Why I've reverted to Techno-Optimism.
Seems like we're back at Atom based technologies and I couldn't be happier.
I would have ended the newsletter at that. But I realized I had an audience to preach to.
It’s been a phenomenal year for science and technology in a year that has been devastating to many of us.
The pandemic has upended almost every facet of our personal lives. For some of us, it has been so devastating, that its impact has meant the loss of loved ones. To you, I send my condolences.
The thing about terrible social upheaval though is that they always contribute to a radical rethinking of society at large. Crises always have that effect, and this particular one is bearing its fruit. This past decade has been one of slow technological progress, at least the kind that people like us hope for.
This sentiment was captured by Tyler Cowen, and popularized by Peter Thiel as The Great Stagnation. The Great Stagnation has been characterized by the progress of tech in everything besides productivity metrics.
It gives you Flappy Birds instead of age reversal.
This year has been different. It has brought about a bunch of breakthroughs that seem to pierce through the barrier.
(The above tweet gets everything right except the V-shaped recovery.)
Tyler Cowen himself speculated on the breaking of said barrier on his blog:
Around the time The Great Stagnation came out in 2011, I predicted that it was most likely to end within the next twenty years. We are not there yet, but that claim is no longer looking so absurd.
Crises are the ultimate narrative.
They set before us a world filled with problems yet to be solved. But unlike the abstract sort that rarely holds applicable use, these problems incite psychic distress that immediately prompts our response.
As Thomas Kuhn realized crises are an integral aspect in the progress of science due to how all-encompassing they are. They become a stumbling block so pervasive that they become difficult to ignore.
How Techno-Skepticism creeps in.
My tone around science and technology had taken a more skeptical one as evidenced by my writing as the year moved by.
Techno-Skepticism is odd, in that it isn’t necessarily anti-tech. It doesn’t assume the character of a Luddite: it doesn’t see its role as detrimental to society. It doesn’t denounce science and technology. It does, however, dramatically underestimate its importance in certain contexts. Many times it is justified. My personal techno-skeptic bout revealed to me the fact that our biggest problems are indeed social.
But it would have been dumb to further portray a limited scope of the problems technology is capable of solving. I almost did. I almost pulled a Krugman.
For too long I was tired of the fact that science and technology had become synonymous with the development of SaaS apps. I didn't just want another Whatsapp, Instagram, or Youtube. I wanted teleportation devices.
Very immature, I know. But we were promised such a future and it had yet to show itself.
As the year flew by— and it quite literally flew by— the problems that concerned me most had shifted as well. I became more focused on the rapid increase of wealth inequality all over the world, rapid elite overproduction in the West, inter-ethnic disputes and police brutality in Africa, as well as the spread of misinformation as it hampered the effort to deal with the pandemic.
In short, my focus turned to more social issues. I don’t believe myself to have been the only victim of such a shift of focus. The crisis that was this pandemic warranted that we inspect institutional competencies that we may have an appropriate response.
The reason for my ensuing techno-skepticism lay in the naivety of my belief in the capability of technology to solve problems that it quite simply won’t ever be able to solve. These socio-political issues exist primarily due to the diversity and complexity of human emotions at play.
So why did I return to Techno-Optimism?
A slight jump in the maturity of my views about the context with which technology can be used prompted my return.
First came the rapid development of the mRNA vaccines; something that had merely been speculation before its rapid development this year.
Then, in a sort of unexpected jab-hook combination of events, Deepmind revealed it had made insane strides on the Protein Folding Problem, a development whose implications include a significant decrease in the physical pain that comes with human existence.
It was therein—perhaps a bit late— that I realized that techno-optimism was indeed justified.
Technology is often incapable of tackling subjective socio-political issues, especially the more controversial ones like our propensity for war and the ever-increasing social consequences of the actions of our ancestors. Technology may in itself not bring an end to human suffering. Its role, however, lies in helping us transcend the painful limitations placed on us by sheer existence. It is to remove the shackles, the scarcities, and oddities of the natural world as we humans see fit. Shackles such as aging.
It may change our perception of the physical boundaries of reality, but it does not itself solve the complexity of problems that come merely by living with other agents in this game.
I readily accept this.
For despite this shortcoming, the fruits of science and technology still lead to a drastically improved future.
A future we have come to live in:
…as well as a future that will be far more glorious than that in which we currently live.
To be a techno-optimist is not merely the naive belief that a wonderful future will exist. It is to advocate and make it so. If given the option to choose to be a passerby or one who tries to ensure that a great future is guaranteed, I choose to be the latter. These past few months have revealed to me that a better world is still possible and Science and Technology will play a far more important role in making that so than at any other point in human history.
If such will be the case, why not be on the winning side?
Note: This essay should not in any way be taken as a turn away from tackling truly important social issues. It is however to say that science and technology can tackle problems that would still greatly improve our lives even if not in the socio-political arena. That realm is more human than anything and requires a sort of reasoning and diplomacy we can’t simply relegate to tools.
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