recent, Science / Tech, Tech

The Fallacy of Techno-Optimism

When the telegraph revolutionized communication in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau was scornful. “We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he wrote, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau, it turned out, was wrong, but his skepticism of an invention that would ultimately prove beneficial has been a common response to change, both in the past and the present.

A fascinating collection of these responses exists on a podcast called Pessimists Archive, the episodes of which catalogue the unjustified fear that greeted innovations like the telephone (blamed at the time for degrading social life), the bicycle (blamed for various health maladies), and the novel (blamed for corrupting youth). The podcast presents these overreactions as cautionary tales for those who would question the fruits of Silicon Valley in the present, and its message has famous fans: Steven Pinker tweeted that the podcast is “invaluable in putting today’s tech moral panics in historical perspective.”

Indeed, perspective will always be valuable. But I suspect that Pessimists Archive and its fans are driving at a more ambitious point: that because past fears of change were unjustified, so are present fears. If the telephone and the bicycle and the novel worked out, so too will AI, driverless cars, and automation. The podcast’s producers make that very case in their inaugural episode, which intones a manifesto:

We all know how the phone, the bicycle, and the novel turned out. We love them. The fears surrounding them were foolish. So it’s worth asking, why do we repeat ourselves like this? Why do we always say “no, this time it’s different, this time we’re in danger.” Why can’t we trust our own history?

This sentiment embodies a popular kind of techno-futurist confidence that newness is progress, which must triumph over the hidebound conservatism that impedes it. It believes that the arc of history bends toward disruption, and that our own worries about transformative technologies will one day appear as irredeemably silly as Thoreau’s rejection of the telegraph. With that, the true value of Pessimists Archive emerges: exposing technological optimism as little more than a fallacy, almost stupefying in its wrongness.

“Trusting our own history” means relying on what happened in the past to tell us what will happen in the future. That’s a recipe for getting it wrong. When forecasting the future, perhaps the only thing that can be trusted is the emergence of unprecedented, unpredictable events that violate past trends. On the eve of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, none of the models used to forecast house prices accounted for the possibility of a price collapse—for the simple reason that no such collapse had ever happened. Price data was historical, and extrapolating that history into the future rendered us blind to the possibility that something ahistorical might happen. Or as Pessimists Archive unwittingly put it: the possibility that “this time it’s different.”

But techno-optimists take the exercise a step further, by using data about one thing to forecast the future of an entirely different thing. This moves us from the flawed to the absurd. For instance, when techno-optimists compare anxiety over driverless cars to the protests of the horse-and-buggy industry over the automobile, they ignore the ways that driverless cars implicate fundamentally different problems than did automobiles. Driverless cars stand ready to collect immense amounts of personal data about the habits of their passengers, and their networked structure creates serious national security risks. What could the successful debut of the automobile in the early 20th century possibly tell us about that?

The political philosopher Gerald Gaus argues that the less precedent there is for some practice working, the less reason there is to prefer it. In the case of new technologies that implicate brand-new problems, the data we have about the success of past technologies is simply irrelevant. History gives us no reason to prefer a world in which, for example, most manual work is automated. It’s never happened before.

We draw spurious historical analogies precisely because it’s easy. If we can say that Change A is just like Change B, which went fine, it allows us to avoid grappling with the actual qualities of Change A. Argument by analogy displaces argument on the merits. It’s far more convenient to assert that past change was good, present change is just like past change, therefore present change is good too.

Unfortunately, by any objective measure, most new things are bad. People are positively brimming with awful ideas. Ninety percent of startups and 70 percent of small businesses fail. Just 56 percent of patent applications are granted, and over 90 percent of those patents never make any money. Each year, 30,000 new consumer products are brought to market, and 95 percent of them fail. Those innovations that do succeed tend to be the result of an iterative process of trial-and-error involving scores of bad ideas that lead to a single good one, which finally triumphs. Even evolution itself follows this pattern: the vast majority of genetic mutations confer no advantage or are actively harmful. Skepticism towards new ideas turns out to be remarkably well-warranted.

The need for skepticism towards change is just as great when the innovation is social or political. For generations, many progressives embraced Marxism and thought its triumph inevitable. Future generations would view us as foolish for resisting it—just like Thoreau and the telegraph. But it turned out that Marxism was a terrible idea, and resisting it an excellent one. It had that in common with virtually every other utopian ideal in the history of social thought. Humans struggle to identify where precisely the arc of history is pointing.

Techno-optimists would likely prefer to put aside failed products and ideologies and consider instead those innovations that have already proven successful. We’re talking about the iPhone, after all. Is popular adoption of an innovation reason enough to suspend skepticism? No—we turn out to be quite bad at predicting the full impact of even our most successful ideas. Adding lead to gasoline made automobile transportation more efficient, but it caused widespread brain damage and may have been responsible for the 20th century crime boom. Freon in refrigerators punched a hole in the ozone and had to be banned by international compact. Fossil fuels, one of the most successful product innovations in history, are experiencing what might politely be called a re-evaluation.

Another massively successful innovation undergoing a re-evaluation of its own is the internet itself. Optimists promised emancipation: knowledge would be democratized and civil discourse would flourish. Now, we understand that the internet is also a highly effective system of control. Incentives to commodify personal information have resulted in more and more of our daily lives becoming subject to data collection, transforming our economy into a surveillance ecosystem. This renders our conduct “visible” to states, which can punish us for it—as China is doing now through its dystopian “social credit” system. The whole thing could turn out to be a terrible mistake—we don’t know, because we’ve never had to solve this problem before. The fact that we previously solved the problem of the telegraph is irrelevant. One could probably fill a podcast—call it the “Optimists’ Archive”—with inappropriately rosy predictions about the wonders of new technology.

We are engaged in a giant social experiment. For 99 percent of the time humans have lived in settled societies, life in each generation was essentially like life in the generation before. Stasis, not change, was the rule. Now, for the first time, we live differently, and the gap between the generations grows wider as the pace of change grows faster. Can this continue indefinitely? We have no precedent for that working. Analogies to history are analogies to nothing at all. We might as well analogize the driverless car to the hand-ax.

Instead of empty analogies, the only way to survive change is to have a vigorous debate about the merits of our new ideas—precisely the kind of debate that techno-optimists want to foreclose by appealing to history. We might ask instead: what does this new thing do to us? Do we understand enough to answer that question? If not, on what basis does our confidence rest? Debate on the merits is essential to distinguishing good ideas from bad ones. And for that, you need the people that techno-optimists most loathe: conservatives.

Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote for different parties—they are different kinds of people. They differ psychologically in ways that are consistent across geography and culture. For example, liberals measure higher on traits like “openness to new experience” and seek out novelty. Conservatives prefer order and predictability. Their attachment to the status quo is an impediment to the re-ordering of society around new technology. Meanwhile, the technologists of Silicon Valley, while suspicious of government regulation, are still some of the most liberal people in the country. Not all liberals are techno-optimists, but virtually all techno-optimists are liberals.

A debate on the merits of change between these two psychological profiles helps guarantee that change benefits society instead of ruining it. Conservatives act as gatekeepers enforcing quality control on the ideas of progressives, ultimately letting in the good ones (like democracy) and keeping out the bad ones (like Marxism). Conservatives have often been wrong in their opposition to good ideas, but the need to win over a critical mass of them ensures that only the best-supported changes are implemented. Curiously, when the change in question is technological rather than social, this debate process is neutered. Instead, we get “inevitablism”—the insistence that opposition to technological change is illegitimate because it will happen regardless of what we want, as if we were captives of history instead of its shapers.

This attitude is all the more bizarre because it hasn’t always been true. When nuclear technology threatened Armageddon, we did what was necessary to limit it to the best of our ability. It may be that AI or automation causes social Armageddon. No one really knows—but if the pessimists are right, will we still have it in us to respond accordingly? It seems like the command of the optimists to lay back and “trust our history” has the upper hand.

Conservative critics of change have often been comically wrong—just like optimists. That’s ultimately not so interesting, because humans can’t predict the future. More interesting have been the times when the predictions of the critics actually came true. The Luddites were skilled artisans who feared that industrial technology would destroy their way of life and replace their high-status craft with factory drudgery. They were right. Twentieth century moralists feared that the automobile would facilitate dating and casual sex. They were right. They erred not in their predictions, but in their belief that the predicted effects were incompatible with a good society. That requires us to have a debate on the merits—about the meaning of the good life.

We may wake up one morning and find that our most successful innovations are actually incompatible with the good life. By then it might be too late to do anything about it. We are no longer ship captains charting a course to a destination, we are passengers in driverless cars, riding the arc of history. Where it will take us is anyone’s guess.


Nicholas Phillips is a law student and writer based in New York. He is a research associate at Heterodox Academy. Follow him on Twitter @nicholas_c_p


  1. Another fallacy, not discussed here, is the “it’s inevitable!” argument. Meaning: Don’t even try to stop us; just accept it. Technology is turned into a deity which we must serve. See Kevin Kelly’s book The Inevitable, for example.

      • Sorry. I started to skim after you began dropping unexamined bromides like “democracy is good”.

        • michael farr says

          showing yourself to be not only lazy but impulsive, rude and a given to bullshit apologies.

        • blurghchicken says

          Good job not reading the article breathnumber.

        • DeplorableDude says

          Thanks for the good laugh on the unexamined bromides like “democracy is good” statement. I needed a laugh.

    • wittyahole - says

      you can’t put the genie inside of the bottle again. I don’t think that this is the best example but even if we came to realize that smartphones are a net negative, we can’t erase the technology or prevent people from making them. You can’t go back and act like the technology doesn’t exists.
      Same thing happens with a lot of stuff. Once we knew that we could make cocaine with coca leaves, that’s it. Worldwide there’s going to be independent parties making it.
      You can’t erase knowledge once it’s out, that’s the point.

  2. Ray says

    One of the biggest changes that is irreversible, but whose impact we have not yet assessed, is the introduction of personal computers and all the other electronic devices in the past 30 years. Most people now spend huge amounts of time with these devices, and there is evidence that they are actually affecting our brain and our ability to relate to other humans. There is no going back to a pre-computing era, so any deleterious effects will have to be dealt with down the road.

    • Quinn says

      Right, people aren’t objective observers of all possible societal outcomes. They’re just seeing the world we have today, and presuming it’s the “best” simply because they’re living in it. It’s sort of like the “right side of history” argument.

    • David of Kirkland says

      I thought it might be nature’s introduction of homo sapiens…but that does seem to be reversible.

    • GregS says

      One of the biggest changes that is irreversible, but whose impact we have not yet assessed, is the introduction of personal computers

      We already know what the impact is, computers, tablets and smart phone are diverting precious time from television. 🙂

      On a more humorous side, I have invented a new app. It is called POLE. It uses the smart phone’s camera and a primitive sonar to warn strolling smart phone users about obstructions in their path. It will sound: POLE, MAIL BOX, CAR. PARKING METER and RUNNING CHILD whenever these things are encounter, allowing the user to focus on their phone.

  3. Quinn says

    Great piece. I’m a graduating computer science student looking to begin a career in software engineering. Early on in their education, a student will make the realization that the thing that previously took them a couple minutes to do, can be done with a couple lines of code, and then done thousands of times in a second. This idea become of driving principle of a programmers: People are inefficient: commuters are not. A good programmer will also begin to realize that there is no limit to what can be automated.

    Automation and Machine Learning is here. It’s already good, and like technology in general, it’s improving at an exponential rate. I am a natural conservative, and find myself growing increasing wary of my own industry, as the rate of technology (and thus, societal) change continues to ramp up. I sympathize with Neo-Ludditism, though I feel I am also a “defeatist” on the topic, the change is coming, and there (effectively) nothing we can do to stop it.

    • Ama says

      This is the real problem of techo-optimism. Source for machine learning being ‘here’? neural nets are not machine learning but optimization of a very specific formulation of a problem described by humans.

      Also, this ‘there’s no limit to what can be automated’, really? In my job the machines are the weakest link, they break down when people can’t, one machine breaking cost another department half a million dollars last year, people are adaptable. It took a ford plant where I worked over a month to re-tool. We do it here with people over a lunch break. Machines don’t have thousands of extra sensors built in like people do, Has saved us big time before. Machines are not even close to being able to control things like a person. Not to mention the whole liability aspect Driverless trucks in Canadian winters when? Here we have condensation on the circuit boards in the machines themselves when they cool down for a minute causing problems. And now some states are looking at taxing robots to pay for welfare, not economically sensible. My 2c, sorry for formatting.

      • Bill says

        I am heavily involved in IT automation and the fallacy of the argument goes even further than the weakest link principle. The automation solves-all fallacy ignores all of the body of research on the topic, like automated testing, which is never to the same level or as efficient as human testing because it relies an an all-seeing programmer to code every path. The end result of the automation and ML is flawed because it is very narrowly focused. A NN may accurately predict an outcome for a set of impulses but it must constantly be retrained to retain accuracy. The techno-optimists assume happy-path always as ignore reality being unpredictable. I feel sorry for the moon-visitors traveling in “modern” space vehicles designed and built by these optimists (techo-evangalists is likely a better moniker).

        • Jackson Howard says

          Ama & Bill make solid points.

          I work with automated devices and robots, and while automation is nice and can be a life saver at times, there are cases where they can be dangerous in terms of quality insurance and risk management. They can be a help and do some automated testing, but my QA processes have stayed very human centric with multiple pairs of eyeball mk1 checking the steps.

          ML is really hard to QA (in my experience) and presents the risk of unknown blindspots where the output is bad but passes the automated checks. It’s fine for process with low impact adverse outcomes, but for things like car driving or robotic surgery, I am a bit leary of them.

          What I really like though is polling human+machine checks/decisions, and escalation if the outcomes differ.

          Software is eating the world. There is no precedent for such a massive since the invention of writing. Our maps are not only useless, they are most probably wrong and are more likely to lead us in a blind alley than anything.

          • derek says

            It comes down to good old economics. If the resulting time savings is worth more than the ridiculously expensive process of automating it, then it is worth doing.

            My job entails doing complicated things where a specific task might be repeated every six months or so. It takes 5 years for a human to become proficient. A growing proportion of my time is sorting out failed electronic devices or finding configuration errors, or bad sensors.

            I’ll believe the techno optimism when I see even a vague recognition of what I and many others do for a living.

            And yes I can be replaced by automation by removing and tossing in a landfill, then replacing all the large and complex devices I work on. It is shocking how much of this is happening, and someone in the future will dig through the ruins of our civilization and find these exquisite stainless steel devices perfectly preserved. And wonder at the blithering stupidity of the people who did this.

          • Mr Molnar says

            I wonder if any of the silly-cone boys ever listen to Rolling Stones, as oldster and “unwoke” (hahahaha) as they are, [translation: Honest] But I, for one, will employ Micks’ words when it comes to unrestrained and uncritical use of ANY technology; to wit:

            You’re drivin too fast
            You went straight through the curve and slammed through the flat….

            You can see the freeway divided
            Its a pity you can’t take them both
            One goes down to the valley or down some blind alley
            the other goes down to the coast

            And too many roads lead to nowhere
            but how they twist and they turn
            and you end up in a dusty old strip-mall
            with your tires all shredded and burned

            You’re goin out a your brain
            out a your mind
            You’re so insane, You’re goin blind

            Yeah, drivin too fast
            You went straight the straight through the curve and you never come back
            Driving too fast
            Hang on for your life I think we’re gonna crash

            /// That’s just one mans’ opinion.
            Credit to Mick and Keith.

  4. Anonymous says

    Example the founders of Twitter thought they were optimistic about people being able to communicate and though it would lead to greater harmony as people could talk across party lines. I avoid it since it just feels so balkanized and on edge.

      • Nakatomi Plaza says

        What took you guys so long to insert your political nonsense into this story? It took a dozen comments before some dope felt the need to ruin this with petty politics.

        You guys are obsessed. Grow up.

        • Heike says

          The Left taught us that the personal is the political, and every discussion is about politics whether we choose to recognize it or not. Now you’re salty because people learned the lessons you used your bully pulpit to broadcast?

    • David of Kirkland says

      So liberty works. Don’t give them power over you and you can make the choice for yourself. It takes some time for humans to adapt to changes, and a couple of decades is barely a blip of time to react and adjust.

  5. Peter G says

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

    I used to be a tech optimist, but lately technology has taken a dark turn. We can barely deal with social media. And i find myself agreeing with people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking that advanced AI could be devistating for our species. But we seem to be pushing full-steam ahead on that, damn the consequences

    • EK says

      Lines from the arch-conservative Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” address always come to mind when the uncertainties about the benefit of change and technology come up for discussion:

      “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

      To my eye, the IT technocrats imagine a world tailored for people with IQs > 1 standard deviation above the mean and offer nothing to the more than 80% of the population whose IQs are < 1 sd above the mean.

      They are imposing an enormous selection pressure on the general population. I think the result will be an aristocracy governing a lot of idle hands and hungry mouths. How long the winners will put up this is any ones guess but I don’t think it will be for long.

      • Stephanie says

        EK, yes, we’re creating a dangerously unstable system where only an increasingly small proportion of the cognitive elite will have a place. If we replace truck drivers and retail staff with self-driving vehicles, Amazon, and self-check out, what can those people do? Can we further automate construction work? With fertility rates dropping and ever-increasing qualifications required for child care, that isn’t exactly a booming industry that can catch the bottom rung. Same for administration. Even technical jobs like paralegals and some instrument technicians will be made obsolete soon. Not everyone can be doctors, lawyers, and programmers, and we only need so many of those anyway.

        If we fail to provide people with jobs, they will turn to radical political and economic philosophies. We can’t simply pay people off because it won’t provide the meaning most people get from contributing to society. We should think long and hard about what the millions of people who will be on the chopping block can do.

        • Jeff says

          Ms. Stephanie, Always enjoy your posts. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”
          by Yuval Noah Harari. Not quite as good as his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” but highly interesting nonetheless. In Homo Deus he discusses in detail many of the topics you bring up. I think societies are in for major upheavals in the coming years. Hard to predict if it is good or bad (or what will win out).

          • dirk says

            Advice to Stephanie: better don’t follow Jeff’s book choice , you might get too much depressed, Harari thinks those millions without meaningful lives due to forthcoming automation and failing capacities are condemned to computer games and drugs. Huxley had a somewhat similar advice in Brave New World, I remember. But, in the Roman empire, of course, it was already bread and games for the proletarians.

        • EK says

          Since 1630 in the US, the divide has always been between the “gentlemen of trade and the professions” and the “40 shilling freeholders.” Those were the “factions” alluded to in the Federalist Papers. Nothing has really changed except that the gentlemen captured the courts and the Senate between 1913-40 and then re-wrote the Constitution to their liking.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Most of the real dangers are what does your sovereign do with new technologies. Nuclear could have been great had government not preferred to weaponize it.

    • 370H55V says

      And Skynet becomes self-aware in 3, 2, 1 . . .

  6. Anonymous Optimist says

    “Instead of empty analogies, the only way to survive change is to have a vigorous debate about the merits of our new ideas—precisely the kind of debate that techno-optimists want to foreclose by appealing to history.“ Reads like straw manning.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Debating the future is typically nonsense, as if there are people who can predict the future, a common fallacy of human hubris.
      Do you never roll out cars because of pollution, sprawl, accidents, impaired drivers, terrorism?
      Regulation of actual issues makes sense; attempting to predict possible bad actions is difficult and surely will cause more problems that it solves.

      • Jackson Howard says

        Depends on the scale of the problem caused. I’m glad that high activity wastes are transported in well designed Castors and that we did not wait for an accident to take place before taking measures.

        Same goes for P4 labs security design, PAL for nuclear weapons and so on. Some dangers have to be forseen and designed/planned for. Otherwise you get horrendous stuff like Bhopal and Chernobyl.

  7. boğos kalemkiar says

    What is more dangerous and acute? “Limbic capitalism or Surveillance capitalism? Although I have not read your book yet, I am reading the latter. It seems to me that the onus in our present catastrophic predicament is laid at the door of the individual and not the societal and as such is easily manipulated by neo conservative and Randian ethos. Much like many of the articles in this publication. Hence suspect in my mind. Nevertheless, I will read your book hoping against hope.

  8. Eigen Eagle says

    In my mind, there’s two considerations with technology:

    What are the effects it will have on the environment and can you be responsible enough to mitigate them?
    Can governments and tech giants use the technology responsibly and ethically and will citizens hold them to that?

    I don’t consider myself a techo-optimist and in fact I think we’re near our technological ceiling created by the laws of nature itself and not our intellectual capacity but can you think of any technology that the world would be better off without if these two items are not considerations?

    • David of Kirkland says

      He uses failed businesses and unimplemented patents as evidence of their failure, but of course this is the success of free markets. Not everything (or everybody) is good or worthwhile. Freedom to choose lets humans progress, not central planning on limited information and projected fears.

      • Nakatomi Plaza says

        We don’t have free markets in America. Only a child would believe this. Big tech and their business practices are the antithesis of free markets. Get out of your bubble occasionally and see what’s going on in the world, please.

        And “central planning?” You mean regulations? Stop being such a douche and using your tired communist references for concepts that have nothing to do with Soviet Russia. Every society that has ever existed has had rules.

        • Stephanie says

          NP, you can omit about 2/3rds of your sentences and it will make you more concise and less of a whiny bitch. You should have supported your claim the US doesn’t have free markets with evidence. You also could have explained how you got “regulations” from “central planning,” because those are not synonymous.

          • Nick Podmore says

            NP a well known troll, he comments on many articles and his comments are characterised by there disparaging nature. Ignore him/her…everyone else does!

        • Max York says

          Would you kindly stop your snide remarks? They are not responsive to the thoughtful comments others are making, and your intellectual pretension utterly fails to reveal intellect. You don’t prove your brilliance by calling other people stupid, no matter how crudely you express yourself.

        • Kevin Herman says

          Free but not as free as some. The United States should be at the top of all economic freedom lists not in the 8-12 range.

        • peanut gallery says

          Hey, we agree. We don’t have free markets. The US is an oligarchy of the rich and powerful.

          Central planning is currently done with copious amounts of regulation and rules. That doesn’t mean all regs should go, but the reason he used that term is valid. If you know anyone that has ever done small business, you know that many of these regs limit how many people you can afford to hire and your bottom line. Many are totally unnecessary. Large business love them as they can pay the fee and it reduces competition. Ultimately, Democrats serve large woke corporations. Check out the % of donations that Capital sends to the D party, Yet many will continue to claim that the Republicans are the house of crony capitalism. Ignore the man behind the curtain.

  9. Alan Gore says

    The argument from historical analogy does not favor either side. Every newly introduced technology is an experiment. Just as with new biological species, most of them become extinct, some of them succeed in ways that change the whole ecosystem spectacularly, and the other survivors make smaller rippling changes in the way everything is done. The reason man can be optimistic about human-induced change is that we have social mechanisms for testing change and adapting to whatever problems it introduces. Nature does not have this superpower.

    Faster transportation is an example of this. When it became possible to travel by rail across country in days rather than months, new businesses became possible and human relationships became sustainable over long distances. We developed new social tools to manage unwanted railroad side effects like boiler explosions, shady stock offerings and the threatened extinction of bison.

    The reason that we can be optimistic about progress is not that the next new tech will magically not have any unintended side effects, but that because humans are managing it. Flawed as we may be as a species, we can always find ways of surviving. Otherwise, we wouldn’t even be facing today’s big side effect, overuse of resources.

    • Blurgh says

      “human relationships became sustainable over long distances.”

      Sure. But what about the interstate highway system, which enabled (and now for many, requires) workers to travel long distances away from home and family to earn money? I don’t know your opinion, but it seems clear to me that transportation technology–even with all its economic benefits–has done a number on family and community relationships.

      As technology has advanced, ties have grown, but qualitatively have weakened. This isn’t an inherent good.

      • David of Kirkland says

        They could stay put and remain unemployed, or unable to bring stuff to market because they cannot transport it. This is available to all today. Or they could move the family to the new location to avoid long commutes. To pretend that removing transportation would make things better is only true if you believe people do not choose what they prefer.

      • Alan Gore says

        Tech doesn’t force anyone to make unpalatable choices. There was a time in my life when I found it advantageous to commute between Phoenix and San Francisco because technology enabled me to work a lucrative assignment there for a few months. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that forever, though, and I didn’t have to. In a free society, the choice is always ours. In a low-tech society, I wouldn’t have had that choice to make in the first place.

    • 370H55V says

      Except now we have it from on high at the NY Times that travel is immoral.

  10. Anon says

    It’s interesting we don’t really teach Aquinas any more. Because he, even in the 13th century proposed a good argument about proceeding carefully. That his was an argument for God makes no difference, since it’s equally applicable to AI.

    Humans are flawed creatures. And a flawed creature builds its own flaws into its creations. Thus, the argument goes, a being cannot create something greater (as in more perfect) than itself because it builds in its own flaws.

    This, I think, is a good philosophical basis for the AI puzzle. Can or will we be able to create an entity greater than ourselves, or will we build in our flaws into the system at such a deep level that it cannot be undone?

    • EK says

      The Reformed expression of the same thought is captured in the idea of the utter depravity (here, “depravity” is understood to mean “inadequacy’) of human intellect and human designs.

    • E Taph says

      The idea that a flawed creature automatically builds its own flaws into its work is not a given. Most work that we do, is actually done to compensate for our flaws(including, say, the inability to conjure sustenance out of light and air) and the real matter is whether we can see discern that which we’re attempting to compensate for – the awareness of our real nature.

      As all politics is all about rallying behind ideals and taking pre-baked views on human nature in order to justify the rally, and perhaps sticking a Politician’s fallacy in there somewhere, it can’t actually offer any sort of a useful lens for tackling technological progress. Through that set of lenses we’ll either we’ll under or overestimate the impact of any given tech, whereas to actually build something greater than ourselves we need a clearheaded, non-politicized look at how we tend to be.

      • peanut gallery says

        I built a LEGO monster truck for my 5 year old. My flaws were not in the instruction manual.

  11. AR says

    What the article fails to address is that the inevitability of the acceleration of technologies like driverless vehicles, mass automation, etc. lies in their efficiency, and in a globalized economy unilateral efforts to regulate such will simply lead to the failure of domestic corporations or total tariff-driven isolation, as the economic engines of governments not won over by such arguments (and given that the global economy includes players such as China, Russia, etc., mere ethical arguments really aren’t going to fly here) will reap the benefits and outperform those constrained from doing so. It’s a massive coordination problem the solution of which seems largely incompatible with geopolitics as it stands. This is somewhat orthogonal to questions of what are in effect luxury services like social media and how it ought to be regulated, of course.

    • Mike says

      Good point! I am reminded of how guns and crossbows were adopted in feudal Europe for arming the peasants only because they had no choice because their neighbouring states were. Technological progress will occur and we have good reason to be optimistic because medical advances etc eventually get cheaper. Why do you think all the billionaires are pledging to give half their fortunes away? Because stability is in the best interests of all of us and they know if they don’t do something there will be revolution. There will be hard times ahead and the US will eventually moderate their tax system because the alternative will be anarchy. But as a techno optimist, I think the fallacy is presenting that change is easy or good for all. I think that so far it has generally been better for people on average and really good for those on top. So agreed that blind, unquestioning optimism is not useful, but generally technological progress empowers people. The caveat is the rise of the surveillance state, I think we are all quite trepidatious about China, big tech etc right now. However, the convergence of ai, physics, nanoengineering/fabrication, and medical/genetic engineering means that the tech progress in the next twenty years will be unprecedented in the history of humanity, whether our social fabric can reasonably adapt is the big question.

  12. E. Olson says

    Interesting essay, but social innovation needs to be separated by technological innovation, because the motives and outcomes are usually very different. Social innovations such as Democracy or Communism are about solving problems such as poverty and unjust hierarchies to make life “fairer” or “more just”, while technical innovations such as automobiles or the Internet are about solving problems such a lack of mobility or communications in order to make a profit. Technical innovations are less dangerous because they are stopped or reversed or superseded if profits are not generated within the patience tolerance of investors, while social innovations always seem irreversible no matter how badly they perform in solving the problem they were designed to fix.

    After all, we no longer use 8-track tapes because cassettes and CDs proved to be better, and were later replaced by MP3 players and digital files, and virtually nobody outside the recording industry laments the loss of physical mediums such as the 8-track. On the other hand, Communism/Marxism/Socialism has been a failure in every large scale implementation they have been tried, bringing mass death, poverty, and great unfairness and inequality, and yet Bernie Sanders is running on a Socialist platform, universities still have professorships in Marxism and preach socialist solutions across the humanities and social sciences, and perhaps as a result a majority of young people claim to prefer socialism to capitalism or Democracy.

    Furthermore, the problems created by profitable technical innovations are almost always fixed. Automobiles saved cities that were literally drowning in disease laden horse manure, but have created air pollution and congestion problems of their own by their great success. Yet solutions have or are being developed such as self-driving that will more efficiently utilize existing streets, telecommuting that eliminates the need to travel, and clean burning gasoline engines and electric cars that are much cleaner. In contrast, nothing ever seems to fix problems created by social innovations, and suggested solutions are almost always more regulation, more taxes, and less freedom that only create more problems instead of solving them. And even when they eventually collapse after consuming all available resources, proponents always insist that the next time will be different because the failures were not “true” Marxism/Socialism.

    Thus conservatives are usually correct to oppose social innovations, not only because they almost never work, but also because they virtually never die when they fail. On the other hand, I don’t think a political distinction can be made with most technical innovations, as both sides are often supportive or critical of innovations that they fear will impact some element of life they want to protect. For example, the Left is against nuclear energy and fracking because they fear their impact on the environment, while the Right is more skeptical about social media, because they fear its impact on the family and social relations, and also that its Left leaning nature might subvert free speech. Yet both sides are probably too pessimistic that such problems won’t be solved by technologists and marketers rapidly responding to varying public demands so as to secure profits.

  13. michael farr says

    a summary of the article might be that free markets and free speech are both necessary and sufficient to moderate the effects of change.

  14. bumble bee says

    When I was young growing up in the 70’s/80’s and I would watch programming that had a futuristic theme I, like I am sure many others, thought how cool it would be if this or that existed. For example watching the Jetsons and their automated futuristic life, I dreamed of pushing a button and getting a hot cooked meal, or having a tv wristwatch, flying cars and traveling into space. It was fun to think about when that would come about.

    However, there is a component to not only the Jetsons, but all futuristic themes we dreamt about that we all never imagined, the full on invasion of privacy, being tracked, being targeted through our phones by every store one goes in to, as well as all the social baggage that comes with life online.

    Never did it occur to me while watching Jane Jetson punch up a dinner that there could be the possibility that the food-a-rac-a-cycle could be keeping tabs on what they were eating, how many calories they were ingesting, fat content, diet restrictions, etc. You see in a benevolent world, the Jetsons could live, eat, shop, etc as free and anonymous as the little kid watching them on TV. There was a world once, where people were not being judged at every breath they took for the most innocuous trivial action, thoughts. Now our personal information, is being bought and sold in some kind of new age slavery.

    No, I will count myself with all the other naysayers who came before me and stand with them in bringing to light the shortcomings or even dangerous aspects of new technology. When people and their private information is no longer a commodity bought and sold on Wall Street, when I can voice my own thoughts without the thought police ready to pounce, when there is a place we can get where functionality of technology is the sole reason rather than getting the suspicion that technology is the method by which to get everyone’s information which is more valuable and profitable than the technology being sold.

    • Max York says

      I greatly appreciate your comment. I have the same concerns about privacy, which is why I avoid Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other platforms which I know collect and sell my behavioral data. I use a browser which doesn’t track (DuckDuckGo) and an email service that is based in Switzerland, doesn’t track, and is beyond the subpoena power of US authorities (Proton Mail).
      I would first make the point that the choice to use social media which track, or collect and sell data, is a market transaction: you give up your privacy, for free services. One can avoid that tradeoff, as I do.
      Second, privacy concerns could be eliminated very simply, without stepping on the First Amendment. All that is required is a Federal law prohibiting data collection and sale. This would force companies who sell data to find another revenue source, such as user fees. Again, the market could solve the problem: how many people would pay a user fee for the privilege of using social media? I suspect not many.

  15. Jonathan Andrews says

    I thought your essay was very interesting. Thank you

  16. DBruce says

    “On the eve of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, none of the models used to forecast house prices accounted for the possibility of a price collapse—for the simple reason that no such collapse had ever happened.”
    This is wrong – Georgist economists predicted the crash to the year, and before anyone else. btw – the next crash will be 2026.

    • Alan Gore says

      I don’t know about the Georgists and their fixation on the rental value of land, but the quotation is dead wrong because the 2008 housing bubble unfolded in exactly the same way as asset bubbles throughout history. The ‘technology’ of subprime mortgages just made the bubble a little bigger faster, just as the trading of option contracts intensified the 1926 Florida land bubble.

      Nuke some popcorn and sit back in your La-Z-Boy, because we’re about to see the cryptocurrency mania explode in the same way. The technology of blockchains and algorithmically managed money may seem new, but it’s just another classic asset bubble that is about to be gum on the players’ faces.

      • Shawn T says

        CC-You can always spot the true social-mediaite. This is, in your world, some sort of discourse?

    • Stephanie says

      DBruce, thanks for the heads up, I’ll make sure I’m prepared to scoop up some cheap property by then.

  17. E. Olson says

    “You gotta tell em – Soylent Green is people…”

    The movie Soylent Green is like so many other Malthusian predictions of futures filled with deprivation and misery, as technology runs amok and populations outstrip earthly capacities. Yet the state of the world has never been better with lower levels of war and poverty, lower loss of life from natural disaster, more economic and political freedoms, and material lifestyles enjoyed by even those living in Western style “poverty” that not even kings and presidents could dream about 150 years ago.

    In contrast to the dystopian Soylent Green future, I once had an idea for a novel based on a future that had become so trouble-free and easy that people were committing mass suicide out of boredom. And this week I read about a pretty Dutch girl of 17 from a nice middle-class family who received state assisted suicide because of depression caused by childhood sexual trauma, which while sad paled in comparison to the everyday traumas and difficulties experienced and overcome by masses of people in the violent, sickly, and poverty stricken past. Perhaps the anti-Soylent Green future is now.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      But past predictions of doom might better be characterized as warnings, and if doom did not happen that might be precisely because the warnings were heeded. For example folks of your general mentality might tut-tut about the CFC ‘panic’ of a few decades ago, but it was the ‘panic’ that motivated change and so ozone doom was averted. Ditto acid rain and so on. These might better be seen not as examples of failed prophecies of doom, but rather of sober warnings heeded (even if the rhetoric was sometimes overblown). And along with the prophets of doom we have always had their opposite number, the denier. Smoking does not cause cancer, lead in gas is perfectly safe, DDT is good for you, asbestos isn’t dangerous … and so on. The deniers are usually liars aren’t they? It’s the same with AGW today.

      • E. Olson says

        Ray – but if you look at my post further up I note that technological innovations are largely self-correcting due to the need for profits via satisfying market demands such as for a cleaner environment. Yet many of your examples are interesting because the dangers of CFC, acid rain, and DDT were actually overblown or unwarranted, while leaded gasoline and smoking dangers have proven to be correct, but in all cases “solutions” were created that were not particularly costly and hence pretty quickly implemented. Global warming is different, because there are no cheap and easy solutions whether you believe in the theory or not.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @E. Olson

          ” market demands such as for a cleaner environment”

          But that’s mostly regulatory, no? AOC isn’t the first big government type to want environmental standards.

          ” the dangers of CFC, acid rain, and DDT were actually overblown or unwarranted”

          Easy to say that after the danger has passed. How do we know that, were CFCs not banned, we’d not be in real trouble? It seems to me this is a sort of having one’s cake and eating it too — the ozone layer is now safe, due to the overblowing, but rather than thank the overblowers you want to disparage their overblowing while at the same time not needing to worry too much about melanoma.

          Nothing is simple tho — sure, sometimes there really is an overblowing, as probably with DDT, still I’m glad we are using much less of it. I’d rather risk an overblow than an underblow. Burning less coal sounds to me like a good idea for all sorts of reasons besides CO2.

          “Global warming is different, because there are no cheap and easy solutions”

          Then that’s tough, we have to pay what we have to pay. The Chinese seem to think it’s worth it. Energy right now is so cheap that folks don’t bother to turn the lights out at the office. Saw a good program last night: “The age of consequences”. There were maybe a dozen generals and admirals shown testifying before Congress as to the urgent need for action. One doesn’t think of the American military establishment as eco-hippies. Or dupes of AOC, or secret commies.

          The links: One has to wonder. It sounds like science, but then again one could find the same kind of thing from the smoking industry 30 years ago. I’m asked to believe that the world went to a huge amount of bother for no reason at all. A child could see that CFCs were no problem, but all the world’s scientists were fooled. And all the world’s governments agreed on the ban, at great cost, for nothing. It’s difficult to swallow. And did it lead to GND-eco-Maoism? Not really.

    • AR says

      Alternatively, in a harsher and more sickly society that girl may not have survived to begin with, or may simply have killed herself outright and earlier.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Ray B

        ” how do you know”

        Good question. How do we know anything we have not personally experienced? How do I know Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969? Yes, I was watching on TV, but it could have all been faked. If you want to believe it never happened then that’s what you believe.

        I ask myself if the claim sounds reasonable, and if their seems to be broad consensus. I try to be careful of people with an axe to grind. Since almost the whole world did conclude that CFCs should be banned, I also conclude that there must have been good reason to do so especially since the costs were high and no one had anything to gain. I approach all such questions, where I am not personally expert, in the same way.

        It’s not easy. BS can be made to sound like science, but you can usually detect the whiff of dishonesty, and even when they try, folks with an agenda usually can’t hide it entirely. And when folks resort to hysteria — for example, claiming that any new laws regulating the insulation of buildings must surely end up with Maoism — then I know I can discount their views.

    • Dove says

      @E Olson: first of all, check your facts. She did not have state assisted suicide, she starved herself to death at home.
      Second of all – what gives you the right to compare her suffering to others? We each have different resilience and what drives some people to suicide can seem liveable to others. I have had five suicide attempts to date over my childhood. And no, I don’t think her or mine suffering was less or more than anyone else’s in the history of mankind – it was her and my own and she could not cope. It’s interesting that you needed to point out that she was pretty – what does that have to do with anything? Would it somehow be okay if she was ugly?

      • E. Olson says

        I’m sorry Dove that you think I take suicide or reasons for it too lightly, but compared to the past (or today in the worst of the developing world) we have it very easy and even our worst days are seldom close to the common events of the past that brought drudgery, loss, and sorrow to nearly everyone. And why did I point out she was pretty, because we are often judged by our personal appearance and millions of people are deeply unhappy with their appearance. Perhaps she was also unhappy with her looks, since she was suffering from eating disorders, but from all objectives standards she was pretty and should have been a happy young woman, but instead was allowed to commit suicide by the state and her parents. She represents exactly the “slippery slope” argument used by those against legally sanctioned assisted suicide, who predict that such suicide “permissions” will quickly move from allowing suicide for painfully terminal cancer patients to approving it for possibly short-term depressions and anxiety issues.

      • Stephanie says

        Attractive people have it easier because people are biased towards attractive people.

        It seems that story was originally misreported, but the main difference is that it was passive instead of active euthanasia. This poor girl struggling with depression and anorexia was not given an IV when her symptoms got so bad she wouldn’t eat. It is unconscionable that the parents and doctors came to this decision.

        Her rapist(s) won.

        • Ray Andrews says


          The death worshipers are prevailing. Just to make a contrast tho, compare the case of a young Jehovah’s Witness who was physically forced to take a blood transfusion. The court ruling that she had no right to risk even possible death for the sake of a religious belief. She should have just said that she wanted to die and that rejecting a blood transfusion was her preferred method of suicide.

  18. Chip says

    Sometimes the harmful effects are the ones no one notices at first.

    For example, in the 19th century people blithely and carelessly used chemicals and industrial processes which we know today to be wildly poisonous.

    Benzene, mercury, lead, cadmium, and radium were used and dumped into rivers and groundwaters with reckless abandon, and the air in most industrial cities was unbreathably choked with coal soot and hydrocarbons.

    The people of the time were terrified of electricity and horseless carriages, but naively unconcerned with the lead their children were eating.

    The early scientists who noticed and tried to bring these dangers to public attention were often mocked as alarmists using the very same arguments that Steven Pinker uses.

  19. Heike says

    The real problem with driverless cars is that the human will no longer be in control of where the car goes. Someone else will make a list of allowable locations you can go, and allowable times to go there. This will enable an unprecedented amount of control over our lives. Naturally, leftist do-gooders will rush to take advantage, prohibiting us from going to harmful places like bars after 2am, known crack houses, and gun ranges. Human-controlled cars will be very valuable, right up to the point where they’re outlawed entirely. At that point, we won’t have any more choice about where we can go. They’ll be able to imprison entire neighborhoods or cities that way. The car will simply reject invalid destinations (or refuse to arrive at invalid origins).

    • Ray Andrews says


      That’s an interesting observation. I suppose it would happen eventually. One of your devices detects that you are planning to, say, go to a pro-life rally and it simply refuses to take you there.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      As long as driverless cars can take you to the tinfoil store so you can wrap your entire, paranoid, addled head in foil, you’ll be fine.

      Christ, where do you guys get this crazy shit? I’ve never heard this bizarre concern before about self-driving cars. Leftists taking over? Are you on meds?

      • Ray Andrews says

        @ Nakatomi Plaza

        Think about it. But view it from the perspective of heroic leftists fighting Trump: Donald refuses to leave the White House after loosing the next election. There is a mass rally of the good people planned in front of the White House. The evil capitalist state shuts down all cars heading for the rally. Couldn’t happen?

      • Closed Range says

        Why the hostility, NP? It is certainly possible for the cars to restrict destinations and be fairly good at guessing intent. Google maps already knows when I’m about to leave for work or the shops. Given the precedent of online censorship of conservative voices that the tech giants have been engaging in, there’s every reason to believe they would carry that censorship offline as well. Or how about if the tech giants suddenly determine that your political views break their terms of service and they brick your car? I’ve also got many more unrelated concerns that I will post further down, but the loss of independence of controlling your car is a major change in transportation nobody has ever dealt with before. I think the other comments are valid concerns, and it is for our legal systems to anticipate these problems and legislate right from the start.

      • Shawn T says

        NP-You haven’t been paying attention. China has their social score to earn rights. How is that tracked, monitored, manipulated and imposed? Technology. Citi and other credit card issuers will not allow transactions with gun stores. How do they know what kind of store and impose the restrictions? Technology. I recently rented a car and they restricted driving speeds using on-board technology – merging in LA sucked when tapped out at 70 and slow acceleration to that point. You think Saudi Arabia wouldn’t use on-board tech to stop women from driving or restrict how and where they drive? YouTube is now deciding what is “mean” via algorithm and live editors. Facebook decides what is real or fake news. Several states are considering gps monitoring of all vehicles to track mileage in order to replace gas taxes with use taxes. My area’s irrigation water supplier installed new real-time secondary water meters last year to “help provide better service.” This year they sent threat letters to impose weekly/monthly restrictions and “fines.” The local power company is pressuring residents to get their smart thermostats so they can “help” people with their energy use via remote monitoring. Where you navigate online, what you search, where you physically go in the world, who you talk to and message, email content, where you shop and what departments you shop in, how much you make, how much you spend, your credit score range and on and on are tracked all day every day and the data is used and sold to third parties. You find self-driving cars being manipulated for political reasons far-fetched?

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Shawn T

          Nice summary. Nuts, it’s latter than we think.

    • Brian says

      I certainly don’t see how my new driverless 4×4 truck will take me “up that mountain over there”. “Off-road” will become something that just doesn’t compute.

    • Max York says

      I can see robot tractors pulling plows in farm fields, where if the computer program has a glitch, some stalks of corn get cut down when they shouldn’t have. Zero loss of life, minimal economic damage.
      I can see robot buses running designated lanes on city streets, or robot subways

      I saw a TV show several years ago, created by Volvo, a heavy truck manufacturer. A train of semis was going down the highway, with a driver only in the cab of the first, and he was not touching the controls.
      Such technology will largely replace “road drivers.” However, when the truck arrives at its exit, there will have to be a qualified driver in each truck. First, because city traffic conditions will not permit a road train, and second, because it would be impossible to simulate the thousands of judgments a truck driver must make in navigating city driving conditions.
      As to automated tractor-trailers or automobiles on highways, I believe that automation of both is feasible so long as (1) there is a designated lane for each, with no possibility of crossing over and (2) both cars and trucks are equipped with identical software which prevents either from coming within a specified distance of the other if one threatens the other’s space.

      I make this comment about highway trucks as an ex-trucker. The manipulation of a semi-truck’s controls can be taught in less than a week if a person already knows how to drive a car. What cannot be taught is good judgment re speed, spacing, braking and lane changes. Automation can overcome these problems.


  20. “Debate on the merits is essential to distinguishing good ideas from bad ones.”

    Debate doesn’t influence the adoption of ideas, whether good or bad, unfortunately. What does, is whether or not money can be made from them. Lots of money is made from TV & Film, most of which is utter garbage. Same with advertising, only worse, because it promotes an unsustainable economy & ways of life, on our finite, vulnerable & overpopulated planet.

    “Can this continue indefinitely? We have no precedent for that working.”

    I don’t need a precedent to know that it most certainly cannot continue indefinitely, but is driving us towards civilisational suicide.

    To me this has been obvious for decades, but most people, it seems, are incapable of recognising it. Why?

    I spent a long time thinking about this & finally came to the conclusion that at a subconscious level people do not want to recognise it, & thus don’t.

    As Paul Simon says in the lyrics of The Boxer, A man hears what he wants to hear & disregards the rest.

    What awaits us, or our children & grandchildren, does not bear thinking about, so we don’t. Our brain is wired to protect us from the suffering it would surely cause us. The tragedy is that if we did think about it, we might yet work out how to prevent it happening. As it is, we are just sticking our heads in the sand & the approaching tsunami will simply sweep us, & our entire civilisation, away.

    Passengers & crew on the Titanic believed it to be unsinkable, but were mistaken. We are just as mistaken about western civilisation, & the iceberg that will sink it is not far ahead. A few decades at the most.

    But what to say to people who DO pull their heads out of the sand for a moment & recognise what is coming, but see no possibility to avoid it? One can hardly blame them, or their subconscious, for promptlynputting it back into the sand. What else is there to do, when one sees no hope of survival?

    Well, I do see hope, in an understanding of ourselves, society & our situation which academics are blinded to by their own dependency on the state & status quo, & by their refusal to view human nature & society from an evolutionary perspective.

    • Mike says

      That’s a grim point of view. Climate change and education will take care of excess population and humans ability to adapt will get us (north America at least) through the hard times. Coal based heating destroyed Londons air for decades but when living conditions started to regress they made technological and cultural adaptations. Technology will help us achieve a lower energy and recyclable society, one time use plastics that can’t degrade will soon be illegal, we are slowly getting better data about this stuff. The challenge will be whether or not we get through the next 20 years together as a global civilization or if pockets of nations have tens of millions of citizens die. I suspect that Asia and India will have very difficult times when we get +50 degree Celsius weather for more than 2 weeks at a time and famines result.

  21. Anders O says

    Is fossil fuel technology bad, something we shouldn’t have been optimists about?

    If a century from now Earth has turned into a Venus-level hellscape due to an exploding greenhouse effect, then yes we would probably prefer it never was deployed. If on the other hand, in the counterfactual universe where fossil fuel technology never was deployed in the 19th century, that the then far less efficient agriculture prevented the liberation from hard work, poverty and constant risk of starvation of billions of people, then maybe not.

    The issue with both extremes in previous paragraph is that I have constructed them as being entirely determined by one factor: fossil fuel technology. Since history doesn’t allow experiments in a scientific sense, we never have the proper counterfactual to compare against. However, it is a hard case to make that a single factor causes all future outcomes. For example, if a century from now we have reached the Venus-level greenhouse effect, then it was probably in part because solar, nuclear, smart grid, carbon capture and many other technologies failed to develop or be deployed for some reason.

    My critical point to the essay is that the more sophisticated techno-optimist argument is that we usually have a way to figure stuff out. Hence, if a technology has some bad outcomes (which I grant is true in most cases), we can be optimists in the sense that these bad outcomes in turn can be counteracted through innovation. The naive techno-optimist argument deserves criticism for being blind to bad outcomes. However, it implies, for the wrong reasons, an incremental mechanism by which we adjust things along our preferences and objectives as we go: try and see, fix, tweak and adjust. The cautious conservative counter-argument, on the other hand, is not instructive on what social mechanism to implement instead with respect to technology.

    I rather see a healthy social debate around said preferences and objectives that present and future technology serve. The social conservative have many good affirmative arguments on this matter. If more people realize the value in raising their children, forming strong family bonds, then digital technology, transport technology, robotics acquire value if they are engineered to serve that end. We can figure out how to develop that. But the objective must be there, and often it isn’t.

    For completeness, I accept that some technology can be intrinsically bad and imply an existential risk for which there are no corrective tweaks. I understand the essay to discuss a far broader range, and it is with respect to that vast majority of cases my counter-arguments apply.

    • Ray B says

      Anders, if Earth has a Venusian climate in a hundred years, it won’t have been caused by humanity. Exceptional changes in the Sun would be required to do that.

      History will show that the climate change alarmist’s were simply fairy tale characters come to life. In other words, they will be proven to be Henny Penny’s shouting, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling”.

  22. Roger Aimes says

    Techno-moaners keep trying to hold us down, but we technologists just keep inventing the world regardless. Best thing you can do? Get out of our way.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Yea, a world of clowns using Twitter while riding their rented scooters on their way to their minimum-wage contract job working at the Amazon fulfillment center.

      Yea, technology! Look out world, the technologists are coming to make your life shittier!!

      • Heike says

        Amazon workers? Since when does the far left give a shit about the working class? They betrayed you, remember? They voted for Trump after you called them deplorable! They deserve all the misery they get. You don’t need or want their votes. Jesus, it’s like the last two years didn’t happen.

  23. Andrew Scott says

    I’m more in the inevitability camp because I can’t prevent change. But another serious factor is the extent to which we come to depend on technology. Only thirty years ago most people had heard of the internet and almost no one owned a computer that communicated with other computers.

    Now if something happens to the internet, much of the world as we know it will simply stop working. Think of the panic that happens when financial markets collapse, and then imagine what would happen if no one could even tell whether they were collapsing.

    Most of us live in places where we depend on vehicles and infrastructure to deliver food and water. If it stops working a lot of people will die or kill other people. That situation didn’t come into existence when we started driving cars. It happened when we shaped our cities and way of life around the assumption of their availability.

    It’s too soon to say that present technology hasn’t harmed us. Our reliance on it could still destroy us.

    That sounds like a lot of worrying. I’m not worried because I can’t do much about it. And regardless of whether it’s that or some personal crisis, things of varying degrees of badness are going to happen no matter what, so I take one day at a time and plan the best I can for the future.

  24. Albigensian says

    “Now, for the first time, we live differently, and the gap between the generations grows wider as the pace of change grows faster. Can this continue indefinitely?”

    This is a common view, that change, especially technological change, just goes faster and faster all the time, an ever-increasing rate of change with no end in sight (at least on this side of the coming singularity). But is that even true?

    Consider the everyday technical environment of 1880 vs 1949: commercial electricity and the internal combustion engine; subways, buses, automobiles and air travel; telephones, recorded music, radio, and movies: all that, and a doubling of life expectancy at birth.

    And then compare these with the changes between 1949 and today: are they truly of equal magnitude? Digital technology seems to be the largest change, but has it been as revolutionary (to home, office, factory, and everyday life) as commercially available electric power was?

    Improvements in transportation have stagnated. Today’s airliners fly no faster than those of fifty years ago; cars are better but only incrementally so. Urban mass transit today mostly means subways and buses (plus a very minor revival of electric street rail): is there anything here someone from 1949 wouldn’t quickly recognize?

    Digital electronics and the technologies enabled by them is mostly what people mean today when they say “tech,” and these changes are not trivial. Nonetheless, overall these changes seem far smaller in scope than the enormous changes in the way people work, play and live than those between 1880 and 1949.

    • neoteny says

      Today’s airliners fly no faster than those of fifty years ago

      But today’s airliners carry much more people than 50 years ago — because they do it much cheaper than 50 years ago.

      • Albigensian says

        There have certainly been incremental improvements, and today’s long-haul airliners are more fuel-efficient and require less maintenance than those of fifty years ago.

        Nonetheless, the actual price per seat-mile has declined to about 50% of what it was fifty years ago (along with declines in comfort and service, of course, but with substantial improvements in safety). That’s certainly an improvement, but somewhat less than going from a Ford Trimotor (1925) to DC-3 (1935) to Boeing 707 (1958): the rate of improvement in commercial aviation has dramatically decreased over time as the progression of always-higher-faster-farther was replaced by incremental improvements in economy and safety.

        • neoteny says

          the actual price per seat-mile has declined to about 50% of what it was fifty years ago

          So it (at least) halved. That’s what I was pointing out.

          And there was faster commercial air travel: the speed of the Aerospatiale/BA Concorde exceeded Mach 2, while regular airliners do not reach even Mach 1 (i.e. they don’t go supersonic). Except the Concorde was expensive, loud and — eventually — a killer.

  25. Thomas Barnidge says

    New technology solves one set of problems and replaces them with a new set of problems. But overall new technology is good; why just think, I can read an Australian publication without having to move or to get a torn paper copy two weeks later.

  26. codadmin says

    All technological progress improves productivity, otherwise it wouldn’t be technological progress.

    Productivity is wealth. So when is stagnated or decreased productivity ever a desirable thing?

    If we don’t make technological advancements, we have no hope of solving the problems humanity currently faces.

  27. Giovanninino Panderino says

    Tesla is planning on replacing ALL freight trucks with battery powered driverless trucks. What ab amazing tech solution.
    Of course, returning to FREIGHT RAIL would be the most effective and green solution to nationwide freight transport. The problem is, it’s not NEW TECH.
    Obsessing with tech solutions makes idiots of us all.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Telsa will be bankrupt before they build any of those trucks, assuming that project isn’t completely dead by now. None of Musk’s projects has actually solved anything. Teslas are just overpriced cars for tech bros, the Boring company is a joke, Solar City is going to go under soon, Space X is totally dependent on taxpayers, and his Mars plan is too stupid for words.

      And no, we don’t like trains. They actually work.

    • Albigensian says

      If ” returning to FREIGHT RAIL ” means eliminating trucks, it’s not going to happen as few businesses are located on rail spurs, or close enough to a railroad to consider having a rail spur built. Railroads in the USA move far more ton-miles of freight today than they did a century ago, but they do this over a rail system that has less than half as many miles of track as the former rail branch lines and spurs can be served far more efficiently by truck.

      If you mean that most long-distance freight shipments large enough to use an entire shipping container could travel by rail, well, yes, they already do. Intermodal freight has been a huge success by dramatically reducing the cost of shipping goods over vast distances.

      Of course, lower prices lead to higher demand: more trucks, more trains, more container ships. What’s surprising is that it took so long for intermodal shipping to become commonplace, as containers are hardly high tech (although the means used to track them globally are).

  28. Nathan says

    You cannot use the subprime mortgage crisis as an example where models failed to predict. It was literally fraud to bundle bad loans and re-label them as good loans.

    • Jackson Howard says

      The rating agencies rubber stamped it all. They never got in trouble for it.
      The surveillance authorities played along with glee, and the people in power
      where happy to cut all the red tape.

      So, fraud and gross incompetence to assess risks.

    • Ed Lauber says

      But those predicting failed to notice the fraud or program it into their models. That is indeed a failure of prediction.

  29. Terminal Man says

    My hope is if we are to have new innovations that create company giants like Google and Facebook, their primary means of earnings aren’t through advertising. There seems to be a message within the message from the promotion firms that have no bounds. It’s actually a dream come true for some, all the hype and anticipation of a new product leaves us open for accepting that which couldn’t stand on its own.

  30. Stan Doughope says

    If you’re going to blame the internet itself for chinese dysopia, then why not blame the microchip, or even sand? It’s not a necessary application.

    A fallacy in the context used is “a false notion,” except this is about the future, which remains unknown, because that’s how time works.

    • Terminal Man says

      Then why all the hubbub about fossil fuel, both usage and extraction?

  31. geoffreyhicking says

    What do people here think of Robin Hanson?

  32. FavoriteHistoricalCharacter says

    There are few inventions that don’t have a downside, although some are more unambiguously good or bad than others. The auto brought freedom of movement, but caused huge amounts of pollution and helped pave over and destroy large tracts of nature. Its also a prime culprit in global warming.
    The tractor and combine, and the Haber Bosch process for artificial fertilizers, and the Green revolution, boosted agriculture was mostly good : it ended hunger, but allowed our present population explosion to 11 billion, which is an environmental catastrophe for the natural world and causes crowding and narrowed choices for humans.
    The iPhone is a convenient way to communicate and find things and buy things, but it kills the fine art of conversation, isolates us from humans in real time, and allows us to be tracked in our movements by corporate entities.
    I work in Silicon Valley, and can tell you that the author is right, there is little thought to what quality of life is, what downstream effects of new things will be, and mostly there is a mindless chase for big payoffs.
    Enjoying free time, and nature, being able to afford a house on a pristine lake, open space, conversation, wit, and deep relationships with other human beings is to me quality of life, and none of things are currently on the agenda.

    • dirk says

      There you are so right, Favourite, the invention of Herr Haber as the cause of a senseless and dangerous overpopulation, I saw the hopeless results during my work in Africa. But why is the Western world always so quick to introduce technology etc(agriculture, medicines, democracy) without even trying to let it be accompanied by the needed psychological and political measures and education and changes?? Quite possible, I think, but always missing.

  33. Sean Leith says

    Newness is not progress, progress is progress. Being new says nothing about its nature, it can be progress, it can also be regress, it can be a good thing, it can also be a bad thing. We have too many new things that turned out to be bad things, and most of new things do work out at all. For example, self-driving cars you mentioned, is a stupid idea, and will never work out.

  34. Jonfrum says

    “Just because we’ve been wrong 100 our of 100 times doesn’t mean that this time won’t be different!!”


  35. Ed Lauber says

    The opposite of techno-optimism is not techno-pessimism but rather techno-catatrophism. The later uses the same faulty logic but in reverse; claiming catastrophe without data or with little data. While the long line of announced catastrophes which failed to materialize does not prove that there won’t be a catastrophe in the future, it does delegitimize every scientist who makes a catastrophic prediction, in the minds of many. It also enables the optimists. A good solution would start with some admissions of failure from the catastophists and better self-criticism and mutual criticism in the community of scientists making predictions.

  36. Ed Lauber says

    Part of the problem is the fact that the scientific community makes no meaningful distinction between what it can demonstrate and what it predicts based on that, at least not when talking to the public. That is hubris, plain and simple, whether from techno-optimists or anyone else.

  37. ovidiu iancu says

    Despite our handwringing a lot of change is inevitable. What could possibly stop a technological idea that is commercially viable and in conformity with the law?

    OK so Twitter has given rise to polarization. Does that mean that “allowing” it to happen was a bad idea? What nonsense – there is no legal or moral case to be made against its emergence because 1) in most non-trivial cases we cannot predict which ideas are good or bad now or in the future and 2) there is no legal mechanism to “stop” an idea. The Luddites were right but they were also literally breaking the law by destroying private property.

    To continue with the Twitter example, the fact that conservative ideas and attitudes are currently on the defensive in the social media simply means that conservatism as a movement needs to adapt and become stronger in that arena. Survival of the fittest.

    In the medium term biological self-regulatory mechanisms will kick in – already rich/educated/responsible parents tend to have more children and drug and game/internet addicts have a low/falling reproduction rate.

    Read somewhere that there is VERY strong correlation between the introduction of electricity/TV in various locations around the globe and precipitous decreases in fertility rates. It is called the “idiot box” for a reason – weeds out idiots in two generations.

  38. Klaus C. says

    “Conservatives act as gatekeepers enforcing quality control on the ideas of progressives”

    Which conservatives are these? The self-styled conservatives actually in power in many of today’s countries tend to be renegade radicals like the current Tory Party or Trump’s Republicans.

    “Gatekeepers enforcing quality control?” Hahaha 🙂

  39. Flat Eric says

    This article seemed to me to miss the point in important ways. Most techno-optimists are not using history to imply that all technological change is good, nor that the specific problems thrown up by new tech are similar to those that came before.

    Rather, I think of techno-optimism as a fundamental faith in the adaptability of human society. That we can maintain our values but adapt our mechanisms to new tech. So, yes, we can now communicate by telephone but people still meet friends face to face and most people don’t randomly call strangers to abuse them. So cars travel at lethal speeds, but we have driving tests and road rules and safety features.

    Such a techno-optimist (I am one) does not believe we should avoid talking about the effects of new technology. Rather, that as long as we do so, we’ll probably find a way of coping and getting the benefits of that technology, without sacrificing the things we really value.

    Indeed, it is not impossible that it will be different, this time, but there is reason, I think, to find some grounds in history for confidence in this species of techno-optimism.

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  41. Richard Palmer says

    Marxism is a technology? The essay deteriorates from there.

    Who the hell gets to decide of the appropriateness of a new technology? Conservatives? I want to be on the panel that decides what is appropriate for everybody else. I propose a vote to decide who gets on the panel. If conservatives object to this approach, this should be recognized for the attempted power grab that it is.

    It seems a hell of a lot easier (and more safe) to let free markets decide on technologies.

  42. peanut gallery says

    The main flaw with optimism here, is that it’s using historicism. Assuming that because something happened in the past, it will be the same in the future. We can’t guarantee that. Human nature will likely remain the same though. I think some of the automated trucks and AI stuff is a little over-blown, but I can see why they see an danger. They’ve been promising self-driving vehicles for a while, but it would appear there are still obstacles to complete take over by vehicular automation. We may have time to adapt to this change. AI concerns make sense, but those people also make a lot of assumptions. We are currently unable to recreate the natural computer that the brain is. We don’t even understand our own meat completely, yet some AI programmers think they’re a few lines of code away from one of their programs passing the Turing Test. Yeah, ok. I don’t buy that.

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  44. Thylacine says

    It is often hard to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea when they are new and untried. The point is that the free market weeds out bad ideas pretty quickly, while replicating good ideas. Techno-optimists want more innovations so that natural selection can favour the good ones. Techno-pessimists want to tamp down on the number of innovations, which in the medium term means fewer good ideas being discovered. You tell me which is the sane approach.

  45. I did not care for this article. “History gives us no reason to prefer a world in which, for example, most manual work is automated. It’s never happened before.” WTF is he talking about? Only a hundred years ago my grandparents spent countless hours doing laundry for christ’s sake. The amount of automation provided to use during these last hundred years has freed up countless hours of time to do other more meaningful things.

    These Luddite style articles are come from the same woven cloth. And I REALLY don’t understand the continued resistance to nuclear power.

  46. I think the traditional arguments between ‘right wing conservatives/traditionalists’ and ‘left wing liberals/progressives’, while enduring ones at some levels, have to reckon on a lexicon of categories that have become so degraded and opaque, so cribbed and fudged, and so porously interchangeable, that they are now all but meaningless.

    In some ways, events are moving so rapidly that we are all running to keep up, adapt and living on the edge of ourselves, where scrambling for a hand hold here or foothold there, is all there is between survival and falling down an existential and/or economic cliff into the valley of the shadow of marginalization.

    This creates all sorts of bizarrely diverse confabulations such as The Greens Party, who combine an extremely ‘conservative’ agenda like environmentalism; you know ‘conserving’ and sustainability to the sixth generation, which they use as a ‘radical/progressive’ stick to beat corporate capitalism with in lieu of the class struggle…..and identity politic colonizing attacks on the reproductive and social centre to reposition it in ways that make the most lunatic antinomian radical social agendas of the past seem tamely middle-of-the-road.

    I mean for me, who is terrified of the environmental damage we are doing and what that means for life on the planet, which includes my grandchildren, voting 1 Green at the ballot box, which I do, is like doing a Harry Potter writing punishment exercise for Dolores Umbridge, because I really hate their ‘off their face’ social agenda, almost as much as I fear for the environment.

    The political categories are all over the place like a dog’s breakfast. And that goes for the technological optimism v conservative pessimism argument. The ground underneath us is shifting so much it throws conventional thought packaging all over the shop.

    Who would have thought that we would ever see the day when a radical feminist lesbian would appeal for help against the transgen lobby from the Heritage foundation? Bizarre!

    So what we have to do to get a handle on this dynamic process is to produce a dynamic analysis that does not depend on static categories that promptly turn into horrible cliches and stereotypes, which might be good for beating people over the head with, but not much else.

    And it comes back to the mechanism that runs our world; what I call Indulgence Capitalism; i.e., a regime that since the 1960s has moved us all from the world of the necessity of needs and wants, to the fantasies of desire and satiating them at any cost, preferably immediately, in order to sustain a process of indefinite and accelerating production and consumption-without-limit.

    Indulgent economic and social behaviour becomes entrenched, the social and economic systems are deregulated and privatized in favour of individuals and sectional interests, liberty becomes disinhibition unlimited by social agency, adult socialization is stopped at adolescence in favour of vulnerable narcissistic egoism that will buy anything, and the business of socialization is taken over by publicrelationsmarketspeak; in short a system of privatized totalitarianism that is so powerful, hardly anyone is aware of it.

    The great totalitarians of the past were amateurs.

    I use the analogy of the jewel wasp that temporarily paralyses its prey, targets and envenomates its fight and flight ganglia in its brain, cuts off its front antenna, guides it into its nest, lays its eggs in the prey’s abdomen and the pupa lives off the living prey, timing its full growth exit with the death of its host.

    That is how modern capitalism works and very elegant it is too.

    The corporates who have been trained in libertarian free market university economics departments run an increasingly dangerously degovernanced economic sector and the social libertarian ascendancy that has been trained in humanities departments (usually close by) runs an increasingly dangerously degovernanced social sector; in short the thoroughly dysfunctional crown and church apparatchiks of times.

    Both do exactly the same kind of damage to the infrastructure they are supposed to be stewarding for exactly the same regime reasons. Both, like the Jewel wasp, batten on their clients/subjects, keep them in a state of paralysis, disable their autonomous software and then use them as clay for their various clique ambitions and jostlings with one another, for ends that will destroy their prey existentially and ecologically, but in ways that keep reproducing the system in an ever faster rotating roundabout…that will eventually disintegrate.

    And whether the corporate or humanist regime operators are ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ makes not one wits worth of difference to the outcome.

    Once we have that lot under our belt, we can start to have meaningful conversations about the meaning of progress, what we can keep and what we we will have to leave behind, when the party’s over and we have to default to cantonized capitalism lite.

    Ho hum…..

  47. One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I got from Buddhism was a story about how bad luck may lead to good luck which in turn may lead to more bad luck, etc. The moral is that everything has its good and bad aspects and may lead to good or bad outcomes or even both.

    “Technological determinism” is a reductionist theory that assumes that a society’s technology determines the development of its social structure and cultural values.

    I think technological change is the only thing that has ever materially improved or changed the human condition. Every instance of “social progress” can be laid at the feet of technology even though social activists may claim they deserve the credit. Social networking may lead to more social progress but it won’t be to the credit of individual activists. For example, the entire Black Lives Matter movement was enabled by the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras which make it easy to document police abuse. Street smarts used to forbid sticking around when bad stuff went down but now everyone wants to document it for the “likes”. Police violence and abuse isn’t being filmed because of anyone’s virtuous nature. No, social networks reward you for filming any instance of drama which may occur around you.

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