Will technology create a better future?
“I really do believe when ingenuity gets involved, when invention gets involved, when people get determined and when passion comes out, when they make strong goals — you can invent your way out of any box. That’s what we humans need to do right now. I believe we’re going to do it. I’m sure we’re going to do it.”, said Jeff Bezo, then CEO of Amazon. He was being interviewed by journalist Brad Stone about climate change and whether technology might solve the problem.
Jeff is a techno-optimist. He believes that technology plays a key role in ensuring that the good prevails over the bad, that technology can solve even wicked problems like climate change, and that the future will be better because of technology. He’s not alone. Lots of people believe that technology we provide humanity with a better future, even if they don’t call themselves tech-optimists.
Others aren’t so sure. Much of the academic debate about the impacts of technology on society is more pessimistic. It highlights the ethical harms and unanticipated effects of technology on the environment, social norms and personal wellbeing.
But the tech-optimists aren’t dissuaded. They look back at the history of technological development and the benefits it has brought the modern world, things like electricity, vaccinations, the Internet, and assume that the future will be like the past. But that’s all it is; an assumption, a guess, a prediction about an unknown future. Tech-optimists like Jeff aren’t basing their opinion about the future on evidence.
That’s an important point. Obvious, but important. None of us know the future. None of us actually know for certain that technology can or will make things better or worse.
So, how can we think about the impact of technology in the future?
Techno-optimism isn’t really a single view that just believes any and all technology will make things better. In fact, there are lots of dimensions to consider. Are we talking about technology making things better soon or far in the future? Is it about low possibility or highly likely effects? Do we think of technology as simply the instrument that helps do some task or the institutions and cultural processes?
One interesting dimension is the personal/impersonal effects of technology. The personal kind is where technology makes life better for the individual and impersonal is where technological progress makes things generally better for the whole of humanity.
The philosopher Lisa Bortolotti developed an agency-based theory of optimism which applies to technology at the personal and impersonal level. Bortolotti says that optimism is not simply cultivating positive beliefs about yourself and your goals and expecting your beliefs to lead to better outcomes. Believing that everything will be okay and that you can sit back and enjoy the ride doesn’t work. You have to do something. Belief and action are both necessary. Having positive agency-related beliefs helps with action by motivating you to make realistic plans to achieve good outcomes. We are agents. We can take an active role in producing a specified effect.
So, when we talk about the impact of technology in the future, whether we’re talking about how we each use technology to make our own lives better, or how our society decides about the direction of technology, we can choose to make the future better. We can do things that make the future better.
Technology can create a better future if we choose to make better use of technology. Techno-optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.