how to create a self-fulfilling anti-tech prophecy with withering cynicism

May 31, 2013


Last time we took a look at what tech cynics and technophobes get wrong in their arguments, we focused on their lack of consideration for their fellow humans’ ability to exercise free will. Despite the fact that this is a huge hole in many of their arguments, there’s an even bigger problem with the dismissive stance they take towards science and technology. When they argue that we can’t feed all the hungry house all the homeless, or really prolong lifespans with technology, the facts they cite generally point not so much to technological limitations or scientific ignorance, but very convoluted social and political problems, then insist that because science and technology can’t solve them today, they likely never will, or won’t solve them adequately to consider the problem much smaller than it is today. While this argument is true, it’s also logically dishonest. You can’t fix the world’s problems with technology when the people who should be using it refuse to do so, or hijack it for their own less than noble means. No tool or piece of knowledge can help then.

As some of you might have noticed, the city in the graphic for this post in Dubai, a rich proving ground for how the cities of the near future are likely to be built. We know how to make cities of glass, steel, and concrete right out of science fiction. We know how to build the cheap, efficient housing complexes those making less than a dollar a day need to at least have secure shelter. We know how do diagnose complex diseases early enough to treat them before they’ll become dangerous, much less terminal, and our toolkits for understanding germs, viruses, and complex medical problems like cancers, are growing to become more sophisticated every day. We also have the tools and the money to apply all these solutions to the world at large. With something a little bit short of $100 billion just between Gates and Buffet pledged to fight poverty illiteracy, and disease, and when we can find $2 trillion laying around to help banks with a do-over, clearly, it’s not an issue of not having the technology, the scientific basis, or the cash. The issue is will.

Sure technological utopians have lofty ambitions and it’s valid to be skeptical of many of them, but when they vow that logistical problems can be solved with enough computing and research, they’re right more often than not. When the cynics deride these ambitions by pointing out that a lot of people don’t want to fund mass production of the necessary tools or the required science, and would much prefer to spend them on entertainment and public entitlements benefiting them directly, they’re not highlighting the problems with using technology to save the world, they’re a prime exhibit of why a technology hasn’t transformed the world of fixed a persistent problem. All too often it comes down to them saying it can’t be done, and politicians along with voters simply listening to them and deciding that no, it’s can’t be done since the critics said so, which is why it would be a waste of time to even bother. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, a social variation of Newton’s First Law: a society that insists on the status quo, sticks to the status quo unless an external event or constant pressure forces it to change.

It’s the same attitude which strangled the promising and much anticipated future of space travel and exploration, and we’re still stuck with it. Yes, not every retro-futuristic dream about space or living on other worlds was practical or even feasible and yes, we did need experts to burst our bubble before an unworkable project got off the ground. But today’s science and tech critics are going well past a healthy skepticism about bold claims and venturing into a territory in which they dismiss scientific and technological solutions to global problems for the sake of dismissing them, pointing to other ideas they dismissed in the past and doomed to being chained to the drawing board, and saying that because their relentless cynicism killed the ideas rather than refined the scopes and missions to eliminate problems with them, new ideas building on past visions must be scrapped as well. It’s even more insidious than political vetting of basic science, because vetting at least allows some projects to survive and get refined into new tools and ideas. The withering cynicism of what science and technology can do for us is like an anti-innovation WMD…

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  • TheBrett

    Yes, not every retro-futuristic dream about space or living on other
    worlds was practical or even feasible and yes, we did need experts to
    burst our bubble before an unworkable project got off the ground.

    Then what was the realistic future that got strangled by techno-pessimism? The truth is that there’s just not that much private support for space exploration, especially not at the levels of funding that you need for manned space flight. SpaceX is impressive, but it’s only profitable because they got NASA’s commercial crew contract – if it had to survive entirely on private support, it and most of the commercial launch market would simply die off. The closest thing we have to a privately supported manned spacecraft that might be profitable down the line is Virgin Galactic.

    That’s why, while I love the Apollo Program and what it represented in terms of technological and scientific accomplishment, I deeply resent the shadow it has cast on all space exploration then. Space fans seem to have taken a brief period when there was deep government funding support for one particular manned spaceflight project as the norm, and treated every period since as a disappointing failure of national will to live up to our “destiny”.

    As for Science in general, I think it can survive some withering criticism from technophobes. Most of it has survived worse in previous centuries, and we live in a golden age of scientific research. That includes space exploration, even despite the mismanagement that NASA has suffered under for more than a decade.

  • gfish3000

    Your argument is basically proving the point. Lack of public support doesn’t mean that an idea is unworkable because when it comes to science, we all know that all too many members of the public in all too many countries could not care less unless a specific scientific breakthrough affects them personally.

  • TheBrett

    My point was that you can’t really say this attitude “strangled” manned spaceflight, when in actuality it just reverted to the level of support that had always existed. The people dreaming of space colonies and Mars missions were probably just wrong, at least about the timing.

  • gfish3000

    Nothing changed in the attitude about space exploration, the only reason why the missions to the Moon were even thought of was trying to counter Soviet competition. And that happened against the popular opinion of the time as well.

    But yes, the attitude that we should not go and explore, trying to break new ground and seeing what the benefits will be because, hey what;s in it for me right this second, does strange not just space exploration but a good swath of basic science research as well. And yet people stubbornly think that a quarter of the budget is spent on science and education while really it’s about 2% or so.