The New Right Takes on Big Tech
Everyone at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami could explain why the internet is damaging society—but do any of them have a plan for what comes next?
Front and center at the third installment of the National Conservatism Conference held last week in Miami was the campaign of the “New Right” to fight against the power of Big Tech and social media. Where old-school Republicans might have championed big business, the more nationalist, populist, and traditionalist elements of the so-called New Right find the tech companies to be a direct threat. What they’re prepared to do about it remains to be seen.
A common concern is how digital media is eroding communities, which was a theme of cultural commentator Alex Kaschuta’s speech, “The Tragedy of Our Commons.” Others focused on the way social media sites that offer free entertainment and digital “connection” lure users into data-scraping surveillance traps. Some attendees argued that the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing company TikTok should be banned in the United States. Many are disturbed by the level of control that Big Tech exerts over the news flow, as was the case with the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story. Gov. Ron DeSantis told attendees that private citizens should be able to sue Big Tech for “political discrimination.”
Unlike Mitch McConnell and the older stalwarts of the Republican Party, the members of the New Right who gathered in Miami see tech as a direct threat to their values, socially, economically, politically, and metaphysically. Big Tech and, more generally, the internet aren’t a threat to conservative values only because of censorship or even the monopoly they have on the flow of information. The issue runs much deeper than that. Tech frames how we view the world (as digestible, tweet-able, or TikTok-friendly stories), our relationship to our own bodies (smartphones, their own type of prosthetic limbs) and, for some, even our internal monologues, variously narrated by a Spotify soundtrack or by the incessant voice telling us to check the feed. The internet separates us from our communities, the world around us, and our humanity by mediating our every interaction. Simply forcing the tech industry’s current information monopolies to rebrand or even significantly limiting their reach won’t necessarily change that.
Some people on the right recognize the complexity and severity of solving these problems. In the Claremont Institute’s The American Mind, for instance, Josh Hammer, a previous NatCon speaker, wrote last year, “Our digital problems run too deep, and are far too structural and culturally embedded, for there to be one convenient panacea.”
Yet, despite this, very few of the speakers in Miami reached beyond stock complaints about censorship or calls for breaking up Big Tech monopolies to outline a specific plan for how to shift the economy away from its reliance on digital products and rebalance political power in the United States. That’s if they offered policy suggestions at all. Will Chamberlain, the owner and editor in chief of the conservative publication Human Events, called for bringing “tech and social media space back to how it was in 2015, when Trump was able to use it to win.” The problem with that idea, of course, is that even if you could turn back the clock, 2015 is still going to lead to 2016 and beyond.
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If there was a certain lack of positive vision on display in Miami, the question arises: What would a more robust agenda to curtail the power of tech look like? How would it take shape?
In a conversation I had with Jared Eckert, a conservative writer who focuses on technology and embodiment, we discussed the importance of reforms in education. What, for example, would be the result of banning tablets in classrooms, in favor of paper only? What would it mean for more universities to look like Wyoming Catholic College, which has a strict technology policy that prohibits television, handheld devices with wireless or cellular data, and cellphones on campus and has a strict firewall to prevent students from surfing the web? For Yeshivas, Christian colleges, and other religious institutions across the country, rules like these are already commonplace, but could we see secular schools adopting similar policies? Beneath the policy issues, conservatives have to challenge the consumerist conveniences Big Tech provides by showing that there is something in human nature even more valuable and desirable than scrolls and clicks. If there’s a conservative vision of a more embodied world, one that isn’t beholden to Big Tech or digital connectivity period, I couldn’t find it in Miami.
However, it’s vital to keep in perspective that it wasn’t the social-media-fueled Trump derangement syndrome that created the world we live in today. It wasn’t even the infinite scroll. To give just two examples, #GamerGate and 24-hour news both predate RussiaGate. The right should not strive to “return” to 2015, let alone to some romanticized, neo-Luddite past. My challenge for them is to ask, “What does a truly embodied, unmediated life actually look like, policy and all?”