Utopians Fear Them
Tagged: thoughts progress
It's incredible how much pessimism about technology there is in our society.
When Marc Andreessen published his "Techno-Optimist Manifesto", a bunch of people accused him of spreading utopian untruths(1, 2). Their argument, more or less, is this: We've all seen this before. We were promised flying cars, an end to drudgery, and cures for every sickness. But after decades of working and paying taxes, all we got instead is pollution, Internet addiction, and climate change. We'd be stupid to believe the same fairy tales again.
But nothing I've seen so far suggests that techno-optimism is tainted with utopian thinking.
My go-to source for techno-optimist news and stories are the Links Digests at rootsofprogress.org. Scanning through the last few batches, I see things like:
- an essay on small scale nuclear reactors as safe and cheap sources of clean energy;
- a startup working to produce bacteria that would prevent cavities;
- another startup that's using AI-powered robots to produce beautiful (and cheap) sculptures;
- a celebration of introducing a second vaccine against malaria;
- an analysis about how incredibly quickly the Empire State Building was constructed (and what we can learn from this);
- a summary of how various states are making it easier to build housing (and how expensive housing is probably driving up prices of everything);
- a piece of research about how, completely contrary to popular news, when you look at actual numbers our bridges are in pretty good shape.
On and on the list goes.
If utopianism was hiding there, I would expect to see more all-encompassing visions of a perfect world. Stuff like people lazing around on sunny meadows, enjoying an existence free from greed, war, and sadness. But instead I see a celebration of solving, or at least trying to solve, a bunch of big problems.
As far as I can tell, there's no endgame there. Just the idea that if we're suffering today, we can do what our ancestors did and come up with some technology--either technical or social in nature--and suffer a little less. It's all about incremental improvements.
This orientation reminds me of how Karl Popper described an idea called "piecemeal (social) engineering":
The politician who adopts this [piecemeal engineering] method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.
According to Popper, it is the utopian fighting for the greatest ultimate good that brings about great suffering. It seems that perhaps putting the ends above the means opens the door to doing some truly horrible things to your fellow human beings.
So it's with some relief that I witness techno-optimists focus their efforts on "the greatest and most urgent evils of society." The whole thing, in fact, seems not just influencedby humanism, but a branch of it, connected right to the trunk.
I can see why this would trigger angry reactions. People fixing things would be any utopian's worst nightmare.