I saw this the other week and was reluctant to bring it up. I do not especially like tit-for-tat kind of articles, but this newsletter is more of the techno-utopianism that strikes me as at the heart of a significant portion of what is wrong with this country.
The post itself is broadly over the top. It essentially argues that because Malthus missed the Green Revolution, all concerns about technology are misplaced. Anyone concerned about the limits of the planet or the cost of technology are doomers or Malthusians and technology will never, ever cause anything bad. IN fact, technology is like a cornucopia in that it brings advancement for free, like magic. No, seriously:
So I wonder if it’s time for techno-optimists to reclaim the use of magical metaphors. Not in the sense of saying that things are incomprehensible, but in the sense of infusing technological progress with an appealing aesthetic. Saying, “yes, it’ll take a miracle to solve climate change, and we’ll fucking make the miracle happen because we’re badass humans who have an amazing intellect and creativity.”
Some companies do this already, and generative AI functionality has been getting this treatment in the form of sparkly icons. But on the philosophical side of things, maybe it’s time for techno-optimists to call ourselves cornucopians. To say, boldly, “yeah, that magical horn that just creates endless resources out of thin air? We’re making it.”
It is a deeply, deeply silly argument but it still kinds of set me off. Anyone who actually works with technology understands that technology is just a tool. Sometimes it is good and appropriate, sometimes it is bad and inappropriate. But it always, always has tradeoffs. Global warming that she seems to think will be solved by some unknown tech rather than de-carbonizing our economy (something we already know how to do) is exacerbated, for example, by the energy requirements of imitative AI. At a certain point, working with technology is the study of those tradeoffs.
And that is why this silly argument irritates me so much. It sets up a false choice between all-giving technology and stifling regulation that simply does not exist. But by pretending that it does, by pretending that technology is somehow categorically different than every other human endeavor, it opens the door for the worst behavior from the worst people. Wishing away the external costs of technological decisions, foisting them on society, is why there is a backlash against technology in the first place. We have not, as technologists, collectively been good stewards of our fellow people.
There is no deep point here, no amazing revelation. Technology is just a tool. Sometimes the tool is good, sometimes it is not. It’s not going to deliver prosperity and advancement merely by existing. We have to weigh the benefits against the cost. That means sometimes saying no to the people who want to rush ahead. Sometimes that means encouraging technology in a specific direction. These are obviously political questions, in the sense that they involve the good of all society. People who insist on the magical ability of technology want ot avoid those questions in the sense that they want to just be allowed to do whatever they or their tech-hero of the day feel like doing.
It is all so tiresome. One of the reasons I like technology is that engineering was a serious business. Engineers were supposed make careful decisions, balancing the good and the bad. They were supposed to be adults. Instead, we now have a technology space driven entirely by wish-fulfillment and childishness. We need much, much better than that if we are to actually overcome the problems we now face.