Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Utopium Conceit


jimf said...

> One of the many annoying argumentative tics in futurological
> discourse is the one I tend to think of as The Utopium Conceit,
> in which. . . A Single Thing -- some phenomenon, material,
> technique, imagined device -- is applied in turn to Everything,
> and invested with a profitable and prophetic force
> That! Will! Change! Everything!

Funny you should mentioned that. I just read the transcript of
a 1945 broadcast by Olaf Stapledon (in _An Olaf Stapledon Reader_,
edited by Robert Crossley). This came just after the first
atomic bombs were dropped but **before** the "intelligence
explosion"-based "Singularity" talk of the past half century,
but it sounds awfully familiar.

Social Implications of Atomic Power

. . .

Is atomic power to be used so as to bring final disaster, or to
create a new **kind** of world-society. . .? . . .

[I]f the present dangerous corner is turned, and the threatened
atomic war avoided, . . . [w]e shall be plunged into a Second
Industrial Revolution. All our familiar methods of transport and
production will. . . be abandoned in favor of methods
based on atomic power. This will cause immense social changes. . .

As power increases, the possibilities alike of evil and good
are increased. . . [Therefore, e]very child must be afforded
the chance to develop into a splendid man or woman. . .
[T]here must be the best possible food, medical service, education,
and general living conditions; and. . . for all there must
be suitable work and plenty of leisure. . .

[W]e might use atomic power to abolish work altogether, but. . .
[m]en need work as much as leisure, . . . the
right sort of work, and not too much of it. . .
[S]ince our aim must be to turn all workers into aristocrats,
jobs must be planned for the needs of aristocrats. All work
unsuited to aristocrats must be done by the universal slave,
atomic power. . . Atomic power. . . will
gradually abolish all soul-destroying labour, and create a vast
number of new skills and crafts. . .

Atomic power, by greatly reducing normal work hours, should greatly
increase leisure and the ability to use it.

It should also have an immense effect on education. . . [T]he
appalling danger of the wrong use of atomic power may force us at
last to ensure that all men shall be educated to distinguish
between true and false social values. . . [W]hen power is
almost limitless, we shall at last be able to allow to every
individual the chance of a leisurely and liberal education. . .
Atomic power makes it possible to do away with all serious frustration,
and, therefore, to abolish the kind of environment which disposes
the masses to such perverse faiths as Fascism. . .

[D]omestic work will be transformed by labour-saving devices.
Transport by atomic ships, atomic cars, atomic planes, will vastly
increase communications. . . Cities will be rebuilt to ampler
and. . . nobler plans. Mountains, when inconvenient, will
be removed, coastlines changed to suit man's needs, deserts irrigated,
the arctic and antarctic lands warmed for habitation. . .

[W]ith atomic power, scientific research will leap forward.
[D]isease will be abolished, maturity prolonged, maternity
relieved of its excessive burden. Interplanetary travel will become
possible. . . [W]e may breed special types of human
beings to live in the extremely alien conditions of Mars, Venus, and
perhaps Jupiter. . .

What would be the use. . . of these wild ventures? . . .
The only right answer is a religious answer. . .

[T]he true function of atomic power is. . . [use] as a means
for the. . . development of man's spiritual capacity. . .
sensitivity, intelligence, love and
creative action. . . the greatest possible diversity of individuals,
of groups, of peoples, and perhaps of worlds. . .

Wow. That turned out to be a bit of a bust. But. . .
Wait a moment. . . wait a moment. . . Retargeting. . .
Artificial Intelligence! [Nanotechnology!].

Whew! That was close.

jimf said...

The next essay in the same book (_An Olaf Stapledon Reader_)
also contains some familiar rhetoric. Hey -- it may even
turn out to be true, one way or another.

Mankind at the Crossroads (1947)

. . .

I like to think of the career of our species by means of the
image of a river. The obscure source from which the river
sprang, the biological mutations from which _homo sapiens_
originated, lies perhaps as much as half a million years
away in the past. From that point it wanders slowly over a
vast plain. Change in human affairs is incredibly slow.
Tribes rise and fall. Crude techniques are discovered, forgotten,
and discovered again, only to be lost once more. Conditions
in men's childhood are generally much as they will be in his
old age. For hundreds of thousands of years the river wanders
sluggishly hither and thither.

But some mere six thousand years ago the river of human life
reaches a somewhat steeper place. The waters hurry forward
as rapids. Owing to improvements in the methods of production,
there is time and energy to spare for new kinds of activity.
No doubt the majority still spend their years in crippling
toil. Indeed their servitude becomes even more oppressive.
But civilization has begun. For the few, at least,
there is more comfort; for very few, the new ease and leisure
opens up the possibility of the life of the mind.

The hurrying river still accelerates, with the ever-increasing
improvement in the means of production. The world of a man's
old age becomes appreciably different from the world of his
youth. At last, only two or three centuries ago, comes
modern science. The advent of science, seen in the perspective
of man's whole career, is sudden, almost instantaneous, and
catastrophic. The river of human history is in the very act
of plunging over a precipice as a cataract. Change is
immensely accelerated. Today, the world of a man's maturity
is bewilderingly different in kind from the world of his youth.
We live in that moment of history when the turbulent waters
slip over the cliff's edge for perpendicular descent, no
man knows wither. . .

Dale Carrico said...

Reminds me of Richard Rorty's riposte to Alasdair MacIntyre's dismissive summary of liberal society as one in which everybody is reduced to being a manager, a therapist, or a rich aesthete... that this would in fact be utopia so long as everybody gets to be a rich aesthete if and when they want to be. No techno-transcendentalism required, just progressive democratic reform and pragmatic problem-solving.