Techno-conservatism is an approach that wishes to slow down the development of technology.
Whereas technosceptics say, in effect, “there’s no need to get worked up about the impact of technological change, since that change is going to slow down of its own accord”, technoconservatives say “we need to slow that change down, since otherwise bad things are going to happen – very bad things”.
Technoconservatives take seriously the linkage between ongoing technological change and the threats to society and humanity. Unless that engine of change is brought under serious control, they say, technology is going to inflict terrible damage on the planet.
For example, many metrics for the health of the environment are near danger points, as a result of human lifestyles that are fuelled by conspicuous consumption. There are major shortages of fresh water. Species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. Some of the accidents that are waiting to happen would make the Fukushima disaster site look like a mild hiccup in comparison. We may be close to a tipping point in global climate, which would trigger the wrong kind of positive feedback cycle (a cycle of increasing warmth). We may also be close to outbreaks of unstoppable pathogens, spread too quickly around the world by criss-crossing jet travellers rushing from one experience to another.
Technoconservatives want to cry out, “Enough!” They want to find ways to apply the brake on our technological steamroller – or (to change the metaphor) to rip out the power cable that keeps the engine of technological progress humming. Where technologists keep putting more opportunities into people’s hands – opportunities to remake what it means to be human – technoconservatives argue for a period of prolonged reflection. “Let’s not play God”, some of them might say. “Let’s be very careful not to let the genie out of the bottle.”
They’ll argue that technology risks leading people astray. Instead of us applying straightforward, ordinary, common-sense solutions to social problems, we’re being beguiled by faux techno-solutions. Instead of authentic, person-to-person relations, we’re spending too much time in front of computer screens, talking to virtual others, neglecting our real-world neighbours. Instead of discovering joy in what’s natural, we’re losing our true nature in quests for technotopia. These quests, argue the technoconservatives, aren’t just misguided. They’re deeply dangerous. We might gain a whole universe of electronic and chemical satiation, but we’ll lose our souls in the process. And not only our souls, but also our lives, if some of the existential risks come to fruition.
But whenever a technoconservative says that technology has already developed enough, and there’s no need for it to continue any further, we can observe the impediments that still blight people’s lives the world over – disease, squalor, poverty, ignorance, oppression, aging. It’s true that some of these obstacles could be tackled by non-technological means, such as by politics or social change. But the solutions to other issues lie within the grasp of further scientific and technological progress. Think of the terrible pain still inflicted by numerous diseases, both in young people and in the elderly. Think of the heartache caused by neurodegeneration and dementia. Rejuvenation biotechnology has the latent ability to make all these miseries as much a thing of the past as deaths from tuberculosis, smallpox, typhoid, or the bubonic plague. Anyone who wants to block this progress by proclaiming “Enough” has a great deal of explaining to do.
In any case, is the technoconservative programme feasible? Could the rate of pace of technological change really be significantly slowed down?
Any such action is going to require large-scale globally coordinated agreements. It’s not sufficient for any one company to agree to avoid particular lines of product development. It’s not sufficient for any one country to ban particular fields of technological research. Everyone would need to be brought to the same conclusion, the world over. And everyone would need to be confident that everyone else is going to honour agreements to abstain from various developments.
The problem is, however, that the technology engine is delivering huge numbers of good outputs, in parallel with its bad outputs. And too many people (especially powerful people) are benefiting – or perceive themselves to be benefiting – from these outputs.
Compare the technoconservative thought with the idea that we could switch off the Internet. That would have the outcome of stopping various undesirable activities that currently take place via the Internet – abusive trolling, child pornography, distribution of dangerously substandard counterfeit goods, incitement by fanatical terrorists for impressionable youngsters to join their cause, and so on. But any such mass switch off would also stop all of the other systems which coexist on the Internet with the abovementioned nefarious examples, using the same communications protocols. Systems for commerce, finance, newsflow, entertainment, travel booking, healthcare, social networking, and so on, would all crash to a halt. For good or for ill, we’ve become deeply dependent on these systems. We’re very unlikely to agree to do without them.
Separate from the question of the desirability of shutting down the entire Internet is the question of the feasibility of doing so. After all, the Internet was designed with robustness in mind, including multiple redundancies. Supposedly, it will survive the outbreak of a (minor) nuclear war.
These same two objections – regarding desirability, and regarding feasibility – undermine any thought that the entirety of technological progress could be stopped. The technoconservative approach is too blunt, and is bound to fail.
While we cannot realistically imagine voluntarily dismantling the great engine of progress, what we can – and should – imagine is to guide that engine more powerfully. Instead of seeking to stop it, we can seek to shape it. That’s the approach favoured by technoprogressives.