Five questions for Virginia Postrel on dynamism, glamour, and technological change

By James Pethokoukis and Virginia Postrel

While we often describe American politics with the terms “left” and “right,” another key divide is dynamism versus stasis. Dynamists, argued Virginia Postrel in her 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies, embrace risk and creative destruction. Stasists, on the other hand, favor top-down control in pursuit of stability. As dynamists and stasists in both parties grapple over technocratic planning, globalization, and the effects of technology, it’s worth revisiting this framework. To discuss the state of dynamism in America and much more, Virginia Postrel joined me on a recent episode of “Political Economy.”

Virginia is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University. She is the author of The Future and Its EnemiesThe Substance of Style, and The Power of Glamour. Her latest is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: Do you think that this pandemic has made American society a more “dynamist,” risk-taking society or a more risk-averse, “stasist” society?

Postrel: I think it has heightened some of the divisions: People’s interpretations very much reflect their inclinations about dynamism and stasis. Those of us who are more in the dynamist camp tend to say, “Think about these vaccines. This is a miracle that we were so able to do this so fast.” On the other hand, we have also seen how many people are extremely risk averse.

At the same time, I can’t say that the people who have resisted that kind of overwhelming “regulate everything” impulse have covered themselves with glory because there was so much hate being spewed and so much, well, craziness: people who combined reasonable arguments about cost and benefits with conspiracy theories or with highly politicized statements that didn’t acknowledge valid concerns. I think that dynamism has come through the pandemic in a different status from before, but not necessarily a worse status.

Does The Power of Glamour give you any insights into the power of social media?

Yes, which isn’t discussed in that book. One of the things that happened almost while the book was in the press was this explosion, particularly of Instagram. Particularly on these highly visual types of social media like Instagram, people create versions of their life that are polished, that create projection and longing, that hide flaws.

A user opens social network Instagram mobile app in L’Aquila, Italy, on april 21, 2022. Photo by Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto

And then, of course, they know all the things that are left out, but then they look at their friends and they go, “How come their life is perfect and mine isn’t?” And they go crazy. And if they’re teenage girls, it’s worse, because teenage girls have craziness (so do teenage boys, but I don’t have direct experience with that). So that’s one thing that it tells us about social media: creation of glamorous versions of reality, including our own individual, bottom-up reality, if you will.

It seemed that there was a period where we viewed Silicon Valley and these entrepreneurs as particularly glamorous, and it was kind of a bipartisan thing. Not so much anymore. Does Silicon Valley have a glamour problem?

Yeah, I think they do actually. The peak of Silicon Valley glamour was the movie The Social Network. Even though it was kind of negative in many ways, it attracted a lot of young people to think, “Oh, I would like to do this,” But it had an edge to it.

And so I think that was kind of peak glamour in the sense that then the wheels started to come off and it definitely has to do with social media. Partly I think maybe it made the products of technology too familiar. The other thing is that Steve Jobs was really glamorous and as well as charismatic. And there was this whole generation that kind of worshiped Steve Jobs, and then he died and he was no longer on the scene to epitomize the technology that people liked. Elon Musk, to some extent, plays that role, but my students are always very quick to talk about how he grew up privileged or something. They don’t want to give him too much credit. They don’t want to buy in altogether with the glamour.

What did you learn about the Luddites when you were writing The Fabric of Civilization?

For thousands of years, women all over the world spent much of their time spinning thread. When the Industrial Revolution comes along in the late 18th century, you start to get spinning machines that automate that process. You have both violent protests—people attacking the mills physically—and you have nonviolent protests—people going to the British parliament saying, “Do something. Outlaw these things.” If you were making your living spinning, there was definitely disruption.

One of the great beneficiaries were the hand weavers, because suddenly they went from being constrained by not getting enough yarn to weave cloth with, to having all the yarn they needed. Then wheel-turned power looms came in, and this is where we get the Luddites. So the original Luddites, who were hand weavers concerned about losing their jobs, were not ideologically opposed to technology. They were just self-interested people who rioted, broke looms, attacked plants, and were punished by the government. They were ironically the beneficiaries of an earlier generation of technological progress.

What lessons should we draw from the story of the Luddites?

The lesson I take from that is, first of all, we, as a society, as a world, get better off when we allow these things to proceed. That’s number one. Number two: There are disruptions and to the degree that we can mitigate the disruptions for individuals, buy them off, so to speak, we probably should do that. And the third thing is Friedrich Hayek’s old idea of merit versus value. That the fact that something is valued in the marketplace at a given time is strictly a matter—he even put it this way—of supply and demand. And it doesn’t say anything about your merit as a human being, and we often conflate those two things. People feel they’re disrespected, and also people who are riding high, like tech people, think they’re better than everybody else. That arrogance helps trigger some of the pushback. So yeah, it’s a struggle that goes back at least to the 18th century. But if you take the long view, you get what Deirdre McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment,” which is not only a single leap in technology, but a continuous building of both incremental and macro inventions that make everyone better off.

James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Virginia Postrel is an author, Bloomberg Opinion columnist, and visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University. Her latest book is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.

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