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Techno-Optimism or The Good Life?

Morning Joe on MSNBC is one of my favorite programs. It’s on from 4 to 7 in the morning where I live, so I watch while I’m stretching and making my first cup of, well, joe. This morning’s program had this interesting segment about a book called Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. It offers a glimpse of classic techno-optimism.

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There was a lot of talk in this segment about having a phone, a car, a toilet, air-conditioning, etc. Certainly indoor plumbing, good health care, and electricity are major improvements to our lives. But the book’s co-author, Peter Diamandis, is chairman and CEO of the X-Prize Foundation, which offers financial incentives for groundbreaking new technologies. It’s not surprising he places a lot of faith in technology. It is, however, disappointing.

In this segment, Diamandis offers a shopping list of technological achievements of the past century. He is most likely unaware he is describing a very brief (in the history of humankind) binge – powered by the liquidation of millions of years’ worth of stored energy from sunlight (in the form of fossil fuels). He makes the mistake most techno-optimists make: he assumes we can keep replaying the last century over and over (only faster and bigger).

Well, we can’t. We can’t because these technologies both require energy and resources, and because they usually encourage us to use resources at a faster rate. (Yes there are many technologies that increase efficiency and reduce waste, but the expansion of human economies and populations outpace these efficiencies at every step.) We can’t because we shouldn’t burn the rest of the fossil fuels. And if we do, we’ll exhaust the practical supply within a lifetime or two. We can’t because we are already using fertile soil and critical metals and minerals faster than the Earth can replenish them. We can’t because we are already pumping aquifers and rivers dry just to provide for the current scale of human enterprise.

Yes, it is very tempting to pin our hopes on technology to save us from the crises created by our recent binge. But seeing as how technology fed the binge, I see no logical basis for that hope. Technology is not going to create abundance. In fact it is enabling us to reach scarcity faster and faster. Along the way, I wonder if it is truly improving the quality of our lives.

Diamandis mentions a looming shortage of physicians, and foresees the day a cell phone can diagnose illness and take the place of interaction with a doctor (and this is not by placing a call to a doctor). This reminded me of the $350,000 hamburger scientists are producing. They’re using stem cells to grow beef without the cow. Now, that seems like a great scientific breakthrough, since we know beef production consumes enormous amounts of water.

testtubehamburger

Test Tube Hamburger

But let’s step back a moment and ask ourselves what we’re doing. What do we want our lives to be like? Are we so desperate to avoid restraint and moderation in the expansion of our empire that we will grow our food in a test tube and pass up human interaction because it’s inefficient and there are too many of us to serve personally? Do we want to replace a human interaction with a physician with a quick body-scan by an iPhone? That’s one less possible friendship. One less interesting conversation. One less opportunity to learn something from a little dialogue. Will there be any joy from slopping down a western bacon-cheeseburger in a pill? Or would we get more joy from sitting on the deck, sipping beer with friends and savoring the aroma of burgers on the grill?

Qualcomm is sponsoring a 10 million dollar X-Prize, so of course Diamandis is going to be touting the wonders of mobile technology. But I protest. I propose that the next wave of innovation which will serve us best is innovative, enlightened thought. It is coming to the realization that bigger is not better, and that more is never enough. Real progress will be recognizing what really brings meaning to life. It is replacing the goals of more and faster with the goals of simpler, slower, and more meaningful.

Dave Gardner
Filmmaker

Dave Gardner is director of the new documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which examines the sustainability of our culture’s worship of growth everlasting.

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    Rick Heller

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    I heard a radio interview with Diamandis. He seemed to answer all questions with anecdotes of the “Gee Whiz, that will they think of next” variety. There also seemed to be a lot of “magic of the marketplace” will solve any problem. There was no systematic thinking, even up to the level of Julian Simon.

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