Technology has proved it can transform the world overnight — so why not be optimistic?

Is optimism just a crazy notion, or does technological innovation totally justify our faith? In the comments on our article about optimistic stories that could still come true, commenter Corpore-metal points out some of the ways that technology has transformed the world — even if we're never going to have a utopia.

I'd say that utopia is logically inconsistent — or at best, like infinity, and thus never reachable. But having said that, optimism is fine. Things do sometimes work out, and sometimes unthinkable wonders are brought about by science and technology.


But here's the thing: Once technology jumps over a hurdle thought impassable before, it makes that supposed miracle utterly commonplace and boring. 40 years ago, the idea of a mobile smart phone was utter magic. Now, nobody even bats an eye at it even as the ripples of this change affect us all in surprising ways. That's what technology does — it makes miracles so easy, it's boring. It's even better than the magic of fairy tales in at least three ways:

1) It's not rare. Once the hack is worked out, it rapidly becomes ubiquitous. The Eiffel Tower was astounding once, now skyscrapers are everywhere.

2) It equalizes things, in a way that magic never can. If it's cheap, and usually it rapidly becomes such, it makes us all superhuman.

3) Once a hack is worked out, all its details are mostly well understood. When a car fails, we can figure out why. When a nuclear reactor catastrophically fails, we have a good idea how it happened and what will happen afterwards.

This is why some of the more badly written science fiction is harder to believe. They tend to contrive stories where some new breakthrough is still highly controlled, rare or restricted in some way. This despite ample evidence in the real world that this rarely remains the case for long. Once IVF was rare and highly controversial, now barely anyone gives a damn about it.

This why even the depressing, dystopic science fiction stories contain optimism, without even realizing it. Think of the gadgets in 1984, the speakwrite or the novel-writing kalidescope machines. Each of these, when you really think about it, are actually pretty hard to make — speech recognition has only recently matured and only in the last 40 years could software write trite, cliched and obviously repetitive novels like Orwell's kaleidoscopes. These are major advances in A.I., and yet in Orwell's story they are treated as commonplace.


This makes them more believable, if only because these miracles are used to repress people. The optimism is leaven with deep pessimism. The wonder of flight is spoiled when we think of the bombing of Vietnam or Iraq with daisy cutters and fuel-air detonations.

The real technological world gives us utterly commonplace miracles, but it's always an intractably mixed bag. Old problems are solved only to be replaced by new ones we couldn't even understand, let alone dream of.



Corpore Metal

Argh! Charlie? I09? Stop posting thought provoking articles! I don't care if I myself said it! I'm really only good for one or two rants in a day. You're killin' me out here! Have mercy!