Confessions of a Reluctant Technosceptic
Let’s start by agreeing that the route behind us has been blocked.
From artificial intelligence to synthetic bioweapons, I suspect there is a good chance that mankind will come to lament technological progress — if, that is, he even has the time to do so.
Yet if humans reversed technological progress, that would be lamented as well. Feeding, clothing, warming, healing and entertaining eight billion people — or, hey, one billion people — takes continual progress, and its diminution would be a cause of famine, sickness, violence and resentment — resentment because people would soon forget what they had been reversing from and would only consider what they reversing into. Mankind would either slip into a bog of degeneration or head back towards whatever it had been fleeing in the first place.
Think about a young man digging for potatoes, on a plot of land that he has barely had the chance to leave, and hearing rumours of unlimited food, unlimited heating, travel through the sky and even travel into space. We had to stop, the old men would say, something bad would have happened.
But it hadn’t happened yet.
Ted Kaczynski’s means of drawing people’s attention to his primitivist cause was to send mail bombs. The response of people seeking material abundance to the people reducing it could be so violent it would make Mr Kaczynski look like the mild-mannered mathematician he once was.
Of course, primitivism is a marginal a view as one can find. But I respect it for being principled and clear. You can’t say that for what most of us have — which is a combined attachment to our existing technology — the phones, the laptops, the planes, the pacemakers — and a handwringing, Black Mirroresque aversion to anything new.
The always interesting Marc Andreessen has had enough of that. He has released his “Techno-Optimist Manifesto”. “We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology,” he writes, “We are told to be pessimistic.” Yet for him technology “is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential.”
Okay, I had to stop here to hunt down my eyeballs and jam them back into my skull. But for all of my humanities student cynicism, I can’t sit here and pretend that there’s nothing to it. Technology is not just what helps us to be fed, informed, carried between distant places et cetera — it is, as Andreessen says, essential to who we are. What makes us distinct from animals, above anything, is our advanced capacity to detect the truth — and technology is the application of the truth.
I respect Andreessen — like I respect the primitivists — for adopting a principled position. It’s a risky one as well. In good times, no one remembers people who were pessimistic. We’re too busy having fun. If AI turns out to be an unmitigated blessing, no one’s going to say, that bastard Yudkowsky must suffer for this. But in bad times we look for optimists to blame. That might sound like barbed praise but I mean it. It’s investing in your beliefs.
I suspect Mr Andreessen is correct that “stagnation … leads to zero-sum thinking, internal fighting, degradation, collapse, and ultimately death”. Civilisations have risen and fallen. What has never been accomplished is stasis. G.K. Chesterton was correct that a white post needs repainting to keep its colour. What he could have added is that most wood rots.
Andreessen’s manifesto is very much a manifesto, with all the stylistic annoyances of the form. The reader who arrives at his condemnation of “the increasing use, in plain sight, of George Orwell’s “1984” as an instruction manual” might be tempted to use their techno-optimism to build a time machine, go back to Spain in the 1930s and take a more accurate shot at Orwell’s throat. But as well as being clichéd it seems to point towards a contradiction — are the tools of mass surveillance not a formidable outpost on the frontiers of technological progress?
Andreessen’s manifesto is also very much a manifesto in its cheerful one-sidedness. He brackets “existential risk” among the “enemies” of techno-optimism, and we understand that he means “existential risk” as a field of study, but he does not give existential risk as a fact of life a look-in. Technology has given us so much, he emphasises, and that is true. But the creativity capacity to give is inextricably connected to a destructive capacity to take. You can “believe in risk” — in “leaps into the unknown” — but an acceptance of risk entails knowledge of the potential for failure.
As the great and powerful Santi Ruiz writes, the manifesto also contains the blithe assumption than man will remain the boss of technology and not become subordinate to it — subordinate in the sense of losing the power to direct technological progress and in the sense of even forming his own wants. It is relatively quiet, as Ruiz suggests, on human ends, but it also neglects the importance of human means. It celebrates “the achievement of becoming a better version of oneself” yet avoids the fact that this is an achievement because of the struggle it implies.
Don’t get me wrong — if there were “become jacked” and “speak Polish fluently” buttons, I would press them. Some things are useful and pleasurable in and of themselves. When I eat a nice burrito I don’t think, “My God, this would taste so much better if I’d harvested the wheat for the tortilla myself.”
But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the capacity to, say, arrive at the summit of Mount Everest at the touch of a button would not make the whole experience less compelling. Our ancestors would have thought of the ability to travel from one side of Europe to the other in a matter of hours as a monumental, almost unimaginable accomplishment. For me, it’s a somewhat tedious means of reaching the happy goal of seeing family and friends.
Andreessen writes of technological progress as a means of avoiding the fate of Nietzsche’s “Last Man”, but while I can see what he is getting at in terms in terms of risking our comfort, I’m not sure Nietzsche would have recognised Andreessian greatness as greatness when it is greatness outsourced. The reason — contra Richard Hanania — that our ancestors have often towered above us in artistic terms even as our science and technology outstrips theirs is that our spiritual predicament has constants that our material predicament does not.
There is a danger of being performatively unimpressed here. If I could go into space I’m sure I’d lose my mind. But when Andreessen writes that “our descendants will live in the stars”, the idea doesn’t strike me with the force that it strikes him. There is a good chance that we already live on the most beautiful, rich, poetic planet in the universe. The material progress that our departure could end up representing might be great — and that is no small thing — but the spiritual progress is more ambiguous.
Still, I catch a glimpse of myself in my rhetorical mirror and see someone grousing from the sidelines — enjoying technologically enabled comfort while remaining resolutely cool towards the accomplishments and the potential of technology. You can dress up techno-pessimism in any amount of florid verbiage or “Uncle Ted” memes but until you’re Facebookless, phoneless and laptopless it will have a more pungent smell of impotent hypocrisy than the most champagne-drunk communist.
Still, I insist that caution is no vice. Do you feel anything but cheer on reading terms like “gain-of-function research”? Then neither do you. Our civilisation is premised on the hope — the faith — that technology will remain a horse that we can steer and not a stallion that will gallop wildly until it throws us off — a fate that may not sound intimidating enough while it is premised on the harms we know and can envisage and not the harms that technological progress might be capable of inventing. Ruiz mentions listening:
… to a well known biotechnologist speak about defeating death. This technologist spoke about their mom growing older, and how impossibly painful it was to watch, and how, if all things worked out, the doctors would soon be able to remove her mother’s head just before death, freeze it, slice the brain up into wafer-thin pieces, and reconstruct her consciousness in a vat.
I can’t imagine anything with more potential for horror than eternal consciousness unmediated by the divine. Here comes the thoughts of a shed in the woods…
It might be delusional hubris to think that technology is ours to control. But what other choice do we have? Totalistic pessimism or blind faith — both of which remain more honourable than a pose of sneering wisdom which hides its own insecurities beneath its rhetorical overcoat. Perhaps we need more of a vision to aim ourselves towards — a dangerously un-Oakeshottian thing for me to say but one which makes us less vulnerable to the twitching neuroticism of the short-sighted, or the vague rhapsodies of the utopian. Imagine landing your spaceship outside your house in the forest. Ah, Bentopia — will you ever be more than Bing AI?