Ben Wright: Thomas Paine and the Conflicting Ideologies of the Digital Revolution

This post is part of a joint series entitled “Digital Research, Digital Age: Blogging New Approaches to Early American Studies,” hosted at the Panorama and the Junto. This joint series stems from  stemming from a conference entitled “Revolutionary Texts in a Digital Age: Thomas Paine’s Publishing Networks, Past and Present,” organized by Nora Slonimsky at Iona College in October 2018. This series will feature one post every day this week, hosted by both the Panorama and the Junto, and Dr. Slonimsky’s introductory post is found here. You can read previous posts by Lindsay Chervinsky, Joseph Adelman, and the Johnson/Pellissier/Schmidt trio.

Writing in 1995, media critic Jon Katz christened Thomas Paine “the moral father of the internet,” musing that “nearly two centuries after his death, in a form Paine couldn’t have imagined but would have plunged into with joyous passion, the internet is, in many ways, the embodiment of everything he believed.”[i] Katz is correct in more ways than he intended. That very same year, media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron framed the animating spirit of the digital revolution as a collision of the New Left and libertarianism. “The Californian Ideology,” as they called it, offers an “optimistic vision of the future [that] has been enthusiastically embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy academics, futurist bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA.”[ii] More than two centuries earlier, Thomas Paine presaged this curious ideological blending,  articulating the tensions between libertarianism and the left with the same soaring revolutionary rhetoric that suffuses the digital humanities.

Thomas Paine was a product of his time, and his intellectual worldview was structured by his enlightenment-influenced faith in progress. Paine promised in 1792, that “the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world.”[iii] This confidence in inevitable social improvement gave Paine, and many others of his generation, the confidence to assume that if they merely loosened the bonds of monarchy and aristocracy, the great inequalities of the age would wash away. These naïve revolutionary expectations sound startling familiar to the libertarian techno-utopianism emanating from Silicon Valley. In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Megan Smith, a Google executive and later Chief Technology Officer of the United States under President Obama, predicted that due to technology, by 2030, children would have to visit “poverty museums” to understand scarcity and inequality.[iv] This lofty rhetoric echoes beyond Silicon Valley. It suffuses much of the work in the digital humanities. The first lines of the collaboratively authored 2012 monograph Digital_Humanities, for instance, asserts that “We live in one of those rare moments of opportunity for the humanities, not unlike other great eras of cultural-historical transformation such as the shift from the scroll to the codex, the invention of moveable type, the encounter with the New World, and the Industrial Revolution.”[v] Digital humanists continue to frame their work as revolutionary and democratizing. However, historians of the early republic know that to really evaluate revolution, we must look beyond rhetoric and track both ideology and practice.

Paine is a patron saint for both New Left radicals looking to begin the world anew and contemporary libertarians who see government as the primary enemy of human freedom. In 1792, Paine divided society based on relationships to taxation, writing “there are two distinct classes of men in the nation, those who pay taxes, and those who receive and live upon the taxes.”[vi] You can guess which class he praised and which he condemned. When trying to understand the cause of poverty in Europe, Paine downplayed the exploitative practices of the aristocracy and instead railed against oppressive taxation.  His solution to European inequality was simply the establishment of republican governments. Only in 1796, with Agrarian Justice, did Paine recognize the role of the rich in maintaining the oppressive relations that perpetuate poverty.[vii] It is this Paine that enables those on the left, including the historian Harvey Kaye to praise Paine as “the greatest radical of a radical age.” (Dr. Kaye, Toussaint would like a word…)[viii] But I’m less interested in wrangling over Paine’s legacy or engaging in what James Oakes calls “the cult of the true radical” than understanding how two strands of Paine’s ideology echo across the digital humanities.

We can find both the New Left and libertarianism in the ideologies and practice of the digital humanities. Both seek to tear down the existing dynamics of the educational industrial complex, but one does so for the goal of connecting people to the levels of power and the other to simply divorce power from the state. At the center of this distinction is whether the digital humanities are ultimately designed to democratize knowledge or simply to disrupt existing power structures. It is a necessary criticism that neoliberal motives propel much of the rhetoric justifying academic and educational “disruptions”.[ix] Disruption is not a synonym for democracy, and the libertarian ethos can, in fact, stifle the will of the people and degrade education.[x] Silicon Valley mogul and self-styled political philosopher Peter Thiel wrote an open essay for the Cato Institute claiming that he can “no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Democracy threatens to regulate capitalism, and accordingly Thiel has turned against both democracy and education, remarking that “the broader education of the body politic has become a fool’s errand.”[xi]

As historians of the early republic well know, revolutionary rhetoric can advance equality or inequality. Thomas Paine’s ideological inconsistencies offer enduring lessons as we think about our new digital world: lessons about the power and perils of utopian rhetoric in the quest to once again remake the world anew.

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[i] Jon Katz, “The Age of Paine,” Wired (May 1995), available at https://www.wired.com/1995/05/paine/.

[ii] Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” available at www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/17/the-californian-ideology-2/.

[iii] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1792), available at https://archive.org/details/rightsofman00painiala/page/114.

[iv] Jessica Stillman, “The Future According To Megan Smith,” Forbes (Jul 19, 2013) available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/women2/2013/07/19/the-future-according-to-megan-smith/#69c088e77284.

[v] Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), vii.

[vi] Thomas Paine, Letter addressed to the addressers, on the late proclamation (1792), available at https://archive.org/details/cihm_39117/page/n17.

[vii] Thomas Paine, Agrarian justice, opposed to agrarian law… (1792) available at https://archive.org/details/agrarianjusticeo00pain.

[viii] Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America: A History & Biography (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 4.

[ix] See, for instance, Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books (May 1, 2016), available at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities/.

[x] See, for instance, Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” The New Yorker (June 23, 2014); Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (2011), xxii.

[xi] Peter Thiel, “The Education of a Libertarian,” Cato Unbound: A Journal of Debate (April 13,2009), available at  https://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/04/13/peter-thiel/education-libertarian.

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  1. Pingback: New York History Around The Web This Week - The New York History Blog

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