It was never thus

To anyone expecting techno-utopia: don’t hold your breath

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Last week, as I took some time out of all things tech, I bookmarked an article from Rick Webb about the failures of the internet, and the culpability of those driving its adoption. It’s a harsh self-indictment of all those driving the digital revolution, specifically the faith paced in the information-rich utopia that would undoubtedly emerge. “I believed that the world would be a better place if everyone had a voice. I believed that the world would be a better place if we all had no secrets. But so far, the evidence points to an escapable conclusion: we were all wrong,” he wrote.

Well, Rick, perhaps I can put your mind at ease. The good news is, you still are: wrong, that is. Even as a smaller number of suddenly powerful people in rapid-growth startups continued to present a utopian vision of the future, the rest of were treating it as it was, and is — a set of tools that can be used for good, ill and everything else in between. There is no “all wrong” just as there never was an “all right”. Even the update to the article, “ “We” is a poor word choice here. Of course there were people — many people — who saw this coming,” is starting from the wrong place, as it still assumes that the options are binary.

Now, I didn’t start this article to give a kicking to some random stranger I have never talked to directly (Hi, Rick). However a pervading notion colours the thinking coming out of Silicon Valley, a re-worked (or should I say re-imagined) version of the fact that history belongs to the winners. The only voices that have merit, goes the logic, are those of the more successful leaders, or the thinkers that guide them, at any moment in time. Any questioning of these voices simply reinforces the point.

It may be true according to one set of metrics: would Steve Jobs have succeeded if he followed any other than his counter-culture-based narrative? Probably not, and nor would any other of the series of accidental leaders (hat-tip to Bob Cringely). Such single-minded perspectives drive the innovation we see around us, but they have a sell-by date, which means that people falling in line with them may start to feel duped when they starts to creak at the seams. Yes, you were probably wrong to think that any absolute vision could be wholly true, but when in history has that ever been the case?

So, no, the Internet has not created utopia, nor could it ever have done. in order to progress, we need people who fix single-mindedly on a vision — indeed, some (like Steve Silberman) might suggest it is a built-in element of our psyche that has enabled us to survive this long. At the same time however, we need to build realism into our innovations — I’d use the term ‘governance by design’ to describe a better starting point than the frankly irresponsible approaches adopted by some of our digital heroes, with those who founded Twitter being the latest of the bunch.

Let’s not be downhearted, rather, let’s recognise that no technology can enable us to transcend our discomfortingly complex, conflicted and ambivalent nature as a species. Technology has already done a great deal of good, but meanwhile we will continue to let ourselves down; we are all individuals, with fundamentally different views depending on our own backgrounds and psyches; and even the notions of good and bad are shifting, as we understand better what our digital tools can do. To ignore or deny these truths is worse than naive, it is allowing the bad things to happen.

Picture credit: Flickr/Lucas Theis. Public Domain.

2 Responses to “To anyone expecting techno-utopia: don’t hold your breath”

  1. According to the following:

    – As far as [the Chinese officials of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)] were concerned, nothing could be more barbaric than the belief that “the end justifies the means” – a mistranslation of Machiavelli’s The Prince which they would say adequately describes the way we think and do things in the 21st-century. They would have agreed with what he really said, which was: “In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no impartial arbiter, one must consider the final result.”
    And they intended to play the role of the “impartial arbiter” and would have especially restrained those who acted on the belief that the end justified the means, especially when it came to trying to allow the artificial (e.g., technology, credit) to subordinate ethics by defying norms.
    In addition, if the growing utilization of technology and credit by the masses began changing their way of thinking such that they would become anxious to believe that anything is possible, and then become overanxious to believe that it’s never too late to deal with the subsequent problems that would arise due to out-of-control technology and mounting debt, the [Ming] officials probably worried that growing economic, social and political disorder would result.