#11 - The long arc of technology

On skepticism, Neo-luddites, progress and what _should_ we be building?

We live in interesting times when it comes to technology. It seems all the rage right now to bash “big tech”. Much of it is warranted: accusations of facilitating election tampering, worker exploitation via the “gig economy” and just good old plain lack of governance are just a few examples of notable big tech scandals of the past years.

As someone who works in technology and software, I find myself swinging between tech-optimism and tech-skepticism. I don’t think I’m the only one struggling with this.

Are we living in a golden age of technology? We can order taxis with our phones, FaceTime with our loved ones from the other side of the world and even insert ourself into Scorsese movies. We’re undoubtedly blessed with a huge array of products that make our lives easier and more fun. Note: I won't even go into the debate about distraction, “screen-time” and the impact of phones on our wellbeing in this piece.

Others argue that we’re in a technoglical lull, a period of stagnation. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel argues that we basically haven’t done anything interesting with technology since 1970. Thiel argues whilst the gains we’ve seen thanks to the Internet have been clearly significant, we’ve stalled in other areas such as aero, space, chemical and electrical engineering.

For someone who made all his money from the internet (Paypal and Facebook among others) in the 2000s, that’s an interesting point of view, but perhaps valid too I guess too when seen through the long lens of history. I’m simply not qualified to comment on whether he’s right or wrong.

However, I do think it raises an interesting question: how will history view and value the innovations of our current Internet/Software era?

Will we look back on the cloud, or mobile or social as “important” as the jet engine, the printing press, antibiotics or the transistor radio?

Is it possible that we could be leaving this long 40 year period of stagnation and enter a new golden age? Quantum computing, cryptocurrency and AI/ML are just a few examples of potentially game-changing leaps that could propel us into exponential technological development.

Others argue that these are the wrong steps to take. That AI, Quantum Computing and cryptocurrencies will be more a burden than a help to our society. Ben Tarnoff wrote in the Guardian back in September that, “to decarbonize we must decomputerise: why we need a Luddite revolution”.

Image result for luddites

Tarnoff argues:

Digitization is a climate disaster: if corporations and governments succeed in making vastly more of our world into data, there will be less of a world left for us to live in

This is frankly a bizarre article to read. It seems extremely naive to think that we could even decomputerise. I particularly enjoyed reading Azeem Azhar’s response:

While a tremendous amount of computing power is being wasted on Snapchat filters and Netflix binges, that waste is not a function of the compute. Rather, it reflects the values upon which we’ve decided (by commission or omission).

I guess that’s the curious thing about technology. Some of it moves humanity forward in unprecedented ways. Some of it just makes life a little more delightful. Some of it is probably downright stupid too… and maybe that’s OK. The answer is then probably not to stop moving forward, it’s to figure out how to move forward in a more sensible, thoughtful way. To make tweaks and fixes along the way. As “unproductive” as that may sound to a culture that today wants radical change.

Big tech may indeed need to be better regulated and I’m open to learning more about whether we could “break up big tech”, but I do think that it’s more likely that the big problems will be solved by investing in technology, not slowing it down.

So perhaps I am a tech-optimist after all.

Until next time,

James