Technoscepticism

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Technoscepticism is an attitude towards futurism that is sceptical that technology will have unprecedented radical implications for humanity over the next few decades.

Also known as: "Nothing ever changes".

Technoscepticism defined

The technosceptical outlook accepts that there has been rapid change over the last 10-20 years, but also observes the following:

  • There have been other times of rapid change in the past – as when electrification was introduced, or when railways quickly criss-crossed the world; in this sense, there is nothing fundamentally different about the present age
  • Past inventions such as the washing machine arguably improved lives (especially women’s lives) at least as much as modern inventions such as smartphones
  • Although there have been many changes in ICT (information and communications technology) in the last 10-20 years, other areas of technology have slowed down in their progress; for example, commercial jet airliners don’t fly any faster than in the past (indeed they fly a lot slower than Concorde)
  • Past expectations of remarkable progress in fields such as flying cars, and manned colonies on Mars, have failed to be fulfilled
  • It may well be that the majority of the “low hanging fruit” of technological development has been picked, leaving much slower progress ahead
  • Technology developed purely for profit won't necessarily lead to an improvement of the human condition, and might even be a driving force for inequality.

Criticism

Critics of technoscepticism highlight the positive feedback cycles which are in place:

  • Technology magnifies our knowledge and intelligence, which in turn magnifies our technology
  • Technology improves everyone’s ability to access cutting-edge information, via free online encyclopaedias, massive open online courses, and open source software
  • Critically, this information is available to vast numbers of bright students, entrepreneurs, hackers, and activists, throughout the emerging world as well as in countries with longer-established modern economies
  • Technology improves the ability for smart networking of prospective partners – people in one corner of cyberspace can easily improve and extend ideas that arose elsewhere
  • The set of pre-existing component solutions keeps accumulating through its own positive feedback cycles, serving as the basis for yet another round of technological breakthrough.

What’s more, insight, tools, and techniques from one technology area can quickly transfer (often in innovative ways) into new technology areas. For example, this kind of crossover features in what is called “NBIC convergence”.

For all these reasons, critics of technoscepticism echo the remarks of Kevin Kelly, the co-founder and former executive editor of Wired, from an interview in March 2014.

Kelly notes that the changes in the last twenty years have been remarkable – with progress that would appear “insane” to people from the beginning of that time period:

If we were sent back with a time machine, even 20 years, and reported to people what we have right now and describe what we were going to get in this device in our pocket—we’d have this free encyclopaedia, and we’d have street maps to most of the cities of the world, and we’d have box scores in real time and stock quotes and weather reports, PDFs for every manual in the world — we’d make this very, very, very long list of things that we would say we would have and we get on this device in our pocket, and then we would tell them that most of this content was free. You would simply be declared insane. They would say there is no economic model to make this. What is the economics of this? It doesn’t make any sense, and it seems far-fetched and nearly impossible.

But Kelly then mentions a view that is sceptical about future progress:

There’s a sense that all the big things have happened.

Kelly’s response: We’re by no means at the end of the set of major technological changes. We’re not even at the beginning of these changes:

We’re just at the beginning of the beginning of all these kind of changes.

And for a comparison of what will happen next, to what has happened in the recent past, Kelly predicts that

The next twenty years are going to make this last twenty years just pale.

Response

For the reasons given above, it can be seen as unlikely that technological progress will run out of steam. However, two elements of the technosceptical position deserve attention:

First, the detailed outcome of technological development should not be seen as in any way inevitable. The progress that will be made will depend, critically, upon public mood, political intervention, the legislative framework, and so on. It will also depend on the actions of individuals, which can be magnified (via the butterfly effect) to have huge impacts. Specifically, all these factors can alter the timing of various anticipated product breakthroughs.

Second, there is indeed one way in which the engines of technological progress will become unstuck. That is if society enters a new dark age, via some kind of collapse. This could happen as a result of existential risks. If technologists ignore these threats, they could well regret what happens next. Plans for improved personal intelligence, health, longevity, etc, could suddenly be undercut by sweeping societal or climatic changes.

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