Tech futurism's blind spot
What metaverse, web3, and artificial intelligence evangelists collectively ignore.
NOTE: This is a piece that has been rattling around my head for an embarrassingly long time. I started talking about it in summer 2021, when the Metaverse hype bubble was just getting started, the Web3 hype bubble was near its peak, and the AI hype bubble was begging for news cycles. I turned it into a TedX talk at GW last April (I know, I know…). And I talked about it with Justin Hendrix on the Tech Policy Press podcast this past June. It has been lurking in the background of roughly half of the essays I write on Substack. It has been time-to-write-the-damn-thing for awhile.
Here's the TL;DR version: Silicon Valley has spent decades accruing power and moving to the center of the global economy. As that has happened, many of its VCs and founders have chafed at the public expectations that are attached to that power. Being held responsible for the state of the present is a lot less enjoyable than being celebrated for inventing the future. (They’d prefer fewer Congressional hearings and more magazine covers, please.) And so, as a reaction to the techlash, the power centers of Silicon Valley have diverted our attention by spinning up tales about the next chapter of the digital revolution.
The most noteworthy part is what their stories leave out. To really invest yourself in the digital future that artificial general intelligence/metaverse/web3 visionaries propose, you have to treat the climate crisis as though it won’t be a major shaping force in the next few decades. The climate crisis is relegated to an afterthought. It’s rendered somebody else’s problem.
Tech alone won’t solve the climate crisis. (And believing it can is a recipe for disaster.) But our tech elites simply have too much power to act as though this is entirely someone else’s problem to solve.
So here’s the essay. It would’ve been more timely a year ago, but I think it’s a point that still ought to be made.
It was in 2021 that the whole of Silicon Valley decided all-at-once that the next chapter of the digital revolution is about to arrive. The entrepreneurs, the TED talkers, the engineers, the investors, and the almighty founders all agree: The Future is almost here, it’s inevitable, and it’s going to be great.
They haven’t settled on what that future is, though.
There’s the metaverse future. (It’s not just virtual reality this time, they swear!). A new “embodied internet” is fast approaching. It’s going to be bigger than the iPhone and the mobile web. We are constructing a global data layer, accessible through virtual and augmented reality. It will start with gaming and entertainment, but it won’t end until our virtual world is just as rich and immersive as the physical world.
There’s the Web3 future. (It’s not just NFTs, and don’t you dare call it a ponzi scheme!). The big tech monopolies that control too much of our lives are all about to be disrupted by new blockchain-based competitors. This new, distributed web will combine the flexibility of web 1 with the reach of web 2.0. The revolution will start by undermining big tech and big media, but it won’t end until it has redefined our relationships to banks, lawyers, governments, and each other.
Then there’s the Artificial Intelligence future (It’s not just machine learning and text/image generation, and don’t you dare ask about Full-Self-Driving mode!). Advances in machine learning and robotics are on the cusp of transforming every facet of our lives. What has already started with image generators like Dall-E2 and text generators like GPT-3 is only the beginning. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is just beyond the horizon – AI that will transform science, and medicine, and manufacturing. Every existing human industry will be rendered obsolete.
These three visions sometimes compete and sometimes collaborate. The metaverse will need AI and could track ownership through NFTs. Web3 could ensure that the metaverse isn’t controlled by the same old tech monopolies. AI could draw on immutable blockchain records and leave us with abundant time to pursue new forms of gaming and entertainment.
We’ve heard stories like this before. This isn’t the first time that tech visionaries have blown their horns signaling the imminent arrival of the digital promised land. The “digital future” never quite arrives. And what’s most noteworthy about these three stories is their timing and their omissions. Somehow, here we are in the 2020s and we still have tech visionaries conjuring a future in which the climate crisis is somebody else’s problem to solve.
None of these imagined futures are imminent. The reason Silicon Valley has become so fixated on starting the next chapter of the digital revolution is that they would like to be finished with the current chapter.
One question to ask about this sudden collective lurch toward the future is “why now?” What is it about 2021 and 2022 that has signaled the imminent shift toward the next phase of the Internet’s development?
It isn’t being driven by some fundamental breakthroughs in science or engineering. This isn’t like the original dotcom boom, when a mix of major software and hardware advances combined with a major changes in regulatory policy to set off a sort of digital land-rush. (Kevin Driscoll and Ben Tarnoff both have excellent new books that discuss these early years).
It’s closer to the early Web 2.0 years, when Tim O’Reilly surveyed the tech landscape and realized that Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and entrepreneurs had lost the air of futurity – the sense that they were builders of a bright and better, inevitable tomorrow. The dotcom crash had shattered their collective confidence. The years that followed were dreary. There were some exciting new developments – Wikipedia, the blogosphere, and social network sites were all gaining traction – but the tech sector was still “haunted by its recent past but fiercely needing to believe that heady days lay ahead.” Web 2.0 may have been just a meme, but it was a load-bearing meme. It helped make Silicon Valley feel like the future again. The last chapter of Internet history had ended, and they needed to collectively agree on what the next chapter would be.
The difference is that, when all this future-talk started in 2021, investments and profits in the tech sector were still at peak levels. Cryptocurrency values were surging. Multi-million dollar NFT projects were being minted and sold to eager collectors. The biggest tech firms were valued at over a trillion dollars each. The tech sector was the single area of the economy that excelled during the Coronavirus pandemic. Who needs a new chapter when, on paper, the current chapter is going so well?
But 2021 was also the Year Five of the Techlash. The profits may have been limitless, but the vibes were all wrong.
From 2017 through 2021, Big tech stopped being hailed as the hero-builders of the technological future and instead were held to account for the problems of the technological present. Coverage in formerly-friendly outlets like WIRED magazine turned critical. Tech CEOs were repeatedly called before Congress, grilled on every perceived failing. Instead of being hailed as the genius-inventors-of-the-awesome-future, they were being labeled “union busters” and “monopolists.” And, despite hopes that some combination of public reliance on big tech firms during the pandemic and Trump’s defeat would bring the techlash to a close, 2021 just brought more scrutiny, distrust, and talk of regulation.
You can get the sense of this from Jack Dorsey’s December 2021 resignation from Twitter, or from Mark Zuckerberg’s comment on the Joe Rogan podcast that waking up every day fells like “getting punched in the stomach.” Running an established big tech monopoly is just a lot less fun than building a new one.
(What do you get for the billionaire tech moguls who have everything? Tony Stark vibes. That’s all they’re missing.)
The weird thing about all this attention that has been directed to the Internet’s next chapter is that none of these imagined futures are imminent or inevitable.
Mark Zuckerberg’s company spent over $10 billion chasing metaverse dreams last year. The results so far are a punchline. Serious analysts insist that the Metaverse will take a decade or longer to develop. (I’ve taken flack for airing my serious doubts that it will ever materialize). But even if we will someday be interacting with the Web through heads-up displays, what is the rush to spend so much time thinking about it right now?
Web3 looks much more brittle after the cryptocrash. (Molly White has been documenting the omnishambles at web3isgoinggreat.com.) Axie Infinity and Helium have transformed from iconic success-cases to cautionary tales. NFT sales are looking a lot like tulipmania. It turn that if you remove the speculative bubble, there just isn’t much there yet. Chris Dixon insists that it’s still early. The technology is sound, user adoption is still in the early stages, use cases and business models will surely come. And that’s certainly still possible. (As Paul Ford said, “The best way to predict the future is to spend billions of dollars reinventing it.”) But, at least for now, the logic of web3 is still ponzi logic.
And AI… okay sure, yes, Dall-E2 and Stable Diffusion are cool and genuinely new. The technical breakthroughs in neural networks and large language models are happening at a rapid pace and generating a mix of real excitement and real concern. But we’ve also seen this story from this crowd before. The “Singularity” has been 20-30 years in the future for the past 20-30 years. Dall-E2 isn’t anywhere close to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). AGI might not even by possible. For every narrow benchmark challenge that OpenAI and its competitors solve, there are a dozen intractable problems that they hand-wave away. The imagined AI future is much further away than it is made to seem.
At least Web 2.0 was built on actual successes! Wikipedia, the blogosphere, and social network sites were all significant new ways that masses of people were using the Internet. The branding exercise came after the breakthroughs. Here it’s happening in reverse. Silicon Valley’s engineers, investors, and entrepreneurs have become the center of the global economy. They’ve acquired virtually all the money and power. They’ve developed a sharp distaste for the responsibility and accountability that comes with it. They would like to be judged on their potential again.
And that’s a problem because of what these three visions of the tech future invite us to ignore. How is it possible, in 2022, that Silicon Valley’s most ambitious visions still pretend as though the climate crisis will have no shaping impact on the future of how we use technology?
There’s a passage from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series that I keep thinking about. Adams was one of the great science fiction writers and satirists of his generation. He had a gift for observing how we interact with technology and declaring “well this is just ridiculous!” In the third book of the series, he introduces us to the most effective cloaking device in the universe: the S.E.P. field.
“I think,” said Ford […], “that there’s an S.E.P. over there.” […]
“A what?” [Arthur] said.
“And what’s that?”
“Somebody Else’s Problem,” said Ford.
“Ah, good,” said Arthur, and relaxed. He had no idea what all that was about, but at least it seemed to be over. It wasn’t.
“An S.E.P. is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what S.E.P. means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out; it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.”
For all three of these imagined technological futures, the climate crisis is firmly ensconced within an S.E.P. field. They aren’t denying the existence of the climate crisis; they simply proceed as though someone else will come along and handle the matter.
The effects of climate change are already all around us. The world is getting hotter. Extreme weather events are getting more frequent. We know what happens if we stay on this trajectory. We know that we are already collectively very late in rising to this challenge. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has effectively declared that we need a whole-of-society mobilization to decarbonize the global economy and prevent the most disastrous effects of climate change. And yet still, in 2022, tech’s founder- and builder-class operates on the assumption that the climate crisis is someone else’s problem to solve.
Technological innovation alone is not going to solve the climate crisis. But it is appalling how so many of Silicon Valley’s engineers, investors, and entrepreneurs have invested themselves in ambitious visions of the future that outright ignore the climate crisis. (A future that they want to build! A future that they want us to buy into! A future that distracts attention from the failures of the present.) For all their wealth and power, the Technorati remain curiously incurious about how a hotter planet and increasing social instability will factor into their plans.
The Bitcoin network consumes more energy than many countries! The Ethereum blockchain that Web3 proponents prefer just successfully completed its “Merge” – a switch from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake verification which will reduce its energy consumption by more than 99%. But even with this vast upgrade in energy efficiency, Ethereum remains the “world’s slowest computer,” and it is entirely unclear what problem it is meant to solve. Ethereum is no longer a climate disaster, but that hardly makes it part of the climate solution.
The not-so-secret sauce behind our stunning advances in Artificial Intelligence has been the growth of Large Language Models (LLMs). AI ethicist Timnit Gebru lost her job at Google for writing a paper that noted the overwhelming energy costs of these LLMs. “Deep learning,” writes Karen Hao, “has a terrible carbon footprint.” We are dramatically adding to our carbon debt so that neural nets can draw cute pictures. How is this possibly the problem that technologists have determined most urgently needs to be solved right now?
The world’s largest tech companies have entered a hardware arms-race, jockeying to see which company will become the dominant player in the metaverse. Does anyone really believe that the race will be won by whichever competitor pumps the least carbon into the atmosphere while manufacturing the next generation of internet-enabled devices?
In 2011, data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher said "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks."
Today, Silicon Valley’s best minds are thinking about AI, blockchain, & the Metaverse. The climate crisis, it seems, is Someone Else’s Problem.
This… also sucks.
Alongside Silicon Valley’s three visions of the future, we have to consider a fourth: there is a real possibility that the primary technology story of the next 20 years is either going to be mass adaptation to climate change or a mass failure to adapt to climate change.
Responding to the climate crisis is going to require a philosophical reorientation, away from efficiency and towards resilience. Resilience tends to be the enemy of efficiency. The most efficient systems are also the ones that collapse when you go outside their parameters (just ask the Texas power grid. Just ask the just-in-time supply chain.)
What if the future isn’t Artificial General Intelligence and 100x increases in computing power? What if it’s cheap-and-flexible mesh networks? What if the future isn’t replacing untrustworthy institutions with blockchain governance? What if it’s replacing untrustworthy global and national institutions with revitalized local trust? What if the metaverse isn’t the future because, in the future, people commit themselves to improving and monitoring their vulnerable surroundings?
Of course, all of these technologies could play some role in responding to the climate crisis. A fully-formed metaverse could play a useful role in climate adaptation. We’re going to need to burn less carbon on business trips. The metaverse could be a real upgrade over Zoom-meeting-hell. The blockchain could be useful for tracking carbon markets. AI could play a role in improving technical breakthroughs among climate scientists and engineers. But they have not been designed with this goal in mind.
A few major Silicon Valley figures have taken to sounding the alarm about the climate crisis. Bill Gates has written a book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Legendary venture capitalist John Doerr has written a book as well, Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving our Cilmate Crisis. Jeff Bezos (when he isn’t launching rockets into outer space) signaled his commitment to climate solutions by setting up the Bezos Earth Fund with a $10 billion investment. Gates and Doerr have both made billion-dollar-plus commitments as well. Tim O’Reilly has written in WIRED magazine that “climate change will reshape Silicon Valley as we know it” and describes the climate crisis as “the next entrepreneurial revolution.”
But still the disconnect remains. It’s noteworthy that the Silicon Valley figures taking the climate crisis the most seriously are mostly retired. They’ve taken a step back from trying to will the technological future into being. And the people who have replaced them are constructing fake futures that presume the impacts of the climate crisis will be in someone else’s hands entirely.
Today’s tech elite holds the largest concentration of money and power in human history. This is a billionaire class, flying their private jets to private yachts, moored on their private islands. (Doug Rushkoff just published a new book, Survival of the Richest, about the escape fantasies of the tech billionaire-class. It’s quite good.)
When we consider the visions of the digital revolution’s next chapter that are handed down to us by the Silicon Valley elite, we ought to think harder about their timing and the omissions. The tech industry has moved far beyond the 1990s and 2000s. These aren’t scrappy upstarts building the technological future in their garages anymore. As Marc Andreessen likes to boast, software has eaten the world. With all that wealth and power comes responsibility and accountability. Big tech has acquired too much power to so cavalierly dismiss the climate crisis as someone else’s problem.
We have a generational, existential challenge in the climate crisis. It would be nice if tech elites took it seriously when they talk about the future.
Until they do, the bare minimum they deserve is a bit of skepticism and ridicule.
Really, really good summary of the current state of Technology Today. Money changes everything, and Money changed Tech. In addition to chasing that first rush of being a scrappy underdog changing the world in your garage, the whole VC ecosystem that grew and enveloped Tech puts enormous financial and social pressure on finding the next indispensable good/service that society can't live without. All 3 Big Ideas check the necessary boxes (though Web 3.0 is nothing more than a solution in search of a problem, A.I. and the Metaverse have the potential to Change Everything if you squint hard enough and keep your promises vague).
And clearly, Silicon Valley considers the Somebody Else of S.E.P. to be The Government. More than a little ironic, given the libertarian bent of these Masters of the Universe. But then again, privatize the profit, socialize the cost is a core tenent of capitalism as we know it, and boy do these guys love capitalism as we know it. Look how it works for them.
This is great. I've been thinking only about the metaverse future in a similar vein for a while--about why virtuality retains its centrality as a trope of futurism despite not only never quite arriving but almost intrinsically, ontologically, never possibly being what futurism thinks it is.