Preserving our Humanity in the Face of All-Consuming Tech
If James Poulos is right, perhaps the most epochal event in recent human history was not a pandemic or a terrorist attack, but rather a keynote address.
In 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, which promised to place all the riches of the internet in the palms of consumers’ hands. And in the wake of that revelatory announcement, Poulos argues in his magisterial new book Human, Forever: The Digital Politics of Spiritual War, the human race found itself transformed, as “we all became cyborgs” (18). Most of the public became a population content to live vicariously through their devices, and willing to depend on them to mediate their memories and their experiences. Human, Forever is a sustained attempt to reckon with that transformation, and to examine what it means to live well in a world that has barely begun to comprehend the massive disruptions wrought by the digital age.
Poulos, the executive editor of the Claremont Institute publication The American Mind and a Georgetown-trained political theorist, has spent the last several years penning meditations—equal parts gnomic and brilliant—on the transformations wrought by the internet. Human, Forever is the fruit of those meditations: a dense, winding volume that confronts fundamental questions about the possibility of politics and human flourishing after the rise of the technological world.
In the deepest sense, Poulos has written a book specifically addressed to the fathers of sons born after the digital turn. These sons can only be brought to maturity, Poulos argues, “by men who understand, and live out their understanding, that they cannot cede to their machines their responsibility to initiate their boys into manhood” (25). The overtly masculine language is no mere stylistic convention; Poulos is quite clear that he writes as a man working through the idea of manhood in the digital age, whereas “[t]o attempt that [account] of a woman is a woman’s task” (211).
Poulos conveniently sidesteps the “last chapter problem” by laying his cards on the table from the very start: in the face of the overwhelming social change wrought by the digital world, what is most urgently required for boys to become men is a profound sense of their own biography, of being embedded in a greater story that exceeds any conceivable online fantasy. For Poulos, biography necessarily requires memory, and human beings and computers do not “remember” in the same way. A human being always sifts and weighs the data of their personal experiences, weighting some memories more heavily than others in the course of understanding his own life course (129–30). Conversely, a computer spits out merely a disconnected sequence of data points, or (more ominously) highlights only those biographical data points that some faceless actor—such as a state or corporation—deems relevant for a particular purpose (185). Only the affirmation of distinctly human biography—the ability to see one’s life as a unified narrative, with a past and a future and a destiny—can withstand the digital tendency to collapse all experience into a “Year Zero,” a state of what Marshall McLuhan called “electric nowness” where there is only the eternal present without any sense of transition from boy to man (22-24). This sense of biography unmediated by technology, above all else, is what fathers must pass along to their progeny.
If memory and biography form the core of Poulos’s praxis, at the heart of his theory is the ominous metaphysical image of the swarm: the nonhuman horde of “programs, channels, apps, and virtual realities with which we saturated the world” (4). This swarm has taken on a non-life of its own: programmers’ attempts at deterministic control of their creations have repeatedly failed, and it is now functionally impossible to predict what results will be wrought by the black-box algorithms that have proliferated across the internet (139). Accordingly, “any plan for a single figure, movement, organization, or other human entity ‘winning’ world authority and control over the swarm (and us all through it) is delusional” (16).
Such an “irreducibly plural” state of affairs, Poulos hastens to point out, was never the original plan of those who brought it into being (16). Rather, those who created this swarm were motivated by a kind of religious philosophy of their own, which Poulos dubs “sparkism.” Sparkists’ vaguely gnostic orientation is committed to the creed that the human soul possesses infinite generative depths, and that “the creation of knowledge is the purest, most powerful, most delightful, and most fruitful force in the universe” (88,115). Of course, such knowledge necessarily includes self-knowledge, the precondition for the “infinite re-creation of our identities” in union with a higher order of technological consciousness (178). The eschatological culmination of such a project is a cognitive “pantopia” that “in theory, and one day in practice, will no longer require the trappings of any particular material” (185). Gone, in this future, is any sense of embodied memory or any of the painful accretions of history. Endless disruption and reconstitution must be the order of the day.
But—and this is crucial—Poulos argues that this dream is collapsing in on itself.
Whereas a writer like Rod Dreher might view the rise of the digital age as the precursor to a totalizing “social credit system” (perhaps on the Chinese model), Poulos is far more sanguine. Those who would turn the swarm to their own ends, maybe as a mechanism of social control leading toward a “sparkist” end, have repeatedly found that their own tool eludes their grasp. The 2016 presidential election was proof enough of this: the digital world now allows geographically isolated dissidents to find each other, and together to drive groundswells of backlash against established institutions (144-45). And much of the chaos that has defined the last several years of American politics, Poulos suggests, can be linked to agonized frustration on the parts of the “sparkists” that their globalizing project has gone so far off the rails (218-19).
And even if it hadn’t, power over the digital world doesn’t automatically translate into real-world authority. As Poulos notes, America is a large country with vast tracts of rural space, which cannot be readily policed by any central authority (205). Thus any comprehensive project of top-down control, however feverishly theorized, is probably doomed to failure. Longstanding predictions of the demise of Christianity are also misguided, Poulos argues: after the collapse of globalization, the inevitable turn to humility, limits, and givenness will sound in a distinctly Christian register (211).
The essential failure of “sparkism” will have broad implications not just for America, but for other nations as well. On the international stage, Poulos predicts that the world’s geopolitical blocs will increasingly move away from globalization, and towards a model of separate spheres of influence defined by shared value commitments. For Poulos, “the civilization-statesman confronted with the challenge of digital statecraft must establish a new moral order by recourse to the religious sensibilities of his people,” where those “sensibilities are rooted in human memory—the digital-age key to preserving our human identity” (212). Notably, Poulos’s argument here closely resembles a paradigm put forward by Russian political philosopher Alexander Dugin, who has argued for a “multipolar world” in which world civilizations will “become more closely aware of their community and start to act in the system of international relations, guided by their own values and the interests proceeding from those values.”
Navigating this new world will require the reclamation of individual and familial memories. And on this front, Poulos is optimistic about the possibilities of “the bitcoin datacenter . . . our supreme digital weapon against the world computer that such datacenters are already moving to become” (253). Perhaps a digital world characterized by decentralization, rather than ever-greater integration, might be at once more humane and human than the one we inhabit today.
Naturally, in any work as sprawling as this one, there are plenty of places where one might wish for a more developed argument. For one thing, while Poulos is clear from the start that he is not telling the story of women’s experiences with the internet, there is plenty of room for expansion of his argument beyond the father-son dynamic. Much could be said, for instance, about the impact on young women of Tumblr, “fan fiction” culture, and the valorization of various forms of mental illnesses—a trifecta linked in fundamental ways. All three of these phenomena, after all, are oriented toward the dismantling of “human biography.” At the heart of Tumblr is the GIF, a decontextualized snippet of pop culture wrested from its initial setting and pressed into service as the expression of a particular mood—necessarily entailing the transformation of filmic narrative into a wellspring of ironic memes, and so affecting how one views movies and other film stories going forward (cultural writing now speaks of “GIF-able moments”). Similarly, fan fiction often involves the deconstruction of beloved traditional stories, and (regularly) the insertion of oneself or one’s analogue as a protagonist. And the distinctly Foucauldian veneration of mental illness carries with it the philosophical commitment that there is no order of objective reality against which one’s behavior ought to be normed. This pattern meshes well with Poulos’s emphasis on biography as the counterweight to the electric Now: a young woman, no less than a young man, stands within a familiar natural “story”—she has the biological capacity to carry and bear a child—and her mother must pass on that truth in the face of pervasive cross-pressures from the digital world.
On a slightly different note, it bears mentioning that throughout Human, Forever, the idea of “interoperability”—roughly, multiple computer systems interacting together according to shared protocols—is something of a dirty word. In Poulos’s words, “[w]e throw ourselves into ever closer connection, deeper immersion, greater interoperability, until our very humanity is blown away by a sea of data even all of us are incapable of drinking down” (6). And yet it is a lack of interoperability that has allowed private-sector tech behemoths, such as Facebook and Apple, to squelch their competition by controlling access to the vast data flows they accumulate, and so to amass greater and greater market power. Interoperability is not necessarily an evil if built on the foundation of protocols that are owned by no one—such as the email protocol SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) or the chat protocol IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Indeed, such protocols are a powerful weapon against the centralization of the internet in the hands of any particular power broker. In short, Poulos’s argument against interoperability might be bolstered by distinguishing more carefully between proprietary and nonproprietary protocols.
These are small quibbles. Poulos has written perhaps the most important conservative book of the last half-decade: Human, Forever is indisputably a must-read for those concerned about what human existence will look like “after the digital turn.” Not only is it a penetrating diagnosis of the contemporary condition, the book is a distinctly Christian-inflected chastening of some of the more audacious “postliberal” political philosophies out there, those that fail to take seriously what the digital disruption has wrought. Freedom from technology, Poulos submits, must also mean freedom from the dreams of empire, and a return to the limits of the local.
Going forward, no discussion of right-of-center political philosophy can afford to ignore the questions Poulos has raised. The die, in short, is cast.
 James Poulos, Human, Forever: The Digital Politics of Spiritual War (2021), 18. All subsequent page references are in brackets within the text of this article.
 Alexander Dugin, The Theory of a Multipolar World, trans. Michael Millerman (Budapest: Arktos Media Ltd., 2021), 39.
 See Katherine Dee, “Tumblr Transformed American Politics,” The American Conservative, August 11, 2021, available at https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/tumblr-transformed-american-politics/.
 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Random House, 1965), ix–x.
 See Corey Doctorow, “Tech Monopolies and the Insufficient Necessity of Interoperability,” OneZero (Medium), May 25, 2021, available at https://onezero.medium.com/tech-monopolies-and-the-insufficient-necessity-of-interoperability-aafba94f1eb3. Mike Masnick, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech,” Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, August 21, 2019, available at https://knightcolumbia.org/content/protocols-not-platforms-a-technological-approach-to-free-speech.
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