(Roughly) Daily

“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.”*…

In trying times, a positive attitude is more important– and harder to muster– than ever. But as the always-provocative LibrarianShipwreck observes, certain forms of optimism can, if they become pervasive, all-too-easily turn into problems in their own rights. Consider, for example, the flavor of the moment, techno-optimism…

There are moments in which it is difficult to feel particularly positive about how things are going in the world. Social cohesion frays. Politicians fail to respond to the crises of the moment. Social movements for justice are met with violent repression. History is suppressed. Xenophobic authoritarianism crawls out from the swamp to claim new victims. Looming environmental hazards grow closer. Pandemics are catastrophically mismanaged. The rich keep getting richer. The list goes on. It can be difficult to find a place in which to place your hopes for the future when the present seems so dire. After all, many no longer believe that god(s), or charismatic politicians, or social movements will save us. Granted, this has not given rise to widespread despair or nihilism (even if such sentiments can be detected at society’s edges), for there still exist certain forces that capture and channel people’s hopes and longings. And prominent amongst these is technology.

What follows is an attempt to consider some of the aspects and implications of techno-optimism. It is an attitude that has become somewhat taken for granted, which is precisely why it is important to consider what it is and how it functions.

It is hard to escape techno-optimism. For it is the attitude that one encounters nearly everywhere. This is not the just attitude of the press release, the advertisement, and the carefully produced launch event—it is the ambient music that plays in the background of daily life. Techno-optimism is the basic stance of a society in which people enjoy the fruits of high-technology, and though they may have some quibbles about specifics, are basically happy with the gadgets that surround them and resistant to the idea that any of these devices should be (or could be) turned off. It is an attitude that comes to be when a significant portion of a population have interwoven their faith in future progress with the idea of future technological advancements. Techno-optimism is a vision of tomorrow that sees only a choice between a high-tech metropolis and a desolate wasteland, and so (naturally) opts for the high-tech metropolis. To be taken in by techno-optimism one need not hang on a Silicon Valley CEO’s every word, it is sufficient to be impressed by the latest smartphone iteration. To partake in techno-optimism one need not dream of the singularity, it is sufficient to believe that since there is no alternative to all of these gadgets and platforms that one might as well be comfortable with them.

Techno-optimism has less to do with the individuals who hold the belief, and more to do with a broader societal stance that most individuals accept. And this stance—that societal progress is incumbent upon technological progress and that one should therefore be optimistic about technological progress—is fairly common.

In certain academic fields, scholars caution their students against falling for technological determinism. That being the overly simplistic belief that “technology drives history.” Granted, many of those same scholars, are quick to emphasize that technology matters, and can still be an important factor, but that social/political/historic/economic changes are driven by a lot more than just machines. Thus such academics work hard to show the ways in which history does not look like [Cause: new technology X] = [Result: social change Y], by emphasizing all of the things that take place in that “=” sign. What social conditions made it possible for that new technology to be taken up? Which groups pushed for the new technology because they saw it as a way of increasing their own power, and which groups resisted? What older technological systems were necessary for this new one to come into being? What economic forces made this new technology feasible? What were the various forms that this new technology originally appeared in before one particular model of it began to dominate? In short, those who study technology (at least in some disciplines), work hard to make it clear that technology doesn’t drive history. Indeed, in some academic circles, the charge of technological determinism is still an insult.

Alas, techno-optimism is to a large extent a belief that “technology drives history.” What’s more it’s a belief that technology has driven history in a good direction and that therefore technology can be trusted to keep driving history in that good direction. It is a straight line narrative of a world of improvement in which the abacus eventually leads to the smartphone, without getting overly bogged down in a story of Cold War military funding. It provides a worldview which is all highways with only passing attention being paid to the crashes that smolder on the side of the road (and with those being treated merely as stumbling blocks). Academics may bristle at the idea that “technology drives history,” but they find themselves trying to counter a belief that is fairly commonly accepted by the broader society. In fairness, it may be out of style for a person to declare that they think technology is driving history, but it is not at all out of style for a person to state that they consider themselves to be technologically optimistic—which is another way of saying that they feel cheerful when they consider the direction in which they think technology is driving history. 

At moments when social progress seems stuck, technology can provide an appealing alternative. After all, real progress on serious social issues can be slow and filled with backsliding, but over the last ten years the Playstation really has gotten better. To a large extent we find ourselves treading water, but the flashy gadgets affixed to our life preserver keep getting more impressive…even if we still find ourselves in this cold water. Techno-optimism keeps us waiting: waiting for the next iteration of a device, waiting for the next “big” gadget, waiting for the next update, waiting for the download, waiting for the tech company that will finally get it right, waiting for the technology that will finally fix the problems that have (up to now) proven impervious to easy technological fixes. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. But as long as we get to partake in technologies moving through their iterations, we get to feel as if we are moving as well. If our smartphone has moved ahead, than surely this means that we have moved ahead with it, because it is our smartphone, right? And that new smartphone might be a bit faster, it might have a better camera, it might work as an appealing status symbol, but where you were (where we were) with this new smartphone model is not particularly different from where we were with the previous smartphone model. 

The history of technology certainly demonstrates that there have been moments throughout history when technological shifts have made large significant changes. Though careful historians have worked diligently to emphasize that, contrary to popular narratives, those shifts were rarely immediate and usually interwoven with a host of social/political/economic changes. Nevertheless, techno-optimism keeps people waiting for that next big technological leap forward. The hopeful confidence in that big technological jump, which is surely just around the corner, keeps us sitting patiently as things remain largely the same (or steadily get worse). Faced with serious challenges that our politics seem incapable of addressing, and which technological change have so far been able to miraculously solve, techno-optimism keeps the focus centered on the idea of an eventual technological solution. And most importantly this is a change that will mean that we do not need to do much, we do not need to act, we do not need to be willing to change, we just need to wait and eventually the technology will come along that will do it all for us.

And so we wait. And so we keep waiting, for technology to come along and save us from ourselves.

Theses on Techno-Optimism,” from @libshipwreck. Eminently worth reading in full, even if– especially if, like your correspondent– you are a techno-optimist.

[Image above: source]

* Lewis Mumford

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As we interrogate our enthusiasm, we might spare a thought for Don Featherstone; he died on this date in 2015.  An artist, he is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo lawn ornament in 1957, while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now adorns lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.

170px-Flamingo_1
 A Featherstone flock

source

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