Techno-Utopianism Can’t Deliver Techno-Utopia

Aliens playing poker.


In the US, people tend to either have either a Utopian or an apocalyptic outlook, with little in between.

I prefer to stay away from stupid pronouncements that the ‘truth is somewhere in the middle,’ but in this case, we do have to go between two positions which are absurd to make intelligent statements about the future of technology.

Technological advance is not an inevitable, magic process which is predictable via chart


If you’ve worked at all in any field involving the development of a new technology, you know that it’s an incredible amount of work to get anything functioning in a way that’s actually useful to customers when they’re capable of supporting the improved way of doing things. Sustainable technological advance is much less about developing a great invention and more about developing a great invention at the time during which all the sub-components can be assembled in a timely  and efficient fashion.

The contemporary progressive mentality towards technological advancement tends to be that it’s an inevitable process: it’s this idea that no matter how terrible the management of the government is, geniuses in lab coats will develop new technology, often with government money, regardless of whatever happens in the rest of society.

Nassim Taleb dismantled this view in Antifragile, but although the book has been widely read, its insights have not been broadly shared, in part because our written media has stopped being book driven, and is now more driven by television. Additionally, because Taleb took a nuanced view towards Silicon Valley culture, and because Silicon Valley workers rarely read anything that’s not published by O’Reilly or some other technical manual publisher, its criticisms were not widely discussed.

It took hundreds of years before many of the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci became even feasible at the prototype level. The reason for this is just that the materials involved were all too expensive or unavailable, or otherwise unfeasible due to better practical alternatives being available at the time. This is also the case for countless inventions today, many of which are entirely reliant on improved conditions outside the control of the team developing the new technology. . Leonardo died in 1519, but the tank only became widely used during World War I.

You can teach a robot to dance, but that doesn’t make it useful


You can make a dancing, agile robot, but until it has a miniature battery which is also affordable, it’s merely an expensive branding stunt, no different from an Animatronic figure at the Epcot Center. The big cord attached the dancing machine is what makes for the problem: the limiting factor is the battery, much more than the flexibility of the robo-legs.

There is this popular notion that any contemporary problems that we face, like unbearable long-term government obligations, can be overcome by technological advance. The trouble is that technological advance only becomes useful at the applied level when social conditions can support it. There are millions of prototypes that would represent a meaningful advance over current technologies. Many of those are not possible to implement until the world as a whole is wealthy enough to support it.

Part of the reason for the gun-shy attitude towards criticizing the government is that many of the investors who focus on technological innovation are reliant on deploying government pension money into their funds. It’s politically difficult for an investor to simultaneously put to work the savings of government workers and to decry the innovation-squashing policies supported by the same workers who are paying his management fees. Further, the government can and does retaliate against companies that don’t tow the Progressive line.

You can’t create durable technological advance if you’re serving a broader society of decreasing overall quality. The quality of the society is what makes technological advance feasible, more so than the genius, who will often come up with useful designs hundreds of years before his time. The genius is critical, but his ideas are mostly inapplicable without the accumulation of social capital.

Technology is feasible when you have a large proportion of the people in a civilization working towards highly productive purposes. It isn’t feasible when most of the people in the civilization are moochers. Innovation stops being sustainable when the feedstock, which is a hard-working population of law-abiding people, begins to diminish.

Although do-gooders like Bill Gates hope that Africans and low-caste southeast Asians will fill the gap posed by diminishing Northeast Asians and Whites, history and biology suggest that this is a vain effort.

The ‘inevitable’ mindset leads people who would otherwise be taking a leading position to lean back as it regards to critical issues, because they just assume that a future invention will deliver them from their duties. They use the inevitability excuse as a reason to disengage from civic life, or instead to incompetently flail at the disconnected strings of democratic maneuvering, which is much worse.

Doomers have the wrong attitude


On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who believe that technology has run its course, and that there are no possible future inventions, and that we should all accept diminished expectations in light of this realization.

This is a defeatist mindset, even if it’s been a sensible mindset to hold for most of history. Part of why the Western world and the areas that have copied it have done so well in material terms relative to the historical standard of the hunter-gatherer is that it has rejected that mindset. Instead, we take the position that mankind can advance itself as far as it can go, and that the human mind is capable of breaking through many (but not an infinite number of) barriers placed by the natural world.

If the doomers are correct, it’s because everyone else has failed. But success is not possible if you don’t shuck the mentality that people who hold the mentality that civilization is inevitably doomed to collapse hold. To avoid collapse, you have to have a somewhat unrealistic, perhaps insane, attitude towards the feasibility of technological progress.

The two delusional outlooks feed into one another to create a dilemma that isn’t easily resolved. Both of them tend to sap motivation from people who might otherwise be able to work towards stop-gap solutions: the utopian will tell himself that the problems will solve themselves, and the doomer tells himself that the problems can’t be solved, so despair is a better choice.

To generate technological progress, civilization needs to be capable of supporting the the conditions that make it possible. No technological advance that’s implementable in a foreseeable time frame can replace the social preconditions for civilization.


10 thoughts on “Techno-Utopianism Can’t Deliver Techno-Utopia

  1. A heuristic I use is to look at energy tech in isolation, rather than some randomly weighted average of “technology” over time.

    Speaking of energy tech and collapse, I’m reminded more and more of the Foundation novels. There was civilization collapse baked into the model for tech advancement, in such a way that the next cycle would be even better. And Golden Age sci-fi is considered utopian!

    • Probably a good way to look at it, especially re: dancing robots on wired power supplies. Asimov thought that robots needed both a > human brain and those ‘micronuclear’ reactors or whatever he called them.

  2. Pingback: Techno-Utopianism Can’t Deliver Techno-Utopia | Reaction Times

  3. All the more reason to not have idiots in charge of humanities’ departments. Diversity of expertise among otherwise neurologically evenly matched (vis-a-vis race, gender, sexual orientation) actually is an important adder of value to any enterprise.

    And it seems that the most extreme of utopianists and doomist, while often very smart, do not have much practical knowledge of how things actually work. It is as if, the real world is just too boring for them.

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  5. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2014/11/19 | Free Northerner

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