A famous line (popularized by late conservative Andrew Breitbart) suggests that politics is downstream from culture. If that’s true, then it’s probably also true that both politics and culture are downstream from technology.
It just so happens that a timely example presents itself: As pro-life marchers pour into Washington, D.C., on Friday, it’s fair to say that a 1956 invention by obstetrician Ian Donald and engineer Tom Brown in Glasgow has won more converts than any protest. The prenatal ultrasound didn’t really catch on until the 1970s, but by the end of the 20th century, it was routinely used.
As a recent piece in The Atlantic grudgingly concedes, “Ultrasound images carried the associations of objectivity typically accorded to the camera.” What is more, even newer technology has made the images sharable. “Expecting parents post ultrasound photos on Facebook and Instagram.”
According to surveys, public opinion on abortion law is largely contingent on details such as which trimester or whether to include exceptions. And not everyone who finds abortion immoral thinks that it should be illegal. Yet culturally, people are generally more pro-life today than they were a decade ago.
The Atlantic piece had scientific flaws (it wrongly stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a 6-week-old fetus), but it correctly points out how ultrasound technology has changed cultural and political perceptions of prenatal existence. Proving this thesis, a 2016 Doritos Super Bowl commercial—where an ultrasound shows an unborn baby bouncing around a womb to get at dad’s bag of chips—did more to advance a culture of life than any National Right to Life op-ed ever could. Recognizing this, NARAL Pro-Choice America immediately criticized the commercial for “humanizing” a fetus.
The point here is not to say that technology skews pro-life, but to make the point that technology drives culture (i.e., how people actually live their lives and their social values)—which, in turn, drives politics. A famous conservative book proclaims that Ideas Have Consequences, but I would argue that technological innovation is even more powerful than any “ism” or ideology.
This isn’t unique to the abortion debate. Before the technological advance of the ultrasound, the birth control pill allowed the free-wheeling love-in culture of the 1960s that gave rise to the sexual revolution. Being able to have sex that was free of consequence (or, at least, free of pregnancy) had implications beyond the obvious. Much of the pay disparity between men and women can be attributed to a “pregnancy penalty.” For aspiring career women who wanted to emulate TV’s Mary Richards, the pill was a game-changer. But it has also been linked to the decline in marriage rates, the population decline, and the trend of women delaying childbirth until they are older—cultural changes that many conservative Americans might lament more than the sexual revolution.
Nothing Betty Friedan (or, on the other side, Phyllis Schlafly) said or did changed the culture half as much as the simple invention of the pill.
Before that, it was an unlikely innovation—the automobile—that proved sexually liberating and revolutionary. For the first time, teens and young adults could escape their parents’ house, find a nice place to park, and “neck.”
Sex aside, you would be hard-pressed to overestimate the impact the automobile had on American lives, which is why to think of it as merely as a “horseless carriage” was to miss the mark.
Whether it’s suburban sprawl or “white flight” or McMansions, the credit (or blame) goes to Henry Ford. Conservative political theorist Russell Kirk famously refused to drive a car, calling them “Mechanical Jacobins” that would destroy communities and traditional society. He wasn’t wrong. Every new innovation creates winners and losers. It’s called “creative destruction.” A New York Times story a while back noted that golfing great Ben Hogan’s out-of-work father committed suicide because the automobile displaced his job as a blacksmith. This is an anecdotal example, but one that illustrates the negative impact technological innovation can have on individual lives.
But technology’s amazing (and underrated) impact on culture and politics is by no means a modern phenomenon. We could go all the way back to the invention of the clock—an invention that shifted our entire perception of time and the universe and even the Almighty—for an example of how technology changed fundamental perceptions.
In writing about Lewis Mumford’s book Technics & Civilization, author Neil Postman observed that the invention of the clock “may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.”
Or if that’s too dizzying to contemplate, then try this one for size: Is there any way that Donald Trump becomes president in a world without Twitter and 24/7 cable news? I don’t think so. Or how about the major economic and cultural trends that thrust him into the White House? We talk a lot about immigration and trade and globalization, but most experts agree that automation is actually the biggest driver in terms of the loss of jobs. American manufacturing is more efficient than ever, which ironically means we need fewer workers.
Assuming this trend continues, and eventually robots replace factory workers and self-driving cars replace even Uber (which displaced taxi drivers), we could envision a future in which very few people have real jobs. This would create all sorts of moral and sociological problems. People derive a sense of purpose from earned income. What happens when there’s nothing to do?
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. One of the most buzzed-about shows on television last year was HBO’s Westworld. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically Jurassic Park with robots. And one of the attractions for would-be visitors to this fantasy land is the opportunity to have sex with these lifelike robots. Is there any doubt that some sort of virtual reality sex is right around the corner? After all, porn has driven most online technological advances. Sex with robots will likely raise all sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas—just as it does on the HBO show.
So—by all means—march and rally and protest. Register to and vote for the candidate of your choice. But just remember that all of our perceptions are being affected by technology (I bet you’re reading this on a smartphone right now!). And take it from this proud father of two: Nobody shares a Facebook picture of their “fetus.” We call it a baby. And once we do, the argument is over.