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Techno-Optimism vs. Pessimism vs. Nihilism

Narrator: This is Lair of Anthropomorphized Attitudes Towards Technological Progress, the new Shark Tank / Dragon’s Den spinoff where anthropomorphized attitudes towards technological progress evaluate whether to invest in an entrepreneur’s project.

(it’s not a very popular show, hence the crappy logo)

“I call it the Truly Life-Changing Invention,” contestant Dr. X tells the panel. “TLCI for short.”

“What does it do?” Optimism asks.

“It’s basically an app for your phone,” Dr. X says. “I know there are many apps, but this one is special. The TLCI is the first one that is able to conclusively solve [problem]. It gives you a straightforward, step-by-step recipe to do so.”

“Sounds great,” Optimism says.

“If it works as advertised,” Pessimism says.

“Oh, it does,” Dr. X. says, and proceeds to demonstrate it. He asks the TLCI to find the solution to [problem]. The TLCI outputs a solution, and it works. The investors then try it, and ask the app to solve some personal versions of [problem]. It works again. They ask the app to solve a larger, global version of [problem]. The global [problem] gets solved, too.

“Okay, this is amazing,” Optimism says. “I’m ready to make an offer.”

“Hold on,” Pessimism says. “What about the risks?”

“What risks?”

“Solving [problem] could very well cause unforeseen [other problems]. I’m worried that your team, Dr. X, may have failed to consider [other problems] very carefully, or might not even care about them, which is worse. I think this technology is potentially dangerous.”

“You think everything is potentially dangerous, Pessimism,” Optimism says.

“Also, your app stores personal information. I’m concerned about privacy,” Pessimism says.

“What do you think, Nihilism?” Optimism asks the third investor.

“Oh!” Nihilism says. “How grand are the promises of this technology, and how disappointed we yet may be! For myself, I believe it is plagued by pointlessness. Dr. X, with respect, your stated aim is to help society, but all you truly want is to make some money. You fail to realize that no invention can truly dispel our most important predicaments.”

“We just solved [global problem],” Optimism points out.

“But have we? Or have we simply sought to hide our angst under a patina of good feelings? Can the spirit of invention truly put our troubles at bay? I tend to think not.”

“I should’ve known better than to ask,” Optimism mutters. “Never mind them,” he says to Dr. X. “I’m going to make an offer.”

“Thank you for your trust,” Dr. X says.

Narrator: It’s a few months later, and the world is changed thanks to Dr. X and his invention. However, a data breach into Dr. X’s servers has allowed a malicious individual to retrieve user data, including thousands of email addresses. People are now calling for stronger privacy laws and a shutdown of the app. It is unclear what effect this will have on the course of the industry — and humanity’s — future.


Optimism, Pessimism and Nihilism are the three ways to think about technology and, in particular, technological progress.

Here’s a handy Venn diagram for those who like Venn diagrams:

Let’s contrast each of them to the other two.

Nihilism

Optimism and Pessimism think technological progress — the idea that technology can improve our lives over time — is a thing that, you know, exists. Nihilism doesn’t.

Nihilism isn’t about denying the very idea of technological change1Usually. There are subcultures that make a point of living as though such change wasn’t happening. If you used to live in the sort of society that stopped keeping track of what happened to humanity since 1764, welcome to the modern world, and please let me know how you came to reading this essay at all!. In our modern times, at least2“At least” because up to the last few centuries, technological change was slow and sometimes didn’t happen at all., there’s no point in contradicting the fact that new inventions appear all the time. Rather, Nihilism argues that progress in the truly important things, such as happiness, can’t occur. Or it can, but is not affected by technology.

Sometimes, Nihilism is direct. When someone talks about “the myth of technological progress,” you know who you’re dealing with. Other times, Nihilism is more subtle. One sign is when someone is overly concerned with the role of money. To a techno-nihilist, when technological change happens, it’s often because somebody is trying to get rich by making a thing and convincing others they need the thing, even if they don’t.

Techno-Nihilism isn’t necessarily nihilistic in respects other than technology. It may be very concerned about problems, but will push for non-technological solutions. For instance, it may think economic degrowth or population decline is a better path than technology to solve environmental issues.

Pessimism

Despite touting all the time that tech doesn’t really matter, Nihilism usually thinks it’s basically fine, and won’t try to stop it. Optimism won’t either, of course. Fortunately, Pessimism is here to point out that “the atomic bomb” is an actual invention we made. Also, countless other machines to kill people. Also, lots of pollution, habitat loss, trash, and a great deal of general planet destruction. Also, we may soon be able to engineer deadly viruses and other bioweapons. Also, your app’s security is bad and Pessimism is concerned about privacy!

Pessimism doesn’t (always) think technology is especially bad-intentioned. But technology does, very often, spectacularly fail to meet expectations. So, sure, progress has been happening and we’ve made a lot of things better — but every new thing we invent brings about new risks and nasty side-effects. And if we keep going, we’re headed for disaster.

It might be more prudent, says Pessimism, to just slow down or halt progress for a little while. Life isn’t so bad right now, so let’s take a moment to think. Maybe, if we stop relying on technological advances a bit, things will even improve on their own.

Optimism

Optimism is not having any of that.

To show how much we can expect from technology, Optimism draws from the vast store of evils we have defeated — child mortality, hunger (mostly), diseases such as smallpox, and so on. It lists the many ways we have improved our comfort, security, and entertainment. It reminds us of the awe-inspiring feats we have accomplished, like putting a person on the moon, or creating amazing art that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, or linking much of humanity into a giant information network.

Given all that technology has done for us, surely we should believe it will do more in the future. Any non-optimistic person in 3000 BC or AD 150 or AD 1484 would have been a fool to think progress wasn’t a desirable thing. Why would 2020 be any different?

As it turns out, most people probably were “fools” according to this definition. Progress is a relatively new idea. But if Optimism were to time travel to the past, Optimism would just show them how wrong they were.


Which of them is right? The answer, of course, is “It depends.”

Any given piece of technology might turn out to be good, harmful, or pointless. After enough time has passed to evaluate the consequences of an invention, one of Nihilism, Pessimism or Optimism should be vindicated.

So, unless you actually are an anthropomorphized attitude, it wouldn’t be very smart to lock yourself into one way of thinking. You want to be optimistic for truly promising inventions, pessimist for truly dangerous ones, and nihilistic for those that truly don’t matter.

The mindset that balances it all could be called healthy skepticism. It’s what goes in the middle of my Venn diagram.

This is a great, easy answer, if we consider individual technological advances. But let’s think long-term for a moment. Imagine the next few decades or centuries of technological change, taken as a whole. Are you, with regards to this future evolution, an optimist, a pessimist, a nihilist, or a healthy skeptic?

That last one doesn’t make sense now, which is why it didn’t get its own circle in the Venn diagram. If we’re going to predict the impact of future technology on humanity — and we need to, since we need to decide where to direct current resources — then we need to make a judgment call. Will technology help us? Will it make us miserable, or perhaps destroy us? Or does the question not matter at all?


I think the correct general, long-term answer is Optimism. I know many people disagree. Take this Quillette article, which argues against techno-optimism. It makes some good points, for instance about how the analogies that optimists make between past and future technologies are often unfounded. Or this:

Conservatives act as gatekeepers enforcing quality control on the ideas of progressives, ultimately letting in the good ones (like democracy) and keeping out the bad ones (like Marxism).

Conservatives3Here, “conservative” and “progressive” refer to philosophical attitudes rather than political ones. Yes, even though the sentence mentions democracy and Marxism. might correspond to pessimists and nihilists in my model. Progressives are the optimists. I think the idea that we need people who adopt all three mindsets is sound.

But I still expect progressives/optimists to be right in the end.

Jason Crawford writes that “to answer the question, ‘is technology making things better?’ we need to assess the benefits of technology as well [as the risks]—including the risks that technology has reduced.” It has reduced a lot of them: disease, hunger, conflicts, loneliness, and many more. I expect that to continue.

Pessimism may worry. Nihilism may not care. But I worry about not reducing those risks, and I certainly do care.

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