Future Tense

The Return to Medievalism

Why is the world so troubled right now? Rejection of modernity and technology may be to blame.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Source images from Reuters and Wikimedia Commons

The world is in a confused and dangerous state. Russia, a nuclear power, invades Ukraine and threatens the Baltic states, all the while spouting casual nuclear threats. ISIS recruits by posting videos of its brutal murders. Portions of both the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa degrade into failed and weak states. They exhibit what some have called neomedievalism, which is characterized by violence, polycentric governance, and warring ideologies. Camps within the American and European right and left reject science as an authoritative source of truth, accepting only that which accords with their belief systems. It seems chaotic—what American military author and historian Sean McFate calls “durable disorder”—but it has at least one unifying underlying theme: the rejection of the modern, technologically sophisticated, complex, multicultural, and multipolar world.

What ISIS and such groups are responding to is not simply military and sectarian opportunities but a broad cultural malaise. Accelerating technological, social, and cultural change undermines many strong beliefs and practices, which can be particularly damaging to individuals and weak institutions. Those who are unable to keep pace with, or accept the changes inherent in, such a world sometimes retreat to faith, which is an understandable response. Similarly, the ever-greater social and cultural complexity of an increasingly multicultural world may have the same effect, reinforcing the value of mythic cultural stereotypes and “golden ages” of the past as refuges. While the immediate military threat of ISIS and similar organizations can be managed through traditional military responses, the reasons ISIS is there in the first place—the civilizational conflict dimension of ISIS—cannot.

Skepticism about or even violent opposition to modernity is not new, of course. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Luddites violently fought the new technology; less active types dreamt of a far more preferable, albeit imaginary, distant golden age, as they had since Roman times. Romantics such as William Blake fretted over the human costs of technological modernity, the “dark Satanic mills” that polluted England’s landscapes. Marx, Engels, and other socialist revolutionaries, often drawing from the Christian utopian tradition, decried the brutality of unrestricted factory capitalism and built their own mythic golden age in the future to come. Modernity—taken as encompassing the high-technology, market-oriented, progressive, secular state model that has dominated the international stage for the past century—is having a particularly hard time of it these days, though. Fundamentalist movements of all stripes, from religious to environmentalist to cultural to political, reject the compromises, tolerance, and belief in progress that characterize modernity. Significant minorities in the United States reject climate change science and the theory of evolution, while in Europe environmentalists stifle genetic engineering and similar technologies.

It is not that these communities reject useful technologies: ISIS, for instance, is extraordinarily good at using social media to recruit. But technological change such as we are experiencing is unpredictable, accelerating, and occurring across the entire technological frontier, and it involves not just one but virtually all critical foundational technologies—nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, and applied cognitive science. And we know from history that any technology significant enough to be interesting will also inevitably destabilize existing communities, institutions, power relationships, social structures, worldviews, and cultural assumptions. Because these psychological, social, and cultural verities are sources of comfort and identity for many people in virtually all cultures, technological change will only encourage a continuing retreat to fundamentalism. What will the response in conservative religious cultures be if scientists do achieve radical extensions of human life? If they create telepathic, brain-to-computer-to-brain, communication? If they wire humans directly into mechanical systems—now a prosthetic, but in the future perhaps a major military system, or perhaps a Martian robot? If genetic redesign of individuals becomes routine, initially to avoid genetic diseases, but then to enhance performance?

This rise of anti-modernity fundamentalism across many societies and within many traditions does, however, raise new and compelling challenges for those responsible for the military and security of Western societies, and opportunities for adversaries of the West. Partially because of American dominance of conventional military capabilities, the current evolution of war toward new kinds of civilizational conflict will accelerate. While conventional war will not disappear—as the plethora of engagements that the U.S. and Europe have participated in recently clearly demonstrate—serious, major conflicts involving large states will increasingly be fought across many domains.  These might include not just traditional military activities, but also initiatives in nonconventional spaces such as finance, media and entertainment, infrastructure, and consumer products and services. They will also involve both new players, such as environmentalist groups, and the return of old actors, such as state religions in Russia or absolutist theologies in jihadist organizations. Traditional war, with military technologies and kinetic weapons, and defined geographic battle spaces, will likely become the exception, not the rule.

Once you understand the broader canvas of modern conflict, and the continued rise of reactionary, anti-modernist movements, you’ll see new and interesting patterns. ISIS and others have learned to be powerfully attractive to those who are left behind as modernity impacts traditional Middle Eastern and Asian societies. That’s especially true for younger males whose traditional identities have been torn asunder, but who have been unable to adapt to, or have not been welcomed into, the modern society in which they find themselves adrift. In the short term, of course, violent terrorism must be met with policing and counterterrorism programs; in the longer run, however, the question is more complex: How, exactly, can a soft power response be crafted for such a loss of identity? Russia’s suborning of anti-modernism in Europe is interesting and challenging, as well as sophisticated and powerful, and is not limited to just far-right and far-left political organizations. Indeed, NATO fears that Russia has effectively weaponized some environmentalist groups in Europe, because their opposition to fracking constitutes a powerful mechanism to ensure continued European reliance on Russian energy supplies, which in turn supports Russian influence over European responses to Russian hybrid warfare in Eastern and Central Europe.

Conversely, perhaps the most effective medium-term strategic weapon the U.S. has used in recent memory is domestic fracking. Not only does it support American economic growth, but it negatively impacts a number of adversaries including, of course, Russia (also Iran and Venezuela). More speculatively, it would be worthwhile from the perspective of America’s adversaries to figure out how to support the anti-modernity media and political forces, on the far right and left, that help paralyze American politics and lead to own goals such as shutting down the American government for partisan political reasons. Indeed, all the states in today’s great game of becoming one of a few superpowers in the future world understand that technological and scientific competence are critical to doing so. Thus, anything that supports the growth of anti-modernity forces in one’s adversaries, especially in democratic societies, is over the long term an important strategic investment.

Here is where history raises an evil specter indeed. Few conditions are completely new under the sun, and it wasn’t but a little more than a century ago, from the 1890s to the 1910s, that the West was undergoing somewhat analogous chaos, growing complexity, and cultural angst. Social mores and cultural patterns were being undermined by new technologies; countries that had long dominated the world, such as Britain, were falling in comparison with brash newcomers such as Germany. Railroads and communication technologies in a world increasingly globalized by European imperialism were mashing cultures up against each other in ways that were highly destabilizing to old verities. Military budgets were high. Religious and social conservatives loathed changes such as female suffrage and the perceived loss of moral constraint in a modern society. These factors led to one of the saddest ironies in history: When war was declared on the eve of World War I, a war that would destroy the naive optimism of the Enlightenment as well as much of European civilization, crowds celebrated wildly in the streets in every capital in Europe. A world sunk in adulation of a golden past that never was, and enthralled with the romance of anti-modernity, is quite likely to discount the benefits of the world that actually is. In a world of conflict, where nuclear powers clash by night, that dynamic substantially increases the risk of losing both.

This piece was adapted from a longer article appearing in the April Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate that explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.