The belief that some new technology will arrive to rescue us from our thorniest problems is just the latest expression of utopianism.
What a world we live in. Billions of people across the planet struggle to live on a few dollars per day, without any sign that their economic situation might improve. New technologies that give citizens access to more and more information have also enabled governments to listen in on citizens to an Orwellian degree. In developing countries, millions still die from poverty, illness and war. In the rest of the world, middle classes have been diminishing in size for decades, with massive increases in GDP over the same period going mainly to the top 1 percent of the population. And despite our growing awareness of the long-term environmental consequences of our consumer society, we seem content to wring our hands in worry while doing very little of substance to change it. It’s hard to know if we are going forward, sliding backward or just running in place, while our faith in governments to solve these problems is diminishing.
Luckily, there is something else that might save us from our troubles: technology. Technological innovation has been integral to the human story at least since the discovery of fire, its advances marked out in epochs, from Gutenberg’s printing press to steam engines and Hiroshima. It has come to be seen as a panacea for all manner of social ills, even those one might not imagine as being directly in its orbit. Take the problems we started with. The development of new forms of renewable energy could mitigate existing and further damage to the environment. New technologies, or the inventive application of existing ones, might help us to better control who has access to our information trails. And technological innovation could even deal with illnesses that still hurt all too many people, such as measles or rotavirus infections, by coming up with easier, cheaper treatments and more effective cures.
But what about the rest? What about poverty, war, inequality and all the other socio-economic and political ills that still beset the planet, even in the age of wireless communication and shiny hand-held devices? Should we count on technology to help us with these, too?
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates certainly seems to think so. In his feature essay for the December 2013 issue of Wiredmagazine, the popular bible for tech-heads, Gates is uncompromising in his faith in technology to solve all manner of social ills. He asserts that it is a simple fact that technological innovations ”make the world better — and more innovation equals faster progress.” Gates believes that through his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the practice of what he calls ”catalytic philanthropy” — seed grants to help support new ideas to improve global health and education — innovation can succeed where government has failed. ”Technology is helping us overcome our biggest challenges,” he writes. By bringing us closer together, and by making it difficult for the rich to avoid seeing the poverty and suffering of others, today’s technology is also ”unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings.”
If such a view were only that of one man, we would have little to worry about. But the connections that Gates makes between technology, innovation and progress are far from controversial. Instead, they constitute the most common way in which we now understand — and define — progress. From a wired to a wireless world: progress! From mobile phones to hand-held devices that can seemingly do anything and everything: progress!
Environmental problems are produced by our way of life — not bad technology.
Sometimes the word just points to the capacities of technology to do something better — more memory, faster speed. But invoking progress and connecting it to technological developments is intended to make a much larger claim. It is to assert that human life has, in some significant and deep way, been improved, enhanced and expanded.
When linked to technology, progress is often understood in quantitative terms. But the real thrust of the equation technology = progress is that the present is fundamentally different from the past in a qualitative way, too. If today is better than yesterday, we need only look to what technology enables us to do — miracles that our predecessors couldn’t even imagine. It’s not just that we’re no longer wired that matters, for instance, but that being wireless gives us more mobility, more freedom, greater happiness, more choice. Some people might still prefer the sound of LPs to MP3s. But this merely confirms that fact that, with few exceptions that can be put down to the quirks of individual choice, technological changes are always making things better and better.
I’ve come to call this faith in technology, and the automatic link made between technology and progress, ”techno-utopianism.” There’s no doubt that technological developments have created an amazing array of devices, approaches, innovations and interventions that have had a substantive impact on how we live and, indeed, on our expectations of how we should and might live in the future. And there’s no doubt that they will continue to do so. But whether we should identify such developments as constituting progress is what needs to be questioned and challenged much more often than it is.
Progress is a tricky word and a complex concept that is increasingly used as if it names something self-evident — a good to be achieved on which everyone can agree. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What is problematic about automatically linking technology with progress is not only what author Ronald Wright has identified as ”progress traps” — problems inadvertently generated as a result of scientific or technological progress. Rather, it is that when such a link is made, technology is figured as the most important element of social development and improvement.
What accompanies this belief is the sense that no matter what problems we might encounter, science and technology will, in the end, save us from ourselves. And the result of such techno-utopianism is that some critical problems faced by the planet are today misunderstood, put on the sidelines or ignored altogether.
I first encountered techno-utopianism in my research on the ways in which we explain — or explain away — our dependence on oil as our primary source of energy. A special issue of Scientific American in 2006, ”Energy’s Future: Beyond Carbon,” presented an amazing array of technological strategies for carbon reduction, new transportation fuels, efficient building design, clean options for coal and possibilities for nuclear power. Each of the articles in the issue began in the same way, noting the deleterious environmental effects of existing social and cultural practices, followed by the failures at the political level to mobilize and enforce necessary changes to environmental laws and standards.
Since governments seemed to be unable to do anything, it was up to technological innovation to rush into the gap vacated by public policy. This hardly constitutes a real solution to environmental and energy problems, which are produced by our way of life and not by bad technology. But governments and the public at large seem all too ready to hope that some fantastical innovation will appear to save us in the nick of time, thus permitting us to continue those bad practices that have likely made it all but impossible to keep atmospheric carbon below 500 parts per million, a level that most scientists believe will alter the conditions that have nurtured human life.
Such bad utopianism isn’t restricted to how we view the environment. Take again the case of Gates. It isn’t only technology that he sees as important to progress. Gates insists on the necessity of capitalism, too. In Wired, he identifies capitalism as the system ”responsible for many of the great advances that have improved the lives of billions — from airplanes to air-conditioning to computers.” It is also ”the best system ever devised for making self-interest serve the wider interest.” The technological innovations that Gates feels are so important to helping expand life opportunities for the global poor can, he maintains, arise only from businesses immersed in capitalist competitiveness.
It would seem that while all manner of things might still require innovation leading to progress, our dominant economic system is not one of them. Capitalism is fine as it is, goes the mantra. Nothing remains to be improved or changed. Indeed, it’s the best economic system ever devised, and so we’re stuck with it. The same goes for our governments. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, everybody, from Samuel Huntington to Paul Krugman, is comfortable in asserting that forms of liberal democracy established in the 18th and 19th centuries can continue to deal with the crises and problems of the 20th and 21st centuries. No progress needed there, either. All our problems can be fixed by technology, and luckily, these systems seem to support technological innovation.
Yet one cannot help but ask questions Gates and other techno-utopians never do: Why is it that the global poor exist in the first place? Why don’t they already have access to technological innovations? Why do businesses and governments underinvest in certain areas of society so that technology has to (maybe) come in and save the day? Why should we simply accept that government and capitalist economies are going to fail at all kinds of critical social tasks? Wouldn’t the right way to direct our energies be to reshape those parts of our socio-economic and political systems that produce the problems that we are expecting technology to solve?
Gates seems to have very little sense of the complex forces, relationships and systems of power that create and sustain inequality, poverty, war, disease and environmental degradation. He and other techno-utopians believe that technological innovation can resolve everything without the difficulty and mess of politics, all while claiming they have contributed to progress to boot.
Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with technology. I’m as much as fan of my computer and cellphone as are my son and his friends, a generation born into the furious flurry of new devices and apps promising all manner of freedoms and new possibilities. What I do have a problem with is our increasing tendency to look to technology and science to create a soft landing for capitalism. We are living in the first years of a fully capitalist world, which has led not to wealth for all but to gross economic inequalities across the planet. It has also produced an ever-hotter planet, with consequences that we are already beginning to experience, but which our grandchildren will have to endure.
Governments seem unable to do much either about economic and social inequalities or about environmental change, both of which require energy and attention that extend beyond election cycles and the electorate’s fear of taxes. But instead of going to the source of the problem — how we govern ourselves and shape our societies economically and politically — we fantasize that we can come up with apps for social problems, too. We know that real change would be painful and difficult. So instead, and especially for those of us for whom the system works, we’d rather keep things as they are and assuage our guilty consciences by hoping technology can deal with our problems.
Perhaps the ultimate example of techno-utopianism is geoengineering. Since it seems unlikely that we’ll change our way of life enough to address environmental concerns, some scientists — including James Havelock, who proposed the Gaia hypothesis — have suggested a massive intervention into the physical constitution of the atmosphere. If we can’t stop capitalism from destroying the planet, then we’ll use technology to make the planet work with our consumer culture, whatever the ultimate cost might be.
We need to recover our faith in our ability to collectively and democratically shape the societies in which we live.
The political systems that we use to make decisions, and the social and economic structures through which we govern our lives and give shape to the future, are neither dependent on technological innovations nor fundamentally shaped by them. Technology does have an impact on everything we do, but it is at our peril that we concede to technology those difficult struggles that can be carried out only through our social lives. Gates writes that his support of technological innovation is driven by a single idea: ”Everyone’s life has equal value.” But if we are to truly live up to the challenge of this idea, we need to work on those parts of social reality that haven’t seen much progress, including the political systems through which decisions are made and the economic structures through which decisions about who gets what, and why, are enacted each and every day.
There’s a reason why techno-utopianism is so appealing and powerful. Today’s technology produces amazing things, and not just remote objects that only researchers and scientists might understand (like particle accelerators), but devices that quickly become part of the vocabulary of everyday life. Consumer technology keeps the Enlightenment dream of progress alive, even as it decays in other parts of our society. In contrast with the speed with which new, ever more powerful versions of the iPhone are launched, our political systems seem lethargic, dysfunctional and moribund. Most of us have given up on politics, conceding it to be a structurally necessary if no longer truly important part of contemporary reality. Technology does more, does it faster and seems to do it efficiently and even democratically.
This is a dangerous development. And it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to recover our faith in our ability to collectively and democratically shape the societies in which we live. At the present time, the right just wants us to keep trundling along and hopes that things will somehow work out. The left, on the other hand, seems to be content either to play the role of Cassandra, shouting about the dangers to come without really offering a way to offset them, or to fantasize about retreating to local Edens in a world that by midcentury will be made up of 9 billion people. Political changes, even within our existing economic and political systems, do have real effects. Regulations on air pollution have helped reduce smog and have saved the ozone layer from destruction. And just think: how many of us were separating our trash into recyclables and organic waste just a decade ago?
Technological innovation can certainly help us with the problems the world faces today — but only if it’s paired with progress elsewhere, too. Where we really need progress is in the capacity of our political and economic systems to address injustice, poverty and inequality, as well as the environmental crisis, and at a global level that our existing systems have had trouble understanding or imagining.