Both Scrooges Are Right: Techno-futurism in 2020

Every year since I was about 12 years old, I've spent a few hours each Christmas Eve listening to Patrick Stewart’s one-man-show version of A Christmas Carol. The Dickens story has become so infused with Western Christmas culture in its many retellings, variations, and incarnations (from It's a Wonderful Life to Scrooged), that we sometimes forget that it is, at its heart, an emotionally rich mini-novel by one of the great stylists of the English language, but the original text is brilliant and I commend it highly.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a fascinating character to me not because of his redemptive journey from curmudgeonly old cynic to giddy-as-a-schoolboy Christmas-and-kindness enthusiast. That aspect of the story has its charms and can still occasionally choke me up at the part when he wakes on Christmas morning, a man totally changed by his expedition with the spirits. But there is another, more galaxy-brain, analysis of Scrooge's journey: namely, that he's correct both at the end of the story and at its outset—and that this manifests a deep truth about the human predicament.

He begins the tale a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," and in various derivative works this can often take amusingly violent forms (in the Muppets version, Scrooge fiercely hurls a wreath at a sweet-looking beggar-child). In every version of the story, though, we always get to the bit where he responds to overtures of Christmas cheer and charity with something along the lines of "how about you shut up and/or die instead?"

We're meant not to quite like the guy, but there are two kinds of people prone to misanthropy like Scrooge (one rather more sympathetic than the other): 1) constitutionally cranky jerks, and 2) emotionally-vulnerable sentimental idealists whose starry-eyed hopes have been dashed by the bitter realities of life. Popular portrayals of Ebenezer have him in the first category, but I would argue that a close reading of the text reveals him to be squarely in the latter.

The trouble with thinking of Stave-1 scrooge as a villain is this: bitter misanthropic cynicism actually is a decently rational and proportional response to being born into a civilization where human behavior is predominantly transactional, selfish, adversarial, and competitive but where everyone is still somehow expected to insist at every turn that his behavior is motivated by altruism and kindness. It is this chasm between human narrative and reality that seems to eat at Scrooge, not merely a shallowly sadistic desire to pee in other people's holiday punch. (Scrooge's diagnosis would not be the same as that of the Grinch, whose heart is simply "two sizes too small.") “This is the even-handed dealing of the world!,” Scrooge observes with exasperation. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!” It is also instructive that Ebenezer repeatedly derides Christmas culture by calling it a "humbug," a word that in British idiom not only refers to a frivolous confection but also means hypocrisy.

We get hints that Scrooge once had greater hopes for the world and his own life. In that conversation where he points to the absurdity of humanity's simultaneous exultation of and bitter cruelty toward the poor, his former fiancée speaks of having seen his "nobler aspirations fall off one by one," over the years as these realizations slowly cast their shadow upon him. And—in what to me is the most important line in the book—she goes on to psychoanalyze his stern stance toward the world, recognizing it not as the strength it advertises itself to be but something that betrays a profound vulnerability: "You fear the world too much...all your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach," (which is to say: via the fortifying power of cash). It is not a lack of idealism or an inherent distaste for human fellow-feeling that drives Scrooge to the embittered form in which we first encounter him; it is disappointed idealism.

Scrooge believes he is the only one who sees through the Matrix, and he simply refuses to play his part in the tragic pantomime. He might say that he lives the same calculating, self-interested life of everyone around him, but with the added virtue of honesty. He doesn't deny the inherent venality that comes from being born an animal with a fear of pain and a yearning to go on living, all on a planet with limited resources and other beings who want the same. He chooses gallows-humor candor over a life of confabulated happy-talk. And in this he isolates himself from emotional pain, avoids disappointment, and frees himself from duplicity. Can we really entirely revile him for that choice?

People tend to think of Scrooge's transformation as a tidy switching of allegiances from baddie to goodie, rather than the accretion of a new layer of wisdom. But Christmas Morning Scrooge is not exactly a repudiation of his former premises. Nothing he witnesses in his long night with the Spirits runs particularly contrary to a generally dismal view of human nature (to be sure, much of it could be seen to reinforce it). What it does provide him with is one important nuance on top of what he already knows.

Scrooge's ghostly ordeal takes him to see people behaving in deluded, irrational, simple-minded ways whose childish cluelessness nevertheless seems to lead them to greater flourishing than he, for all his wizened safety from hurt, has ever known. The example of Scrooge's old boss Fezziwig stands out particularly: his embrace of the irrational and playful in the face of a world that we know should demand a darkly rational response touches Scrooge deeply. Thanks to the Ghost of Christmas Past, in that moment there stands before him the kind of youthful optimism Scrooge had long ago dismissed as impossibly naïve but that appears to have led another businessman of a similar age and standing to a life of jovial contentment. These observations don't per se undermine Scrooge's predicates; they just give him different ideas about what to do with them: namely that it is possible to live in a mostly cold and transactional world—to acknowledge how short humanity falls of its stated ideals—and still rationally choose to behave as if that weren't the case. He sees that one doesn't have to live in or create a perfect world for it to be possible to create small little oases for one's values; a life is defined by the values one chooses and the million tiny little behaviors that manifest them over the course of our days. Redeemed Scrooge has learned that sometimes happy delusion is the right choice, because behaving as if another reality exists does actually create that reality in some very modest way, even if highly localized.

Both Scrooges are right.

Those who follow my work and what I say about it will know that I've always had a certain preoccupation with past visions of the future, particularly as computing and technology are concerned. But I have found myself even more than usually haunted by those ideas in this more than usually troubled year.

When I was in junior high school and one of the few people in my class to have access to a computer and dialup connection, I dreamed of a world that might one day be fully wired (as we used to say in that quaint era). The Internet was going to usher in a more peaceful and enlightened world, with more leisure and material prosperity for everyone. It was going to give voice to previously unheard minority views and create an unprecedented culture of free speech and dialogue. It was going to foster equality by situating us in a "virtual world" where the old distinctions of identity and background mattered less. It was going to break down the barriers of class and nation, bringing humans together around shared interests, transcending the limitations of physical space and allowing us to both feel and foster the warmth of human connection over vast distances.

It's easy to forget how extraordinary it is that in some ways all of those things actually sort of happened, if only because none of them them quite played out exactly as we had envisaged—or with the same felicitous consequences that once seemed inevitable.

And, as with so many things, the transition happened at first gradually, and then suddenly. Perhaps it was that long slow beginning that made it so easy to miss, but COVID19 has more than anything else finally fully effected what were once our most fantastical visions for the future of technology. Shunning real-world social interactions, in 2020 we tap dynamic controls on our fantastically powerful touch-sensitive pocket-computers, and an ad-hoc network of couriers sets instantly into motion to supply our every fancy: from freshly-made food to bespoke footwear. (Does anyone else remember that far-out scene in The Net [1995] when Sandra Bullock's hacker character implausibly orders pizza on the Web?) From work to leisure, we meet in simulated online spaces without respect to geography, time zone, or lower-body apparel. We can watch every movie ever made, according to momentary whim, in the middle of nowhere. And, yes, virtually all human knowledge is stored by and conveyed by computers running Linux. We have stumbled finally into the ultimate delegitimation of meatspace that once seemed so appealing, the total dominion of the digital, an era of truly remote work for many, and the near complete virtualization of human social interaction. My futuristic childhood fantasies have, in a sense, come true.

And yet where my introverted and nerdy boyhood self would look to these outcomes with only trembling delight, adult me finds himself in a state of profound, worried ambivalence. This year has also seen an asymmetric expansion of all the things that have given so much of us a sense of unease about the growth of technology over the past decade. Trends that had been slowly coalescing resources and authority around a few centers of power have reached a point of acute upward inflection, and we find ourselves in a world that seems less like the nexus of decentralization that we had imagined and rather more a Blade Runner dystopia—run by a few wacky oligarchs with the algorithmic tools to peer in our souls and know us better than we know ourselves.

We fallen technology idealists finds ourselves becoming maximally cynical about both technology and the future. And I find that what were once my greatest joys and sources of youthful optimism now can as often bring me a sense of melancholy and dread. I sometimes worry that my love of retro-futurism, the optimism of midcentury modern design, and nostalgia for the spirit of the early days of the computer revolution are just so much irrational escapist wishful thinking, a way to deny the uncomfortable realities of today by inhabiting a confected alternate world. But the tale of Scrooge reminds us: yeah, that's pretty much the point. If you care about a set of ideals and want the world to reflect them, to note that one's utopia is probably never going to arrive does not invalidate those feelings and values. We mustn't live our lives through external meta-narratives about the trajectory of the world (it helps never reading the news), especially if those narratives poison our ability to act according to (and still be excited by) those ideals in our everyday lives.

And so in this melancholy year I'm trying to remind myself of the real (unintended) lessons of Dickens' story. It's fine to be cynical: it has the virtue of being right. But don't let the cynicism—which is the indirect product of idealism—let you forget the ideals themselves. This was Scrooge's only mistake. Let's choose to behave as if computing can still make the world better, because that also happens to be true. Yes, maybe it's true only in small, localized ways, but those are the ways that actually matter to our lives and those of the people around us anyway. By all means, let us kvetch about the sorry state of media, politics, privacy, and freedom of thought that the contemporary Web has wrought. But also celebrate the ability to forge connections, build community, and supply our interests and material needs in spite of a global pandemic that has kept most of us in our homes for nearly a year. Few things are uniformly great, or uniformly terrible. It's OK to look to the future and be both Scrooges: cynical and starry-eyed, disappointed and warmly nostalgic, reluctant and hopeful.

Or at least that's what I'm telling myself this year, because, like Scrooge on Christmas morning, it's the lie I've happily chosen to live by.