Make technological utopia easier with this one weird trick

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2014

Kevin Kelly’s “desirable-future haikus” thing on Medium is a great example of what I believe to be the standard blindspot of ICT-focussed futurists, in that they’ve forgotten that anything other than ICT could possibly matter or make a difference to the way we live.

In a way, this points to a widespread and stunted understanding of the word “technology” as meaning “electronics and computers”, when in fact the Greek root of the word addresses techniques, skills and competencies alongside the tools needed to do the job. Agriculture is a technology; democracy is a technology. Technology does not begin and end in the garages of Palo fucking Alto. Technology is not (just) a smartphone with an app for locating a flunky to make you a sandwich.

Kelly seems to have finally hit the contemporary sf writer’s problem, which is that hardly anyone’s buying utopias these days, least of all the people who write them. So he solicits a bunch of hundred-word, hundred-years-hence “haikus” from his followers on Twitter that describe “a plausible technological future”of the something-to-aspire-to type, rather like a pared-down take on Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project. It should be noted that Kelly says he doesn’t actually know any of the contributors; they’re just folk who follow him who emailed in to his CFP, and is as such “a random sample of [Kelly’s] tribe”; it’s that very tribalism that may be the source of his problem.

What comes as no surprise is that the resulting scenarios (with a few exceptions) are packed full of all the standard transhumanist techno-cornucopian tropes (immortality! super-abundance! energy too cheap to bother metering! perpetual economic growth from the free-est algorithmically-managed markets EVAR!) with a few recent additions to the pantheon (the [blockchain/free-energy-device/fusion/Big Data/quantitative analysis] will save us!), all of which share two major traits: a misparsing of entropy and thermodynamics, and the belief that, if we can just invent or code up that one perfect bit of technology we’re missing, everything will fall into place. (Once you read enough of them, SilVal start-up manifestos start to remind you of the business model of the Underpants Gnomes.)

Underpants Gnomes business plan

The third major trait is that most of them read as ridiculously naïve, and that’s not just a consequence of the previous two. Kelly’s problem – the unwritableness of a “plausible technological future” – is implicit in his formulation; it’s impossible to write a believable future where technology has fixed everything because “technology” doesn’t make things better. People make things better – sometimes through the use of new technology, but certainly not exclusively.

Now, as a card-carrying Harawayian, I am in no way averse to ascribing agency to non-human and/or artefactual subjects; what bothers me about these scenarios is that they largely remove agency from human subjects, being variations on the Software Salvationism which believes that all obstacles might be overcome through the addition of EVN MOAR ALGOS PLZ*, and assumes (falsely, I hope) that people would like less direct control over the way their world works rather than more. But it’s kind of inevitable, really: when you ask “how can technology make a better future?” you foreclose (whether deliberately or not) on the possibility of making that better future with anything other than new technology; this is one of the epistemological bear-traps of technological determinism, which Kelly and many other tech-centric futures people have been circling around for decades.

But it’s easily enough stepped out of; all you need to do is take the “technology” specifier out of the question, and/or avoid asking it of people who identify with technology in either a entrepreneurial or quasi-religious manner (no beer for you, Ray Kurzweil). By way of example, here’s my own late submission to Kelly’s call, a 101-word haiku describing a desirable future:

No one goes hungry. No one sleeps outdoors, unless they choose to. No one is conscripted as a child-soldier. No one is maimed by land-mines made on the other side of the world. No one is exploited for the betterment or gain of another. No one is a second class citizen to anyone. Nothing is wasted. Things – whether material or digital – are made with care and thought, and are made to last a long, long time. We appreciate a plurality of systems of value alongside the legacy cash-money system, which we keep going as a honey-trap distraction for the instinctively acquisitive.

If that’s not utopian and desirable, I don’t know what it is. And as implausible, unlikely and peacenik-pie-in-the-sky as you might (very reasonably) choose to call it, it is possible — because it doesn’t require us to make a single damned invention or piece of software we don’t already have. We have everything we need already; it’s just, as Gibson didn’t quite say, not yet evenly distributed. That means my little scenario above is intrinsically more plausible than any future that requires a technological novum to make it work, because [Occam’s Razor]. And if you’re aching to say “but hang on, you’ll never get that to work because getting people to change the way they do things isn’t at all simple”, then congratulations –you’ve internalised the very point I’ve been trying to make all along. Have a cookie.

In short, then, and in hope of answering Kelly’s rhetorical question: the reason it is no longer possible/easy to write believable technological utopias is that we’ve had enough historical and personal experience with previous technologies failing to deliver on their utopian promises that we are no longer willing to take them at face value; we no longer believe that new technologies are an unalloyed good in and of themselves, and there have been sufficient charlatan futurists that we’ve started to assume they’re all charlatans until proven otherwise.

So perhaps we’re edging closer to utopia faster than we thought.

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[ * The irony of people cheerleading for greater algorithmic management of human affairs (especially as a utopian response to a flood of dystopias which are themselves based around the premise of ubiquitous algorithmic management of human affairs, in direct artistic response to the increasing ubiquity of the algorithmic management of human affairs in the world most of us actually live in) is palpable, but joyless. It reminded me of this picture from a friend’s Instagram feed:

Because the best possible response to the ongoing problem of trash accumulating in the Pacific gyre is surely not to sort our shit out and stop filling the oceans with rubbish, but to fish some of it out, make it into clothes that cost more than some human beings earn in a year, and hire Panglossian celebrities to add an overcoat of aspirational gloss to the triple-sprayed greenwash base-coat of the initial concept!

To twist Marx a bit: the capitalist will gladly sell you your portion of the rope with which you, he and everyone else are collectively hanging themselves. ]

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