American Geek Radicalism

Historians have long debated whether the mobs of the Birmingham Riots were a spontaneous expression of rage- leaderless and self-organizing - or whether they had been deliberately stoked by outsiders (The evidence suggests that it was a little of both.) But by the time Church and King protesters arrived at Fair Hill, the madness of the crowd was beyond the direct control of the original ringleaders, whoever they were. A later report claimed that the insurgents had brought an immense gridiron to Fair Hill, "where they said they meant to broil an anti-constitutional philosopher, by the blaze of his own writings, and light the fire with the Rights of Man. (from Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air )
Interesting to think about just as a Democratic Congresswoman gets shot down after being put in the cross hairs by reactionary politicians. The mobs were right-wingers angered by the "free-thinking" of people like Tom Paine whose "Rights of Man" they wanted to use as kindling. The inhabitants of Fair Hill were the scientist Joseph Priestley and his family. Priestley was soon to flee for America (measuring the Gulf Stream on the way ) where he was welcomed as a hero by President John Adams. Looking back on Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Tom Paine, it's remarkable how geeky they were. Everyone knows Ben Franklin was an inventor as well as an artisan, businessman and politician, but in his day, Franklin was a world famous scientist- maybe the most famous. Thomas Paine, the marketing genius of the American Revolution was also the inventor of a design for an iron bridge and his biggest complaint against the British Conservative Edmund Burke was that Burke's attack on the French Revolution and the necessity of responding to it took Paine away from work on his bridge project. And the name most mentioned by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the letters they exchanged during their last decade is that of Joseph Priestly, who discovered oxygen and the carbon dioxide/oxygen cycle. Priestly also discovered carbonated water (soda pop!), and he was an early investigator of electricity who collaborated with Franklin. And Priestley was one of the founders of Unitarianism. To Adams, Jefferson, and Priestley, science, politics and religion were inseparable - and everything was open to question. Priestley put this in the preface to his book Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air.
This rapid progress of knowledge, which, like the progress of a wave of the sea, of sound, or of light from the sun, extends itself not this way or that way only, but in all directions, will, I doubt not, be the means, under God, of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped authority in the business of religion, as well as of science; and all the efforts of the interested friends of corrupt establishments of all kinds will be ineffectual for their support in this enlightened age: though, by retarding their downfall, they may make the final ruin of them more complete and glorious. [...] And the English hierarchy (if there be any thing unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble even at an air-pump, or an electrical machine.
The "tremble at even an air-pump or an electrical machine" could almost be used in Silicon Valley advertising where the destabilizing effects of technical change are still celebrated. But the key is the idea of "Usurped authority" - like that of winger Preachers, Commissars, TV pundits, Congressional demagogues, swaggering Tea Party bullies, and the loudest yellers on the internet. Even though in our age science and engineering have been kind of domesticated and are often portrayed as esoteric subjects most people should not want to understand, the scientific method remains dangerously radical because it doesn't take anyone on faith. Here's the way Tom Paine put it:
Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good
"View things as they are" remains a subversive doctrine. Paine was almost guillotined by the French revolutionaries for his refusal to stay in line. Priestley's life in America was far from utopian: he even fell afoul of John Adam's Alien and Sedition acts and was threatened with arrest. Yet he lived into the administration of Thomas Jefferson who was his great friend and admirer. These people were "radical" in a sense we don't often see anymore.
The faith in science and progress necessitated one other core value that Priestly shared with Jefferson and Franklin, and that is the radical's belief that progress inevitably undermines the the institutions and belief systems of the past. [..] Embracing change meant embracing the possibility that everything would have to be reinvented. [..] - Steve Johnson
Embracing the possibility that everything would have to be reinvented is more than just hoping that some company will make a lot of money. It requires a commitment to seeking truth and a kind of optimism that is foreign to both left and right in today's America. The Right always wants to enshrine a fake past as a "golden age" and to attack anyone who questions the rules of that fake past : that's why they tried to kill Priestley. But today's Left is not exactly demanding the reinvention of everything:
[the Left's] default temperament today is precisely the opposite of Priestley's: bleak and dystopian, filled with gloomy predictions of imminent catastrophe. To be a progressive today is to believe that the great engine of progress has stalled, and that we are no longer climbing the mountain, but descending into a valley of self-destruction. - Steven Johnson
At a time when the "left" has apparently lost all potential for advancing social change and has become a complaining club for dyspeptic middle class people resentful that they were not appointed to set policy, the naive Geek Radicalism of the American Revolution looks pretty appealing. Ray Williams said, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing" and I heard that first from Amory Lovins who is another Geek Radical. Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute does amazing work on energy and is both innovative and tenacious. Lovins is not a firebrand speaker or an ideological theorist- he's an engineer (and self-promoter) who wants to find working techniques for solving problems. You can't really understand what's wrong with the American economy without reading the Civil Engineering Report Card on infrastructure. Seymour Melman was another engineer with some ideas about how to embrace change. And a math teacher named Moses is doing work on what literacy means in a technological world. To me, this work is all more interesting, more useful, and more hopeful than more amateur discussions about "messaging" and exercises in fantasy speech writing from the left. But, as we just were reminded, change is not a safe project.