Freaked Out by Technology

A student of the '60s takes a new look at what moved the New Left.


By the end of the sixties, I was getting really tired of two words. One was obscene. In those days, anything you didn't approve of was obscene, from Wall Street to required courses to the capitalist war machine. The other was idealistic—as in "our idealistic youth."

The student left was by definition idealistic. I don't know where they got all this idealism. Perhaps it came in their registration packets, along with a campus map and library card. For a while it got so bad you could turn on the TV practically any night and there would be someone like David Susskind interviewing a Columbia student. "Look," the host would say, leaning over his director's chair to touch his guest on the arm. "I understand your idealism, but the end doesn't justify the means. How can idealism ever serve as a pretext for violence?"

"Yes, it's true," the student would answer, adjusting his trouser leg and checking to see which camera was on. "We are a very idealistic generation. That's why for us, racism and war are the ultimate obscenities."

Tossing his head as if to say "good point," the host would pause for a station break, after which they'd spend the next 30 minutes talking about corporate greed, social injustice, and the pressing need to restructure the nation's universities (the majority of which, they readily agreed, treated their students like dock workers on a banana boat). But they never got back to the matter of student radicals' alleged idealism. That was a given—like income taxes, or Lake Erie.

In fact, the only group that really ever questioned the notion that student radicals were oppressed idealists was the American working class. Despite their lack of education, American workers never had any trouble figuring out that it was they—not the radicals—who got up every morning to labor in factories, fields, and construction sites. Intellectuals, on the other hand, couldn't admire the youthful radicals enough. Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston in his 1968 book, Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth, practically ran out of complimentary adjectives, describing the New Left as "sensitive," "trusting," "spontaneous," "independent," "self- actualized," and "emotionally free."

But this only confirmed what working-class Americans had long suspected about academic intellectuals—they were either willfully self-destructive or inexplicably dense. And the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, plaintively asked, where were all the conservative sociologists and political scientists?

It was not an unreasonable question. On political issues, sociologists almost always tilted left—which was perhaps no great surprise to anyone but Ronald Reagan, sociology from its inception having taken as its purview the social consequences of capitalism. And from the sociological point of view, capitalism had a lot to answer for—not the least of which was the way the capitalist market economy discounts intellectuals.

Unlike socialist societies—where intellectuals were routinely courted, even honored, for their expertise, intelligence, and broad-based skills—under capitalism, '60s intellectuals complained, they were demeaned and devalued, if not totally ignored. Technology was a great engine, but nobody was at the controls. Public policy matters went unaddressed. Social planning was a joke.

In any humanistic society, intellectuals argued, there would have been a role for them in the power structure, a niche from which they could help set government policy on the one hand and oversee the technocrats on the other. Instead, there was this enormous, gaping void. Decisions or, what was more often the case, non-decisions with far-reaching consequences were being made by mere technicians, people who couldn't tell Herbert Spencer from Herbert Marcuse and had never heard of either one.

The result, intellectuals protested, was every wicked thing you might have expected—a competitive, rapacious, alienated society, bereft of spiritual values, a slave to mere efficiency, blithely unaware of any obligation to the planet, and totally unconcerned with humanity at large.

"We have met the oppressed, and they are us." This was hardly a new refrain. The Old Left had made similar charges and dreamed similar dreams throughout the previous 30 years: The intellectuals would raise the revolutionary consciousness of the oppressed workers. Then, outraged by the revealed internal contradictions of capitalism, the workers would rise up and seize the means of production, whereupon the intellectuals would step in and declare a workers' paradise.

The knotty problem, as the Old Left saw it, was American proletarians' inability to stage a revolution—they were too busy watching football, rototilling their flowerbeds, or painting racing stripes on their snowmobiles.

By the sixties, the Old Left was sowing the seeds of revolution on increasingly barren ground. Their propaganda was 30 years out of date. Their vision of the future looked like a tractor repair manual from the first five-year plan. The way they talked, one would think the working class still spent its days in textile mills, coal mines, and cast-iron foundries. But in truth, the United States had become a service economy in the post-war years. The percentage of US workers belonging to labor unions peaked in 1954 and has been falling ever since to about 20 percent today. By the mid-sixties, Americans had entered the first stage of the post-industrial society. Increasingly, American workers weren't so much wearing coveralls and steel-toed work boots as Adidas sneakers and designer jeans.

Although privately disappointed by the American worker's failure to recognize his own oppression, activist intellectuals were nothing if not flexible. And in the spring of 1960, the late Columbia Marxian sociologist C. Wright Mills announced a startling conceptual breakthrough—he had discovered a new proletariat. Citing the success of student activists in challenging repressive regimes in Turkey, South Korea, Cuba, and Japan, Mills asked: "Who is it that is thinking and acting in radical ways? All over the world—in the bloc, outside the bloc, and in between—the answer's the same: it is the young intelligentsia."

For the New Left this was the socialist equivalent of Isaac Newton's apple. Tom Hayden, founding father of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), incorporated it into his New Left manifesto, the Port Huron Statement of 1961, from which it spread like dandelions over college campuses across the land. No longer would the revolution have to dance in attendance to the beer-sotted masses, most of whom were reactionary Steeler fans anyway—student activists were now their own oppressed class. Thus the origin of the phenomenon that so astonished blue-collar workers—the student-as-nigger theme and the startling intellectual backflips by which New Leftists transformed poor vacillating college deans into academic storm troopers and steely- eyed bureaucrats for the new Amerikan Reich.

The strangest aspect of this transformation was that the worst complaints weren't coming from poor kids working their way through a state teachers college. It was the most privileged students from the best colleges who apparently felt the most oppressed. At Harvard, for example, the editors of the Harvard Crimson unblushingly referred to themselves as "the oppressed student class."

This so astonished former Harvard student Steven Kelman that in his 1970 book on the Harvard strike, Push Comes to Shove, he set aside an entire chapter to point out the obvious—not only were his classmates not victims, they were actually quite highly privileged members of an elite leisure class. They lived in a mahogany-paneled universe. The bathrooms in their campus suites were larger than most dormitory rooms at less- favored schools. They didn't even feel particularly anxious about the future, rightly or wrongly assuming that in merely having been admitted to Harvard their futures were assured. And yet, like students at Berkeley and Columbia before them, in the spring of 1969, following months of feverish SDS activity, the Harvard student body seized a building, and then went out on strike for nearly two thrilling weeks.

Students and more students: the rise of a new intelligentsia With the sixties so far behind us now it's sometimes hard to recall that the original campus protests had little to do with the war in Vietnam. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was the archetype for sixties-style student protests, and that emerged in September 1964, some 10 months before President Johnson announced the Vietnam troop build-up. There were, to be sure, American advisors in Vietnam at the time. But the issue had not yet become a major campus issue, let alone a nightly staple of the TV news.

Furthermore, as Bruno Bettelheim pointed out at the tine, if the student protests really were a principled reaction to university complicity in racism and war, why did similar protests take place in France, Germany, Italy, and Japan? Even if one could construct a plausible case for the complicity of American universities in our racial problems and military adventures, by what stretch of ideological imagination could that complicity be extended to a university in France or Japan? Or for that matter, did anyone, including the SDS, seriously believe that American universities were really the cause of the Vietnam war?

In the 1969 Harvard strike, the logic by which students indicted Harvard of a crime against humanity was so tortured that even the SDS was half-embarrassed to advance it. At Columbia, the SDS justification for taking over the university in 1968 was that Columbia supported the war through its Institute for Defense Analysis and that its proposed gym in Morningside Heights Park "exploited" blacks and Puerto Ricans. Yet as Columbia SDS leader Mark Rudd would later admit cheerfully, the SDS "manufactured the issues. The institute is nothing at Columbia. It doesn't mean anything to anybody, just three professors. I had never been near the gym site. Before the demonstration began, I didn't even know how to get there."

Marshall McLuhan once remarked, in another context, that we only see our environment as it rushes away from us, through a rear-view mirror. In the future, historians might very well conclude that the most significant fact of the sixties wasn't that so many students were rioting, but simply that there were so many students, period. Just prior to World War II, the number of college students in this country was approximately equal to the total number of coal-mining and railroad workers—about 1.4 million. Thirty years later, the number of college students had increased 400 percent, to 7 million. Students, in fact, had become a brand-new social class, out-numbering miners 50 to 1, railway workers 9 to 1, and farmers 3 to 1. Whereas .a college education had once been almost the exclusive preserve of the upper classes, following World War II it was open to virtually anyone. (Currently, two-thirds of all California high-school students go on to college.)

The ostensible explanation of all this education was that students needed it to cope with our infamous technological society. In fact, the problem was less a matter of our society's much-touted complexity than its growing inability to provide enough jobs. Universal higher education seemed like a simple yet elegant solution—it was both stimulating and instructive and it held down the unemployment rate. Unfortunately, as H.L. Mencken once observed, for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong. What was wrong with keeping so many of the nation's young people out of the productive labor force was that it deprived them of what Freud said was essential to the development of an identity—the opportunity to work.

Young and restless: the angst of obsolescence The concept of adolescence, which seems so obvious to us now, is actually a rather recent invention. In earlier times it was not considered cruel or oppressive that teenagers should have to bear adult responsibilities. Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia at age 19. Joan of Arc was still a teenager when she broke the siege of Orleans. In medieval times it was considered quite ordinary that monarchs would assume the throne while still in their middle teens. Only in our urban technological society can a willfully self-destructive student of 27 be tolerantly patronized as someone trying to "find himself."

By the mid-sixties, what had formerly been only the inchoate angst of a James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or a Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront was rapidly becoming the common experience of an entire generation. Some intellectuals—perhaps not understanding what young people meant when they complained of feelings of powerlessness, rage, and lack of identity—jumped to the conclusion that such alienation was the inevitable result of being the first generation to come of age under the looming threat of the atom bomb. Nobel Laureate George Wald won a standing ovation for this explanation from a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late sixties. And sociologist Kenneth Keniston used it to explain why the SDS generation was so "sensitive" to the issue of violence. (Keniston was writing before the SDS became the Weather Underground and began blowing up buildings, including, by accident, its own bomb factory.)

For psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the bomb hypothesis was a little too facile. In a 1970 monograph called Obsolete Youth, Bettelheim pointed out that students' indignation toward the threat of nuclear Armageddon tended to be highly selective, generally excoriating the United States while only gently chiding the Soviet Union—that is, if the Soviets were blamed at all. And yet the Soviets relied just as much on their missiles as we did on ours. Furthermore, they had a larger army and, ever since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, a faster-growing navy as well. So why was it, asked Bettelheim, that all through the sixties, whenever there was a student protest in Germany, France, Italy, or Japan, censure was always heaped upon the United States but never the Soviet Union?

It was Bettelheim's contention that the indignation and alienation of student protestors in the sixties was not so much a reaction to the atom bomb or the Vietnam war as it was the implicit conviction that "they didn't have a future"—not because anyone was going to vaporize them with ballistic missiles but simply because, in Bettelheim's works, "modern technology has made them obsolete." The United States always bore the brunt of students' protests because, compared to it, the Soviets were a backward society whose technology was almost entirely limited to its military forces. American civilian technology, on the other hand, pervaded entire cultures clear around the globe. And that, says Bettelheim, was what the student protests were really about—not the war machine but the machine itself and how it seemed to affect humans in a technological age.

It was perhaps no mere rhetorical coincidence that Mario Savio, a student leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, phrased his famous 1964 attack on the multiversity in a technological metaphor—he urged the students to throw their bodies on the "gears" and "levers" of the "machine." That was a time when just the study of computer science was seen as a kind of moral and political degeneracy. "Even accounting," remembers Santa Monica community activist Derek Shearer, "was seen as a capitalist plot."

In those days, the relationship between student unrest and our technological society was not widely appreciated. President Johnson was forever leaning on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to produce proof that Moscow was orchestrating and funding the antiwar effort. He never could, for the New Left's main connection with the Soviet Union was simply its penchant for talking in a kind of politburo agit-prop. In any case, one hardly needed to invoke Soviet agents to explain the New Leftists' loathing of corporate capitalism—that was a consequence of their fearful feelings about technology and how they would cope in a technological society.

Fear and loathing in the new American technocracy Despite the left's theoretical concern for the working man, during the sixties the New Left's leadership—the overwhelming majority of whom, studies showed, came from the educated urban upper-middle class—actually felt more than a little contempt for working men. Southern workers were demeaned as "rednecks," those in the construction trades as "hardhats." In one very popular movie of that era, Easy Rider, white working-class men were portrayed as redneck thugs. Such attitudes were perhaps not surprising. The radical student left never had any contact with blue-collar Americans. At Harvard, the aver-age family income of SDS members was 35 percent higher than that of the college body as a whole and three times as high as that of the average American family.

In the sixties, the majority of engineering students came from working-class families, while the New Left, true to its upper-middle-class origins, regarded engineering the same way nineteenth-century English aristocrats regarded "trade"—they thought it was undoubtedly very satisfying for the lower classes but hardly the sort of thing they'd ever choose themselves. Instead, student radicals largely majored in political science, sociology, psychology, and all the other less-exact studies, with an occasional nod to the biological sciences and theoretical math.

Such an attitude perhaps made in a less technological era, when the purpose of higher education was to give the offspring of the upper classes the breadth and polish that would one day allow them to assume their proper roles as society's elite. But in an era when virtually anyone could go to college, the up-per classes' education wasn't so elite anymore. Not only didn't it prepare them to be society's leaders—in a technological society, it didn't prepare them to be much of anything at all.

Contrary to what so many liberal com-have suggested, the New Leftists' problem wasn't that they went overboard in their infatuation with Marx but that they hadn't really understood Marx at all. In the sixties, the main source of the New Left's considerable influence with liberal legislators, media, and intellectuals was its largely un-challenged assertion that those in the movement, despite their occasional excesses of zeal, were motivated mainly by their own high principles. Their admittedly self-righteous rage, they claimed, was wholly defensible as an understand-able reaction to the horror of racism, repression, injustice, and war.

Marx, on the other hand, had always maintained that when the chips were down, what really motivated people wasn't so much an abstract devotion to social justice as a practical concern for the welfare of their own social class. In the sixties, the newest and most vibrant social class was that composed of students, especially those affluent, ur-ban, upper-middle-class students whose education, upbringing, and leftist politics had left them unprepared to cope in a technological society.

Richard Nixon must have laughed until his jowls shook at the way New Leftists, in opposing the Vietnam war, wrapped themselves in the mantle of idealism, but as soon as he introduced the lottery in 1971 and abandoned the draft entirely in early 1973, the campus riots of the sixties and early seventies vanished like a bad dream in the night. A Berkeley professor I recently talked to remembers the difference in his students as absolutely phenomenal. All through the spring quarter of 1971, they spent the class attacking him as a tool of the capitalist war machine. There was a three-month summer vacation. And when they came back, it was suddenly a 1950s' rerun—the students were meek, mild, and trusting.

It was perhaps true that radical leftists of the sixties, coming as they did from the privileged upper-middle class, felt sincere concern, compassion, and guilt for this nation's oppressed and deprived. But it was equally true that the major beneficiaries of the projected increases in social spending they demanded on behalf of the poor were people like themselves—people who wanted and needed jobs administering such programs and who were either unwilling or unable to endure what they saw as the crass reality of life in the private sector. And how better to justify the increased taxes the private sector would have to provide for such programs and jobs than to blame the private sector for all the country's ills. Thus, in the sixties, attacking corporate greed became a major national pastime.

I once asked Deirdre English, editor of Mother Jones, why so many of its articles concerned the alleged need to bring businesses under some sort of public control. Her answer, I remember, was practically a wail: "But they've got all the science and technology." Of course, she was absolutely right. And this, I think, was the real complaint of leftist radicals in the sixties. Contrary to everything they'd ever been taught to hold or revere, the future didn't so much belong to them anymore as it did to all these neobarbaric technocrats. And yet because these people knew about such things as impedance and capacitance, silicon chips and computer architecture, it was they—and not the liberally educated radicals—who were receiving the lion's share of our technological bounty.

It is not sheer coincidence that in this country engineers and leftists have always been at opposite ends of the political scale. Engineers, by and large, are people who are in some degree gifted in spatial relations, math, and (often-times) manual dexterity. Working as they do on our society's cutting edge, they are neither diminished by machines nor terrified of technology. But such talents exact their toll. Despite the ease with which engineers manipulate the physical universe, they are as a group much less gifted in manipulating other people—they do not rank conspicuously high in social skills.

The personal skills of socialists, on the other hand, seem almost exactly the opposite. They have no technological skills themselves, but they have superb social skills, especially those involved in argument and exposition. They then use these skills to advance their heartfelt thesis that the world is out of control. The socialist worldview is that we are all particles of dust, buffeted and scattered by the universal cyclone and our only hope—if we have a hope—is to join hands with our comrades and thereby temporarily hold the howling cosmic winds at bay.

Socialists' real problem is that they can't cope and they know they can't cope. Their only hope of survival is to inject politics into every corner of human activity, thereby securing for themselves through the political process those goods and services they couldn't produce on their own. For true socialists, the ideal world would be one in which people such as themselves set forth the agenda and lesser folks, like engineers and technicians, carry out the program. To put it another way, socialism isn't so much an altruistic economic system as a subtle insurance policy for the technologically inept.

The sixties ended so quickly, it took us another five years to realize they were fully gone. One moment, college students across the country had risen up against the Cambodia invasion and the next minute it seemed like half the left had traded in their revolutionary rhetoric for bean sprouts, mysticism, and a teepee in Mendocino County—where, to their everlasting chagrin, their kids grew up demanding skateboards and electric trains, just like everyone else's.

As for technology itself, many of us had long bought into the idea that computers (to use the quintessential example) were some kind of neofascist intelligence housed in a machine the size of a small bungalow. For years we'd been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the computer room. But when we finally walked in of our own accord, sat down at a terminal, and punched the button marked "enter," we found to our surprise and joy it didn't hurt at all.

Paul Ciotti is a free-lance writer who has contributed to REASON, California, and other magazines.