Who is worse? Those who think progress will be easy? Or those who deny progress at all?

== Grouches versus Pollyannas… spare us! ==

Economics-pundit Niall Ferguson has weighed in again.  This  time, in Don’t Believe the Techno-Utopian Hype, he rails against the super-optimists — those who believe that eternal rapid progress will be the natural, even teleologically ordained, result of ever-rising information technology and connectivity.

That movement — variously called transhumanist or singularitarian, extropian and so on — has its world capital in Silicon Valley, home of Singularity University, where zealots claim the future can, must and automatically will be bright.  Reacting with a grouchiness that has political-wing predictability, Ferguson joins Francis Fukayama, Peter Thiel, Bill Joy, Nicholas Carr and others in disdaining the florid forecasts of those I call “techno-transcendentalists.”

Much of what Ferguson says about this movement is true, as far as it goes, so go ahead and read his essay before coming back here. I’ll wait…

Indeed, emotionally, many transhumanists differ little from millennia after millennia of priests and shamans, who promised to lead every generation of our ancestors toward bright horizons, shucking off the limits of this gritty, morbid, moribund reality. The chief difference nowadays is that our 21st Century transcendentalists have split into two factions.

An old fashioned variety are repelled by technology and continue to offer skyward redemption  via the standard methods.  Whether it’s Old-Time religion or New Age mysticism, the underlying trait remains the same. Offer folks a doorway to a better world via non-physical, non-verifiable abstractions — e.g. prayer, incantation or secret concoctions

The newer type of transcendentalist preachers seem to have the same basic personality and need to promise a better world, only with one crucial difference. Tech-educated and tech-confident, they veer away from belief in incantations toward faith in the unlimited transformative power of Moore’s Law.

== In defense of dreamers ==

Whenever I’m around singularity guys, I become the grouch in the room, and not just because I am “contrary.”  Only followers of Fox News seem to have less grasp of history than the singularity zealots, who proclaim that Marx-like technological teleology will glide us all into godhood, within a decade or two. Both groups ignore the many ways that freedom and creative markets and other enlightenment miracles were quashed, in 99% of human cultures.

On the other hand, it rankles me to see them dissed by pundits whose depth of insight would not get your toes wet. Niall Ferguson, especially — a glib lightweight who flounders in the shallow end of the idea pool — is superficial to a degree that should win him a nice, cushy sinecure at Fox.

For example, Ferguson uses today’s parochial social/economic concerns as proof of some grand, generalized, spenglerian decline-of-the-west, and this “demonstrates” that technology-propeled progress is not only a vain hope, but intrinsically impossible.

But while the middle class may have stagnated for a time in the U.S. — (what do you expect, when a vast portion of their wealth is siphoned by a neo-feudal oligarchy?) — Ferguson ignores far more significant news. The stunningly rapid rise of middle classes in developing nations.

Neither the left nor the right has any interest in acknowledging good news — and complicit mass media find even the possibility absolutely allergenic. So, we hardly ever hear about the rapid decline in violence, each decade since 1945, that Professor Steven Pinker documents in his  book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Nor the rate at which new generations are becoming more educated and technologically empowered in China, India and even Africa…

…a vast social leap that has been propelled largely by the American consumer and WalMart.  Probably the greatest phenomenon of the last 60 years, and the direct outcome of deliberate policies first put in place by George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, this process of uplift through trade is barely acknowledged anywhere, even by the brightest observers, like Paul Krugman.  It is the chief achievement of Pax Americana.  And future generations will call it miraculous.

True, this fantastically effective “aid program” could be better managed. For example, the US and the west should act more decisively to defend their crown jewels, the intellectual property and fruits of creativity that allow the western goose to continue laying Golden Eggs for the rest of the world. Corporate China, in particular, would seem eager to kill and eat the goose, proof they are not yet wise enough to replace the American Pax.

Still, the bigger picture is vast and fascinating and overwhelmingly positive, overall. The slight declines in America that Niall Ferguson cites — and that were wrought almost completely by his side in culture war — are still just surface blips in a trend whose epochal plus sides are beyond the comprehension of myopes like Ferguson.

 Let me reiterate this point, since no one ever seems to grok it. A century from now, the way that U.S. consumers uplifted most of the planet will be viewed as one of the great accomplishments of our age.  Perhaps the greatest. Out of 1945’s depth of despair, brilliant leaders like Marshall set up the world game so that its overall sum has become overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, any “economist” who ignores this yang side of the picture is simply a fool.

== Will it be a world for grouches?  Or Transcendentalists? ==

Neither.  In my new novel – EXISTENCE – I portray what is likely.  A grinding-ahead of progress that the wise investment seer John Mauldin calls “muddling through.” We will accomplish a great deal of what the transhumanists envision, though it will be grittier and more complicated, with lots more irritations than we are assured. There will never be a point when we declare: “oh wow, we are gods now!”

In other words, it will be like the huge progress that we’ve achieved already.  And there will still be those of the so-called right and left and mystical fringe – dopes who deserve no credibility at any level, like Niall Ferguson – who deny that progress happened at all.

In fact, we may have a chance to create a fantastic new civilization on this planet, by returning to and enhancing the Enlightenment methods that brought us to this party.  Methods like transparency and reciprocal accountability and divided power and pragmatic negotiation that have nothing whatsoever to do with “left” or “right” but that are deeply threatened by one side in our current culture war.

If we restore our fervent, even militant fealty to those methods, then this pax will continue to generate vast, positive-sum miracles. But it won’t be easy or fore-ordained.  If it were, the sky would already be filled with the alien starships from countless other civilizations who found it easy before us.  That empty sky tells us a lot.  It is gonna be hard.

We can reach for a bright horizon. But only if we ignore the grouches… then sigh and slog past the lovable dopes who say it will come as a gift, as natural as sunrise.



Filed under economy, future

5 responses to “Who is worse? Those who think progress will be easy? Or those who deny progress at all?

  1. “the revolving door leading from the Pentagon to defense contractors is a subtle form of corruption.” Subtle?
    “the growing share of public-sector employees and welfare recipients relative to direct taxpayers in the electorate. If anything, it is ..[this] that has been pushing the Western world ever deeper into debt over the past decade.” Your ‘shallow’ barely begins….

    I may be in a minority, i believe almost all the tranny goodies are coming, and also that many of the doom/gloom economic ugliness is just around the corner. It might be one of those bifurcating scenarios, one of these will hit the tipping point first, and therefore overwhelm any progress in the other. It is without doubt the looming IT/automation/robotic revolution arrives soon, yet few discuss what we will do with the 60-90% ??? of people with zero job prospects as Rosie the Robot Maid/construction worker/cook/baby sitter/etc takes over, RUT RO. [ Astro was a genius]

  2. David,
    Sorry, but I think Ferguson’s view is more practical, and while not locked, more likely. The rise of the developing world’s middle class is largely the liberation of China’s agri-classes from manual labour into city dwelling enablement. India varies between progress and decline in see-saw fashion. The problem is the very institutions that raised them up, holds them back. Only so much progress is permitted. In China the burning desire to remain in power will eventually conflict with the liberation of consumption. In India, government corruption will eventually lead to localized if not wide spread revolt.

    The US is flailing right now and there is no indication that the next 24 months should be any different, regardless of who wins the election. The foundation for techno-optimism is in the now. There is no groundswell of societal harmony that seems ready to leverage the purported wonders of Palo Alto. The yardstick of the last 25 may take the next 50 to equal. But hey, what’s all the rush. If we’re all going to end up downloaded into pocket calculators, at least we can count on better economics – I’m sure it will cost less to keep virtual me virtual than it would have to pay my pension.

    Kind regards,

  3. wow, how silly. Rob S you ignore the fact that US federal taxes are at their lowest level in 70 years. The federal share of the economy likewise. The bureaucracy is smaller than under Reagan, and so on. Why do you believe things that are untrue? Do you watch Fox?

    roopost, so people getting flush toilets, electricity, computers and textbooks and uniforms for their kids to attend school mean nothing, eh? Thanks for illustrating that the right does not have a monopoly on craziness. While the mad right is infinitely more dangerous and destructive of America, right now, the far left is truly crazy too, eager to deny that progress ever happens, even while they demand that progress take place.

    Crazy. The right refuses to want progress. The left demands it but refuses to admit it has ever happened. Lunacy.

    • rob s

      Dr. Brin, please tell me how my comments lead to your response? Particularly as I am mostly agreeing with what you have said. I don’t see myself as either left or right, I think the democrats are idiots and the republicans assholes-old joke of mine, but now the republicans are insane AND assholes, they scare me far more than the democrats. I think maybe you read the Ferguson quotes as being my words, but they are only reference for my snarky, short comments following. I try to watch Fox, so I will be aware, but my stomach usually can’t hold out for very long.

  4. While elevating the poor in countries like China is localised progress – I’m not sure that was what Mr. Ferguson was addressing, or you for that matter. Rather, the views were on the broader notion of the ‘progress’ of technology and our ability to apply it – after all, all the CPU power in the world means nothing if it isn’t being applied to some benefit.

    The fact of the matter is technological progress, or any kind requires money, willingness, and a fair amount of social like mindedness. Today, there is little money (US growth = 2.0 percent, the EU 0 Percent, China 6.9 down from 8 percent and the list goes on). There may be willingness as not a few would suggest spending and thereby progressing our way out of recession – but whether this will meet the achievements of the past 25 years is unknown. And like mindedness – well I’m sure I don’t need to review the myriad examples of how we humans are able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on that count.

    Right now, it looks unlikely that the last 25 years’ success will be matched – but that doesn’t mean there won’t be ‘progress’. Moores law is a poor example of this frankly – just because we make it faster, doesn’t make it better – use determines progress. Some prudence in predictions is always a good thing. Right now, it seems in some circles the view is the world will progress to greater and greater degrees. This is like saying because I know the sun will come up, everyday in the future will be sunny, while ignoring the existence of clouds.

    Kind regards,

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