Pessimism v progress

The Economist: “Faster, cheaper, better—technology is one field many people rely upon to offer a vision of a brighter future. But as the 2020s dawn, optimism is in short supply. The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together. In the Arab spring of 2011 they were hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy. E-commerce, ride-hailing and the gig economy may be convenient, but they are charged with underpaying workers, exacerbating inequality and clogging the streets with vehicles. Parents worry that smartphones have turned their children into screen-addicted zombies.

The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow. Artificial intelligence (ai) may well entrench bias and prejudice, threaten your job and shore up authoritarian rulers (see article). 5g is at the heart of the Sino-American trade war. Autonomous cars still do not work, but manage to kill people all the same. Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry. At the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, internet giants have become the new banks, morphing from talent magnets to pariahs. Even their employees are in revolt.

The New York Times sums up the encroaching gloom. “A mood of pessimism”, it writes, has displaced “the idea of inevitable progress born in the scientific and industrial revolutions.” Except those words are from an article published in 1979. Back then the paper fretted that the anxiety was “fed by growing doubts about society’s ability to rein in the seemingly runaway forces of technology”.

Today’s gloomy mood is centred on smartphones and social media, which took off a decade ago. Yet concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before. In the 1970s the despondency was prompted by concerns about overpopulation, environmental damage and the prospect of nuclear immolation. The 1920s witnessed a backlash against cars, which had earlier been seen as a miraculous answer to the affliction of horse-drawn vehicles—which filled the streets with noise and dung, and caused congestion and accidents. And the blight of industrialisation was decried in the 19th century by Luddites, Romantics and socialists, who worried (with good reason) about the displacement of skilled artisans, the despoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills….(More)”.