Progress isn’t a smorgasbord you can pick or choose from. It’s an all-or-nothing journey that requires us to take risks, make mistakes… [and] ask questions.
We’ve seen it at the Facebook hearings in Washington, the Uber protests in Paris, even in recent newspaper headlines warning us about how technology, social media, the internet (insert as applicable) is damaging everything from our health and democracy to our ability to concentrate and think.
In each instance, there is an underlying sense that the direction technology is taking us – again insert driverless cars, robotics, deep learning or synthetic biology as required – is making us redundant, fragmenting our brains and challenging our humanity.
But as Steven Pinker suggests in his latest book, Enlightenment Now, these fears are very much a part of a bigger shift in which leaders such as Donald Trump openly express disdain and contempt for all things scientific and progressive and which favour a more connected and open world.
But Trump’s rants against everything from climate change to Amazon are just one part of a great leap backwards into a trend that many like Radicals author Jamie Bartlett are referring to as The New Luddism. Across mainland Europe, as recent elections demonstrated, the far right is on the move once more, while in Britain we have a Prime Minister who is happy to vilify immigrants and describe those of us who believe in a more heterogeneous world as ‘citizens of nowhere’.
On a more personal level, I keep running into Reasonable, Guardian-reading People (or RGRPs) like the Centre For Humane Technology’s founder Tristan Harris who believes that connectivity, mobiles and social media are responsible for ‘damaging our mental health, social democracy and our children’. The fact that Harris is Google’s former ‘design ethicist’ is usually cited by our RGRPs as a good reason to give these statements credence – nothing better than a reformed techno-junkie to warn us of the evils of mainlining the online.
Consider the emergence of philosopher John Zerzan’s ‘anarcho-primitive movement’ and you can see why May’s much despised elites, those ‘global citizens of nowhere’ – and I happily include myself in this – are rightly worried that the flame burning brightly in the distance is less likely to be the flame of knowledge, and more likely to be the fiery torches of the loom-burning masses.
The push towards populism is part of it, but a bigger part of it is our own middle-of-the-road liberalism that allows people off the hook when they ‘reasonably’ suggest that technology has gone too far, that progress is too fast. Let’s be clear, lentil-munching won’t save the planet. But science and technology will. The facts speak for themselves: average life expectancy across the world has risen from 31 (18th century) to 71 today, while the proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen by 90%. At the turn of the 20th century women could vote in one country, now there is only one country in which they can’t vote.
Yes, there is still work to be done, but to believe that we can cure cancer, tackle climate change, avert Alzheimer’s or capture the God particle by being cautious and reticent about science and technology isn’t just foolish, it is dangerous, and playing into the hands of those New Luddites who are increasingly using ‘reasonable’ argument to slow the pace of progress or modify its ambitions.
We need to be clear with them (and with ourselves): progress isn’t a smorgasbord you can pick or choose from. It’s an all-or-nothing journey that requires us to take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, certainly, but not to shy away from said answers when those answers require us to think faster and commit quicker.
So the next time you worry about whether technology is making our children stupid, or the world less liveable, consider for a moment how stupid that thought sounds, and then stop thinking it.
For more on why today’s consumers are increasingly questioning our relationship with technology, read our Morality Recoded macrotrend.