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Conservatives Are Letting Big Tech Win
We're talking about all the wrong things.
Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Big Tech will almost certainly be a non-event, but it’s good politics. The suit will play well with his base and with conservatives generally, many of whom have detailed receipts when it comes to Silicon Valley’s hypocritical posturing against right-wing content. There’s no question to the reasonable mind that the major social media corporations are compromised by ideological bias. The war against “fake news” has many times cashed out to a transparent political agenda, evidenced vividly by Big Tech’s continued deference to China and other totalitarian regimes. No thinking person can honestly believe that our pixelated overlords are Woodward and Bernstein.
But none of this is new or particularly meaningful. The mainstream media is biased and conservatives are routinely marginalized by the corporations that produce it; we’ve known this for decades, talked about it endlessly, and yet the conservative movement has precious little to show for all our angst about it. Meanwhile, we’ve missed the real story.
Any merits of Trump’s case aside, the suit itself is a fitting symbol for how conservatives failed when it comes to digital tech. Almost every single meaningful conversation on the Right about social media and digital technology ends up being the same kind of messaging about censorship and wrongthink. Those topics matter, but not nearly as much as conservatives tend to think. The reality is that we’ve been mute on the most pressing matters of life in an Internet society while focusing instead on low-stakes partisan skirmishes. We have fortified the mole hill and surrendered the mountain.
Big tech is not just bad for conservative pundits—what it produces is bad for people and bad for society.
Last year Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains turned ten years old. The Shallows is a momentous work, a Pulitzer-finalist manifesto that presents astonishing evidence that reading, learning, and communicating are deeply and systemically malformed by digital tech. Carr’s work caused a minor sensation when the book was first released, and tech critics such as Cal Newport continue to reference it, but the book has largely since fallen into the margins. Virtually no major publications or columnists commemorated the book’s anniversary in 2020, and a second edition published to commemorate the decade made few headlines.
Conservatives by and large do not see the conversation around the effects of digital technology as politically relevant. Why not? The Shallows is a must-read study of culture because it demonstrates that the Internet is not merely a neutral tool that depends on the motives of users, but a distinctive epistemological architecture that creates certain kinds of thinkers. The habits of thinking that we develop when we spend much time online—and thanks to smartphones, the average American likely spends about as much time online as off—make us, generally speaking, less tolerant of complex ideas and less willing to engage concepts that we may not intuit. As Carr writes in the book, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” It’s easy to find individuals who worry about the effect that constant connectivity has on their personal sense of presence or focus, but it’s much harder to come across reflections on how the Internet’s shaping of our minds might be socially or politically important.
Conservatism, however, certainly demands the kind of habits of mind that Carr shows are undermined by constant exposure to the Web. Almost by definition, conservativism is not intuitive. Nothing about modern society naturally encourages or empowers sustained reflection on the true, good, or beautiful, and a consumer culture such as ours is constantly inviting us toward further reinvention of ourselves. Liberalism is associated with the young for a reason; its romantic portrait of human nature and promise of liberation through realization of desires appeals to the idealistic nature of youth, and it often takes the responsibilities of marriage and family—the consideration of other selves and future generations—to teach us that, as Roger Scruton summarized conservatism, “Good things are difficult to build and easy to destroy.”
The internet’s omnipresence in modern life is not politically or morally neutral. As we spend more and more time entranced by infinite scroll and chasing hyperlinks, we become conditioned toward instant gratification, simplistic and Tweetable interpretations of reality, and obliviousness regarding anything outside the present. How can people whose primary channel of relationship is the “Like” button think coherently about the lessons of the past or the well-being of the unborn? How can a generation who learned about sex from Pornhub feel the wonderment of love, marriage, and children? How can people who get their worldview from memes and TikTok clips grasp the depravity of human nature and the need for its personal and political restraint?
Conservatives tend to focus single-mindedly on the Internet’s content rather than its form. But in ignoring form, conservatives commit three crucial errors. First, they are failing to take advantage of the conservative tradition’s resources that explain why addiction to the Web makes us frustrated and unhappy. The anthropology offered in the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals that humans can never be satisfied with artificial modes of thought because we are created in the image of a rational Creator. A day wasted thoughtlessly in front of a screen bothers us because we are made for more. Second, conservatives could be leading out on this issue, putting forth a more compelling vision of human flourishing, while also putting the Left in an awkward dilemma: agree with conservatives and point people toward the transcendent, or hastily come to the defense of billionaire tech CEOs simply to keep the partisan game going?
By turning every discussion about tech into a referendum merely on free speech, conservatives lose an immensely valuable opportunity to reshape culture. One conservative who appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough here is Josh Hawley, whose pointed criticisms of Big Tech in 2019 landed fresh and powerfully. His delayed book, however, continued the trend of emphasizing censorship and Silicon Valley’s lack of “fairness” rather than the epistemological effects of the technology itself. A 50-50 split of Democrat and Republican executives at the Big Tech companies will not fix the real problem, any more than the existence of Fox News and Drudge Report alongside CNN and The New York Times.
And all the while, Big Tech will be more than happy to throw the occasional bone to conservatives who just want to make sure that screen-addicted Americans can follow Joe Rogan as well as Joy Reid. If the future that conservatives want is merely digital turf war, then we can certainly achieve that with our present course. But in that case, we should stop saying that we are taking on “Big Tech,” because it will be Big Tech who reign victorious. The only way to take on Silicon Valley is to offer worn out, screen-addled people a way off the carousel of addiction, impulse, and consumption. The time to do that is now.