Technological Utopianism

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Technological utopianism is the belief that advances in science and technology will eventually bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfill one or another utopian ideal. A techno-utopia is therefore a hypothetical ideal society, in which laws, government, and social conditions are solely operating for the benefit and well-being of all its citizens, set in the near- or far-future, when advanced science and technology will allow these ideal living standards to exist; for example, post scarcity, transformations in human nature, the abolition of suffering, and even the end of death.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, several ideologies and movements, such as the cyberdelic counterculture, the Californian Ideology, transhumanism, and singularitarianism, have emerged promoting a form of techno-utopia as a reachable goal. Cultural critic Imre Szeman argues technological utopianism is an irrational social narrative because there is no evidence to support it. He concludes that what it shows is the extent to which modern societies place a lot of faith in narratives of progress and technology overcoming things, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Karl Marx believed that science and democracy were the right and left hands of what he called the move from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. He argued that advances in science helped delegitimize the rule of kings and the power of the Christian Church. 19th century socialists, feminists, and republicans were generally advocates of reason and science. Techno-utopianism, atheism, and rationalism have been associated with the democratic, revolutionary and utopian Left for most of the last two hundred years.

Radicals like Joseph Priestley pursued scientific investigation while advocating democracy and freedom from religious tyranny. Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon in the early 19th century inspired communalists with their visions of a future scientific and technological evolution of humanity using reason as its secular religion. Radicals seized on Darwinian evolution to validate the idea of social progress. Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia in ‘Looking Backward’ inspired hundreds of socialist clubs in the late 19th century US and a national political party. For Bellamy and the Fabian Socialists, socialism was to be brought about as a painless corollary of industrial development.

Marx and Engels saw more pain and conflict involved, but agreed about the inevitable end. Marxists argued that the advance of technology laid the groundwork not only for the creation of a new society, with different property relations, but also for the emergence of new human beings reconnected to nature and themselves. At the top of the agenda for empowered proletarians was ‘to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.’ The 19th and early 20th century Left, from social democrats to communists, were focused on industrialization, economic development, and the promotion of reason, science, and the idea of progress.

Sadly, eugenics (and the associated practice of culling ‘undesirable’ groups from the gene pool) was including under that heading. Holding that in studies of families, such as the Jukes and Kallikaks, science had proven that many traits such as criminality and alcoholism were hereditary, many advocated the sterilization of those displaying negative traits. Forcible sterilization programs were implemented in several states in the US. After Auschwitz, the optimism of positivist views led to more pessimistic conceptions of science. The Holocaust, as Theodor Adorno underlined, seemed to shatter the ideal of Condorcet and other thinkers of the Enlightenment, which commonly equated scientific progress with social progress.

A movement of techno-utopianism began to flourish again in the dot-com culture of the 1990s, particularly in the West Coast of the United States, especially based around Silicon Valley. The Californian Ideology was a set of beliefs combining bohemian and anti-authoritarian attitudes from the counterculture of the 1960s with techno-utopianism and support for libertarian economic policies. It was reflected in, reported on, and even actively promoted in the pages of ‘Wired’ magazine, which was founded in San Francisco in 1993 and served for a number years as the ‘bible’ of its adherents. This form of techno-utopianism reflected a belief that technological change revolutionizes human affairs, and that digital technology in particular – of which the Internet was but a modest harbinger – would increase personal freedom by loosening the rigid embrace of bureaucratic big government. ‘Self-empowered knowledge workers’ would render traditional hierarchies redundant; digital communications would allow them to escape the modern city, an ‘obsolete remnant of the industrial age.’

Its adherents claim it transcended conventional ‘right/left’ distinctions in politics by rendering politics obsolete. However, techno-utopianism disproportionately attracted adherents from the libertarian right end of the political spectrum. Therefore, techno-utopians often have a hostility toward government regulation and a belief in the superiority of the free market system. Prominent ‘oracles’ of techno-utopianism included George Gilder, and Kevin Kelly, an editor of ‘Wired,’ who also published several books. During the late 1990s dot-com boom, when the speculative bubble gave rise to claims that an era of ‘permanent prosperity’ had arrived, techno-utopianism flourished, typically among the small percentage of the population who were employees of Internet startups and/or owned large quantities of high-tech stocks. With the subsequent crash, many of these dot com techno-utopians had to rein in some of their beliefs in the face of the clear return of traditional economic reality.

In the late 1990s and especially during the first decade of the 21st century, technorealism and techno-progressivism are stances that have risen among advocates of technological change as critical alternatives to techno-utopianism. However, technological utopianism persists in the 21st century as a result of new technological developments and their impact on society. For example, several technical journalists and social commentators, such as Mark Pesce, have interpreted the WikiLeaks phenomenon and the United States diplomatic cables leak in 2010 as a precursor to, or an incentive for, the creation of a techno-utopian transparent society.

Critics claim that techno-utopianism’s identification of social progress with scientific progress is a form of positivism and scientism (a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method). Critics of modern libertarian techno-utopianism point out that it tends to focus on ‘government interference’ while dismissing the positive effects of the regulation of business. They also point out that it has little to say about the environmental impact of technology and that its ideas have little relevance for much of the rest of the world that are still relatively quite poor (digital divide). In his 2010 study ‘System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster,’ Imre Szeman argues that technological utopianism is one of the social narratives that prevent people from acting on the knowledge they have concerning the effects of oil on the environment.

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