Techno-Optimism: A Future Worth Living In?

 

Techno-optimism is an ideology that embodies the pessimism and the optimism above: the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.

—Cory Doctorow, Techno-Optimism

I’m a pessimist trying to turn himself into an optimist.

Neal Stephenson, Project Hieroglph

The wavering  oscillation between pessimism and optimism has always been a part of the literature of technology, a sort of eternal battle between two modes of life and thought. And, yet, at times there is this crossing of the rift in-between as if the two enemies might have something to offer each other that could at least spell a momentary truce. Such is our moment that some have begun labeling the Anthropocene.  A wake up call from the edge of thought that would have us understand just how ill-equipped we are in the face of our own impact on civilization and the environment upon which we all depend. Some of hose who affirm that technology always holds the power to be used for good or ill, and yet beyond the Luddite fringe who would do away with our technological supplements altogether there are those who see this duplicity, the two-handed sword that is technology for what it is: the necessary and reciprocal core of the inhuman we all bare as our ancestral mark. For as those who advocate orginary technicity would have it: the “who” of humanity and the “what” of technology, to use Stiegler’s well-known formula, are bound together in an insoluble, aporetic relation. Our relation to technology has always had this since of insoluble questioning associated with it and its place in our lives. Techno-pessimist will tend to see it under the critical eye of technological determinism, portraying our love affair with technology as dangerous and wrongheaded. While techno-optimists will understand this double-edged sword, but see beyond the dangers the possible reward in turning technology to human uses that allow for transformation in the optative mood.

Nicholas Agar believes that techno-optimism is dangerous, that those who harbor a view that technology should become a part of the answer not the problem in this transitional world in-between utopia and dystopia that pervades our future prospects:

I think that this techno-optimism is mistaken. It significantly exaggerates the power of technological progress to boost well-being. Suppose that it’s true that many new technologies bring considerable benefits to the individuals who acquire or experience them. We err in translating improvements in individual well-being into predictions about the long-term effects of technological progress on society. Predictably happier individuals don’t necessarily make a predictably happier society.

Of course the notion of progress both in the techno-scientific and socio-cultural milieux led to a deep rift in the 1950’s between the literary crowd and those of the scientific community.  C.P. Snow would sum it up this way:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.1

Facing the future of climate change many techno-pessimists paint a bleak picture of devastation, ruin, and the end of civilization as we’ve come to know it. Using climate change as a weapon against the techno-optimistic vision they will advocate a dystopian world of decay without end. As Roy Scranton will put it:

Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation. It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it. From the perspective of many policy experts, climate scientists, and national security officials, the concern is not whether global warming exists or how we might prevent it, but how we are going to adapt to life in the hot, volatile world we’ve created.2

There is a name for this new world: the Anthropocene. The word comes from ancient Greek. All the epochs of the most recent geological era (the Cenozoic) end in the suffix “-cene,” from kainós, meaning new. Anthropos means human. The idea behind the term “Anthropocene” is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. 16 The biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and the Nobel-winning chemist Paul Crutzen advanced the term in 2000, and it has gained acceptance as evidence has grown that the changes wrought by global warming will affect not only the world’s climate and biodiversity, but its very geological structure, and not just for centuries, but for millennia.(ibid.)

Even the famed father of socio-biology and entomologist Edward O. Wilson has joined the dark riders of techno-pessimism. For him we are moving toward absolute catastrophe unless we are willing to take drastic measures:

For the first time in history a conviction has developed among those who can actually think more than a decade ahead that we are playing a global endgame. Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker. Our population is too large for safety and comfort. Fresh water is growing short, the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish, and fungi. For many species it is already fatal. Because the problems created by humanity are global and progressive, because the prospect of a point of no return is fast approaching, the problems can’t be solved piecemeal. There is just so much water left for fracking, so much rain forest cover available for soybeans and oil palms, so much room left in the atmosphere to store excess carbon.3

In Wilson’s recent book he would even advocate the drastic notion that the only way we can overcome the immediate impact of human degradation on the biodiversity of the planet is a quarantine, stating that by setting “aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival (ibid.).”

Some like Peter Townsand believe there is a way out of this quagmire, that we “can overcome many of these future difficulties if we have sufficient information, data, knowledge, and understanding, but knowledge and data now vanish ever more quickly in new storage formats”.4 This loss of knowledge in its exteriorization has been documented repeatedly by Bernard Stiegler as the reduction of humanity to a set of calculable ciphers in the mathematical world of algorithmic governmentality in the data-driven economy:

Such mathematics is applied twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: everyday life is thereby subjected to reticular standards and calculations, while at the same time consumer markets are ‘personalized’. According to Johnathan Crary (24/7), this economy of personal data aims “to reduce decision-making time and to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation”. Digital automatons short-circuit the deliberative functions of the mind, and systemic stupidity, which has been installed across the board from consumers to speculators, becomes functionally drive-based as soon as ultra-liberalism begins to privilege speculation and discourage investment, thereby crossing a threshold of ‘functional stupidity’. 5

This is the era of completed nihilism in which humans rely on external (tertiary) systems and artificial intelligence to make decisions and think for them. Humans in a few generations will lose the ability to reflect and think, make choices on their own without turning to their avatar agents and robotic intelligences for answers to the most pressing problems of their lives. In the automatic society that Deleuze was never to know, but which with Félix Guattari he anticipated, in particular when they referred to dividuals, control passes through the mechanical liquidation of descernment, the liquidation of what Aristotle called krion – from krino, a verb that has the same root as krisis, ‘decision’. The discernment that Kant called understanding (Verstand) has been automatized as the analytical (algorithmic) power delegated to algorithms executed through sensors and actuators operating according to formalized instructions that lie outside any intuition in the Kantian sense – that is, outside experience. (Stiegler) In such as society as ours we are being shaped by social media which is data driven and proactive in promoting absolute control through automated decision making processes from censorship to segmentation of silos and echo chambers for the digital stupefaction of the masses. In such a world freedom is another word for absolute blindness without insight. Our blindness to the ubiquitous world of code that rules our lives has made us apathetic and conforming toward its movement to regulate and modulate our minds and lives. Can we change this around? Do we have the courage to disconnect from the dark side of algorithmic control? Can we turn technology to other ends than those of the Oligarchs and Silicon billionaires who seem bent on shaping our desires to their ends rather than our own? Is there any reason to be optimistic?

 

On a personal note I, too, have become a techno-optimist in the sense that Corey Doctorow and Neal Stephenson advocate, this sense that yes technology can be used by nefarious and unscrupulous individuals, corporations, and nations to enslave, imprison, and control their societies and cultures. We see this in the academic sphere where funding more and more has become privatized and large corporations dictate the direction of education in these institutions. We see it in corporations, banking institutions, and other transnational entities as they seek to bend the global world to their own profiteering ends in the form of big pharma, insurance, food and seed monopolies, as well as financial enslavement of poor countries to the point of environmental degradation and resource wars. And, yet, we’ve also seen over the past few hundred years the use of technology for human and non-human advocacy in overcoming many of the issues of famine, war, and disease that have plagued humankind and the environment for tens of thousands of years. So there will continue this dangerous side of technology if placed in the hands of the profiteers at the expense of the environment and human civilization. No only will the impact on non-human plant and animal life become degraded and depleted in biodiversity, but if not curtailed it will spell the ruination of our human shared future. Yet, the optimistic side pulls me to believe that we are also on the brink of a bright tomorrow if we can curb the dark and sinister forces toward other ends. It’s this political side of technology that interests me at the moment. We cannot afford the Luddite smashing of the machines in our time. We need technology. No, it doesn’t have all the fixes, only humans do – and those other non-humans we share the planet with. But unless we begin to work together nothing … absolutely nothing will save us from this dire prognosis outlined by so many factual prognosticators from both the scientific and humanitarian divide. We must act now or never. For me the answer is simple: technology can and should be part of the solution rather than the obstacle.

 

 


  1. Across the Great Divide“. Nature Physics. 5 (5): 309. 2009. doi:10.1038/nphys1258.
  2. Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 115-118). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition
  3. Edward O. Wilson. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Kindle Locations 54-60). Liveright. Kindle Edition.
  4. Peter Townsend. The Dark Side of Technology. OUP Oxford; 1 edition (January 19, 2017)
  5. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)

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