Technology’s track record, past and future

Following up on my rant on technical solutionism, I wanted to add a bit more about why I do think technological optimism is justified and also something I wish more Silicon Valley commentators understood. First, it seems worth pointing out that if we try to recognize where contributions to quality of life over the last century or so have come from, then the biggest contributor would be technology. Social and political changes are important, but a lot of them end up being enabled by technology. Second- and third-wave feminism were greatly helped by birth control enabling women greater control over their own bodies. When I was in immunology for two weeks before deciding double majoring in biomedical engineering and physics was crazy, the professor said the pre-meds and pre-public health students should thank their engineering major friends for water distribution and water treatment systems. Or consider how much technology goes into the actual treatment of disease. And a great deal of technology ends up having unexpected uses. So technologists have a good track record to justify their thinking they can innovate solutions to things others may not consider major problems.

The other thing I never hear come up in mainstream commentators’ discussion of Silicon Valley’s tech solutionism is the source of a non-trivial (heh, I suppose that word would have to make it into the blog at some point, though I’m surprised it isn’t in the context of math) amount of this thought: transhumanism. To put it (too) simply, transhumanism is broad movement that advocates the use of technology to augment and expand human abilities to reach a “posthuman” status. If you’ve heard of people giddy for brain uploading and/or the technological singularity, they come from one strand of transhumanism (that’s a bit premature, in my mind). The movement started in California, and while it’s definitely spread out, it still has a relatively high concentration in Silicon Valley. Transhumanist publications seem to often write about the movement’s popularity in the tech hub region and it seems to be spreading. One of the big steps seems to be the establishment of Singularity University to bring together people from various backgrounds to help them understand and develop new technologies. Notably, Singularity U founding companies include Google and Genentech. So why is this relevant to the talk of tech solutionism? Because it seems only natural that some aspects of transhumanism diffuse out into broader society, especially in a place as connected to the movement as Silicon Valley. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s hope that Facebook will change how people interact socially struck me as more than just capitalist hopes for his business; it also showed a kind of latent embedding of a transhumanist goal that I don’t think Zuckerberg even realized (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even really know that transhumanism is a thing).