Discover more from The Future, Now and Then
On technological optimism and technological pragmatism
"There are no guarantees that things are going to turn out very well for anyone.”
[Note: …yeah, I’m working out some more book-related ideas in this post. I’ll write something snarky about Elon Musk again soon, I promise.]
Temperamentally, I’ve just never been much of an optimist.
I’m tempted to label this a generational phenomenon. I’m an Xennial — a child of the 1980s and 1990s. The slogan of my generation, if such a thing can even be said to exist, was uttered by Kurt Cobain: “oh well, whatever, never mind.”
I have hazy memories of watching the Challenger explosion in Elementary School. My political awareness was forged in the Gingrich era. The age of American empire was already fading at that point. The neoliberal order promised that the magic of the marketplace would make the world better, but it mostly just seemed to make rich people richer and more ostentatious. The march of material technological breakthroughs had long since slowed. Instead of flying cars and space travel, the major technological breakthroughs were mediated through screens — screens with higher resolutions, connected to networked machines with ever-increasing processing power. It produced marvelous advances in personal distraction — video games, discussion boards, and television shows have all gotten better, more engaging, more immersive. But pause to look around at the world we are distracting ourselves from and you’ll hardly find a wellspring of hope.
I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist either, per se — Particularly when it comes to technology. There’s a well-worn tendency to treat every new technological development as either a sign of impending liberation or imminent doom. Tech pessimists tend to be invested in moral panics — warning that “Google is making us stupid” or misinformation is the end of democracy I usually take issue with such characterizations. (As I tell my students at the beginning of every semester, the answer to every question worth asking is “well, it’s complicated.”)
I have at times labeled myself a “worrier.” I think that democracy is fragile, human social systems are complicated, and the state of society only improves through sustained, intentional, collective effort. New technologies are neither our savior nor our doom. They are, instead, catalysts of change. The direction of that change is determined through design choices, and through the social forces of existing institutional arrangements, financial incentives, and power structures.
But “worrier” is one of those terms that, even if accurate, still cries out for further workshopping. In those areas of life where I have significant agency, I spend much less time worrying than I do making plans. I’m far less interested in how everything-could-go-wrong than I am in what-might-one-do-about-it? Someone, I presume, must have come up with a better term for this intellectual perspective. (Or, more likely, several someones. We academics and public intellectuals do love coining new terms.)
As luck would have it, I recently came across an old article that offered a better framework: James Carey’s 2005 essay, “Historical Pragmatism and the Internet.”
Carey wrote this piece in the aftermath of the dotcom crash. It’s a reflection on the pathologies of the 1990s-era tech discourse, drawing thematic links between the rhetoric of the “technological sublime” common in those years and near-identical tropes that span a century of tech-related scholarship and public commentary. He writes:
I do not have to remind you of the vast outpouring of trade books in [the 1990s] extolling not just the potential, but the reality of the internet as an agent of an unprecedented social transformation: a new economy, a new politics, a new world order, indeed a new and advanced species of men and women who were weaned on the computer and transported across all borders of space and time by the power of the internet. An enduring peace, an unprecedented rise in prosperity, an era of comfort, convenience and ease and a political world without politics or politicians — these were the hopes that cultivated a wave of belief in the magically transforming power of technology. We are now living with the consequences of those hopes and beliefs, but the age of the internet has taught us again of the fragility of politics, the brittleness of the economy and the vulnerability of the new world order. The ‘new’ man and woman of the ‘new age’ strikes one as the same mixture of greed, pride, arrogance and hostility that we encounter in both history and experience. [emphasis added]
What strikes me about this passage is how easily it could fit into a critique of the past few years of tech discourse. It has been less than two years since Jack Dorsey insisted bitcoin would bring about world peace. Elon Musk routinely talks about magically transforming the world, rising above both politics and politicians. Sam Altman insists that AI will soon bring about a new economics of abundance. And at the same time, we have wrestled in recent years with the fragility of politics (January 6th), and the brittleness of the economy (soaring economic inequality). What James Carey had to say about the dotcom crash reads like a more polished version of what I have been trying to articulate about Silicon Valley for the past several years.
Carey’s essay is a sharp rebuke of the dominant trends in internet scholarship and public thinking. He takes issue with its ahistorical rendering of the internet as a revolution unlike any we have witnessed in centuries. He highlights the manifold ways that technological innovation is “embedded in the vital world of politics, economics, religion and culture.”
In place of this ahistorical tech optimism, he calls for an approach that he labels pragmatism. Here he draws on the 19th century pragmatist intellectual movement (as described in Lewis Menand’s book, The Metaphysical Club). The historical pragmatists, Carey tells us, were united by the realization “that there were no guarantees that things were going to turn out very well for anyone.” … “all social change is purchased at a price.”
I have yet to read Menand’s book. I am curious to read more on the subject. But what I find so attractive about Carey’s rendering of historical pragmatism is the way it draws our attention to a different set of questions than either technological optimism or pessimism. It is a perspective that takes fragility quite seriously.
It seems to invite questions like:
(1) how do these technologies actually work? What are their actually-existing capacities and limitations?
(2) how are they likely to be incorporated into existing social practices? What economic, political, and cultural practices will they amplify? What will they disrupt? How will the existing institutional forces of money and power warp their deployment?
(3) who is positioned to do what to alter this likely trajectory? Which possibilities ought to be promoted or foreclosed, and through what means?
It’s an intellectual orientation, in other words, purpose-built for worriers and planners. It focuses on the present. It draws historical analogues and comparison. It focuses more on the near-future (which we can plan for) rather than the distant-future (which we mostly construct fantastical stories about).
One can take a more-optimistic or more-pessimistic approach to such pragmatic questions. But focusing on pragmatics reorients how we engage with social, political, and technological change. It strikes me as a less openly ideological endeavor.
That’s the part of tech optimism that I find the most grating: the sense in which optimism is treated as an ideological commitment. It suffuses the old issues of WIRED magazine with a confident swagger that, all these years later, feels decidedly unearned.
For instance, there’s the 1995 Stewart Brand essay, where he ruminates on the question, “Are things getting better or are they getting worse?”
Brand derives his answer from a thought experiment posed by the late futurist Herman Kahn. Kahn (who himself was clearly riffing on Pascal’s Wager) raised the question of free will and reasoned, “I don’t have an answer I’m sure of, but I am convinced that people behave better when they think they have free will. They take responsibility more, and they think about their choices more. So I believe in free will.”
Brand then constructs a similar formulation for the question of optimism:
“Do people behave better when they think things are getting better or when they think things are getting worse? If you truly think things are getting worse won’t you grab everything you can, while you can?
Reap now, sow nothing.
But if you think things are getting better, you invest in the future. Sow now reap later. How you think about the future depends in part on how you think about time.”
What bugs me about this line of reasoning (which Kevin Kelly echoed just last year in his TED talk, “The future will be shaped by optimists”) is how sure it is of its conclusions.
Isn’t it just as plausible that, if you think things are getting better, you will grab everything you can, guilt-free, confident that a rising tide will inevitably lift all boats? (Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are, after all, both technologically optimistic and phenomenally greedy.)
If you think things are getting worse, might you not invest in the future, so as to prepare for the hard times that seem sure to come?
WIRED’s founding editor, Louis Rossetto, likewise treats optimism as an ideological commitment. Rossetto rarely wrote for the magazine, but he contributed reflective essays to the 5th anniversary, 15th anniversary, and 25th anniversary issues.
The fifth anniversary essay declares “thinking positively about the future isn't Panglossian utopianism, but seeing the world as it really is. It's also a strategy for making a better world. Because if we believe that a better world is possible for ourselves and our children, then maybe we'll actually step up and take responsibility for making it happen.” (That’s a laudable perspective, but we ought to step back and evaluate, years later, whether the dominant tech optimism of that day had its intended results.)
The fifteenth anniversary essay ends on a similar note: “optimism is not false hope, it's a strategy for living. If you are optimistic about the future, you will step up and take responsibility and attempt to make it better for yourselves and your own children.” (This was written in 2008. The strategy of optimism did fared poorly that year, as you might recall.)
By 2018, for the 25th anniversary, Rossetto’s optimism has begun to curdle. He issues a call for “militant optimism,” stating that the problem with society is that, “the optimism that had been the foundation of the Digital Revolution went dormant. Replaced by a pessimism so pervasive as to have become conventional wisdom.” (This, mind you, was in the midst of Trump’s Presidency. …As if the biggest problem society faced was our collective gloomy disposition.)
And of course, as I’ve noted elsewhere, today’s tech barons are also proud techno-optimists. Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel… it turns out the one thing that all of Silicon Valley’s billionaire-class agrees on is that life is headed in a good direction.
In its most innocent form, this generic optimism has a saccharine quality. (It’s The Secret, but with pitch decks and vanity metrics.)
More often, what I think is happening is that comfortable tech elites deploy ideological optimism as a shield. There is an agenda-setting function at work here. The problem with techno-optimism is the pragmatic questions that it forecloses. The problem is all that is obscured when we behave as though the world will naturally improve (so long as we collectively wish hard enough.)
I do struggle with that word, “pragmatism,” a bit though. It comes with some unfortunate baggage in tow. Stewart Brand himself wrote an “eco-pragmatist manifesto” in 2009. The book argues that climate change is real, and we should solve it by… accelerating the development of nuclear technology and geo-engineering, demonstrating faith that technology will save us. Pragmatism is also frequently invoked by kneejerk, centrist contrarians — groups like No Labels and Andrew Yang’s Forward Party
I think it’s worth disputing their claim to the term, though. Pragmatism ought not be the domain of view-from-nowhere Goldilocks thinking (not too optimistic… not too pessimistic… but juuuust right.) The pragmatic view of nuclear power is that there are a ton of good, non-ideological reasons why it just isn’t practical anytime in the near future. The pragmatic view of American electoral politics is that Andrew Yang’s Forward Party is a punchline without a setup.
Pragmatism ought to be the realm of, well, worriers and planners. It should focus our attention on what is actually happening, drawing historical and comparative analogues that can help make sense of the phenomenon. It should examine the social forces that are shaping it, and the policy, legal, economic, and societal levers that can make it better or worse.
Throughout my adult life, tech optimism has been the dominant paradigm. This did not change in the aftermath of the dotcom crash. It just went on hiatus for a few years (until Web 2.0 provided the intellectual scaffolding for a recommitment to technological enthusiasm). Along the way, we have stopped regulating tech monopolies, we have reduced taxes on the wealthy, we have let public-interest journalism wither, and we have (until oh-so-recently) treated the climate crisis as a problem for someone else, sometime later.
The most powerful people in the world are optimists. Their optimism is not helping.
I don’t believe it is time for reflexive pessimism. Doomerism isn’t the answer. We don’t need a new round of “Satanic panic - TikTok edition.”
What we need, I think, is a robust, revitalized pragmatism.
If you want to address economic inequality, raise taxes. If you want to influence the trajectory of generative AI, focus on appropriate regulations instead of just placing faith that everything will turn out alright.
There are no guarantees that things will turn out very well for anyone. A sunny disposition is not an action plan or a to-do list. “Just have faith” is a strategy that forecloses our capacity to challenge power. If the world is going to get better, it will only happen through concerted, shared, collective effort.
Reject techno-optimism as an ideological commitment. It’s the pragmatic thing to do.