The Left Should Celebrate Technology And Growth, Not Disparage It

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Wouldn't infinite free food for all be a good thing?

The New Republic has just published an interesting essay by Tim Wu on the book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by tech entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler. The book pretty much delivers on its title, describing a future of abundance that is within our grasp, provided we seriously pursue the promise of new and emerging technologies. Reviewer Wu is not so enthusiastic. While he grudgingly acknowledges that these technologies may deliver more stuff and that that may be good for some people (e.g., in less developed countries), he sternly admonishes those among us who might be tempted to think a future of abundance would actually be a good thing:

The unhappy irony is that Diamandis prescribes a program of “more” exactly at a point when a century of similar projects have begun to turn on us….[I]n the rich and semi-rich parts of the world …we are starting to see just what happens when we reach surplus levels across many categories of human desire, and it isn’t pretty. The unfortunate fact is that extreme abundance — like extreme scarcity, but in different ways — can make humans miserable. Where the abundance project has been truly successful, it has created a new host of problems that are now hitting humanity.

Huh.  But what about, you know, the people who don’t starve any more in developed countries, who have electric lights and can go to school and don’t have stay in their villages all their lives and so on.  Well, Wu does allow that:

None of this should be taken to downplay the triumphs of the great abundance project of the last century. In the rich parts of the world, most do not fear starvation or a lack of the basics, for perhaps the first time in human history. That is nothing to overlook.

Nothing to overlook indeed!  And what are these terrible problems brought on by abundance that have brought us to, according to Wu, the point where we must get off the abundance train and don our hair shirts?  Obesity!  Information overload! And (shudder) too much credit!  (Interestingly, while he is pretty hard on Americans’ use of credit cards, he has nothing to say about the real abusers of credit, the big financial institutions who brought us the economic collapse of 2008.)

I find Wu’s take completely unconvincing and in some ways, disheartening. No wonder the techno-optimist takes on our future seem to come mostly from libertarians like Diamandis and his ilk — the left is so busy worrying about all the bad things technology brings or could bring that it misses the larger narrative about the role of technology in liberating humanity in the past and, if we play our cards right, in the future. People on the left should welcome and promote the idea that we could have a future of abundance.  After all, not everyone in this country has the resources and living standards of the upper middle class (like Wu) and we should not rest until we can give everyone in this country — and for that matter, the world — such a life.

In short, techno-optimism is too important to be left to libertarians. It is ludicrous to think, as libertarian futurists generally do, that all we need to do is give everyone a laptop, unleash their inner entrepreneur, get government to stay out of the way and….voila!, everyone will be rich and happy. There is a very strong case to be made that the potential of technology will only be fully unleashed if progressive governance provides the infrastructure, educational opportunities and research support necessary for these technologies to flourish. It’s time for progressives to stop being so gloomy and start making that case.  Techno-optimism: it’s not just for libertarians anymore!