Today I want to recommend a follow-up post from Jones' blog ridiculing what I have called "accelerationalism" in current tech-discourses in which metaphors of speed re-frame and rationalize disastrous policy proposals and the dreary history that results from them. And so, for example, very longstanding and completely familiar right-wing efforts to loot, privatize, and deregulate public goods are now described as "disruption," as though it is the fierce innovative energies unleashed by entrepreneurial techbro brains are subliming away pesky barriers to progress through the sheer force of their momentum. And as I put the point in The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change, "the 'accelerating change' crowed about for the last two decades by futurologists in pop religious cadences and by more mainstream and academic New Media commentators in pop sociology cadences has never had any substantial reference apart from the increasing precarity produced by neoliberal looting and destabilization of domestic welfare and global economies -- often facilitated, it is true, by the exploitation of digital trading, marketing, and surveillance networks -- a precarity usually seen and experienced from the vantage of privileged people who either benefit from neoliberal destabilization or who (rightly or wrongly) identify with the beneficiaries of that destabilization."
There is nothing more commonplace than marketing firms that re-package failed and stale products and features as "exciting" and "new" via ad-copy in order to invest them with phony excitement and seductiveness. What consumer has not learned to be leery at the sticker slapped on some tired commodity declaring it "New And Improved"? It is in this spirit that I think we should apprehend the paradoxical emergence of a narrative of "accelerating change" and even "acceleration of acceleration" at a time when the furniture of everyday life and the quality of life more generally has been more static than not. As Eduardo Porter put the point in a recent review in the New York Times:
Take a look back at some of the most popular TV programs of the mid-1960s -- “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” even “The Beverly Hillbillies” -- and what do you see? Like today, middle-class Americans typically had washing machines and air-conditioning, telephones and cars. The Internet and video games were not yet invented. But life, over all, did not look that different. There were TVs and radios in most homes. Millions of people worked in downtown offices and lived in suburbs, connected by multilane highways. Americans’ average life expectancy at birth was 70, only eight years less than it is today [and the lived experience of life expectancy at retirement age was even less different, inasmuch as these statistics reflect most dramatically changes in survival in infancy and from childhood diseases -- I must remind, d].In a post published today at Soft Machines, Richard Jones derides Davos discourse promoting a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution" and the "Exponential" technology-driven change presumably "disrupting" the linear history preceding it. Jones writes:
But flash back 50 years earlier. Then, less than half the population lived in cities. Though Ford Model T’s were starting to roll off the assembly line, Americans typically moved around on horse-drawn buggies on dirt or cobblestone roads. Refrigerators or TVs? Most homes weren’t even wired for electricity. And average life expectancy was only 53... Has technological progress slowed for good? The idea that America’s best days are behind us sits in sharp tension with the high-tech optimism radiating from the offices of the technology start-ups and venture capital firms of Silicon Valley...
The World Economic Forum at Davos provides a reliable barometer of conventional wisdom amongst the globalised elite, so it’s interesting this year that, amidst all the sage thoughts on refugee crises, collapsing commodity prices and world stock market gyrations, there’s concern about the economic potential and possible dislocations from the fourth industrial revolution we are currently, it seems widely agreed, at the cusp of. This is believed to arise from the coupling of the digital and material worlds, through robotics, the “Internet of Things”, 3-d printing, and so on, together with the development of artificial intelligence to the point where it can replace the skill and judgement of highly educated and trained workers... all that this illustrates is the bleeding of transhumanist rhetoric into the mainstream that I criticise in my ebook Against Transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence. It’s a wish that some people have, that technologies will allow them to transcend the limitations of their human nature (and most notably, the limitation of mortality).Jones concludes that he is "optimistic about the potential of technology" and distinguishes his view from that of pessimistic writers like Tyler Cowen "that slow technological progress is inevitable because we’ve already taken the 'low hanging fruit.'" I must say that I am ambivalent about these prospects myself. This will surprise critics who are quick to deride my critiques as "negative" "pessimistic" "anti-imagination" "deathist" and "luddism" and the rest -- but needless to say I reject the premise that there is anything the least bit positive, optimistic, productive, life-affirming, or techscientifically realistic about wish-fulfillment fantasizing, con-artistry, or pseudo-science. I will say this: Innovation arises from ongoing public investments in education, infrastructural affordances, specific programs of research, attention to bottlenecks that offer up no immediately profitable applications. Progress -- and since progress is a moral and political concept I must actually specify, as few who extol progress ever do, that, for example, as a advocate of democracy and ecology I personally define progress as progress in the direction of ever more sustainable, consensual, flourishing equity-in-diversity -- arises from the ongoing struggle to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes are equitably distributed to all the stakeholders of that change by their lights. This matters, because it reminds us that both innovation and progress are social and political in their substance, far from determined by the technical specifications of a particular scientific discovery or instrumental application. Being "optimistic about the potential of [this or that] technology" is neither here nor there -- flourishing requires democracy quite as much as it does discovery, emancipation is a matter of equitable distribution quite as much as it does technical delivery.
Given the current state of plutocratic wealth concentration, the resulting disintegration of democratic participation and accountability, and the disastrous and destabilizing neoliberal precarization of the lives of the overabundant majority of people on the planet I am not sure that it is responsible to be too optimistic about our potential to invest in innovation and ensure progressive equity-in-diversity whatever the genius of our collective problem-solving genius. Optimism too readily invites acquiescence, especially in an epoch in which techoscience is invested with the reactionary imperial cadences of manifest destiny. To ensure innovation and progress the last thing we need to be doing is celebrating celebrity tech CEOs who are little more than skim-and-scam artists or indulging in uncritical consumer lifestyles and commodity fandoms expecting to purchase our way to Tech Heaven as wage slaves without rights or hope assemble our gizmos as our aquifers dry, our soil shatters into sand, our shorelines and skylines are smashed by angry waves, our atmosphere shrieks and swells with greenhouse storms and landfills rise like mountains of toxic smoking sludge leaching poisons into the dying land.
On the other hand, the ruins of neoliberal feudalism are evident everywhere, and organized resistances to the self-serving free market and austerian pieties of incumbent elites keep emerging in country after country, election after election, uprising after uprising. As the shocks of climate catastrophe imperil urban enclaves, devastate private insurance, destabilize nation-states it may be that the circumstances may be ripe for a turning of the anti-democratizing tide, our polities may rediscover the indispensability of commonwealth and our intelligence may be provoked from complacency into ardor just as public investment in that intelligence rises to meet us where we are. I certainly do not agree any more than Jones does with those who posit there is some structural phenomenon that made discovery long seem too easy and now too hard. Although there is some justice in the suggestion that superiority of so-called Western modernity was little more than a vast bubble blown up by non-renewable energy extraction and waste within which economic history was a sequence of convulsive bubble-chapters and recovery-chapters within that bubble culminating in the bubble-bursting chaos of anthropogenic climate catastrophe, the truth is that the building of sustainable energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure could readily be the incubator of new innovation, new employment, new flourishing, new progress. A host of dis-eases and dis-abilities likewise seem susceptible of therapeutic remedy given sufficient investment in research and the political will to ensure universal access. What will pass as "low hanging fruit" for technological progress is determined less by physics than by social and political preparation. I daresay Tyler Cowen may suggest otherwise not least because he is an apologist for and therefore needs an alibi for the neoliberal economic policies which seem to me the likelier culprit for our current technoscientific malaise.
As Jones puts the point in his own conclusion,
Technological progress continues, in some areas it moves fast, in other areas it moves much more slowly, despite our society’s most pressing needs. Which technologies move fast, and which we neglect and allow to stagnate, are the results of the political and social choices we make, often tacitly. We might make better choices if our discussions of technology weren’t conducted entirely in terms of tired clichés.I am not sure we can avoid all the cliches when we seek to narrativize the quandaries of our historical moment as we must -- after all, all the talk of accelerating acceleration of acceleration notwithstanding, there is really nothing new under the sun where questions of the human condition are concerned, including the contingency of history and the shock of the unexpected that mock our expectations and our plans and keep things so very interesting while we are alive together in the living world -- but I would rephrase Jones' point in a way that retains its spirit by simply proposing instead that we take care our discussions of technology (or more to the point the politics that enable and shape its vicissitudes) aren't conducted in terms of inapt frames: chief among these I would note are narratives of autonomous artifacts, historical determination, scientistic reduction, manifest destiny, and the pining after certainty, absolute control, overcoming finitude or, in Jones' own phrase, delusions of transcendence.