"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.” – Lewis Mumford (1952)
There are moments in which it is difficult to feel particularly positive about how things are going in the world. Social cohesion frays. Politicians fail to respond to the crises of the moment. Social movements for justice are met with violent repression. History is suppressed. Xenophobic authoritarianism crawls out from the swamp to claim new victims. Looming environmental hazards grow closer. Pandemics are catastrophically mismanaged. The rich keep getting richer. The list goes on. It can be difficult to find a place in which to place your hopes for the future when the present seems so dire. After all, many no longer believe that god(s), or charismatic politicians, or social movements will save us. Granted, this has not given rise to widespread despair or nihilism (even if such sentiments can be detected at society’s edges), for there still exist certain forces that capture and channel people’s hopes and longings. And prominent amongst these is technology.
What follows is an attempt to consider some of the aspects and implications of techno-optimism. It is an attitude that has become somewhat taken for granted, which is precisely why it is important to consider what it is and how it functions.
Techno-optimism is the dominant attitude in high-tech societies
It is hard to escape techno-optimism. For it is the attitude that one encounters nearly everywhere. This is not the just attitude of the press release, the advertisement, and the carefully produced launch event—it is the ambient music that plays in the background of daily life. Techno-optimism is the basic stance of a society in which people enjoy the fruits of high-technology, and though they may have some quibbles about specifics, are basically happy with the gadgets that surround them and resistant to the idea that any of these devices should be (or could be) turned off. It is an attitude that comes to be when a significant portion of a population have interwoven their faith in future progress with the idea of future technological advancements. Techno-optimism is a vision of tomorrow that sees only a choice between a high-tech metropolis and a desolate wasteland, and so (naturally) opts for the high-tech metropolis. To be taken in by techno-optimism one need not hang on a Silicon Valley CEO’s every word, it is sufficient to be impressed by the latest smartphone iteration. To partake in techno-optimism one need not dream of the singularity, it is sufficient to believe that since there is no alternative to all of these gadgets and platforms that one might as well be comfortable with them.
Techno-optimism has less to do with the individuals who hold the belief, and more to do with a broader societal stance that most individuals accept. And this stance—that societal progress is incumbent upon technological progress and that one should therefore be optimistic about technological progress—is fairly common.
Techno-optimism feels good
Most people don’t particularly enjoy feeling anxious and unhappy. Generally speaking, it isn’t a lot of fun to think about the future and feel that it probably resembles some kind of refuse heap. And, for the most part, it doesn’t feel particularly good to look at gadgets that surround you with guilt and loathing, but feel that you have no choice but to use these devices if you want to be able to participate in society. On the other hand, to enjoy the benefits of new gadgets and platforms can be quite thrilling. It can be exciting to bask in the massive amount of music/movies/books/content that you can stream with just the click of a button. It can be a great serotonin hit to see your social media posts earning engagement. And to think that day by day things are getting closer and closer to the sleek high-tech sheen of Star Trek is a lot easier on your mental health than to think that society has come to resemble an episode of Black Mirror. There’s lots of worrisome news out there—from climate change to rising xenophobic authoritarianism to the pandemic—and it is easy to feel anxious about the future. And one of the things that techno-optimism does is that it allows people to feel good, and to feel confident. Techno-optimism promises a shiny future of improvement, and it grounds such promises in encouraging people to appreciate the impressiveness of current technology. Here techno-optimism can resonate so fully because on a certain level there really is something “cool” about many of these gadgets. And, insofar as many currently available gadgets seem like they are the realization of sci-fi fantasies from decades ago, it allows us to dream about what further high-tech fantasies will soon be realized. Our smartphones are more impressive than the communicators from the original Star Trek, so clearly replicators and warp speed are just a few years away, right?
It doesn’t feel particularly nice to feel guilty when you buy a new smartphone even though your old one still worked fine. It’s tough to feel as though your daily activities are particularly meaningful when you think some mixture of high-tech enabled authoritarianism and climate breakdown is what societies are heading towards. You can’t fully get the serotonin hit from your post getting liked on social media, when being on social media makes you feel miserable. And it’s hard to have hope when you feel powerless in the face of technological forces. Luckily, techno-optimism avoids all of these dour emotions. Techno-optimism allows individuals to enjoy the shiny expensive products that surround them, it allows them to focus predominantly on the ways that these devices have improved their lives for the better, and it allows them to envision a future in which life will improve with every new iteration of the smartphone. Techno-optimism lets us feel good about the technology surrounding us, and by extension allows us to feel good about ourselves (and our society) as we use these technologies. And, of course, there are cool and exciting things about many new technologies—and it really can be nice to enjoy the benefits without flagellating yourself by immediately thinking about e-waste.
Any attempt to understand why techno-optimism is so persuasive needs to recognize that one of the reasons why techno-optimism is so consistently appealing is that techno-optimism feels good. And given the choice, most people will pick to feel good rather than to feel bad.
Techno-optimism makes technological determinism socially acceptable
In certain academic fields, scholars caution their students against falling for technological determinism. That being the overly simplistic belief that “technology drives history.” Granted, many of those same scholars, are quick to emphasize that technology matters, and can still be an important factor, but that social/political/historic/economic changes are driven by a lot more than just machines. Thus such academics work hard to show the ways in which history does not look like [Cause: new technology X] = [Result: social change Y], by emphasizing all of the things that take place in that “=” sign. What social conditions made it possible for that new technology to be taken up? Which groups pushed for the new technology because they saw it as a way of increasing their own power, and which groups resisted? What older technological systems were necessary for this new one to come into being? What economic forces made this new technology feasible? What were the various forms that this new technology originally appeared in before one particular model of it began to dominate? In short, those who study technology (at least in some disciplines), work hard to make it clear that technology doesn’t drive history. Indeed, in some academic circles, the charge of technological determinism is still an insult.
Alas, techno-optimism is to a large extent a belief that “technology drives history.” What’s more it’s a belief that technology has driven history in a good direction and that therefore technology can be trusted to keep driving history in that good direction. It is a straight line narrative of a world of improvement in which the abacus eventually leads to the smartphone, without getting overly bogged down in a story of Cold War military funding. It provides a worldview which is all highways with only passing attention being paid to the crashes that smolder on the side of the road (and with those being treated merely as stumbling blocks). Academics may bristle at the idea that “technology drives history,” but they find themselves trying to counter a belief that is fairly commonly accepted by the broader society. In fairness, it may be out of style for a person to declare that they think technology is driving history, but it is not at all out of style for a person to state that they consider themselves to be technologically optimistic—which is another way of saying that they feel cheerful when they consider the direction in which they think technology is driving history.
Techno-optimism undergirds but is not synonymous with Big Tech-optimism
At the present moment, much of the discussion around technology is really about “tech.” Here, in popular discourse, “tech” is not genuinely an abbreviation for technology but is instead a way of talking about “Big Tech” or “the tech companies” or “Silicon Valley.” Or to put it slightly differently, most of the time when “tech” is invoked it is a way of talking about computers and the Internet (and the companies associated with those things). To be clear, these things certainly fall under the umbrella of technology, but often when “tech” is invoked people are really only talking about that very narrow slice of technologies. When people say “tech” today they usually mean VR headsets and “smart” glasses as opposed to bifocals. There is certainly a great deal of techno-optimism that comes up in discussions around “tech,” but techno-optimism is much sturdier than just an optimistic stance towards Google, Apple, and Facebook. This is significant because it means that big tech-optimism can be tarnished without it doing much to undermine the general sense of techno-optimism that courses beneath it. This has been on full display in recent years in which the enthusiasm that once greeted companies like Facebook has been significantly reduced, but in which the basic underlying faith in technological progress remains relatively unscathed. A loss of faith in Facebook does not mean a loss of faith in technology, it just requires a transfer of those hopes from Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk, and eventually someone else (and their company) will arrive to take Musk’s place. Big tech-optimism, though still a powerful force, too often makes the mistake of pinning its hopes on hubristic individuals and outlandish companies; techno-optimism on the other hand thrives by keeping its allegiances vague. Techno-optimism can sway with the winds of the big tech companies, because if Apple fails to become the desired technological savior, than it is only a matter of time before some other firm arrives to take that role. And in the meantime it may be periodically necessary for individuals and companies to be sacrificed so that the baseline confidence can survive.
When big tech-optimism takes a beating it is for failing to live up to the hopes of the techno-optimism that undergirds it. And when big tech companies are held up for scorn, it is done so that people’s ire can be directed at a specific manifestation of techno-optimism, as opposed to calling into question the underlying ideology.
Techno-optimism is not the most blatant, or most egregious, adoring attitude towards technology
The attitude towards technology that is telegraphed by Silicon Valley companies, and which is often echoed uncritically by much of the tech press, is a variety of techno-optimism but is also different in certain ways. Whether you wish to call it “techno-chauvinism” (as Meredith Broussard put it) or “The Californian Ideology” (as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron put it), Silicon Valley tech firms waste little subtlety in hailing themselves, and their gadgets, as the saviors of the world. Their techno-optimism easily shades into a hubristic stance that generates a mild (mild!) degree of pushback, informed by the fortunes of a particular firm at a particular moment. By way of an example: for years Facebook’s claims to be “connecting the world” were met with applause, but in the last several years Facebook’s dogged faith in Facebook is now met with more skepticism. Yet, in the Facebook example at least, that which is rebutted is the techno-chauvinism of Facebook, not the techno-optimism that can be found by digging a couple of layers beneath that techno-chauvinism—we mock Mark Zuckerberg, not all of the people who earnestly placed their hopes in his company. The reaction against the hubris of the most visible platforms does not generally entail a real reaction against the baseline technologies. Or to put it slightly differently, that Facebook has failed to live up to the hopes that people invested in Facebook is taken as proof that there was something wrong with Facebook, not that there was something unwise about putting such faith in technology in the first place. The more hubristic and chauvinistic varieties of techno-optimism provide the space in which most critiques are authorized to take place—but such critiques often take the form of a sort of creative destruction that rips down certain companies to provide the space for the cause of techno-optimism to be seized by a new company or technology. Lost faith in social media? How about putting that faith in the blockchain? Lost faith in the blockchain? How about putting that faith in electric vehicles? Lost faith in electric vehicles? How about putting that faith in glasses with a built in computer?
When techno-chauvinistic claims fail to deliver, techno-optimism is there to catch people’s falling hopes and keep them invested in technological solutions. Without techno-chauvinism, techno-optimism would be too exposed; but without techno-optimism, there would be no techno-chauvinism—as that hubris is what emerges when the underlying optimism has been allowed to take hold. By consistently presenting an exaggerated version of techno-optimism, the more egregious forms of adoration and fealty open up spaces of critique, but in doing so ensure that those critiques get directed at the exaggerations as opposed to at the baseline beliefs that make those exaggerations possible.
Techno-optimism is not left, right, center, or apolitical
Techno-optimism is highly political; however, its politics do not easily fit into the standard ways in which politics are generally discussed. For techno-optimism is not the ideological property and terrain of a single slice of the political spectrum, instead it is a point of view that can be found amongst those holding a range of political beliefs—though it does appear in slightly different forms from group to group. On the political left, techno-optimism often takes the form a critique of the capitalist companies that are seen as warping the potential of technology in the name of capitalism. On the political right, techno-optimism often takes the form of a critique of “woke” or “liberal” tech companies that fail to embrace the full power of technology as a result of employing too many programmers with dyed hair (another way to put this is that right-wing techno-optimism believes that technology’s gains should be used to maintain [and restore] the dominant power structures of the 1950s). What is significant about these left and right critiques is that they train their attention on tech companies while keeping the underlying belief in technology itself unscathed. Or, to put it slightly differently, techno-optimism on the right and the left looks like criticizing Facebook (albeit, for different reasons) but not having much of anything deeper to say about computers or the Internet. Meanwhile, techno-optimism is most fully embraced in the political center wherein faith in technological progress serves as a way of getting around contentious political debates by believing that technology will sort out society’s problems without having to engage with how it is that those problems arose in the first place. The left, right, and center may pin their particular hopes on different specific technologies—but from solar panels, to military machines, technology continues to function as a place in which a range of political hopes are placed.
Obviously, this is something of an oversimplification. It does not truly capture the entirety of the left, or the right, or the center. Nevertheless, a baseline of techno-optimism is detectable across the political spectrum, and it would be foolish to ignore how this view can function across the political spectrum.
Techno-optimism is anti-politics
The belief that technological progress is ultimately going to solve all of our problems, serves to displace the idea that other things will be able to solve those problems. Protests, organizing, labor action, legislation, boycotts, community building—are all methods of pushing for change that appear diminished in the shadow of techno-optimism. Furthermore, to the extent that they still get much mention, it is usually as a way of showing how new technologies have made doing all of those things so much easier. Techno-optimism serves to demobilize pushes for change by shifting the onus off of people organizing and by putting that power in the hands of technology. It isn’t about pushing for the right legislation, it’s about waiting for the right app. It isn’t about building enough political pressure to force action on climate change, it’s about waiting for the right machines that will fix climate change to be invented. In the face of seemingly intractable political challenges that societies are stubborn to address, techno-optimism provides a way of getting around thorny political problems by waiting for technology to come in and save the day. Thus, people stop being members of a society with an obligation to push elected officials, and instead become passive consumers awaiting technological solutions. Political action here becomes captured by the unelected individuals who can build and control the new technologies, leaving the rest with little to do beyond mouth words of encouragement for those technologists. Techno-optimism carries the belief that the better world will be brought not as a result of marching in the streets, and as a result it makes marching in the streets seem unimportant (or as fodder to be shared on social media). Techno-optimism sighs at the slow speed of politics while extolling the speed of technological change, and thus denigrates politics by emphasizing that politics simply can’t keep up.
Of course, this does not mean that people have stopped marching in the streets, have stopped organizing at work, or that they have stopped calling the offices of their elected officials. What it means is that social progress is seen as being in a rut by the side of the road, and thus hopes shift to technological forces that are speeding ahead.
Techno-optimism likes to act as though it is under siege
A resolute hopeful flame in the midst of encroaching, thickening darkness. A lone tower beset upon all sides by hordes of mournful zombies. A defiant commitment to progress in a world overcome by the forces of reaction. Those are the ways that techno-optimism frequently likes to present itself: as though it is the view held by some besieged, but noble, minority. And by trying to play defense, by trying to make itself out to be the victim, techno-optimism shifts attention off of its own dominance. Thus, techno-optimism can claim a sort of rebellious almost countercultural sheen, even as it remains the viewpoint coursing through pretty much every major corporation, tech publication, elected official’s office, and most works of mass culture. It is an impressive bit of theater in which the occasional critical op-ed is treated as a sign of rising anti-technology sentiment even as that same publication’s Technology section continues to fawn over every new smartphone. While it is certainly the case that there are social critics who train their critiques on technology, one should be wary about overstating the influence of such figures. Throughout much of the twentieth century those figures were alternately ignored, mocked as prophets of doom, or tarred with the epithet “Luddite.” And when such a critic occasionally bubbled up from within the halls of computer science, they were turned into pariahs. Insofar as high-tech machines have come to play a more prominent role in daily life, it should not be surprising that social critics of technology have also multiplied; however, it is easy to overstate the influence of such works. The last ten years have seen numerous excellent works of technology criticism released (for general readers and more scholarly audiences), but techno-optimism has remained strong (even if techno-chauvinism has occasionally been diminished). Indeed, in far too many works that frame themselves as critical a reader still encounters the author stating that they consider themselves to be a techno-optimist. Yet regardless of the actual impact of works of critique, techno-optimism enjoys acting as though it is on the defense, which is an effective way of hiding the extent to which techno-optimism is just the taken for granted viewpoint.
In recent years techno-optimism has embraced a new strategy for dealing with critiques: to capture and control those critiques. Thus films like The Social Dilemma seize the cultural space of critique and make sure that the loudest voices are former tech company employees who remain earnest in their techno-optimism. It is the perfect solution: techno-optimism can point to the existence of The Social Dilemma as proof that it is under siege, even as The Social Dilemma hands the reigns of criticism to individuals professing their fealty to techno-optimism.
Techno-optimism is stasis disguised as progress
At moments when social progress seems stuck, technology can provide an appealing alternative. After all, real progress on serious social issues can be slow and filled with backsliding, but over the last ten years the Playstation really has gotten better. To a large extent we find ourselves treading water, but the flashy gadgets affixed to our life preserver keep getting more impressive…even if we still find ourselves in this cold water. Techno-optimism keeps us waiting: waiting for the next iteration of a device, waiting for the next “big” gadget, waiting for the next update, waiting for the download, waiting for the tech company that will finally get it right, waiting for the technology that will finally fix the problems that have (up to now) proven impervious to easy technological fixes. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. But as long as we get to partake in technologies moving through their iterations, we get to feel as if we are moving as well. If our smartphone has moved ahead, than surely this means that we have moved ahead with it, because it is our smartphone, right? And that new smartphone might be a bit faster, it might have a better camera, it might work as an appealing status symbol, but where you were (where we were) with this new smartphone model is not particularly different from where we were with the previous smartphone model.
The history of technology certainly demonstrates that there have been moments throughout history when technological shifts have made large significant changes. Though careful historians have worked diligently to emphasize that, contrary to popular narratives, those shifts were rarely immediate and usually interwoven with a host of social/political/economic changes. Nevertheless, techno-optimism keeps people waiting for that next big technological leap forward. The hopeful confidence in that big technological jump, which is surely just around the corner, keeps us sitting patiently as things remain largely the same (or steadily get worse). Faced with serious challenges that our politics seem incapable of addressing, and which technological change have so far been able to miraculously solve, techno-optimism keeps the focus centered on the idea of an eventual technological solution. And most importantly this is a change that will mean that we do not need to do much, we do not need to act, we do not need to be willing to change, we just need to wait and eventually the technology will come along that will do it all for us.
And so we wait. And so we keep waiting, for technology to come along and save us from ourselves.