LibrarianShipwreck

"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Theses on Technological Pessimism

We fly over the mountains
As though there was nothing to it
Great are the works of humans!
But bread for all?
We can’t do it.
Child, ask why
Can we not feed the hungry.
– Brecht

When things are going well, pessimists are safely exiled to society’s fringes. There they can grumble and grouse to their curmudgeonly hearts’ content, without their dire predictions being acknowledge as anything other than laughable doom-saying. However, when things are going badly, the sackcloth clad scions of Cassandra and Jonah return, hoping that perhaps now their warnings will be heard. Optimism may be the reigning force, but whenever it slips up it finds itself contending with the opposing ism.

Lest there be any doubt, in the present moment it is a bit of a challenge to genuinely argue that things are going well. And in this moment hope towards the future is consistently shaken. In many areas progress seems to be sputtering, and many hard-won gains seem as though they are being rolled back. Looking towards the future, it seems that regress has usurped the power of progress. Yet if there is one area where progress still seems visible, it is in the technological sphere. Social and political and economic forces may all seem to be marching backwards, but technology continues to promise that a better life is only a couple of updates and iterations away. Though techno-optimism is by no means a new factor today, it is a belief that can take hold even more strongly in moments when it is hard to feel optimistic about much else. And yet even as techno-optimism underscores a range of attitudes and ideas, that it is the dominant view does not mean that it is the only view. Though techno-optimism is fairly good at banishing the technological pessimists to the hinterlands, it can never quite fully silence their voices.

Continuing in the same spirit as previous commentary on techno-optimism, what follows is an attempt to consider some of the aspects and implications of technological pessimism. It is an attitude that is far less prevalent than techno-optimism, and one which is generally caricatured by techno-optimists, yet as a parallel and response to techno-optimism it also deserves scrutiny.

Technological pessimism is heresy in high-tech societies

At the most basic level, technological pessimism represents an oppositional stance towards one of the dominant attitudes in many contemporary societies. Insofar as societies pin their future hopes on technological advancement, and often treat technological progress as being synonymous with social progress, technological pessimism functions as an unwelcome retort.

Whereas technology has largely come to fill the role of the god that saves, and technology’s high priests have eagerly shouted this “good news” to one and all, technological pessimism comes across as an attack on this faith—it ridicules the vestments of the high priests, and declares the machine to be a false god, while failing to elevate a new priestly caste or object of worship itself. The battle for supremacy between the tech companies has created a situation wherein people are used to seeing various companies (and their CEOs) bickering with one another; however, when Elon Musk replaces Mark Zuckerberg (who had himself replaced Steve Jobs) as the pope of the church of technology, the basic object of worship remains technological. The challenge that technological pessimism presents is that it does not direct its ire at a particular branch of the church of technology (Facebook or Google or Tesla or etc…) but instead calls the actual god into question. And it is this that makes technological pessimism so troublesome. Even the popular technology press can no longer escape acknowledging that there are genuine problems with various tech companies, but the average popular criticism of Facebook will still fall short of framing Facebook’s problems as being a result of the underlying societal attitudes towards technology.

Or to put it another way, a particular tech company (or a particular CEO) can be criticized without it offering much of a challenge to the dominant faith in technology. Indeed, the periodic tearing down of one pasty-faced executive is an important step in the process of creative destruction through which faith in technology restores itself. The threat posed by technological pessimism is that it attempts to alter the grounds of debate. No longer are the likes of Zuckerberg and Musk flawed-but-pure-hearted-geniuses (like Marvel’s Tony Stark), they are instead reduced to lucky men who had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time and who are now desperately trying to control rampaging forces that have slipped out of their control.

Technological pessimism is not satisfied with noting that technology’s high priests have no clothes, it is more concerned with the technological god being worshiped.       

Technological pessimism is more concerned with beliefs about technology than it is with specific technology

Scratch its surface and it becomes apparent fairly rapidly that most technological pessimism has less to do with technology than it may initially appear. Of course, the objects and systems that are held up for critique may be clearly technological, but the goals of the critiques are to pierce deeper. Technological pessimism is social critique disguised as technological critique. Thus, what may appear as a tirade against nuclear weapons can most fully be understood as a tirade against the dangerous union of military and industry, what may look like a woebegone assessment of the technological forces exacerbating climate change can best be understood as a way of discussing the economic drives that led to the particular technological status, and commentary on social media platforms has less to do with retweets and likes than it has to do with an attempt to describe what happens to a society that becomes fixated on retweets and likes. Of course, technological pessimism is largely about technology (it’s right there in the name!); however, directing attention to a technology that appears at the surface level is a way of getting at deeper issues.

Whereas technological optimism focuses its hopes on the idea that technology provides an easy way of getting around complex social/historical/economic/political challenges, technological pessimism bases its dread in an understanding that complex social/historical/economic/political challenges cannot be instantly solved by new technology. Furthermore, technological pessimism draws attention to the myriad ways in which, far from being a panacea for social/historical/economic/political issues, new technologies have a tendency to reify and deepen these already existing problems. Rather than acting as though new technologies spring miraculously fully formed from the heads of benevolent Silicon Valley tinkerers (who had no history prior to unveiling the new gadget), technological pessimism fixates on the ways in which the technologies a society produces tend to be reflections of the social/historical/economic/political forces already at work in those societies. This can certainly box technological pessimists in, making it so that they are unable to perceive the ways in which the affordances of certain technologies can potentially challenge those powerful forces, but it maintains a starting point at which the assumption is that new technologies create a perception of change while simultaneously preserving the dominant relationships in a society.

Technological pessimism has much to say about the specific problems with particular technologies, but beneath the discussion of facial-recognition software operates an attempt to draw attention less to the technology itself and more to the ways in which this particular technology is a manifestation of, and will be used in order to, strengthen the already powerful forces in a society.   

Like Toto in Oz, technological pessimism looks for “the man behind the curtain”

Technology does not “just happen.” Certainly, the crowd pleasing mythologies that tech companies like to spin often focus on serendipitous moments that led to something suddenly appearing fully formed in the mind of a programmer, engineer, or executive, but the history of technology is not one in which a person goes for a walk in the woods and discovers the laptop or the helicopter or the [insert whatever complex technology you like] sitting there waiting for them. The process by which technologies come into being is often a slow iterative process, frequently involving large teams of people who work on particular challenges with particular goals in mind. The stories that we are told about technological development in popular movies and high school textbooks sing the praises of the “eureka!” moments of lone inventors, but when we truly consider the history of many of the most significant technologies surrounding us the story looks a lot more like massive government investment flowing to a wide variety of individuals with much of this money producing relatively little of worth even as a couple of very well-publicized successes make it all seem worthwhile. This is not the time or place to fully recount the history of computer machinery (or the Internet), suffice to say the public version of that story could benefit from less focus on computer sages like Steve Jobs and more focus on the origins of computers systems like SAGE.

Technological forces, particularly powerful and complex technological forces, have a tendency to present themselves like a floating head surrounded by flames, speaking in a booming voice. These technologies appear mighty and complex, and cloak themselves behind arcane technical language that makes them appear unknowable except to a select few. Yet, technological pessimism, draws attention the ways in which behind the curtain you can usually find a man (or a bunch of men) pulling the switches.

Here technological pessimism often works to shift the attention off of the technology itself and onto the human beings who are behind the technology. When it comes to technology it can pretty much never be claimed that “it had to be this way,” instead it “is this way” as a result of the decisions that were made by particular people. These are not mystical, unknowable, reasons that can only be understood by a sagacious high priesthood, rather they have a tendency to be banal choices made by people who were interested in maximizing profit or fulfilling a government contract or just taking the quickest route to make sure that something would work. Granted, in many cases the answer to the question “why is it like this?” turns up a distressing answer insofar as the humans who were creating a certain thing just couldn’t be bothered to fully think through the potential implications.

The “good news” of technology is something that technological pessimism refuses to accept at face value, and as a result technological pessimism has a tendency to look for the human faces behind it.

Manifestations of technological pessimism reveal the anxieties of the particular moment in which they occur

Throughout much of the twentieth century the force that generated the greatest sustained outpouring of technological pessimism was concern regarding nuclear weapons. The sense that humanity had achieved godlike power without developing a similar level of responsibility fueled a sentiment that even if humanity were not to destroy itself with these weapons of awesome might, that the very existence of these weapons still meant that humanity now found itself in a changed world. And that was a world in which the survival of the species, and the survival of civilization, operated forevermore under the shadow of the destructive force of humanity’s technological achievements. As a particular set of technologies on which to fixate, nuclear weapons provided thinkers with a robust set of reasons for dread. For nuclear weapons represented technologies at the zenith of techno-scientific research, as the arms race meant that new developments in these technologies were constantly being pursued. To many people, the arrival of these weapons could be seen as representing a clear dividing line between the past and the present, and many people worried that the calamitous potential of these weapons quickly became normalized. After all, there might have been some military planners and defense intellectuals who argued that a nuclear war would not truly result in the destruction of all life…but even the optimistic predictions that one side could win a nuclear war were still couched in predictions of total annihilation of the other. Thus, nuclear weapons were a perfect foil for technological pessimism: a clear technological threat, to which more and more people gradually came to be inured. Furthermore, the fact that a nuclear war (thankfully) never occurred did little to genuinely diminish the underlying point: that should such an even happen the results of this technologically heightened conflict would be catastrophic.

Granted, in the twenty-first century we don’t hear quite as much about nuclear weapons. This is not to say that the danger has ceased to exist. Indeed, these weapons are still sitting in their silos, and the destructive power of many of these weapons is still mighty. And yet, they are no longer the object of technological anxieties du jour.

All of which is to say, technological pessimism largely responds to the prominent technologies of the day in which the particular manifestations of technological pessimism can be found. Post-Cold War the technologies that have occupied the center of technological pessimism tend to be the vast web of technologies that fall under the broad heading of information technologies (computers, the Internet, smartphones, social networks, and so forth). Though much technological pessimism also focuses its attention on the ways in which the climate crisis has been driven by technological forces. Importantly, this is not to suggest that no one cares about nuclear weapons anymore, nor for that matter is it to say that the technological pessimists of the mid-twentieth century were only concerned about nuclear weapons. It is essential to note that the technological pessimists of the mid-twentieth century wrote/spoke/argued extensively about the then nascent “computer dominated society,” technologically driven consumerism, and the ways that new media technologies threatened to undermine society. Nevertheless, in any particular historic moment, the particular technologies about which there is the most easily detectable manifestations of technological pessimism are going to be those about which there is already an ambient level of social concern and social awareness.  

Technological pessimism and Luddism are not the same thing

Those who give voice to technologically pessimistic views quickly become accustomed to having their critiques met with accusations of “Luddite.” After all, the accusation that any criticism means that one is an enemy to any and all technology, that you really want everyone to go back to living in caves, and that you really just want to pull out a sledgehammer and smash the machines—are the types of popular retorts that blunt any criticism of technology by absurdly attacking the maker of the critiques instead of the content of those critiques. And there is no term of derision that a techno-optimistic society likes to hurl about more than “Luddite.” To be absolutely clear, the history of the Luddites is an important one to study, and the Luddite risings need to be placed into a broader history of “collective bargaining by riot” (to borrow Hobsbawm’s phrase). The Luddites were not a legion of uninformed fools, rather they were an assembly of skilled workers who resisted machinery not because they were opposed to all machinery but rather attacked specific machines in specific contexts because they recognized that these machines were to be used to destroy their standard of living. Or, to put it plainly, the Luddites were workers protecting their livelihoods. There have been many attempts throughout the years (including currently) to reclaim the mantel of the Luddites and to restore the Luddites to a place of honor in the history of labor—and such efforts are to be cheered.

Luddism is an important tendency in the intersection between labor history, the history of technology, and broader history. And Luddism may well be a potentially powerful force for resistance, but Luddism is not exactly the same thing as technological pessimism. Some individuals may find that their own beliefs can accommodate some mixture of both—as they are not fundamentally opposed beliefs—but they are not synonymous.

Granted, the problem here is largely related to the way in which the meaning of “Luddism” has become somewhat difficult to easily define at a point in time at which many different groups have sought to claim Luddism as their own. With a further complication lingering in the background being those who try to carefully use the term Luddism only to describe a particular set of ideas and beliefs held by specific people in a specific moment. Suffice to say, at risk of oversimplification, many manifestations of Luddism tend to be focused on technology as a site for labor and political struggles. Those who would fly the standard of General Ludd often emphasize that the Luddites were not opposed to technology (as such), but they were opposed to certain technologies being used in a way that all of the benefits flowed to the bosses instead of the workers. It is an indelicate point to make, but in many ways Luddism is technologically optimistic, for it often posits that the problem is not the technology itself but those who are in control of the technology. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Luddites have been appealing to many left-wing thinkers is the way in which they represent a legacy that asks “what if the machines were controlled by the workers, and used to benefit their lives instead of simply enriching the factory owners?” Even as technological pessimism pays attention to economic conditions, and recognizes the ways in which it matters who is in control of the machinery, technological pessimism takes an attitude wherein sometimes the problem really is the machinery. For technological pessimism, who runs the machines (and to what end) matters, but there are also cases where there are certain technologies that are themselves the problem regardless of who is using them. Of course, there are certain strands of Luddism that do advance exactly this argument (Winner’s “epistemological Luddism” seems to fit nicely into such a category), but not all of them.

Luddism and technological pessimism can peacefully coexist in a single mind and a single heart, but in discussions over what to do with certain technologies there is a not insignificant difference between saying “the workers need to run it” and saying “we need to dismantle it completely.”   

For the most part, technological pessimism (and technological pessimists) would rather be called something else

Generally speaking, people don’t like to be accused of being pessimistic. There is a cultural bias (at least in the US) in favor of positivity, thinking hopefully, and believing that tomorrow will be better than today. We are told to smile more, not to frown more. Airport bookshelves are filled with bestsellers encouraging people to think how lucky they are to be alive today, with works pushing people to live their best lives, and jeremiads that success can be yours if you are just willing to master these seven habits! Such optimism is not only the domain of cloying books and social media posts that earn eye-rolls from the world-weary. Narratives that frame history as a story of slow (fragile) progression, council hope and warn against despair. While pessimism is framed as the great foe of activist movements and struggles insofar as it is thought that a pessimistic attitude leads to apathy and lethargy. Or, to put it bluntly, pessimists make bad party guests, they make bad dates, and they tend to make people feel bad by suggesting that things aren’t going to work out for the best. We are smart enough to scoff at the excessive optimism of the Panglosses of the world, but most of us would still rather share a drink with Pangloss than with someone who holds the complete opposite views.

In other words, technological pessimism (and technological pessimists) tend not to identify themselves as technological pessimists or what they are engaging in as technological pessimism. For the mere invocation of “pessimism” is often enough to cause other people to stop listening, and because those who mention pessimism quickly tire of the Gramscian retort that pessimism of the intellect is all well and fine just so long as they remember to maintain optimism of the will. Perhaps this is why so many technological pessimists prefer to use the more anodyne descriptor of “critic,” for that is an umbrella term that can so comfortably include different viewpoints without resulting in immediate pigeon holing. The terms we use to define ourselves often become the terms that others use to box us in, and technological pessimists are right to worry that the “pessimist” label draws attention to their negative critiques while ignoring the positive elements of their views. You can be pessimistic about technology, but optimistic about social movements. You can be pessimistic about consumer gadgets, but be optimistic about cultures of repair and reuse. And you can be pessimistic about “authoritarian technologies,” while still being optimistic about “democratic technologies.”

As it is not a clearly defined ideology (you can’t really point to a manifesto for this), technological pessimism is a label that many individuals remain hesitant to genuinely embrace. This is not to castigate or ridicule individuals who would rather not call themselves, or what they do, technological pessimism—rather it is to note the simple fact that in cultures where techno-optimism is a belief system that permeates across the public and political spectrum, it isn’t really a surprise that people would prefer not to call themselves technological pessimists.   

While technological pessimism is thoroughly political, it does not easily fit into “left” or “right”

Placing technological pessimism into the quadrant map of political beliefs is not an easy task. As a viewpoint that tends to be skeptical of the idea of progress, it might seem that technological pessimism is a right-wing set of beliefs. As a viewpoint that tends to focus on the way in which technological systems retrench already existing power relations, it might seem that technological pessimism is a left-wing set of beliefs. That technological pessimism worries about the way that technology has despoiled the planet—exacerbating climate change, and with the environmental cost being born most heavily by those who do not get to enjoy the benefits of these technologies, it might seem that technological pessimism is a left-wing set of beliefs. To the extent that this same level of environmental concern (matched as it often is with a certain pining for an idealized past of fewer machines) can devolve into a sort of romanticism, it might seem that technological pessimism leans to the right. And that technological pessimism dares to suggest that all is not well in the world, makes it quite clear that it does not belong to the political center.

Technology is a site of political contestation. And being the ideology that claims technology is much more complex than being the ideology that claims social media. At the present moment forces on the political left and forces on the political right are united in turning a distrustful gaze towards certain tech platforms out of Silicon Valley—but both political wings remain committed to being the side that can best steward technology. It is hard to easily fit technological pessimism into the left or into the right, but techno-optimism is a tendency that is on full display on the left, right, and in the center. As the dominant attitude towards technology, techno-optimism is a stance that left, right, and center all want to claim. After all, techno-optimism is what gives regular people the promise that they will be able to partake in the pleasure and privileges of technological advancement, and political forces on the left, right, and center all want to be the bestowers of those benefits. Couched in techno-optimism: the left puts forth a vision in which technological progress can be used to more equitably distribute power and the plenty created by technological systems; the right puts forth a vision in which technological progress can be used to maintain the power and authority of the dominant power groups (who it views as the only ones who can truly command technology), and the center holds the view that steady technological advancement is the best way of maintaining the delicate balance where the ship keeps sailing (without improving conditions in steerage). Technological pessimism does not fit in particularly easy here.

There is nothing apolitical about technological pessimism, but in a world in which most politics are infused with techno-optimism, it is impossible to easily shoehorn technological pessimism into one side of the political perspective. It may well be that the core focus on a critique of power (and the desire to center human beings) pushes technological pessimism towards the left, but goodness knows the last thing that many leftists want to be accused of is being pessimistic about technology.   

There is a danger that technological pessimism can easily tilt into technological determinism

Simply defined, technological determinism is the belief that “technology drives history.” This is an idea that is not the property of any single group or ideology. Indeed, this sort of attitude towards technology is one that can be widely detected amongst a variety of groups in the world today as well as in the past. Granted, one often stumbles across a sort of crass technological determinism whenever one encounters headlines that say that a certain technology “will” do something in the next five years, that a certain technology “is” inevitable, or when the market juicing comments of a CEO regarding their companies next big product are echoed uncritically. Nevertheless, the basic idea of technological determinism is that technology is the autonomous conductor and it is driving this train speedily down iron tracks that are going in one very particular direction. Technological optimists have a tendency to believe that those tracks are going to take the passengers sitting in the cabin cars to a utopia of technological plenty, while technological pessimists have a tendency to believe that those tracks are going to take the passengers to either a high-tech dystopia of mass-produced distractions that hide authoritarian surveillance or a desolate wasteland.

Technological pessimism may seek to maintain a more critical attitude towards technology, basing much of its critique in a barbed response to the idea that technological forces are inevitably going to lead to paradise…but in the process technological pessimism can fall victim to the flipside of this same sort of idea of inevitability. With the main difference being that where technological optimists think that the high-tech paradise is inevitable, technological pessimists think that the wasteland is inevitable.

Vitally, this is not to claim that all technological pessimism (or all technological optimism) falls victim to technological determinism, but this is a major risk. Technological pessimism often draws attention to the complexity and contingency that can be found in the history of technology; however, sometimes this flexibility vanishes in order to suggest that certain technologies have made certain results inevitable. Granted, a major feature of much technological pessimism is to draw attention to the ways in which many technological systems have been constructed to be deterministic. The retort could take the form of saying that “it isn’t technological determinism to highlight the ways in which certain technologies have been designed to remake society in their own images.” And here technological pessimists could point to the ways in which a world in which nuclear weapons exists is one in which massive technical/political/economic/bureaucratic systems have been developed, and must be maintained, in order to oversee this technological order. Or, on a less apocalyptic note, the ways in which mass computerization eventually reaches a point at which participating in society requires individuals to make use of these technological systems (whether they like it or not). When a society reaches a point that it becomes a sign of privilege to opt out of a particular technology, it is usually a fairly decent sign of how that technology is playing a determining role in society. Thus, technological pessimism responds to charges of technological determinism by drawing attention to the ways in which technologies, as they grow in power, come to remake societies in their own technological image.

Noting the ways in which technologies, and large technological systems can themselves be deterministic is doubtless an important point, and a thorny matter with which to contend. And while much technological pessimism attempts to avoid the pitfalls of simplistic technological determinism, moments of frustration can easily give rise to treating as inevitable that which has not been carved into steel.

Technology is not itself the conductor, different humans in the engine car could still switch the tracks, or agitated passengers could still pull the emergency brake, and none can say with complete certainty if that haze in the distance is steam from the baths or smoke from the ruins.

The dominant tone of technological pessimism is one of disappointment

It is impossible to look at the state of technology in the twenty-first century and not admit that technology has attained an impressive level of power. Lest there be any doubt, one can be impressed without falling in love, one can be awed without being converted, and one can recognize the might of a technological achievement while still wondering if the world would have been better off had this achievement never occurred. Twentieth century critics of technology gazed in horror at the mushroom clouds, fearing that humanity had attained godlike power without achieving the godlike wisdom necessary to wield this power, but they could not deny that those mushroom clouds represented a stunning techno-scientific breakthrough. That technological achievements often serve to entrench the status quo rather than genuinely turning the world upside down, does not mean that one cannot (or that one should not) acknowledge the significance of many technological feats. One of the great appeals of techno-optimism is that it seizes on the opportunity to say “isn’t this cool?” and then offer people the promise of having a share in that excitement. If technological pessimism is nothing more than a sneering cynicism that “actually that thing isn’t cool” than it ceases to be a critical mode of analysis and simply becomes a variety of hipsterism.

More than anything else, what runs through technological pessimism is the impression of waste.

It is precisely the recognition of the power and feats of technological systems that gives rise to technological pessimism. For technological pessimism beholds the ingenuity and resources expended in the creation of these systems and shudders at the way this technological power is used. Technological pessimism is born out of a profound disappointment with the real world of technology, it is a reaction to the ways in which these technologies actually manifest and actually work in the world. Whereas technological optimism is always fantasizing about how some speculative technology (that is just around the corner) will change things for the better – technological pessimism is present minded and sits with the unsatisfactory reality of what those once hyped technologies become. It is the sense that greatness has come to nothing, and the sense that what could transform the world for the better keeps being used to maintain things largely as they are. One needs expend no energy thinking about things that have little impact on the world, and technology is worth thinking about precisely because it does have such an impact on the world. And what animates technological pessimism is the sense that this potential is just piling more shiny garbage into an already overflowing dump.

Yet technological pessimism is not the same thing as despair. You seldom hear from those who have genuinely been claimed by despair, because once you’ve given up there’s not really much point in arguing your perspective any longer. Though it might seem strange to suggest, coursing through technological pessimism is a fervent hope. This is the hope that things need not continue as they are, a hope that things are not bound to be a particular way, though this hope is checked by a disabused notion of progress that recognizes that there is no guarantee that things will get better on their own. Technological pessimists are pessimistic about technology, it does not mean that they are unable to be optimistic about other things in the world.

Technological pessimism looks at the technological world and sees wasted potential. But that technological pessimism looks at the technological world and still sees potential speaks to a hope that things could be different. That things could be better.   

Coda – Techno-optimism is a comedy, technological pessimism is a tragedy

Near the end of Italo Calvino’ novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a character states:

“In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests the hero and the heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

While techno-optimism and technological pessimism are belief systems that influence the way we interact with the world, they are both at base about stories. For all of their fixation on particular technologies, techno-optimism and technological pessimism both have as much to do with the stories we tell about technology as they do with actual technologies. And while it is overly simplistic to attempt to argue that techno-optimism and technological pessimism can be reduced to the classic split between comedy and tragedy—we can at least say that comedy and tragedy set the tone for these particular species of technological response.

Techno-optimism is a comedy. In it the heroes pass the tests that have been laid before them and are able to advance into a marvelous future. Certainly, there were real challenges that had to be overcome to reach the happy end, but what matters is that the challenges were overcome. And looking back at the ordeals, many of which seemed frightening in the moment, they now seem almost amusing. Importantly, here the marriage that takes place at the end is not one that occurs between two human lovers—rather it is the marriage that takes place between the human and technology. The obstacles are defeated so that the hero can “live happily ever after” with their technological object of affection. It is the continuity of life, thanks to technology.

Techno-optimism is a tragedy. In it the heroes slog through an endless ordeal of often meaningless tasks, and no matter how many challenges the heroes emerge from (battered and exhausted) the promised land remains distance—it remains forever fixed in the distance, it is never reached (and if it is, it is quickly revealed not to truly be paradise). Moments of happiness occur, but they are inevitably smashed by the arrival of new difficulties. It is not that the heroes are small, or that they are powerless, or that they are weak, but that the forces arrayed against them never truly relent. All humans are mortal, but this awareness of death is thrown into sharper relief as the heroes confront human creations that seem to have exceeded human powers. For technological pessimism there can be no true union with technology, for it is the ceaseless pursuit of the technological object of affection that condemns the hero. It is the inevitability of death, hastened by technology.  

Real life, and the real world of technology, is too complex to attempt to force it into two opposed narratives. And to the protagonists of the story (and to be clear, you are the protagonist [whether you like it or not] of your own story) it is almost never apparent whether they are a character in a comedy or a tragedy. We can see the road ahead, and we can make out some hazy shapes on the horizon, but where our challenges will take us is not predetermined.

In the end, perhaps the best way to ensure that you wind up in a comedy is to carry within you the awareness that you may be in a tragedy.  

Related Content

Theses on Techno-Optimism

Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, revisited

Theses on Doom-Scrolling

An Island of Reason in the Cyberstream – on Joseph Weizenbaum

Why the Luddites Matter

“Thinking ad pessimum” – Notes Towards a Productive Pessimism

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “Theses on Technological Pessimism

  1. Luciana Musello
    July 21, 2021

    Dear Zachary, thank you for your blog. I was wondering is perhaps you could suggest an introductory reading list on tech criticism. What are some must-read articles, essays or books? Thank you again.

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