|Technophoria is the irrational, overexuberant belief that technology can solve all the world’s problems. It has existed for over a century:
It is a tempting and seductive delusion — it is comforting, positive, and sexy. It is also dangerous. Technophoria is precisely the blind faith that has caused many the problems it promises, on the flimsiest of carefully-selected evidence, to solve. It is absurdly naive and idealistic, and ignorant of how and why things are the way they are. It is the progressive’s version of The Rapture. And Bruce Sterling, pioneer member of the Well and Wired, sci-fi writer extraordinaire, digital culture icon, and big supporter of the two most popular environmental blogs, WorldChanging and TreeHugger, has fallen victim to this not-so-new groupthink technology religion.
Let me say at the outset — I’m a fan of Bruce Sterling. Here are a few excerpts from an interview with him in David J Brown’s new book Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse that show how clever and informed Sterling is:
When you have complete corporate dominance, nobody’s going to innovate. [In the contemporary oligopoly-based economy when] you already have 95% of the market, there’s no reason to do anything much except post armed guards and clip stock coupons [he might have added, and hire lots of patent lawyers]… It’s tough to find anybody who will actually loyally work for a modern corporation… They’re just an inherently unstable way to try to run human affairs.
Computation has very little to do with what human brains do. We’re abusing the term “intelligence” as a kind of smear-over, conflating term to try to unite cognition and computation… There’s just no good technical reason for [AI] machines to behave in a way that resembles human cognition. That’s like asking “Why won’t this jet flap its wings?”… So you can call what a jet and what a bird does “flying” but although they’re bound by similar laws of aerodynamics, they don’t scale, one to another… I never argue with hard AI guys because they’re more set in their ways than the Jesuits. It’s theological, it’s blue-sky handwaving, it’s not practical.
I think the most important technologies of the 21st century are going to be whatever technologies allow us to keep 9.5 billion people on the planet without drowning in our own spew — feed and educate people, keep the plagues at bay while we’re doubling our numbers and causing a really serious biosphere problem. [The biggest threat to the human species is] the greenhouse effect… The thing that worries me is that there may might be just a few hundred thousand [human survivors by the end of this century] in a world that’s so severely ruined that they’re sliding into some kind of posthistory. Civilizations do crumble. Civilizations have been known to fall. Most of them have, always. And if you have one global civilization that’s everywhere and it makes one really big mistake you could have one very large barbarism in pretty short order.
I like to quote Havel on [the subject of hope]. He says that “hope is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the conviction that what you are doing makes sense no matter how things turn out”. [So my objective is] to become more like myself. This doesn’t mean you should aspire to be perfect. You’re not trying to become soulful, morally better, or angelically good. You’re not subjecting yourself to some kind of idealistic framework from outside time and space. You become more willing to recognize yourself as a mammalian, physical, living entity, moving through time, having mass and occupying space. I think since that’s the truth, you should come to terms with that, and you should arrange your life in a way in which that knowledge makes some sense.
All of this strikes me as entirely reasonable, sober, pragmatic. And Sterling’s Viridian Green movement design:
Of course, many people claim not to be convinced by climate change evidence. That is because they are shortsighted sociopathic morons who don’t want to lose any money. Worse yet, they have a vested interest in obscuring and distorting the truth about climate findings. Plus, they carry out intensive campaigns of personal smear attacks on the integrity of scientists. This practice is Lysenkoism, which all serious intellectual workers must hold in contempt and abhorrence.
and his movement’s principles:
Very few people earn their daily bread by pointing out malfunctions, bugs, screw-ups, design failures, side-effects and the whole sad galaxy of trade-offs and failings that are inherent in any technological artifact. To counteract this gross social imbalance, a wise designer and a wise critic will make it a matter of principle to look at the underside first. Every design process is incomplete unless it takes into careful consideration what could be done with the product by a dictatorial megalomaniac in command of a national economy, a secret police, and a large army.
are brilliant, witty and buoyant.
Then there’s this — a keynote address at the recent SXSW conference, with a prediction that technology will solve all the world’s problems by 2060, in which Sterling sounds like a Stepford Environmentalist, spouting an “everything’s rosy” we’re-gonna-fix-it-all with-bottom-up people-centred-design mantra that could have been written by the Davos corporatists for Lomborg. Talk about “theological, blue-sky handwaving”!
And then there’s this — a smug and supercilious attack on James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, in which Sterling shrugs off Kunstler’s argument that:
No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements… The widely touted ‘hydrogen economy’ is a particularly cruel hoax. We are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from natural gas. The other way to get hydrogen in the quantities wished for would be electrolysis of water using power from hundreds of nuclear plants.
with this bizarre and irrelevant retort: “That [Jiminy Cricket] insect is one of those nagging, mindful, spiritual, conscience-driven coffee-cup enviro types… Even if hydrogen storage and transport turn out to have insuperable problems, that doesn’t make hydrogen a hoax. A hoax is a deliberate fraud.”
Huh? What happened to the principles? Has Sterling been ‘persuaded’ to don rose-coloured glasses, or gone through one of the spiritual make-overs he used to disdain, or has he just been seduced by the groupthink of technology-will-overcome idealists who have picked him as their poster boy?
It is really distressing to see technophoric environmentalists dismissing as doomsayers and conspiracy theorists fellow environmentalists who are justifiably dubious of technology’s promise to solve urgent social and environmental problems in the face of a political and economic power structure determined to ignore, trivialize and discredit any attempt to change the status quo. In the face of megapollution apologists, environmental crisis-deniers, and perpetrators of junk science who smear the work of legitimate scientists, the last thing we need is an open and hostile feud between ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ environmentalists.
I can almost hear the ‘bright greens’ calling Kunstler a ‘dark green’ and the ‘deep greens’ calling Sterling ‘green lite’. So let’s agree on bright (Viridian) green and deep green as the labels of our shades of our shades of difference of opinion, and agree that there is room for more than one shade under the green umbrella. So perhaps WorldChanging and TreeHugger are ‘bright green’ blogs, and How to Change the World is ‘deep green’. We need each other, and we have to work toward common goals.
My point is that wishful thinking, accompanied by ‘happy news’ reports of promising potential new technologies and inventions (many of them exaggerated to obtain research grants) will not be enough to solve global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction and the degradation of our land, water and air. Of course we should buy environmentally friendlier products and celebrate substantial scientific breakthroughs. And I think we all agree there is no point filling our blogs with the depressing and endless litany of environmental bad news that is constant and everywhere. And that echo-chambers of indignation, and hand-wringing and letter-writing campaigns aren’t nearly enough either. But the resurgence of technophoria, the faith that we can just invent our way out of the mess we have created, is dangerous — it gives those who look to us for leadership, information and inspiration false comfort, saps our energies and divides us. And plays right into the hands of the “shortsighted, sociopathic morons” and “Lysenkoists” that Sterling warns us about.
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