The Real Problem With Techno-Utopianism

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"The Real Problem With Techno-Utopianism"

Erik Loomis continues to misunderstand what’s wrong with techno-optimism:

But then, it’s not like Frase is the only technological utopian out there. My students buy this whole hog. They think they are riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements that will make our lives easier and better. They have a very hard time figuring out that technology can sometimes have unexpected bad consequences, not to mention fully intended bad consequences like putting people out of work. I can’t really speak for other countries, though clearly societies like Japan and South Korea share similar love of technological innovation, but this blind faith in technology is deeply embedded in what it means to be an American, going back to the early 19th century and the rise of canals and railroads at the very least.

Loomis’ students are mistaken. But they’re not mistaken because they’re overlooking technology’s downside. They’re mistaken because it’s simply not the case that people born in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s are riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements. We’ve seen massive improvements in a very narrow range of telecommunications and electronics fields that have dramatically altered our ability to entertain ourselves during our free time but haven’t really dramatically altered living standards. Earlier generations, however, did live in a kind of techno-utopia where railroads or automobiles or electrical manufacturing or household appliances or antibiotics really revolutionized life in profound ways. We’ve been stuck instead with stagnating living standards, increasing strain on global natural resource supplies, and other bad stuff.

But the problem here hasn’t been an unduly optimistic view of the consequences of technological progress, it’s been an unduly optimistic view of how much technological progress we’re going to have. The Internet is very cool, but so far, modern information technology hasn’t revolutionized the health care or education sectors. We’ve haven’t had the clean energy breakthroughs that make everyone forget all about dirty old coal and oil.

Once upon a time, middle class American households had to spend an incredible amount of time washing laundry and dishes by hand. Nowadays, the mass public can afford dishwashers and washer/dryers. When people in the 1960s imagined the future, they imagined robot maids becoming a mass market appliance and creating an even more utopian outcome for middle class families. You wouldn’t even need to load and unload the dishwasher or fold the laundry! Every workaday guy with a job on the sprocket line could live like a wealthy man with a live-in full-time housekeeper. It hasn’t happened. But the world would be a better place if it had.

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