A defining work of an era

It's always a treat to read New Atlantis senior editor Christine Rosen. Her recent review in the New Republic of Glenn Reynolds' book An Army of Davids is essential reading for two reasons. Firstly, she brings a historian's wit and wisdom to the current ahistorical debate about the cultural merits of technology. Secondly, Rosen suggests that the old left/right political divisions in America have been replaced by a split between anti establishment digital libertarians and those of us who still maintain a faith in our traditional representative institutions and meritocratic elites.

Rosen is a erudite historian of ideas. She reminds us that Reynolds is part of a long and rich tradition of techno-utopian thought in American intellectual life. Rosen explains that Reynolds' embrace of technology's virtues follows in the "grand tradition" of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and William Dean Howell's A Traveler from Altruria.

But, as she recognizes, Reynolds has turned Howells and Bellamy on their heads. While their early twentieth century futurism "celebrates the expert and venerated the scientist", so Reynolds' 21st century hero is the "guy without any expertise who can see through the palaver of elites."

This radical populism, Rosen explains, is the defining quality to Reynolds' work. And it's his disdain for elites and his faith in the common man, she argues, that unites conservatives like Reynolds and liberals like the Daily Kos' Marcos Moulitsas. The blogosphere's radical left and right both share a hostility to tradition, established institutions and political, economic and cultural elites. The problem is that their incessant noise is drowning out mainstream opinion. Reynolds and Moulitsas are winning the debate by shouting louder and blogging more often than the rest of us.

Rosen suggests that An Army of Davids, while lacking either "lapidary prose" or "polemical genius", is a "defining work of an era." She's right. We get the books we deserve. Unless we follow Christine Rosen in exposing the philistinism and absurdity of contemporary techno-utopianism, we will, unfortunately, also end up with the society that we deserve.