Opposite What Peggy Noonan Projects, ‘This Time’ Isn’t Different

In his excellent The Book of Charlie, Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle listed some of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. The 20th was marked by “unprecedented violence and dislocation – the Great War giving way to the Russian Revolution and the Armenian genocide, followed by the Great Depression, the communist purges, the starving of Ukraine, and the Rape of Nanjing, bleeding in World War II, the Holocaust, and violent struggles for colonial independence.” Throw in the Korean War, Vietnam, the extermination of millions in Cambodia, and on, and on, and on.

Everyone reads a different book, but in my case Von Drehle’s recall of repeated attempts at global suicide exist as a modern reminder of just how small our problems are today. Members of the left talk with straight faces about a looming (it’s always looming) crisis born of a “warming earth,” while angry and eternally pessimistic conservatives write in similarly serious fashion that parents choosing to have fewer kids threaten our existence. Those who remember real crises would have given anything to fear what the alarmists of the warring ideologies do today.

About the tragedies that helped define the 20th, it’s worth noting that businessmen or entrepreneurs weren’t behind them. That they weren’t should be a statement of the obvious. Business is peaceful not necessarily because those conducting it are loving, but because repeat business is an essential ingredient of success. Which means killing one’s customers is the path to failure. It’s also a reminder that of the major, sick-inducing tragedies, government always looms large. Sorry, but it’s true. Say what you will about businessman Joseph P. Kennedy, but he knew how to make money. As he told JFK, war is bad for business. Governments aren’t as in touch with this truth, simply because their repeat business is more of a sure thing… 

Consider all this with Peggy Noonan well in mind. Progress in the computer space increasingly has her up in arms. She writes that “the world’s computers have caused havoc, in the social, cultural and political spheres.” Noonan ads that “we accepted all the sludge – algorithms designed to divide us, to give destructive images to kids, to addict them to the product – passively, without alarm.” Noonan knows better. She’s a voracious reader, so must know that the internet in no way invented divide, and it didn’t here. Divide has always defined the American way, as has media and commentary meant to feed the flock. But even if some believe it’s greater today, the speculation here is that it’s rooted much more in both political parties running roughshod over constitutional limits, and much less in computer usage.

What about “destructive images” directed to kids? About them, it’s useful to point out that Noonan was born in 1950. Three years later Playboy published its first issue, only for the 50,000 printed copies to quickly sell out. About the timing, it’s no reach to say that Playboys found their way to Long Island (where Noonan grew up) and to young people there, as did racy novels, pornography beyond magazines, and surely alcohol. This is notable given the growing desire of pundits to tie teen angst and unhappiness to the rise of the internet. Like political divide and everything else that today’s pundits write about as though they’re modern inventions, they’re not. As Noonan’s fellow Long Islander Billy Joel (born in 1949) put it in 1989, we didn’t start the fire.

Neither did the internet. Kids have always looked for and found destructive images, and destructive ways of life. Without speaking for Noonan specifically, it can easily be said that members of her generation did as kids always do, only for them to mostly grow up. And prosper. Youth is an ass, but it also has an endpoint given our evolutionary desire to procreate, and provide for those created.

This is worth keeping in mind as Noonan continues to use her prominent perch at the Wall Street Journal to heap endless scorn on computers, Silicon Valley, the internet, and now artificial intelligence (AI). Noonan contends that “AI is putting the fate of humanity in the hands of the men and women of Silicon Valley, who invented the internet as it is, including all its sludge. And there’s something wrong with them.” The view here is that Noonan is incorrect, that AI will in fact make the humans who populate the earth more powerful than ever as automation of so much unnecessary work from the past amplifies talents and genius that for too long has been suffocated.

Still, the future is unknowable. Noonan could be right. If so, she’ll still be incorrect in her outlook simply because it presumes the existence of some benevolent other that will nicely pat progress on the head, and tell it to do things the right way. The problem there is that the only other capable of suffocating the AI future that has Noonan so worried is the very entity that in various shapes gave us all the tragedies of the 20th century.

In which case, no thanks. Hopefully in time Noonan agrees. What worries her about businessmen and women in pursuit of repeat business is so microscopic relative to what those who don’t require it can do us. It’s a reminder that the only threat to progress is a lack of freedom, not progress.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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