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The Dangers of Techno-Optimism

It’s no secret that the internet age has given rise to a generation of clickbait articles, which aim to draw people in with eye-catching, irresistible headlines. Amongst these are ‘news’ posts documenting humanity’s technological progression, where sites like Futurism tease their audiences with topics on stopping aging or bionic eyesight. While this journalistic niche seems innocent enough, it represents a broader and more dangerous trend: current generations are taking more interest in what their lives might look like in 50 years, rather than focusing on what their lives look like today. The rise in techno-optimism, a belief which centers around the notion that future technologies will solve our current problems, is a seductive siren song of distant hope—and it is actually quite dangerous.

This is not to say that future technology is not something to be excited about. Indeed, there are many promising and awe-inspiring advances on the horizon: Elon Musk promises to revolutionize the transportation sector with his hyperloop system, electric cars may soon overtake diesel ones in price efficiency, and plans for a colony on Mars have been making headlines around the world. The future of technology is bright, and the futuristic world it promises to bring is even brighter. Unfortunately, that future can only be reached by improving upon the dim and muted world of today. Even if techno-optimism is correct in asserting that our future is bright, it preaches a dangerous message. Worried about world hunger? Don’t worry about actually changing agricultural infrastructure or supporting charity—wait for indoor farming to revolutionize the food industry! Scared the Earth is teetering on the edge of an environmental meltdown? Don’t focus on legislating energy production or changing industry standards, just wait for nuclear fusion to take off. When faced with the extremes of techno-optimism, we must remember that technology cannot solve all our problems and is not without its catches.

The first major catch with these technologies is the time they require to be produced and implemented. Most major advances in technology—such as advances in nuclear fusion—are years, if not decades away from bearing fruit. In the past, even successful technological breakthroughs have required decades to become commercially viable and accepted on a broad basis. Take the example of current nuclear technology. Nuclear reactors can take as many as 44 years to be approved and constructed, and often experience large delays due to an ever-shifting regulatory landscape. Furthermore, the problems these technologies seek to answer (e.g. global warming) don’t disappear while humanity waits for solutions. The most recent batch of natural disasters should remind us of this. The good news is that humanity already has the capability to combat these problems. If the world’s nations got serious about curbing carbon emissions, or investing into reforestation projects, global warming could be combated effectively with modern-day technology. However, the doctrine of techno-optimism reassures us, and stifles our guilt born through inactivity by promising us electric cars and nuclear fusion. The lesson is this: focusing on the promises of the future substantially draws our energy and attention from solving the problems of the present, and threatens to dull our sense of urgency when determining our legislative priorities.

The second catch with new technology is its unpredictability. Predicting if a technology will work when we think it will, or what externalities might be produced, is a tricky subject. Once again, we can look to our past for evidence of this. In 1924, Popular Science Monthly predicted that humanity would have flying cars by 1944. While such a prediction seems foolish in hindsight, there is no compelling reason to believe that in decades to come, we won’t see our own, current predictions as equally foolish. Not to mention, the side-effects of successful technologies may present new problems altogether. Automation in manufacturing may have increased capitalist output, but has raised the new challenge of increasing blue-collar job scarcity. Nuclear reactors may offer an alternative to fossil fuels, but produce hazardous waste that the world still does not properly manage. By hedging our bets on technology to solve the world’s problems, we become reliant on that technology succeeding. Should nuclear fusion, or the other myriad of environmentalist technologies currently in development turn out to be dead ends, all the kelp forests in the world won’t be able to save humanity from plummeting off the cliff it could have avoided decades ago.

The third catch with technology is the huge supply of resources it requires. Solar panels—often championed as the go-to technology to replace coal—are manufactured from rare earth minerals, which are mined via techniques that are incredibly hazardous to the environment. Similarly, the amount of land and metal required to construct nuclear fusion reactors (if they ever become viable) would make their carbon footprint substantial, to say nothing of the potential meltdowns that might occur. Technologies which are branded as ‘green’ should be met with a skeptical eye, and again remind us that technology—just like any tool in humanity’s repertoire—comes with externalities. These externalities tend to target more vulnerable members of society, who often don’t even see the benefits of the technology to begin with. Returning once more to nuclear technology, the waste produced by fission reactors doesn’t simply disappear. It gets dumped wherever the beneficiaries of the reactor’s energy don’t have to think about it, which in the past has included Native American Reservations. Without solving institutional inequalities, there is no guarantee that the advantages of technology will be seen by those who most desperately need them. A person without health insurance will not be able to get the care they need no matter how advanced the new cancer-combating gene therapy is. Focusing on the problems of today is therefore critical, even for those who champion technology as a solution.

Technology remains among humanity’s greatest assets. It has succeeded in extending human lifespans, increasing capitalist productivity, and making interplanetary travel possible. However, despite its venerable list of achievements, it remains nothing more than a tool. Without a responsible and steady guiding hand, it becomes useless, and perhaps detrimental. Humanity must recognize the limits of technology, and look to more realistic solutions for modern problems. Techno-optimism does not do this. It draws in people who are discouraged by the world they see–a world in the midst of a depressing political era spearheaded by even more depressing politicians–and promises a better world that has yet to arrive. It also preys on intuitive and rampant notions of consumerism—I mean, who isn’t excited to be a space tourist? To move forward, humanity must reject techno-optimism. It must take seriously the project of solving the world’s problems with existing human institutions and technologies, and polish our dimmer world until it shines.


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