, and adjusting the levels until it sounds the way it should.

In this case I used my own 2001 album, which I released under the name Mobius Dick, Embrace the Machine.  “Do not rage against the machine,” say the lyrics to the title cut.  “Embrace the machine.”  (Sorry, I don’t have this online anywhere at present; I should really do something about that.  I was too sad about the demise of MP3.com in to put it up elsewhere at the time.)

Listening to that song reminded me of how much more overtly optimistic I was about technology and the future at the turn of the millennium.  I realized that I’m somewhat less so now.  But why?  In truth, I think my more negative attitude has to do with people more than with the machines that Embrace the Machine characterizes as “children of our minds.”  (I stole that line from Hans Moravec.  Er, I mean it’s  a “homage.”)  But maybe there’s a connection there, between creators and creations.

It was easy to be optimistic in the 90s and at the turn of the millennium.  The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, the Berlin Wall fell, and freedom and democracy and prosperity were on the march almost everywhere. Personal technology was booming, and its dark sides were not yet very apparent.  (And the darker sides, like social media and smartphones, basically didn’t exist.)

And the tech companies, then, were run by people who looked very different from the people who run them now – even when, as in the case of Bill Gates, they were the same people.  It’s easy to forget that Gates was once a rather libertarian figure, who boasted that Microsoft didn’t even have an office in Washington, DC.  The Justice Department, via its Antitrust Division, punished him for that, and he has long since lost any libertarian inclinations, to put it mildly.

It's a different world now. ......................(Snip)

None of which means that tech is exhausted as a force for liberty.  Even in the People’s Republic of China, with its strict controls, tech allows the people to push back at their rulers in ways that would have been inconceivable in Mao’s era.  And despite all the censorship on social media, word gets out in ways that would have been impossible in JFK’s era.  But it does mean that I’m not quite as much of a tech-optimist as I was back then.

I’d like to be, of course.  And maybe I’m wrong to be less optimistic.  Am I?

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