Famed Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson spent a weekend among the techno-wizards. He has returned to tell the tale.
Ferguson found that the techno-wizards of Silicon Valley were largely optimistic about the future. They are convinced that their new technologies will be able to solve all of the world’s problems.
If you became rich and famous by discovering problem-solving mechanisms called algorithms you can be forgiven for thinking that what’s good for sorting data can be put to work on a larger, more human scale.
Abraham Maslow once said that if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you see the world in terms of data, of bits and bytes, then human beings look like data in search of a solution.
For a techno-wizard that means that it’s not a question of how, but when their algorithms will bring peace and love to the world.
Techno-wizards are visionaries; they refuse to remain mired in the past. If they are young or young at heart they have very little experience with the past. Perhaps they don’t know enough to know how much they don't know, but still ignoring the past and ignoring counsels of despair have paid off for them.
They are young and naïve, but they have been richly rewarded for venturing into worlds that the rest of us never even imagined.
Ferguson finds their optimism cloying. To a sophisticated historian anyone who sees human history as a mountain of data waiting to be managed does not see the world as it is.
On the other hand, cognitive psychologists value optimism. They believe that people are better off being optimistic about the future. Seeing the future as a problem to be solved is better than seeing it as something we need to endure.
Ferguson explains how the techno-wizards are going to solve the world’s problems:
We heard a description of what Google’s Project Glass, the Internet-enabled spectacles, can already do. (For example, the spectacles can be used to check if another speaker is lying.) Next up: a search engine inside the brain itself. We heard that within the next twenty-five years, it will be possible to take thousand-mile journeys by being fired through tubes. We also heard that biotechnology will deliver genetic “photocopies” of human organs that need replacing. And we were promised genetically engineered bugs, capable of excreting clean fuel. The only note of pessimism came from an eminent neuroscientist who conceded that a major breakthrough in the prevention of brain degeneration was unlikely in the next quarter century.
Ferguson is not very impressed by recent technological advances:
The achievements of the past twenty-five years were actually not that big a deal compared with what we did in the preceding twenty-five years, 1961–86 (for example, landing astronauts on the moon). And the twenty-five years before that, 1935–60, were even more impressive (e.g., splitting the atom). In the words of Peter Thiel, perhaps the lone skeptic within a hundred miles of Palo Alto: in our youth we were promised flying cars. What did we get? One hundred and forty characters.
And he offers a remark by the only pessimistic techno-wizard, one Peter Thiel:
Thiel responded with a classic depressimistic question: why, if information technology is so great, have median wages stagnated in the forty years since 1973, whereas in the previous forty years, between 1932 and 1972, they went up by a factor of six?
Will the new technologies produce change that was as momentous as that produced by the Industrial Revolution? Probably not.
On the other hand, the internet has not been with us for a very long time, so it is difficult to predict the future. At the very least, major industries like publishing, have been seriously affected. Who can predict the ultimate fallout from the Amazonization of retailing? If more people shop at Amazon, fewer people will shop at stores. But, that will not just change retailing; it will also impact the commercial property market.
Google and Amazon will not change the world the way the steam engine or the cotton gin did, but they are not nothing.
But great industrial and technological revolutions produce massive social disruptions. The Industrial Revolution tore apart local communities, sent people hither and yon in search of new job opportunities and produced a wave of social anomie that contributed to many of the major horrors of the twentieth century.
When technology scrambles the social order, people do not know who they are or where they belong. Without understanding the social dislocations produced by the Industrial Revolution we will have difficulty understanding why everyone in Europe was so thrilled at the advent of World War I. If I recall correctly, Herbert Croly commented at the time that Europeans were happy to join the war effort because a full-scale mobilization provided young men with a social structure and a purpose.
There isn't an app for that.
Ferguson is correct to see that the techno-wizards of Silicon Valley are extremely naïve. They are wrong to believe that Facebook and Twitter are going to solve the world’s problems, but they are also wrong to believe that Blue State policies of income redistribution will solve anything, either.
He doesn't mention it, but these techno-wizards are throwing their money and influence into electing more Democrats. Perhaps it means that they are young; perhaps it means that they are buying protection. Whatever the reason, that much money promoting a political ideology is not nothing.
It’s a dangerous world. Ask anyone who works in the world of intelligence to list the biggest threats we face, and the list is likely to include bioterrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation. What these have in common, of course, is the way modern technology can empower radicalized (or just plain crazy) individuals and groups.
I wish I were a technoptimist. It must be heartwarming to believe that Facebook is ushering in a happy-clappy world where everybody “friends” everybody else and we all surf the Net in peace (insert smiley face). But I’m afraid history makes me a depressimist. And no, there’s not an app—or a gene—that can cure that.
There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic. All told, it's a good thing. There’s a lot wrong with being out of touch with reality.
If the techno-wizards were investing in new enterprise, that might help the nation. Heck, it might even help the world.If they use their money to found massive new charitable behemoths, then their naiveté is going to cost everyone.
If you are searching for new solutions, even a new algorithm charity is not where it's at. As Carlos Slim famously remarked: "Charity never solved anything."