At first, Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes seemed like The New Republic’s savior. He said that he valued its peerless tradition and that he was worried about the future of long-form journalism. He gave the publication much-needed financial security, and he even brought back esteemed editor Franklin Foer. But the honeymoon proved brief. Hughes became impatient with Foer and longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier. It was the kind of impatience peculiar to tech moguls, a sort of Silicon Valley itch: If it ain’t broke, break it. In Silicon Valley, the goal is disruption, not mere innovation.
In his first meeting with The New Republic staff, Guy Vidra, Hughes’s recently imported CEO, wasted no time in sharing that West Coast wisdom. “We’re going to break shit,” the former Yahoo News executive said. He was serious—except for the “we” part. He ran off (or pushed out) Foer and Wieseltier, and most of the senior staff and corresponding editors have left with them. Apparently they do not want to play a part in turning The New Republic into a “digital media company.”
That The New Republic has been undone by a tech billionaire is grimly fitting. From its founding onward, The New Republic has made room in its conversations for critics such as Randolph Bourne, Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, Jackson Lears, and even Wieseltier himself, who are suspicious of techno-utopianism. They have all been wary of our tendency to conflate technological change with progress, especially when those changes result in greater economic centralization. In a 2013 commencement speech at Brandeis University, Wieseltier claimed that “we live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience”:
The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.
Culture elites have a cozy relationship with Silicon Valley cash, but it is only recently that they have had to reckon with Silicon Valley disruption. In Joel Kotkin’s recent book The New Class Conflict, Kotkin argues that we are entering a new era of feudalism.While some of Kotkin's proposed solutions are debatable, his diagnostic framework is clarifying: A super-rich tech oligarchy and a “clerisy” of media cultural brokers, high-ranking government officials, and administrators and academics at elite institutions have formed an alliance at the expense of the middle class “yeomanry.” While the members of the clerisy live affluent and sequestered lives in places like San Francisco and Manhattan, the yeomanry struggle to make ends meet. Their wages have stagnated and downward mobility is increasingly common.
Yet the clerisy, despite cozying up to the tech oligarchs, should fear their rise as much as the yeomanry. They, too, can be the targets of consolidation, outsourcing, and automation. Silicon Valley doesn’t always want merely to partner with the clerisy’s institutions. At times, it wants to disrupt them.
Viewed in this light, the New Republic takeover is the culmination of a long trend. The clerisy has become a distinct, isolated class in part because Silicon Valley has already destroyed cultural institutions that were once spread across the nation. The local newspapers that sustained grassroots investigative journalism are all but dead. New digital media outlets may make for an abundance of strong opinion writing, but they fall short when it comes to factual reportage.
Other key cultural institutions, such as universities and colleges, are still decentralized and scattered across the country. Indeed, they keep many otherwise-ravaged towns afloat. These institutions are next in Silicon Valley’s crosshairs. Consider the MOOC craze. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) use short videos and quizzes to offer free courses to thousands of students at a time. MOOC pioneers argued that these courses would radically democratize education, and they weren’t entirely wrong. MOOCs have a legitimate place in the educational landscape. But as their completion rates suggest, they also have pedagogical limits. Even if they improve, MOOCs will not fix higher education’s very real challenges of affordability, accessibility, and flexibility.
MOOCs, or at least their Silicon Valley backers, deserve a more circumspect reception from universities (especially university administrators) than they've received. Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun famously prophesized that MOOCs would eliminate all but ten of the world’s universities by 2060. It is worth wondering whether university administrators scrambled to join MOOC consortiums because they wanted to advance democracy or because they were afraid of being disrupted right out of business. Thrun’s vision—of a clutch of Ivy League Schools and their tech allies offering the “real thing” to privileged students at their ultra-exclusive campuses while beaming out videos and quizzes to the rest of the world—hardly seems radically democratic.
In short, we live in a world where political and economic power are increasingly concentrated—often in the same hands. While we hear a lot about how various digital technologies help to remedy this situation, we do not hear enough about how some of those same digital technologies have contributed to it. We also tend to talk about technology in love-it-or-hate-it ways, as something one is either for or against. To express even measured skepticism of techno-utopianism is to invite the most damning of charges—nostalgia—a smear which can be used to brush away seemingly any argument.
But to interpret technological change in these stark “take-it-or-leave-it” terms is to eliminate contingency from history. It is to deny that technology could be designed for and used in radically different ways, in the service of humane decentralization rather than disruptive centralization. It is to subscribe to a sort of deterministic view of history where an abstraction called “technology” runs the show. (Note how this formulation veils the agency of tech companies that marshal concentrated wealth and political clout. They become the instruments of a higher power.)
Christopher Lasch pointed out how such spurious but widespread ways of thinking recast damage and loss as the inevitable “costs” of progress. Lasch may have had his cranky moments, but he and the other idiosyncratic thinkers who once wrote for The New Republic help us to see through technological determinism’s crippling fatalism and techno-utopianism’s sonorous pretensions.
Cultural elites’ own brushes with disruption should also give them some new fellow-feeling for the plight of the middle class. They should resist being assimilated as the oligarchy’s clerisy. They need not be Luddites, but they should be more critical of certain Silicon Valley aspirations and of the rhetoric of disruption. Jill Lepore, in her New Yorker article “The Disruption Machine,” provided a useful critique of the conception of disruption itself—that, as a business idea, it has yet to prove itself. But more remains to be said.
Entrenched power is not easily checked, and such critique is unlikely to be enough. But it will remind us that the emerging economy of exclusion is not the inevitable outworking of history, and it is therefore not nostalgic to resist it. It’s a pity we no longer have The New Republic to help us see through the limiting fatalism of technological determinism. But we can hope that the magazine’s demise will serve as a belated wake-up call.
Steven Knepper is an assistant professor of English at the Virginia Military Institute and a former associate fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.