By David L. Brown
Historian Niall Ferguson in an article published in The Daily Beast raises a question that’s long interested me. He asks, in effect, which vision of the future we should embrace: The idea that technology will make the world a better place, or the vision of a world in catastrophic economic decline?
Here”s a brief excerpt from the beginning of his essay, titled “Don’t Believe the Techno-Utopian Hype” (you can read the whole thing here):
Are you a technoptimist or a depressimist? This is the question I have been pondering after a weekend hanging with some of the superstars of Silicon Valley.
I had never previously appreciated the immense gap that now exists between technological optimism, on the one hand, and economic pessimism, on the other. Silicon Valley sees a bright and beautiful future ahead. Wall Street and Washington see only storm clouds. The geeks think we’re on the verge of The Singularity. The wonks retort that we’re in the middle of a Depression.
Let’s start with the technoptimists. Last Saturday I listened with fascination as a panel of tech titans debated the question: “Will science and technology produce more dramatic changes in solving the world’s major problems over the next 25 years than have been produced over the last 25 years?”
They all thought so. We heard a description of what Google’s Project Glass, the Internet-enabled spectacles, can already do. (For example, the spectacles can be used to check if another speaker is lying.) Next up: a search engine inside the brain itself. We heard that within the next 25 years, it will be possible to take 1,000-mile journeys by being fired through tubes. We also heard that biotechnology will deliver genetic “photocopies” of human organs that need replacing. And we were promised genetically engineered bugs, capable of excreting clean fuel. The only note of pessimism came from an eminent neuroscientist, who conceded that a major breakthrough in the prevention of brain degeneration was unlikely in the next quarter century.
Ferguson, a professor at Harvard and also associated with Oxford University in England and The Hoover Institution at Stanford, takes the same point of view that has always struck me as the right path. In effect, he asks: What is the value of technology that merely puts people out of work and provides wonderful whiz-bang stuff that has no real benefits for anyone. He points out that fifty years ago we were promised flying cars, and instead we have Twitter.
I’ll mention some more examples: the proliferation of online video games with such anti-social themes as carjacking; Facebook to let everyone in the world be your “friend,”, 24/7 bread and circuses delivered via cable and satellite TV; violent computer generated motion pictures that dull the senses and (possibly) inspire copycat killers. The list could go on and on, for the impact of “technology” on modern society has been immense.
Oh, no, the defenders will point out. Technology has brought us more efficient transportation, cleaner air, better health, cheaper food, electronics and clothing…again the list could go on. But wait. How is it better to have a car that gets us a few more miles per gallon while the cost of that gallon of fuel has risen by ten or fifteen times? I’ll take my 1957 Ford with its police interceptor engine and twenty cent gas any day over whatever today’s choices are.
Cleaner air? Well, that’s a relative thing, depending on where you live. In China and India today, the air is dirtier than it’s ever been. If you didn’t live in Los Angeles in the 60s when automobile numbers and a fairly stagnant pattern of air movement caused a local crisis, air quality wasn’t that big a deal here in the land of the brave.
And how about health? There are more deaths from cancer, heart attack, diabetes and other diseases today than there were in Grandpa’s day, and despite the billions of dollars spent by pharmaceutical companies in the endless search for (patentable) magic beans, it’s not getting any better. In fact, the cost of health care is zooming so high and so fast that it’s obviously unsustainable. The ultimate goal, it seems, is that medicine will eventually be able to cure anything at any (in other words, infinite) cost. Want one of those “photocopied” replacement organs? Unless you’re a multibillionaire, you’re out of luck, sorry. Please step down the hall to the Kevorkian Suite where your future awaits.
And all that cheaper food, electronics and clothes. Ever notice where they come from? Chances are it’s China, and this is another unsustainable mirage because despite the miracle of that Communist controlled economy, we can’t export all our production to cheap labor sources forever without paying the price. Sure, it’s great getting all those nice things for cheap money. But what are we left with? A bunch of unemployed people playing video games, watching TV, eating food that isn’t fit for hogs, and wearing clothes that will soon be worn out.
Defenders of the positive viewpoint will tell us that we will thrive as a “service economy.” What does that mean, that we’ll all earn our livings selling insurance to each other, or flipping burgers, or giving advice on how to save money by buying even more stuff from China? What kind of world is that? It’s crazy.
Ferguson draws a parallel between scientific and technological superiority and conflict, asking his readers the rhetorical question: which nation was the most scientifically advanced in 1932? The answer, of course, is Germany, and we know how that turned out.
The problem with all the optimistic scenarios is that they fail to take into account the problem of resource depletion. Earlier generations were able to thrive because there was a surplus of resources, including human labor, coal, iron, oil and gas. Everything was cheap and readily available. Now, not so much. Sure, you want a fancy new computer, step right up to the Apple store and you can get a wonderful view of our technologically advanced 21st century. Never mind that in about three or four years that computer will be a worthless piece of junk that nobody in his right mind would want to own, and that it was made with Chinese labor and materials. And you? You’ll use the computer to watch videos, email your friends, buy more stuff made in China online, Tweet about what you had for lunch, maybe watch a bit of porn, and possibly (virtually) kill dozens or even hundreds of victims in hi-Def video games that make the Holocaust look like a Sunday afternoon Baptist picnic.
Back in the day, and I mean before runaway technology became the hope of the future, people worked for a living, purchased things that would last or made them with their own hands, and kept making the world a better place to live going forward. They were willing to make sacrifices and even give their lives to defend that dream. Today, we’re facing the abyss and we’re addicted to crap. Yes, crap, driving it, eating it, using it, watching it, wearing it, bathing in it every day of our lives. Genuine non-sustainable crap, brought to us by the technology that promised us a better life and brought us Hell on earth
I’ll let Prof. Ferguson have the last word, from his essay:
It’s a dangerous world. Ask anyone who works in the world of intelligence to list the biggest threats we face, and they’ll likely include bioterrorism, cyber war, and nuclear proliferation. What these have in common, of course, is the way modern technology can empower radicalized (or just plain crazy) individuals and groups.
I wish I were a technoptimist. It must be heart-warming to believe that Facebook is ushering in a happy-clappy world where everybody “friends” everybody else and we all surf the net in peace (insert smiley face). But I’m afraid history makes me a depressimist. And no, there’s not an app—or a gene—that can cure that.
Well, no, I take it back: Here’s the last word. What nightmarish future have we wrought for ourselves? And how fortunate we are that the unyielding wall of time and death will protect us from the wrath of our descendants, should the unknown future have any such.