A hearty welcome to all of you readers who got here, as far as I can tell, because I wrote a strongly-worded complaint about the state of Apple’s developer documentation and it made the rounds online this week. And a hearty welcome back to those who’ve been following along on this journey. And if you got here some other way over the past few months and don’t remember how or why or what this even is: Across the Sundering Seas is a newsletter by Chris Krycho (…me) mostly reflecting or linking to other people reflecting on technology, ethics, humanism, religion, and more.
If you end up looking for the exit… well, no worries, you can flee my endless torrent of words here, and I’ll totally understand. (There are so many words!)
Speaking of the rant that sent a good number of you here this past week: I always feel a bit hesitant to put that kind of thing into the world—we have enough rants as it is—but I also think that a good loud critique can sometimes be fruitful. The problems with critiques in the internet world, it seems to me, is not that sharp critique is bad in itself but that shouting about things is our default (and is in many cases rewarded financially). For my own part, much as it stings sometimes, a good sharp critique of my work or thought can go a long way toward improving what I put into the world.
The internet has long been a place of heated argument. My sense, though—and a sense that it seems, anecdotally, that other people share—is that it’s taken a turn over the last decade or so, away from the kinds of arguments that characterized the early internet toward something best summed up in the phrases “hot take” and “Twitter mob”. All rants, all the time. It’s not at all that those early internet days were perfect. The so-very-typical atheism debates, for example, were often incredibly rancorous, and their aims toward serious debate (laudable though that was in some ways) were often… rather less intellectually serious than their participants thought. The same could be said for that blogging scene in general—whatever its topic. It certainly did not lack for ill-considered screeds!
But my thought today is not so much that that time and this are really just the same, that the shifts don’t matter. Things are not the same, and the changes do matter. It’s a little subtler than that. There are ways in which the current hot-takes-inflaming-Twitter-mobs world are really and truly worse than the blog era of the internet, just as the blog era was itself recognizably worse in certain ways than an era with more gatekeepers. But we should not look back at that earlier time in internet history as some golden age, just as we should not at earlier times in history generally. The evidence, if we consider it carefully suggests something rather different, and rather subtler: flux.
I’m suspicious of declension narratives in general (admittedly: because I adhere to the big declension narrative at the core of Christianity’s claims about the world). They seem to me to nearly always commit the rose-tinted glasses fallacy—to miss the ways that the previous era was in fact worse than the current. Progress narratives suffer from the same, just in reverse: they see all the ways that our age is better than the past, and ignore the ways it is meaningfully worse.
I don’t, in the end, believe in “progress” or “decline” in absolute terms at all—not through merely human efforts, anyway. We make steps forward in some categories, at some times, in some places… even as we take steps backward in other categories in those same times and places. Every once in a while we get a good bundle together that makes for a better world to live in, but inevitably even those experiments have their own weaknesses. The American ideals are lofty and good… but this whole experiment has been a hypocritical one from the moment it started. Saying so doesn’t make me anything but grateful for the ideals, even if I am deeply grieved at the ways and the extent to which we have failed to live up to them, and the ways I am implicated in our various national sins. But there was no golden American age. Pick a time in our history and I can point to grievous moral failures, as well as to great triumphs. You can do the same with any nation, any people. We’re fundamentally and essentially broken, our natures poisoned and corrupted. If that claim contains within it the seed of hope—that human nature is in fact something good in need of restoration—it also is a thoroughgoing claim that no nation, no people, no technology, no moment in history, will be anything but also poisoned and corrupted in some way.
This makes me pessimistic, in some ways, about how much we can “fix” about the world around us; but it also means I tend to look with a skeptical eye at claims that things are falling apart. That does not mean there are not times of real decline, nor of real progress. It is rather that even those moments tend to be temporary and partial at best… and at worst!
I am a critic of much of the technocratic structure of our society, of our belief that we can solve all of humanity’s felt ills, but I do not for a moment suppose that if we dethroned technologism we would suddenly arrive at a beautifully-ordered world of justice and mercy and peace and love. The best we can manage, I think, is a recognition of human nature’s being all bent into crookedness and our limited ability to change that—and to live in ways that respond wisely to that sad truth.