Monday, February 11, 2013

Will Techies Save the World?

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.

Ferguson argues:

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."


n.n said...

Unless they can provide instant (or immediate) material, physical, and ego gratification to everyone, everywhere, including a beachfront property in Hawaii, then their idealism only serves to obscure the problem. That's what people want. That's what a slight majority of Americans have twice voted for.

David Foster said...

One reason computer-related technologies have accelerated more than others is that they are less constrained by regulation.

It is also noteworthy how limited the typical media/academic view of "technology" is. If you sell fashions on-line, you will be classified as a "tech" company. If you make sophisticated high-temperature alloys for jet engines and power turbines, you are unlikely to be called a tech company. Indeed, even if you make airplane autopilots involving multiple embedded computer systems, you're unlikely to be mentioned when people are talking about "tech."

David Foster said...

Also, bad government policies can defeat (at least temporarily) the benefits of any technology.

In the early 1950s, Britain was a world leader in two crucial emerging industries: jet aircraft, and computers.

What happened? I'm going to do some research on this and write a post about it. Some of the problem, surely, had to do with particular incidents of bad luck and/or bad management/technical decisions...the Comet jetliner crashes come to mind. But I suspect that an overly-centralizing spirit, on the part of the government and perhaps other institutions, were the key factor.

JP said...

"If you make sophisticated high-temperature alloys for jet engines and power turbines, you are unlikely to be called a tech company."

I think I've drafted about 30 patent applications involving said coating technology for turbine blades.

It's all marginal innovation at this point in metallurgical tech.

David Foster said...

marginal innovation in metallurgical opposed to the 4135th social media company?

The Dark Lord said...

all too often people invent solutions in search of a problem ...

identify the problem and the solutin is simple (not easy but simple) ... what we have lost is the ability to clearly identify problems ... instead we get problems defined in terms that are politically or socially empowering to some group or party looking for power ...

for example, the war on poverty tends to define the problem of poverty as a too low minimum wage or a lack of training or unfunded government programs ... but in reality none of these things CAUSE poverty ... (in some cases they can make it worse)

JP said...


"marginal innovation in metallurgical opposed to the 4135th social media company?"

Industrial production is no longer a leading sector of the economy.

Here's an article from Mike Alexander that you may find interesting that discusses Dent and the innovation wave.

I'm going to have to ask him for the pictures to go along with the article, since his old site is dead.

David Foster said...


The fact that a new industry has opened up as a major opportunity for innovations does not mean that there are no opportunities for innovation in older industries, or that these innovations are less important.

For example, the introduction of container freight occurred in a very old industry: shipping. Yet it has had major transformational impact on the entire global economy.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is an innovation in an oil/gas industry which is well over a century old, but has very significant economic and balance-of-power implications.

Sam L. said...

Techies can't do it all by themselves.

Anonymous said...

Engineers, in general, are optimists - most of us, anyway. But if you scratch us hard enough you will find the hard facts of "Oh God. Someone has got to pay for all this".

Now who will that be? Oh. Us.

Yeah. Us. Now you've done it,. Now I'm a pessimist. Until tomorrow morning when I turn back into a Pollyanna.

Dennis said...

NO! As much of a techie, even retired, as I am innovators never think of the downside of much of what they ideate/create.
Lets consider the cell phone. I have always thought of it as a tool I can utilize make calls when needed, call help if needed, carry addresses and apps I can use as needed, maybe play a few games. It has become responsible for the degradation of language, lessen the ability to communicate and understand others, created less face to face contact where body language occurs, much of what get communicated in this fashion, and has killed unknown numbers of people. How many people have you seen standing there staring at their cell phone utterly oblivious to the world around them. I suspect that if the individual, cannot think of his name, can see his face, who invented it might be disappointed in how it ultimately got used.
Much of the technology we see serves to further divide human interaction.
Lord knows I love technology because I have/had almost every device APPLE created from the APPLE II on, large numbers of PCs, et al. They are great tools and do many things that need to be done IF used for their intended purpose.
Technology changes, but people do not. They still possess every good and bad trait that they have ever had. Technology is not going to change that unless one is willing to take away their humanity.

Dennis said...

Every time I see these kind of questions I am reminded of a quote by John Wooden. "Talent is god given. Be humble. Fame is man given. Be grateful. Conceit is self given. Be careful."
The conceit that is the hubris that believes that man can be made into a better human by technology, removing those who don't think the same way, killing off all the unwanted, et al is one of the most dangerous traits that we exhibit. BE CAREFUL for what you wish.

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