The Hopes of Modernity

One hopeful promise of the modern era is that improved communication between different cultures and nations will lead to greater international understanding. This expectation is closely tied to technological advancement: as the world grows smaller, due to airplanes and radio and television and internet, we can become closer neighbors. Greater understanding will naturally lead to greater peace.

Thus, for example, the enduring faith in foreign-exchange programs. If young people from countries around the world experience each other’s families and communities—and thanks to modern air travel, they can–they will return home with a more sympathetic understanding of the Other. If this happens often enough, there will be no more war.

It hasn’t happened like that. I’m reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of how the enlightened nations of Europe (and ultimately America too) stumbled into WWI.

She includes a passing observation that in the years before the war “railways, telegraph lines and then telephones and radios transmitted domestic and international news at unprecedented speed….. Increasingly, newspapers preferred to use their own nationals [as foreign correspondents] rather than rely on locals.” As a result, public opinion became better informed and increasingly involved in foreign policy. Governments began to try to manipulate the press in order to form public opinion. And popular newspapers learned to publish alarmist interpretations of events, to “stir up public emotions and elevate patriotism into jingoistic nationalism.” Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, “complained that it was like having ‘a huge lunatic asylum at one’s back.’” [112-113] Ultimately this public opinion became a force pushing for war—a force that statesmen had to appease.

So better communication did not lead to greater understanding; it actually worked to accentuate differences. Sound familiar?

It’s striking that the lunatics and killers running ISIS are very savvy at internet communications. It’s very high on their list to broadcast quality videos of their savagery. The internet offers almost unlimited possibilities for communicating across differences. Yet as many have noticed, we tend to find an echo chamber for our own ideas and prejudices; and the internet also offers almost unlimited possibilities for hearing from people who agree with you, and recruiting them to your cause.

Technology does nothing to civilize or humanize us. It offers possibilities for both good and evil. What we make of them depends on other humanizing forces—parents, teachers, writers, broadcasters, pastors. But there is not such a good market for them! Apple sold ten million iPhones in three days. There is no similar demand for thoughtful and humane books, schools, churches, families or news shows.

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