Everything Solid Melts into Air

Published July 20, 2023

The Catholic Thing

Print literacy and the ownership of property anchor human freedom. Both can be abused, of course. Printed lies can kill. Owning things, and wanting more of them, can easily morph into greed. But reasonable personal ownership of things like a home, tools, and land tutors us in maturity. It enhances a person’s agency, and thus his dignity. It grounds us in reality and gives us a stake in the world, because if we don’t maintain and protect what we have, we lose it, often at great personal cost. The printed word, meanwhile, feeds our interior life and strengthens our ability to reason.

Together they make people much harder to sucker and control than free-floating, human consumer units. This is why the widespread ownership of property by individuals—or the lack of it—has big cultural and political implications, some of them distinctly unhappy.

I mention this because I’ve made my living with the printed word. And it occurred to me (belatedly, in 2003) that while I own the ladder in my garage, the hammer and wrench in my storeroom drawer, and even the slab of dead metal hardware and electronics that I work on, I don’t own the software that runs it or enables me to write. Microsoft or Apple does, depending on the laptop I use. . .and I just didn’t notice it while I was playing all those video games.

What finally grabbed my attention, exactly 20 years ago, was The dotCommunist Manifesto by Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen. Here’s a slice of the content:

A Spectre is haunting multinational capitalism — the spectre of free information. All the powers of “globalism” have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcize the spectre: Microsoft and Disney, the World Trade Organization, the United States Congress and European Commission.

Where are the advocates of freedom in the new digital society who have not been decried as pirates, anarchists, communists? Have we not seen that many of those hurling the epithets were merely thieves in power, whose talk of “intellectual property” [rights] was nothing more than an attempt to retain unjustifiable privileges in a society irrevocably changing. . . .

Throughout the world, the movement for free information announces the arrival of a new social structure, born of the transformation of bourgeois industrial society by the digital technology of its own invention. . . .[The] bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. . . .All that is solid melts into air.

And so on. The rest of it is standard Marxist cant, adapted to the digital age. But for me it was, and still is, compelling prose. And this, despite the fact that the original Communist Manifesto led to murderous regimes and mass suffering, and the awkward fact that Prof. Moglen’s dream of abolishing “intellectual property” would wipe out my family’s source of income along with an entire class of more or less independent wordsmiths.

What Moglen did see though, earlier and more clearly than many other critics, was the dark side of the modern digital revolution. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and similar corporations have created a vast array of marvelous tools for medicine, communications, education, and commerce.

I’m writing these words with one of those tools. They’ve also sparked a culture-wide upheaval resulting in social fragmentation and bitter antagonisms. Their ripple effect has undermined the humanities and print literacy, obscured the supernatural, confused our sexuality, hypercharged the porn industry, and fueled consumer appetites while simultaneously eroding habits of responsible ownership and mature political participation.

They promised a new age of individual expression and empowerment. The reality they delivered, in the words of a constitutional scholar friend, is this: “Once you go down the path of freedom, you need to restrain its excesses. And that’s because too much freedom leads to fragmentation, and fragmentation inevitably leads to a centralization of power in the national government. Which is why today, we the people really aren’t sovereign. We now live in a sort of technocratic oligarchy, with the congealing of vast wealth in a very small group of people.”

Nothing about today’s tech revolution preaches “restraint.”

I’m a Catholic capitalist. I’m also, despite the above, a technophile. America’s economic system was very good to my immigrant grandparents. It lifted my parents from poverty. It has allowed my family to experience good things unimaginable to my great-grandparents. But I have no interest in making big corporations—increasingly hostile to Christian beliefs—even more obscenely profitable and powerful.

So, promptly after reading that Eben Moglen text two decades ago, I dumped my Microsoft and Apple operating systems. I became a Free Software/Open Software zealot. I even taught myself Linux, a free operating system with free software largely uncontaminated by Big Tech.

And that’s where I met the CLI: the “command line interface.” Most computers today, even those running Linux, use a pleasing GUI, or graphical user interface. It’s the attractive, easily accessible desktop that first greets you on the screen. It’s also a friendly fraud, because the way machines operate and “think” is very, very different from the way humans imagine, feel, and reason.

In 2003, learning Linux typically involved the CLI: a tedious, line-by-line entry of commands to a precise, unforgiving, alien machine logic. That same logic and its implications, masked by a sunny GUI, now come with every computer on the planet.

I guess I’m saying this: You get what you pay for. And sometimes it’s more than, and different from, what you thought. The tech revolution isn’t going away. It’s just getting started. And right on time, just as Marx and Moglen said, “all that is solid melts into air.” Except God. But of course, we need to think and act like we believe that.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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