== 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.