Our Tech Age’s Master Philosopher?

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Might the Silicon Age have a central philosopher, much as the Enlightenment did in David Hume and Voltaire or modern America once had in pragmatist John Dewey? There is a case to be made, a vulgar one, for Ayn Rand and her amped-up libertarianism. And there are contenders such as Microsoft Research’s Jarron Lanier and journalism critic Jeff Jarvis. But here’s a better-argued case by critic Justin E.H. Smith for the French philosopher/historian/anthropologist Rene Girard. A student of Girard’s at Stanford, PayPal’s Peter Thiel (bear in mind his mavericky Trump support), calls the French historian his greatest intellectual influence.

Rene Who? Here’s a convenient Goodreads summary of Girard’s basic insights, with dashes of Adam Smith’s free-market competition and Darwin’s struggle of the fittest. You’ll see how it meshes with the all-against-all world of tech, tinged with apocalyptic twilight and Freud’s Totem and Taboo. The summary derives from Girard’s grandly titled masterwork, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978):

“Girard’s point of departure is what he calls ‘mimesis,’ the conflict that arises when human rivals compete to differentiate themselves from each other, yet succeed only in becoming more and more alike. At certain points in the life of a society, according to Girard, this mimetic conflict erupts into a crisis in which all difference dissolves in indiscriminate violence. In primitive societies, such crises were resolved by the ‘scapegoating mechanism,’ in which the community, en masse, turned on an unpremeditated victim. The repression of this collective murder and its repetition in ritual sacrifice then formed the foundations of both religion and the restored social order.”

Got that? It’s hard to get this level of windiness down to practical details of the next IPO. In one laughable episode, Girard turns Bill Gates into a scapegoat (when the Justice Department ganged up on Big Bill). But amid all the French allure, there’s a basic harmony with hypercapitalism. Read it and have another absinthe. 

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

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