There is never any shortage of existential threats to human society. Whether flood, drought, or invading army, fake news, global pandemics, or rampant AI, these have a common theme: it is uniquely within our control to avoid them entirely or mitigate their effects.
Unfortunately, humans do not like to change their behaviour, especially if that behavioural change induces any form of present pain. Even when we know exactly how we need to change our behaviour, we still avoid it. Past societies might be forgiven their ignorance, but many of our modern societies have understood the crises on the horizon but have made no real attempt to avert them, or, if we have, the cost of such evasive action has been extremely high because we have left it so late.
Our dislike of inducing present-pain through behavioural change, which is hard, coupled with the fact that these crises often have complex causes and solutions which creates a great deal of uncertainty, results in a desparate search to find a solution extra nos. In the past, this might have entailed an entreaty (or a surrender) to divine or supernatural forces. Modern societies have killed the Gods, and replaced them with a pantheon of Techne, most often technologies that few understand1.
It may seem ungenerous to compare the modern faith in technological solutions to human problems with historic resignation to the will of the Gods, but for most people (including those at the forefront of the technology industry) this comparison seems apt. Our form of fatalism manifests in a pair of similar narratives, subtly distinct only in the level of agency they accord to the narrator: either it is that we have faith that a technology will be developed to avert disaster, or it is that the only way to avert this crisis is to develop a technology to resolve it. Both these narratives remove any onus on individuals and societies to change their behaviour, through a neat abnegation of responsibility by stating that an individual cannot hope to make a significant impact in any case, and therefore should not bother to try.
The techno-optimistic2 narrative is soothing because, in the face of an enormous and scary potential crisis, the thought that we ought to be acting (and therefore the inevitable guilt or shame we feel when our aversion to discomfort causes us not to act) is taken away, for there is nothing that we as individuals or societies need to do. Technology will save us.
Yet this narrative rests on an unsound basis: that the perceived rate of technological change in recent history implies that some, currently unimaginable solution will emerge. This is far from guaranteed, as there is no natural law which requires that technology be invented to avert disasters. In any case, it is unclear that real technological change is occurring at an ever-increasing rate, compared to previous points over the last century.
Furthermore, whilst we have often been successful in our use of technology to resist any requirement to change our behaviours, this is still avoiding the underlying problem which is, ultimately, the behaviours and values of the societies in which we live. These are solely within our power to change (and, one might argue, our duty).
There are many recent examples of where this form of techno-optimism is most egregious (at least in my milieu).
Firstly, there are the political problems like Brexit, Trump, and the rise of other majoritarian populists3. The causes of these problems are complicated and not settled questions, but broadly speaking they are social. Whilst it is tempting to blame the Brexit vote, or the election of Trump, on factors extra nos like racism, social media and fake news, or Russian interference, the truth is that we have developed deeply divided societies with vast gulfs of inequality. Racism, fake news, social media, and Russian interference (maybe not so much the lattermost) all had a part to play, but if there were not already fertile ground for these things caused by some form of discontent, then they would not have taken root. Yet we focus on these potential causes because they do not say anything about our culpability, and do not force us to examine our behaviours. Blaming racism is a way of saying that these people are other, perhaps even evil, and therefore it is a problem with them not a problem with the society of which we are all a part. Similarly, fake news is an invisible enemy, infecting our minds, but ultimately coming from outside (the enemy being the social media companies perhaps)4.
Secondly, there are the epistemic problems, of which fake news is the most recent incarnation but disinformation has a long history. Ultimately this, too, is a social problem driven by divisions in society politically, economically, and educationally. There is also a deeper epistemic problem which will be the subject of another essay I have been meaning to write for some time. Ignoring that deeper issue, for the time being, the job of closing the divisions in society which provide fertile ground for disinformation (or, sometimes just misconceptions) is a human job. It is up to us to create societies in which debate flourishes but in which we can agree on basic truths and values (or, if we cannot, we can at least disagree productively and civilly). Yet much of the debate focusses instead on the duty of the social media companies to invent new technologies which will root out fake news, or, worse, to act as arbiters of truth, digital Big Brothers making sure we think right.
Thirdly, the elephants in the room: environmentally-driven disasters like climate change and global pandemics5. This is where I would consider techno-optimism to be at its most fanatical and most dangerous. We have known about the causes of climate change since at least the 1970s . Combatting climate change will take serious changes to our societies, expectations, and behaviours as individuals. It will affect everything: our attitude to food production (especially cheap meat), our extreme wastefulness of materials, our ‘need’ for instant delivery and satisfaction of every whim (the fact that Amazon Prime Now exists is testament to this). Yet even sacrificing some of these very minor comforts like next-day delivery seems unthinkable to large parts of our societies, and if we cannot even drop those more basic things, what hope is there for large-scale reform of our material consumption patterns, or food production systems? Instead, we focus on technological solutions — perhaps it will be carbon-capture technologies, or we will make manufacturing carbon neutral, or, screw it, we can just jet off to Mars and settle that planet instead. None of these technological solutions require us to change how we act, and most of them are sufficiently magical to most people that they are no different to praying to the Gods to take pity on us. Perhaps prayer was more honest, for at least it does not assume that we will be saved.
Writing in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth noting that there has been an enormous shift in behaviour in the majority of societies across the globe. We have gone into complete lockdown, and in the UK vast tracts of the population are being supported directly by the state paying their wages. This was totally unimaginable six months ago. COVID-19 is a direct and present threat, and our response has been appropriate, but more notable is the fact that we knew that this was a threat, and we knew we were underprepared, and yet we did nothing. There were plenty of warnings in the last two decades: SARS , MERS , swine flu , avian flu , and ebola , but we appear not to have learnt from these near-misses. Perhaps, however, there is some hope. This crisis has shown that we can effect massive social change, and that our paradigms for the role of the state can change quickly. The real question with this pandemic is whether we will address the underlying causes of it, or whether our behaviour will revert to type once the immediate danger has past. More importantly, when faced with far more consequential, and slow moving, threats like climate change, will we act or will we pray?
We are facing some enormous challenges as a species, but also as individual societies, and if we are to have any hope of overcoming them, ultimately we must take direct responsibility for the world we want to create. This is a singularly political act. The creation of new technologies has a part to play but this cannot be seen as a replacement for social reorientation. This will involve huge changes to our behaviours, and some of those changes will be uncomfortable at first. Yet if we do not take ownership, and acknowledge that human problems require human solutions, then we are only fooling ourselves: the deus ex techna is not guaranteed and the Gods will not take pity on us.
- Therefore making them very appropriate replacements for the Gods, since, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ↑
- Alternatively, techno-fatalistic, but to me this also implies a whole raft of other issues in which people resign themselves to the ‘inevitability’ of some systems like surveillance capitalism, e.g. by claiming that this was the inevitable consequence of wide-spread internet adoption. ↑
- Populist is an overused, and overburdened term. Here I mean a politician who sets up a dichotomy between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. This often is tied up with a form of majoritarianism and nativism, but not necessarily. ↑
- And, of course, there is no way we could ever be susceptible to it, only those other people are so gullible. ↑
- When I first drafted this essay in mid-2019, the coronavirus pandemic was not even something I would have considered a possibility. How quickly our lives have changed! ↑