What a Dose of Techno-Optimism Tastes Like

[In May of 2010, filmmaker and founding producer/host for Current TV Jason Silva messaged me to solicit my feedback on his Vanity Fair article, Why We Could All Use a Heavy Dose of Techno-Optimism. The following blog post, is my frighteningly long response.]

Jason - I'm honored that you thought to share this with me. You are a beautiful writer and a beautiful person, and I can't wait to watch your film. But I fear I may not have been the ideal person to ask for feedback from (unless you were looking for someone to challenge you) because I have a very nuanced relationship with technology, not unlike Kevin Kelly's. I've lived in an Earthship, worked on a biodynamic farm, and believe that the big bang was Love; meanwhile I majored in Science, Technology, and Society, subscribe to WIRED, and currently work as a social media strategist. I'm neither old-fashioned nor new-fashioned, technophobic nor technophilic, but so open-minded that I'm even open to being close-minded (sometimes). It might make more sense to say that I'm buddies with Howard Rheingold and consider myself a promiscuous pragmatic pluralist (abbreviated as ppp). All of that said, let me offer a few observations:

"Somewhere down the line, however, these two worlds [of art and science] became disjointed." – If you'd like to do justice to the 'disjointing' of art and science, and of components of complex systems in general (whether ontological or otherwise), you might find writings on the paradigm shift from reductionism to holism helpful, like Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point (old but remarkably still relevant). It’s not clear whether you’re suggesting this, but I don't think we are (or should) move towards a complete blurring of the boundary between art and science, but instead towards the ability to shift between a hard and soft (and blurringly non-existent) boundary, depending on the circumstances. This is precisely the view Rita King takes towards the distinction between real and virtual. The generalized version of this view, which is a tenet of ppp, is that in pursuit of holism, we need not destroy the boundaries between things that are “connected” and turn the world to sausage, but develop the ability shift between multiple typologies of the same phenomenon (academic disciplines, the body, etc. etc. etc.) at will. Put more simply, it's the fact that we've cultivated art and science as different ingredients for so long that allows us now to combine and uncombine them with such brilliant effects.

"We're the first technology-creating species." – This tugs uncomfortably at my heart, given my longtime fascination with Biomimicry, innovation inspired by nature. If you're going to make this claim, you must a) clearly define what technology is, and b) explain why other species' technological innovations (many of which we mimic) don't qualify. Unless you decide to define technology as an exclusively human endeavor, which of course would make your job infinitely easier. Sorry to be so logical about it. Regardless, I think you'd actually enjoy reading about Biomimicry and using it to contextualize the evolution of technology within the evolution of not only humans, but of life and consciousness.

"If the process of life is about moving toward increased complexity and organization, a sort of sublime unfolding of greater and greater self-organizing systems, then we're actually doing pretty well. Certainly there are challenges ahead, but there's also profound potential for greatness. The Large Hadron Collider is only the latest example of mankind's magnificent undertakings." – I wholeheartedly agree that the process of life moves towards increased complexity, ever-evolving new scales of organization, but what does that have to do with the Hadron Collider? (That we needed to evolve a new scale of human organization in order to build it?) As an aside, my personal curiosity is about what happens when different scales of organization start interacting with each other, e.g. when individuals start interacting with meta-individuals.

But my main point..."We must not be afraid to push boundaries; instead we should leverage our science and our technology, together with our creativity and our curiosity, to solve the world's problems." – Forgive me, but the problems you point to in this article are not the world's problems; they're the so-called "problems" of elites who value progress and innovation over all else. I know I sound technophobic, but I'm a Libra and I smell a lil’ technophilia so naturally I attempt to balance out the scale. I share your enthusiasm for these "limitless, mind-boggling possibilities," but I also crave triage: given a world of finite resources, how to allocate them equitably? Or further, how to allocate them in such a way that kickstarts a positive feedback loop, perpetually generating more resources in benefit of all? It's not that I don't feel as passionate as you about technological innovation; it's that I feel passionate about a different kind of technological innovation, namely that which cultivates meaningful and equitable thriving, that which produces unintended benefits, that which allows us to enjoy our way to sustenance and sustainability, like this play pump. And like appropriate technologies, which need not be small-scale or unsophisticated.

Ultimately, my fascination with technological innovation is tempered by the fact that only a few of us are 'Turning into Gods' and we may not necessarily become benevolent ones. I agree with William Gibson that future is already here, just not evenly distributed, but I don't see enough functioning, playful, beautiful mechanisms for distribution. I think my vision of an ideal future differs from yours, and that although it includes God-like play at the intersection of art and science, I haven't seen a compelling theory of change for how the innovations you describe feed our journey (though I'm certainly open to one). Which doesn't necessarily mean we need to define the ideal future first and then judge all technological innovations according to it, but simply that we engage in a process of technological innovation that itself manifests our ideal. A simpler way to think about this is by asking: if our process of technological innovation were democratic, participatory, and joyous, what technologies would we be creating? I don't know but I’d Love to find out.

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