The Singularity of Fools
A special report from the utopian future.
Good books transcend their times; bad books reflect them. One reads Madame Bovary for its sublime writing and exploration of the human condition in all its tortuous complexity. But if you really want to understand 19th-century bourgeois France, you would be far better served by plowing through the literarily mediocre but historically informative novels of Gustave Flaubert's journeyman contemporary, Eugène Sue. What has always been true of literature is even more so with regard to nonfiction, especially by authors who claim to know what the future holds in store for us. The history of financial predictions made at the height of stock market booms is a well-known illustration, whether it was the great economist Irving Fisher insisting shortly before the crash of 1929 that stock prices had reached "a permanently high plateau" or the not-so-great economist Kevin A. Hassett heralding Dow 36,000 -- the 1999 book he wrote with James K. Glassman -- a little more than a year before the dot-com bubble burst.
Good books transcend their times; bad books reflect them. One reads Madame Bovary for its sublime writing and exploration of the human condition in all its tortuous complexity. But if you really want to understand 19th-century bourgeois France, you would be far better served by plowing through the literarily mediocre but historically informative novels of Gustave Flaubert’s journeyman contemporary, Eugène Sue. What has always been true of literature is even more so with regard to nonfiction, especially by authors who claim to know what the future holds in store for us. The history of financial predictions made at the height of stock market booms is a well-known illustration, whether it was the great economist Irving Fisher insisting shortly before the crash of 1929 that stock prices had reached "a permanently high plateau" or the not-so-great economist Kevin A. Hassett heralding Dow 36,000 — the 1999 book he wrote with James K. Glassman — a little more than a year before the dot-com bubble burst.
But financial manias pale (at least for those who have not bet their 401(k)s on such fanatically rosy assumptions) when compared with the techno-utopias that, at least since the middle of the 19th century, have periodically captured the collective imagination of the general public in the West — and today litter bookstores with their rah-rah optimism. Too bad few remember Cicero’s tart observation that he did not understand why, when two soothsayers met in the street, both did not burst out laughing. But if the history of utopian fantasies has taught us anything, it is that people find it hard to accept the fact of their unreality, preferring instead to hew to their hopes, whether profound, as with Marxism, or preposterous (and commercially self-interested), as with the vision of the carefully ordered futuristic cities famously laid out for a receptive public at the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair — just as Adolf Hitler was about to blitzkrieg Poland.
If utopia has always been a kind of escape clause from the human condition, contemporary techno-utopianism represents a radical upping of the ante. For entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, creator of the X Prize to spur the development of passenger-carrying private spaceships and other innovations, not only will technology make it so that "during our lifetime … we’re moving off this planet," but it will solve even the gravest problems that confront humanity — climate change, species extinction, water and energy shortages. For futurist Ray Kurzweil, "nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence" by 2030, making it possible to "go beyond the limits of biology, and replace [an individual’s] current ‘human body version 1.0’ with a dramatically upgraded version 2.0, providing radical life extension."
Even comparative moderates in the futurological sweepstakes tend to swoon when the subject is the pace of technology-led change. Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, argues in his new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, that it is an entirely realistic goal for humans to "take control of our technologies and use them to build the world we want rather than the world we fear." The present moment, Zuckerman asserts in his book’s concluding sentence, offers "an opportunity to start the process of rewiring the world."
In his own new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, cyber-utopianism’s severest and most eloquent critic, Evgeny Morozov, has dubbed such grand assertions about the mastery that we, with or without the help of intelligent machines, can exert over the future of the species the "Superhuman Condition." (Full disclosure: I blurbed Morozov’s book.)
Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, has described this mindset somewhat more understandingly, analyzing people’s "growing desire to have technology oversee what once belonged exclusively to the province of the individual mind: man’s capacity to judge."
To me, though, what is most striking about the claims made by techno-utopians (though most, including Kurzweil and Zuckerman, reject the label) is the way assertions about the inevitability of unstoppable, exponential technological progress are combined with claims that human beings can, for the first time in history, take their fate into their own hands — or even defy mortality itself. As Morozov remarks tartly, "Silicon Valley is guilty of many sins, but lack of ambition is not one of them."
A glance at some of the titles in the growing techno-utopian canon suggests that, if anything, he understates the case. Apart from Zuckerman’s Rewire, there is Diamandis’s Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, and U.S. Interior Department analyst Indur Goklany’s The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, to name only a few. By far the worst of these is Byron Reese’s new Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War. Reese is a self-described "inventor, technologist, historian, author, speaker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist" who created such websites as HappyNews.com and now serves as chief innovation officer for Demand Media, the company that has brought us such sites as DailyPuppy.com.
Almost all contemporary techno-utopians extrapolate from Moore’s Law, the hypothesis made by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years; such exponential improvements, they argue, apply to virtually all technology. But Reese’s confidence is extreme even by those standards. "[W]ith the Internet and associated technologies flourishing in a Moore’s-Law-like manner," he writes, immense amounts of wealth will be created. As a result, "the poor will get richer, and the rich will get vastly richer." In this post-scarcity world, "socialism can’t even exist."
Well, that’s a relief! This confidence that technological innovation will ensure that liberal free market capitalism continues to reign supreme is a commonplace of techno-utopian writing. Zuckerman, for one, justifies his call for a new digital cosmopolitanism partly because it is a prudent way to cope with unexpected threats like the SARS epidemic (whose seriousness he vastly overstates) or political upheavals like the Arab Spring, but he is also at pains to emphasize how good the transformations he heralds will be for capitalism. For all the praise he lavishes on diversity and multiculturalism, Zuckerman’s notions of politics are extraordinarily impoverished and unicultural. He is obviously more than within his rights to reject the critique of capitalism leveled by the anti-globalization movement, but he is not at liberty to write as if it scarcely existed. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker on the emotional range of Katharine Hepburn’s acting, Zuckerman’s runs the gamut of political possibility from A to B.
Reese doesn’t even make it to B. On the future of culture, he insists that we are standing on the threshold of "a new Golden Age for humanity," where today’s "Internet Renaissance" dwarfs its Italian predecessor "a hundredfold, a thousandfold." Where medicine is concerned, disease will become largely an artifact of the past. "Imagine," Reese writes, "if Hippocrates had a fraction of [what is available to scientists today]. If Jenner had had e-mail, Pasteur an electron microscope, Salk a genetic sequencer.… I ask you again, does disease even have a chance?" I’m sure the researchers stymied by such terrible illnesses as ALS and bone cancer will be relieved to hear that victory is just some high-tech medical devices and a Google search away.
In Reese’s account, hunger and war are equally certain to disappear as well. Alluding to the work of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born agronomist who was one of the principal architects of the Green Revolution, he declares, "One guy from Iowa came along with some garbage bags and saved a billion lives. How much more should we be able to [do] with the Internet, computers, and other technology? I say we can improve things not by 20 or so percent, but by twenty times or more." As for war, Reese begins by somewhat hedging his bets, writing uncharacteristically that "in making the case that war can and will be ended, I have my work cut out for me." It soon turns out that there was no real cause for alarm. "’But wait!’" he writes, "’Is that a distant bugle I hear?’ Out of the blue, the cavalry comes to the rescue. All right then, not the cavalry, but a marshaling of arguments and observations that will show how the end of war is inevitable, or nearly so." If only there were an app for that.
It is easy, not to mention enjoyable, to make fun of Reese. But at one point toward the end of Infinite Progress, he marshals the ubiquitous, omnipresent claim of techno-utopians past and present: This Time It’s Different. "I know it has been the vanity of every age to think it represents a high point in history," writes Reese. But today, he says, "this is no idle boast." Zuckerman makes a related point, though less assertively, insisting that it is "unhelpful to dismiss the ambitions of [the] technological optimists … simply because the futures they hoped for haven’t yet come to pass." With optimism and the arc of history in their pockets, they bemoan the poverty of ideas among cynics and skeptics of this future-perfect, but it’s the idea of poverty that brings odd bedfellows together.
At first glance, it would be difficult to imagine views further from those of a Reese, a Kurzweil, or a Diamandis than those of the international development community. To put it mildly, transhumanism and poverty reduction are the unlikeliest couple. Yet if one views both groups through an ideological lens, what is striking is not what separates them but rather what unites them — first and foremost, the rigidity of their optimism. From Reese this is probably to be expected because inside Infinite Progress there is a perfectly respectable self-help book screaming to get out. But when Reese states, "I believe in the future I describe … not out of a childish wish, but because it seems the obvious and natural progression of history," he is being no more categorical than Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates, who wrote in late 2012 that "a realistic appraisal of the human condition compels an optimistic worldview." Compels! Compared with that kind of determinism, Ethan Zuckerman starts to sound like Hannah
IT IS A CONCEIT, at least, with a distinguished philosophical pedigree. As philosopher Tzvetan Todorov put it in his fine polemic In Defence of the Enlightenment, a central assumption of Enlightenment thinking was that human life would be "guided henceforth by a project for the future, not by an authority from the past." French legal scholar Frédéric Rouvillois has argued that this project for the future represented nothing less than "the invention of progress," noting its hypnotic and powerful appeal ever since to the Western imagination. Today, this secular progress narrative so thoroughly pervades global thinking that it can be difficult to remember how radical a break it represented from all major religions, which, however committed to charity, have seen poverty as an immutable given of the human condition.
In contrast, almost all contemporary heirs of the Enlightenment, be they techno-utopians, secular humanitarians, or development workers, take the diametrically opposing view. Consider the defining idea of Doctors Without Borders when it was founded in the 1970s: "Man was not made to suffer." Today, the development world has taken this new moral understanding of human possibility and has drawn from it the conclusion not just that poverty and hunger can be alleviated, but that they can be ended forever.
Few people have upheld this view more energetically and adamantly than economist Jeffrey Sachs. In both his 2005 book, The End of Poverty, and his leadership in the implementation of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — a set of benchmarks, from universal primary education to reducing child mortality, with a deadline set for 2015 — he has insisted that ending poverty is not a dream. It is, rather, a goal that no reasonably open-minded person should doubt can be accomplished should this generation of human beings "choose," as Sachs puts it, to commit to doing so. Why is this realistic? "It is our breathtaking opportunity," he writes, "to be able to advance the Enlightenment vision of Jefferson, Smith, Kant, and Condorcet. Our generation’s work can be defined in Enlightenment terms." For Sachs, the new tools of science and technology will foster political systems that promote peace, rationality, and human well-being. "The agenda is broad and bold, as it has been for two centuries," he writes, "but many of its sweetest fruits are just within our reach."
Unlike Reese, Sachs does not talk as if such a future were predetermined. But his vision of that future is only marginally less utopian. The world, he believes, stands on the cusp of eradicating poverty, war, and even political systems (other than those dedicated to promoting equality and all those other good things that humanity deserves). Like Gates, Sachs asserts that he is not being utopian or even optimistic so much as simply realistic. "We can realistically envision a world without extreme poverty by the year 2025," he writes, "because technological progress [finally] enables us to meet basic human needs on a global scale and to achieve a margin above basic needs unprecedented in history. [This] technological progress has been fueled by the ongoing revolutions of basic science and spread by the power of global markets and public investments in health, education, and infrastructure."
If this sounds familiar, it should. For what Sachs is prophesying is in effect the universalization of modern liberal capitalist democracy — but this time it’s different. It will be more equitably arranged so that everyone in the world, rather than only people in rich countries, benefits from it. This, as British philosopher John Gray once said of the predictions of American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, sounds like nothing so much as "an idealized version of American government." To be clear, Sachs is not claiming any of this is inevitable, but it is difficult to read him as saying anything other than that everything is within our grasp, if only we have the courage and the moral conviction to seize it. (In the Soviet Union, this used be referred to as svetloye budushcheye, the "radiant future.")
But what kind of morality exactly does Sachs uphold? Not the religious kind, that’s for sure — there is literally no entry for "religion" in the index to The End of Poverty. Likewise, Gates, who through his foundation arguably is doing more to rid the world of poverty and disease than any other human being alive today, once told a reporter that "just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning." For Gates, Sachs, and their legions, the emphasis on technology is the central explanatory key for why what has never been remotely possible for almost all of recorded history is eminently doable today. It’s messianic, without the Messiah.
As an atheist myself, in purely moral terms I have no strong objection to this. But two obvious problems present themselves. First, such an approach seems a bit awkward when in much of the poor world a great religious revival seems to be taking place among Muslims, Christians, and Hindus alike. As the head of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, Katherine Marshall, has wisely pointed out, "The link between core religious teachings and attitudes towards poverty is important as a factor that explains in part the somewhat tepid support for the MDGs" by religious leaders. If anything, Marshall is being too tactful. In much of the Arab world at least, the public health MDGs (not to mention those sections concerning the emancipation of women and, heaven forbid, gender equality) have stirred up fierce opposition. Unanticipated setbacks in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan to the global effort to eradicate polio (28 percent of whose total budget, nearly $1.5 billion overall, has since 2008 come from the Gates Foundation
) have been a horrific demonstration of this, as religious extremists have undertaken a targeted campaign killing health workers who administer the polio vaccine. But even in less extreme contexts, ignoring religion — or, possibly worse, deluding oneself into thinking that religion in the developing world will inevitably evolve into a version of secularish Western liberalism — is hardly likely to be successful.
An even deeper problem is the assumption that has become unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the mainstream development world: that everyone with good intentions has already reached agreement on the broad outlines of what decent societies and a decent international order should look like. There was a tremendous backlash in the 1990s to Fukuyama’s The End of History, when it was rightfully dismissed as post-Cold War triumphalist nonsense. But the reality is that all optimistic thinking on human rights and the end of poverty (not to mention the Sachs/Reese-like overreach of predicting perpetual peace in some foreseeable future) rests on the conviction that the universalization of Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government. If you believe that, then it makes sense to treat poverty reduction not as a moral or political problem, but as an essentially technical exercise, except perhaps in some small number of corrupt spoiler states that sooner or later are bound to see the light. (Well, if not from above, then from somewhere.)
But what if ideology is not dead and pessimism is as rational a stance as optimism? What if Gates’s "creative capitalism" is not enough to mitigate climate change, let alone bridge the growing gap between the increasingly gated and demographically challenged West and the poor world, so young and hungry? Do we even know how to think about this, let alone what to do about it?
Clearly Gates, Sachs, and the rest of the "end of poverty" brigade think they have the answers. But what if they don’t? It is anything but clear that liberalism will prevail in the 21st century, as the recent decline of democratic governance in many parts of the world should make clear. Religion may be disappearing like war from the consciousness of Western Europeans and North Americans, but, also like war, it is staging a comeback in great swaths of the poor world. And the obituaries written for communism and dictatorship over the past 25 years haven’t been quite as prescient as they seemed at the time of the Soviet empire’s collapse. The rise of an authoritarian, illiberal capitalism may prove to be just as successful as the liberal variant of the system. As that great sage Yogi Berra famously said, "Prediction is very hard, especially about the future."
If anything, the impatient optimists and techno-utopians may be predicting an assured victory precisely at the moment when the global ideological consensus on both politics and economics is beginning to fray. Perhaps human beings always will oscillate between giddiness and despair. But when a belief that some Internet-based deus ex machina will come along to fix the most intractable of humanity’s problems becomes the consensus view, and that the most profound moral and political challenges that confront humanity in the 21st century are in fact not moral or political at all, but rather largely technical, then there is ample cause for alarm.
The problem is not optimism per se. Just as the Marxist writer August Bebel called anti-Semitism "the socialism of fools," today’s headlong rush to believe in technology, utopian or otherwise, seems like nothing so much as the optimism of fools.
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