What if the techno-utopians are wrong? In search of alternative narratives.

What do you think when you think about the future?

Do you think about the future?

Most people don’t all that often, but the topic is hard to escape amidst today’s future-focused rhetoric. It’s all about innovating for the future, disrupting the future, creating the future.

The prevailing ethos in the technology world is one of techno-utopia. It comes in several flavours; at one end there are people like Ray Kurzweil, talking up singularity as something practically certain and imminent and the money pouring into life extension startups in search of immortality – topics that would have been at the extreme fringe only a couple of decades ago, but are now practically mainstream.

More mainstream still are the poster-children of disruption, like Uber or Tesla. Even for the old-school technology companies like Cisco, the goal is to change the future and own it.

If you don’t, you’ve got nobody but yourself to blame when the future steamrolls over you.

Or so goes the dogma.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the unfettered – one could also say unhinged – technological optimism exhibited by this now-dominant way of thinking. This is why I’m reluctant to call myself a futurist, even if the work I do strongly aligns with that; I have found the vast majority of futurists to be uncritical techno-utopians, approaching all the world’s problems – even the intractable ones – with a quasi-religious faith in technological solutions.

As a result I’ve been in search of two things; either proof that the techno-utopians are right, or alternative narratives.

Proof, but of what?

In search of proof that the techno-utopians are right, one finds no shortage of lofty promises and confident statements plus books extolling how technology X is going to change everything – take Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society as just one example out of many. It is easy to mistake these for proof.

Except when you dig deeper – often just scratching the surface will suffice – what emerges is very different picture. For when you look at actual results of technological solutionism, in a very real data-driven sense, like Kentaro Toyama did in Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, the data shows something else. It shows that technology is not in and of itself a solution to pretty much anything – instead, it’s an amplifier. And on average, humanity is amplifying many of the wrong things with it.

The average is important; for some things the average is the only thing that matters. Take climate change for example; for all the talk of emissions reductions, and for all the renewable generation installed, none of it matters until and unless we see a fundamental change in the trajectory of this chart – global CO2 concentration:

To say that the data shows no improvement would be putting it overly optimistically; the annual mean growth rate has been rising steadily for decades, from less than 1 ppm/yr in the 1960’s to over 2.3ppm/year in 2010’s so far. It’s not just getting worse – it’s getting worse faster.

Alternative narratives

The world infused with techno-optimism is arguably a bubble. After all I, and with significant likelihood you, lead a relatively privileged life in a relatively privileged country. But it’s a dangerous extrapolation to think that just because we’re fine, it’ll continue to be so for us and that everyone else – and our civilisation – will be fine, too.

In light of data showing otherwise, we need alternative narratives to the techno-utopian visions of the future.

Douglas Rushkoff discusses the overarching obsession with growth and all its implications admirably in his bookThrowing Rocks at the Google Bus, but growth is just one narrow aspect of the prevailing worldview. Another appealing and useful narrative, along with practical techniques for real sustainability, can be found from Permaculture – which is a sadly topical concept considering one of the its originators, Bill Mollison, passed away recently.

One broader-reaching and more fundamental alternative narrative has been constructed by preppers – the survivalism movement. These are people that have come to the conclusion that civilisation itself is about to fall apart, potentially dramatically (due to any variety of reasons). The preppers prepare for – and one cannot escape the feeling that they on some level wish for – an apocalypse of sort.

Their approach may seem the extreme polar opposite approach from the futurists. Yet, as Hal Niedzviecki puts it, “at their core, both the technologists and the preppers have secular belief systems rooted in a sense of superiority over others.”

Niedzviecki’s book Trees on Mars is wonderful, though challenging and perhaps unsettling. All of which are good reasons for reading it. Among other things, it introduced me to yet another narrative, a kind of a middle ground-approach in the form of the Dark Mountain Project.

The Dark Mountain Project has outlined their thought framework what they call the eight principles of ‘uncivilisation’. I quote them in full below. Even if – or especially if – you’re in the extreme camps of techno-utopia or the doomers, it’s worth considering this alternative narrative:

THE EIGHT PRINCIPLES OF UNCIVILISATION

1. We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.

2. We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the
myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

4. We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.

6. We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.

7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

It would be wrong to say I subscribe fully to the Dark Mountain manifesto; at the same time, it would be wrong to say I don’t find it appealing to an extent. There is a refreshing sense of intellectual honesty both in rejecting the notion of easy answers when there are none, and in dismissing unfounded faith in ‘progress’ where data shows otherwise.

Where does this lead us to?

The good thing with narratives is that you don’t need to be restricted to finding one, you can help create one – and not just for yourself, but for others.

There is also a realisation that I would like more people to come to; rejecting utopian promises of technology does not make one anti-technology. Somewhat ironically, pragmatism – which inevitably will lead to opting out of some of the hype – is rooted in an approach that is supposedly the driving force of technological progress; that of being data-driven.

It is a topic I’ve touched on before, but this time it’s broader – it’s time to acknowledge the data and evidence of where the world is at and where it’s going.

Even if we don’t like what the data shows.

As put by the Dark Mountain Manifesto, “We will face [this] reality honestly and learn how to live with it.”

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