The Church of Techno-Optimism

Margaret O’Mara at the New York Times: “…But Silicon Valley does have a politics. It is neither liberal nor conservative. Nor is it libertarian, despite the dog-eared copies of Ayn Rand’s novels that you might find strewn about the cubicles of a start-up in Palo Alto.

It is techno-optimism: the belief that technology and technologists are building the future and that the rest of the world, including government, needs to catch up. And this creed burns brightly, undimmed by the anti-tech backlash. “It’s now up to all of us together to harness this tremendous energy to benefit all humanity,” the venture capitalist Frank Chen said in a November 2018 speech about artificial intelligence. “We are going to build a road to space,” Jeff Bezos declared as he unveiled plans for a lunar lander last spring. And as Elon Musk recently asked his Tesla shareholders, “Would I be doing this if I weren’t optimistic?”

But this is about more than just Silicon Valley. Techno-optimism has deep roots in American political culture, and its belief in American ingenuity and technological progress. Reckoning with that history is crucial to the discussion about how to rein in Big Tech’s seemingly limitless power.

The language of techno-optimism first appears in the rhetoric of American politics after World War II. “Science, the Endless Frontier” was the title of the soaringly techno-optimistic 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, the chief science adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, which set in motion the American government’s unprecedented postwar spending on research and development. That wave of money transformed the Santa Clara Valley and turned Stanford University into an engineering powerhouse. Dwight Eisenhower filled the White House with advisers whom he called “my scientists.” John Kennedy, announcing America’s moon shot in 1962, declared that “man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.”

In a 1963 speech, a founder of Hewlett-Packard, David Packard, looked back on his life during the Depression and marveled at the world that he lived in, giving much of the credit to technological innovation unhindered by bureaucratic interference: “Radio, television, Teletype, the vast array of publications of all types bring to a majority of the people everywhere in the world information in considerable detail, about what is going on everywhere else. Horizons are opened up, new aspirations are generated.”…(More)”