Isaiah Berlin: Not a Fool
In his essay “Historical Inevitability,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin dissects the widespread human tendency to assume that history is moving in some specific direction, or according to some pattern, that we can discover. Thinkers across parties and cultural divisions and eras–theologians no less than Marxists, Enlightenment philosophers as well as fascists–have attempted to justify or understand present behaviors in the light of various predictions about the future whose truths seem self-evident to them and their followers. What Berlin so persuasively points out is that even the most prodigious minds are capable of making utterly unwarranted assumptions of this kind. People offer brilliant arguments, often based on empirical observation and data, about how we should act in the present, and yet each assertion and piece of evidence is arranged in relation to some resoundingly unscientific conjecture about the future. We all know we can’t predict the future, and yet we fall for these arguments over and over.
Right now, I think, many of us are invested in a number of assumptions driven by the bewildering rate of technological change. We all have plenty of empirical evidence. We see 35 mm cameras give way to digital, dial-up internet to broadband, CDs to MP3s, and then we see mobile phones come in and replace all three of these technologies and then some, changing our entire approach to each of the individual media and enabling behaviors we never could have foreseen. But then as we try to understand what all of this means for the future, we unconsciously edit out that part about how we never could have foreseen the changes brought about by mobile computing. We make projections about the next leap forward based on the last leap forward, though the nature of the leap was utterly unknowable. The more dramatic the leap, the more dramatic our predictions are bound to be. We use laws and patterns that can be reasonably and rightly applied to technological progress itself–Moore’s law, for instance–to make predictions about how technology will interact with humanity.
This is foolish. It is foolish not because the people making the predictions–Ray Kurzweil or Jaron Lanier or Philip Roth or whoever–are foolish. Indeed they are not; to make predictions that anyone listens to, you must generally have some serious intellectual firepower at your disposal. It is foolish because it reduces humans to abstract data points, receivers of input who essentially march along in lockstep with technological change. In the interaction of technology and humanity, there will always be surprises. Humans will continue to bring their psychological needs, their sociological baggage, and their unconsidered instincts into the interaction; and no matter how wired we might be these days, a lot still goes on away from screens. I know this sounds obvious: “You can’t predict the future.” But that’s not my point. My point is that we tend to forget this except when we are in the grip of some chaotic moment, when it becomes undeniable.
So what does this have to do with Submittable? Good question. We are in a privileged position, I think, as a tech company that serves makers of apparently old-fashioned products: books, magazines, and other old-school cultural artifacts. On the one hand we are in contact with programmers and entrepreneurs who believe books are the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages. In their view, the singularity is not coming, it’s already here. But on the other hand we work with people who are making hand-stitched letterpress volumes of poetry, and it’s very clear to us that however archaic this activity may seem, it is not the equivalent of the horse-drawn carriage for our time. As many of you know, it is precisely technology that has enabled many of the makers of hand-stitched letterpress volumes to enter the marketplace at all. Sure, the marketplace may not be what it once was, and it’s definitely hard to make money in it right now, but it’s far from certain that what we’re witnessing is an overall shrinkage of literature or its audience. It is inarguable that the barriers to becoming a publisher have fallen–book bloggers began pointing this out 10 years ago–and we like to think we’re doing our part to empower anyone who wants to charge into the breach. This is what unpredictable humanity looks like. Technology aids the unpredictable elements and the predictable ones alike.
What Isaiah Berlin gets around to, in “Historical Inevitability,” is a fairly simple reminder that we cannot forget the effect of human personalities on history. So far, no regime or philosophical system or thinker who claimed to see the future has done so successfully, and if Berlin is to be believed, this is largely because they have failed to account for the basic uncertainty that humans introduce into whatever they do. Kingdoms and churches fall, but humans emerge from the rubble each time, more or less the same as they always were. Literature, along with the creative arts more broadly, might be thought of as an ever-shifting, constantly growing repository of human personality–a repository of what is irreducibly human in us. And though I have no idea what will happen once everyone has Google Glasses and driverless cars and we’ve reengineered the climate, or once we pass peak oil and all become subsistence farmers and fight wars over water, I would put my money on literature–on human personalities–emerging on the other side of these developments.