Dave Karpf recently explored a “technological optimism” that’s shared by the billionaire class and Silicon Valley—even outside of the Venn overlap between the two.
[…] It has been less than two years since Jack Dorsey insisted bitcoin would bring about world peace. Elon Musk routinely talks about magically transforming the world, rising above both politics and politicians. Sam Altman insists that AI will soon bring about a new economics of abundance. And at the same time, we have wrestled in recent years with the fragility of politics (January 6th), and the brittleness of the economy (soaring economic inequality). […]
He checks in with a couple of old Wired anniversary essays by Louis Rossetto in which the founding editor states that optimism “isn’t Panglossian utopianism, but seeing the world as it really is”, and “is not false hope, it’s a strategy for living”.
Throughout my adult life, tech optimism has been the dominant paradigm. This did not change in the aftermath of the dotcom crash. It just went on hiatus for a few years (until Web 2.0 provided the intellectual scaffolding for a recommitment to technological enthusiasm). Along the way, we have stopped regulating tech monopolies, we have reduced taxes on the wealthy, we have let public-interest journalism wither, and we have (until oh-so-recently) treated the climate crisis as a problem for someone else, sometime later.
The most powerful people in the world are optimists. Their optimism is not helping.
Are they optimists, though?
Nathan J. Robinson recently interviewed Douglas Rushkoff about “how Silicon Valley’s elite are trying to shield themselves from the consequences of inequality and climate destruction”.
“In a world where every company is based on some exit strategy,” Rushkoff says, “their life plan is based on an exit strategy, too”.
[…] For these guys, partly engendered by their technology and their distorted understanding of capitalism, the object of the game is to get to that omega point, that strange attractor at the end of time, to literally leave us behind. […]
It has a lot of components, but it comes down to the idea that they can somehow insulate themselves using money and technology from the damage they’re creating. That they could somehow build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust. It requires a real faith in techno-solutionism. […]
This would suggest that Rushkoff, too, thinks that tech oligarchs and their ilk really are technological optomists, but when you drill down you see two things: (1) they’ve perhaps some degree of technological optimism that they will be able to escape or somehow outright transcend what they’ve done to the rest of us, and (2) they’ve all seem to got what passes, for them, as pragmatic fallbacks about running to their bunkers and hiding when it all goes to shit.
I don’t believe, really, that they are technological optimists. Rather, I think their technological optimism is what they sell the rest of us on, a sleight-of-hand they hope will fool us into thinking that the technological tide somehow will raise all our boats.
“The problem with techno-optimism is the pragmatic questions that it forecloses,” write Karpf. “The problem is all that is obscured when we behave as though the world will naturally improve (so long as we collectively wish hard enough.)”.
That’s the point, precisely, of the optimistic veneer.
[…] You’ll see more and more terms that are just baskets for a bunch of yet to be invented innovations that can somehow create enough innovation per second to keep the economy growing exponentially. That’s the whole problem with exponential growth: Starting out, it’s alright to have one earth-shattering innovation every century—now it’s every decade, and then every year. Now we need nine earth-shattering new technologies per year to keep this thing growing the way it’s supposed to. […] We’re already over the event horizon into a slow and growing catastrophe. It doesn’t mean the end of the world, but it means things are going to be different, and it’s high time we adopt a different approach to realize this sort of exponentialism that they want isn’t going to work.
But they don’t actually believe that the exponentialism will work, only that if we for just long enough keep buying the myth that we, too, might be able to grab ahold of some of that exponential growth, maybe they will achieve transcendence. If not, they hope they’ve at least fooled us long enough to achieve survivalism.
That everlasting gobstopper is a myth, and they know it. They just need to keep us entranced by the shiny, lest we turn our backs on the whole endeavor and instead work to build a solidarity and a capacity that obviates the apparent need for their entire, stultifying enterprise.
They are leveraging or mortgaging our current reality—the one that you and I are living in at this moment—for this imagined future gain, if only they can get enough technology.
That’s not optimism. Or, it’s not real optimism. It’s a technological adventism, and getting us to believe we’ll all be saved, per Karpf, “is a strategy that forecloses our capacity to challenge power.”.