October 25, 2021

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Why are There so Many Techno-Optimists?

Spanning from Silicon Valley to Upper Manhattan and everywhere in between, it seems this country...

Spanning from Silicon Valley to Upper Manhattan and everywhere in between, it seems this country is overflowing with tech-optimists. As you know — a techno-optimist is someone who is generally optimistic about the current state of technology and its potential future. These people believe that technological developments will do more good for humanity than harm — and that our technological future is very bright.

Why are There so Many Techno-Optimists?

These Techno-Optimists may believe that technology has the power to solve major crises, like global climate change, or believe that machine learning and AI will enable us to reach incredible new heights in humanity. They also tend to envision a technologically rich future, with science fiction-inspired gadgets and capabilities in the hands of average people. And why not dream this way?

This is a perfectly legitimate view of the future (and of technology in general). But it’s the dominant view of the future – yet, techno-pessimists, by contrast, are rarely heard from.

Why is this the case? And is there an issue with this persistent optimistic philosophy?

A Lifetime of Problems and Solutions

Part of the origin of today’s techno-optimistic climate is a sequence of many decades’ worth of widely accepted technological advancements. It stands to reason that few people would be afraid of technology harming us or destroying our culture when no such technology has managed to do so in the modern era.

Can Tech Destroy Us?

The closest we’ve come to destroying ourselves with technology was with the 1945 deployment of atomic bombs in World War II. Scientists, politicians, and average citizens alike, all over the world, saw the destructive power of nuclear weapons technology at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and wondered if we’d invented the tool that would kill us all.

During the Cold War, techno-pessimists were much more common – with people wondering whether it was only a matter of time before the world was going to be destroyed by some superweapon (and if not by nuclear weapons, by some other, similarly violent force).

Technological Advancements

Compare that to the past few decades of technological advancements. Instead of developing bigger and more destructive weapons, warfare has shifted to occur without violence; it’s more common for countries to launch attacks by interfering with elections and hacking into computers than dropping bombs or chemically attacking civilians.

On top of that, we’ve seen a multitude of major problems get solved, sometimes instantly, with new technologies. Solar power is economically viable.

CFCs became obsolete long ago – and the hole in the ozone layer they caused has almost entirely self-repaired. Today’s business owners can take a new idea and turn it into a website with limited experience within just a few minutes of time.

Tech is Kind to Us

It’s easy to be optimistic when the past few decades of technological advancements have been, for lack of a better word, kind to us. We don’t live in fear of obscenely destructive weapons; instead, we get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of innovation.

The Gifts of Moore’s Law

We also need to think about the impact of Moore’s Law on our thinking about technological advancement. Moore’s Law was an informal rule that speculated the number of transistors on a chip would be able to double every two years (due to advancements in technological precision and cost-efficiency).

The transistor chip essentially made our rate of technological progress exponential; every two years, we’d get access to faster, better computational technology – and reliably so.

The Pattern Chart

If you chart this pattern forward, the heights of technology are hard to fathom. From 1990 to 2020, just 30 years, we went from only wealthy computer nerds having dial-up internet access to almost the entire nation’s population having high-speed internet on dozens of devices.

In another 30 years, our modern view of the “internet” may be rendered entirely obsolete, in favor of something fundamentally new.

But experts believe that Moore’s Law may be over; the rate of technological progress is slowing.

Obviously, we’re still innovating, inventing new gadgets and breaking ground in new areas. But our days of exponential growth in the digital world may be coming to an end.

Sneak Previews into the Future

The information era also lends itself to techno-optimism, due to how information easily and quickly circulates. We’re constantly exposed to scientific studies, speculation about the future, and teases of new ideas – long before they’re actually ready to launch.

A decade ago, we were hearing about the emergence of self-driving vehicle technology, with some journalists speculating that autonomous vehicles would soon be flooding the streets. As it stands, autonomous vehicles are still having trouble getting to the “mass rollout” phase.

It’s easy to see stories of new technologies on the horizon and think that we’re already living in a kind of techno-utopia. But the path to development is often longer and more challenging than it first appears.

Good Press from Tech Startups

Similarly, we see a lot of good public relations (PR) strategies from tech startups. Tech innovators, entrepreneurs, and developers make tremendous efforts to market their latest products and future plans.

They want the general public to believe in their ideas, so they emphasize all the potential benefits and gloss over the weaknesses, risks, and challenges standing in the way of full-scale development.

To complicate matters further, a lot of up-and-coming technology is still being kept under wraps. We might see a hint of a new, powerful AI that can change the way we work and live – but we don’t see its inner workings or get details on how it works.

The Role of Science Fiction

There’s no shortage of science fiction stories (including books, movies, and other media) depicting a world that has been destroyed or corrupted by a technological development gone wrong. But these dystopian stories have an interesting side effect for techno-optimists: they make us feel more in control.

For example, take a story like The Terminator, wherein an AI system gains consciousness and decides to wipe out humanity. A techno-optimist can look at a story like this, point out its shortcomings, and summarily dismiss AI risk in general – because it would never be like what you see in the movies.

Tech Risks are More Complex

In reality, technological risks are much more complex, and the true dangers of AI have nothing to do with humanoid machines exterminating our race just because they feel like it.

If we wrote and publicized science fiction stories based on the most pressing, realistic dangers of technology, they would be boring – so they tend not to get made. Meanwhile, optimistic sci-fi works also have the potential to get popular – and they fill us with optimism that our high-tech future is beautiful.

Sweet Lemons

Part of our persistent techno-optimism stems from a tendency to play true to the expression “sweet lemons,” the opposite of sour grapes.

A proverbial “sweet lemon” is something harmful that’s deliberately considered as something positive; for example, the pizza you ordered may have been burnt, so instead of facing the downsides, you focus on something positive, like the money you saved on the pizza with a coupon.

Social Media Says It

It’s best to understand this in practice with an example: social media. There’s no debating that social media has had massive downsides for our society; cyber-bullying is pervasive, self-segregation into echo chambers has led to political polarization, and a combination of envy, FOMO, and isolation has left us feeling lonelier than ever.

But to a techno-optimist? Social media’s power to connect us is the real focal point.

It’s Nicer to Be Positive

Here’s something else to consider: it just feels nicer to be optimistic. It’s not fun to think about the possibility of the world getting destroyed or humanity being hurt by a new technology gone wrong.

It’s much more pleasing and reassuring to think about all the ways that technology could make our lives better. It’s no wonder techno-optimism is so appealing.

Does the Optimism-Pessimism Spectrum Matter?

Techno-optimism is pervasive, and as we’ve established, there’s plenty of contradictory evidence to favor techno-pessimism. Does this tech philosophical spectrum matter? Does it impact the rate of progress?

We need both techno-optimists and techno-pessimists for a healthy rate of technological change in our society. Without eccentric techno-optimists, we wouldn’t get to see the development of many new, sometimes crazy technologies. But without cautious techno-pessimists, many of the dangers and risks of new technologies could be overlooked.

Our current balance leans in favor of the optimists. If we’re going to advance in a healthy, sustainable, and risk-managed way, we need to keep our expectations in check and ensure that we don’t lose sight of the negative possibilities of technology as well.

Image Credit: mantas hesthaven; pexels; thank you!

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